The first one was the worst. Shabbat dinner with no children. Child One was at college. Child Two was in his first week of the new custody arrangement – a 50/50 split which gives him more overall time with us but only every other weekend. So Shabbat rolled around and rather than race home to make dinner for anywhere from four to fourteen people which often included friends of Child One, I came home to an almost empty house. Sig Other lay on the couch. I came in, put down my bags, took off my shoes and sat down next to him. “Should we land candles?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “Do you want dinner?” “I’m not hungry. You?” “Not really,” I replied. And I meant it. And so our first Shabbat without children passed with no blessings, no candles, no singing, no shared stories of the week. We sat on the sofa, in the dark, catching up on reality television and eating leftover crudités from a plastic container. By 9pm, we were asleep.
The second Shabbat on our own was almost worse. I decided we could not simply ignore the Sabbath, could not simply sit like tragic zombies worshipping our apple TV, picking through the Friday night dregs of the refrigerator and waiting desperately for the empty weekend to pass. I decided we would have Shabbat with or without children. And so I came home, laid a proper table, opened a bottle of wine and set out the candles. If anything, the mere process of going through the ritual for just the two of us was an even lonelier experience than not going through it at all. It turns out that ignoring Shabbat is far less sad than observing in the absence of those who make observation relevant.
Let me explain. When Sig Other and I became a couple, we discussed the ritual of Shabbat. It was important to me because I felt I could finally honor the age-old tradition of my ancestors. It was important to Sig Other because he could, as he put it, teach the children about their religion so they knew what it was they were rejecting when it came time to reject it. And Shabbat became important to all of us as our Friday nights truly represent what is most meaningful about the ritual – coming together as a family, taking time to honor one another and to honor the demarcation of the end of the work week and the beginning of the time we have, however short, to renew our selves, our bodies and spirits, to prepare for the next week ahead.
Shabbat dinners, though, are both a blessing and a burden. Friday night is not just any other night of the week. The food should be special, the table beautifully set, the mood a little different from every other night of the week. And this creation of a family setting has been foremost for me for the past almost eight years. But the creation of a family environment is not without a price tag. Periodically, whene the week had been particularly cruel and I particularly tired, I would have pangs of resentment about being SuperStep and pangs of longing for a honeymoon with my husband I never had. We never had time to be a young couple, never had periods of romantic Friday night dates and weekends away. We had children. We had family. And integrating the children into our lives, making the “step-ness” of our lives a perfectly normal thing, was more important than any walk on the beach, any quiet moment, any candlelit dinner a deux.
So you would think I would relish a Friday night alone, you’d think I’d be thrilled to not worry about what to cook, whether there are fresh flowers on the table, what time the kids will be home from school. You’d think this would be an opportunity. Child One is 3000 miles away. Child Two is on a regular schedule of back and forth that affords us two weeknights and every other weekend entirely on our own. Perfect, right? Great opportunity for romance, for coupley solitude, for self-education, self-expansion, self-growth. But really all we are is lonely. Really all we do in our moments alone is think about how much we miss the children, how much we miss Child One and her friends and reminisce about days and dinners gone by.
I suppose it’s a victory in a way – I suppose missing the children this much means we managed to integrate them and ourselves into a semblance of perfectly conventional family life in spite of a perfectly unconventional setting. But it doesn’t feel like a victory somehow. It feels more like a weekend spent thinking about the next time we’ll all be together as one.