Although she’s known as Hollywood's green goddess of global warming through her tireless eco-activism — from producing the 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” to serving as a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Laurie David can be as anxious about parenting as any other mom. But when she watched her daughters clearly enjoying each other as the family finished dinner one night, she realized she’d done at least one thing right — making family meals a ritual.
It was that aha moment that led David, the former wife of "Seinfeld" co-creator and creator-star of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" Larry David, to write the just-released “The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time. ”
The 52-year-old Huffington Post blogger works out of her homes in Los Angeles and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and shares custody of daughters Cazzie, 16, and Romy, 14.
A family meal seems so simple, yet recent studies and your book indicate there’s a lot more going on than just nourishment. What are the benefits you’ve seen in your own family when you sit down together?
It’s the exact reason why I wrote this book. I had this epiphany after doing this ritual for over a decade. I sat at the table and thought, “Oh, my God, this is so powerful.” This is the one thing I can say I’ve done right as a parent. The No. 1 benefit is, if you do this ritual with your family, your family’s going to be talking to each other. That’s the key; more important than the food is the conversation. You’re going to know what your kids are going through, and they’re going to know what you’re going through.
While many people may remember a Norman Rockwell kind of family dinner, there are probably as many who recall something a little more dysfunctional. Is it the meal or is just about connecting?
I talk about my family in the book; sometimes I couldn’t get away from the table fast enough. Someone always left the table crying. For a lot of people, it’s not even about that it’s hard to make food, it’s hard to make conversation. For parents today, it’s getting harder and harder to connect with your kids and with each other. That’s because of our lifestyle. Everything about our lifestyle is working against us.
Your former husband, David, still joins you for family meals. Not many divorced couples can do that. How have you made that work?
That was a conscious effort on my part. It was my greatest desire to have that happen. It took about six months after the divorce to come back to the table. But I think that because he had been part of this ritual for so long and the food and the company, and because we’d been on the same page about parenting. When you get divorced, you’re stuck with each other if you have kids, you have to co-parent these kids and the older they get the harder that gets. So I was not about to not try to have a situation where we could be amicable and we could be on the same page about things. And, it worked.
Should divorced parents try to continue the rituals they started as intact families create new ones or find some sort of happy medium?
There’s no time when it’s more important than when you go through a crisis. Half of marriages end up in divorce and the first thing they do is stop their rituals. They think, “Oh, that was our family ritual. We’re not a family anymore.” But, you’re still a family. If you’re a kid, you need the safety and security of those rituals more than ever. You have to do whatever you can to keep them going, it was not easy. The first two weeks of dinner after we split up were miserable. One of the best tips I can say to people is to lean on their friends and family, and get them to the table.
You credit the birth of your first daughter for inspiring you to be involved in green issues, and you say the desire to connect with both your daughters now that they’re teens prompted you to write “The Family Dinner.” In what other ways have your daughters inspired you to be a better mom?
In every way. When you become a mom, it just hits you over the head with a cast-iron skillet. You are responsible for these kids, which of course on my shoulders feels like everything — including the air we breathe and the water we’re drinking. I’m very goal-oriented, and I think every mom feels this way, to raise happy, healthy children. So, that is a 24/7 task. But the thing about the dinner table is how many things you can check off on your box. Everything you worry about as a parent can be improved — from drugs to alcohol to promiscuity to self-esteem, academic achievements to resiliency. And teaching our kids gratitude, which is something we should all be talking about more.
One of the downsides of divorce is that one parent never really knows what’s going on when they’re with the ex. Do you ever freak out about what the girls are doing when they’re “over there”?
This is an issue for a lot of people. I have girlfriends who really have problems with this, whose divorces aren’t amicable. And they’ve all come to the same conclusion, that you can’t control what goes on over there and what you can control, control, which is your house. Your kids are going to be instilled with your values and hopefully they’re going to take them with them.
What other challenges and joys have you discovered come with being a divorced, co-parenting mom?
There are advantages. One is that you have a little extra free time. I’ve been on this book tour and the kids have been with Larry and that’s been completely guilt free. Another is that fathers who go through divorce become much better fathers, and I’ve seen this in my own house. They’re on their own. So instead of having me micromanage everything, he now has to do it. And that’s a healthy thing.
As a single mom, how do you handle the work-life balance thing?
I think everyone’s dealing with overwhelmed lives. I make a big effort to not let my overwhelmed life overwhelm me, and the things that are priorities to me I maintain, like taking my kids to school and picking them up. I’m a ritual fanatic so we have a ritual after school. We light a candle and pour a cup of tea so I get that extra half hour with them before everyone goes off to do their own thing. I am very, very fortunate to have Kirstin (Uhrenholdt) in my life, a gift from Larry. She cooks twice a week, and when she comes we turn that into cooking classes.
You’ve said that your philosophy isn’t about “doing everything perfect,” yet many mothers feel a lot of pressure to be perfect. Why are so many moms anxious about their parenting, and what are your anxieties?
Well, it’s not about being perfect because that’s an impossible achievement. Perfect is the enemy of good, and I believe that in every aspect of my life. You do your best, and then you try to do a little better. I don’t know why people put that pressure on themselves. I think the pressure should be, have I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with my kids today? I started this ritual because I was desperate for some happy family moments. I was kind of disappointed on how it was turning out. I had colicky babies and my husband was away a lot and it was really hard in the beginning. So, I realized I was going to have to create these moments; they weren’t going to happen on their own.
Most single parents say they can never find “me” time. Do you have “me” time, and how do you spend it?
I’m a huge gardener so any extra second I have I’m down in my vegetable garden. That’s the happiest I ever am, in my garden watching my veggies grow. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, of course, and love to read. I love to read cookbooks; it’s like taking a mini-vacation.
What do you think you’re sacrificed as a working mom and what have you gained?
I’m a working mom who has worked from home. I don’t even want to say that I have to deal with what a lot of working moms have to deal with. Ever since I’ve had my children I’ve been working from home. I had the ability to do it, the privilege to be able to work from home. I was lucky to be able to that. I was trying to be a good mom and I wanted to be very present — which doesn’t guarantee anything, by the way!
As a working mom, what’s the message to your daughters?
I get to work on the things I’m passionate about; I’m an advocate. I get to work on things that I care deeply about and hopefully my children are seeing that. Kids learn from what they see, not what we tell them. My hope for them is that they become members of their community, active citizens and live good, green lives.
In what ways has motherhood surprised you?
Every way! Just how incredibly challenging it is. I didn’t think it was going to be this hard. Every day you have to start fresh again — new moods, new pressures, new stresses.
When your daughters look back on their childhood, what do you hope they’ll remember most?
I know what they’re going to remember most — all the amazing dinners. They’re going to remember the food we ate, the laughs we had and some of the arguments! And, to make extra sure, I wrote a book about it.
Activist, Producer, Blogger and Writer Laurie David was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom.