The kitchen table in my childhood home was actually chosen by me at 13 years old. I dragged my mom to Delia’s, the Justice of my middle-school era, while they were having a store-closing sale. The table they displayed their merch on was a white distressed wood with matching benches, and I was convinced this was the perfect replacement my mother had been looking for in our kitchen.
My mother and I loaded the table into our minivan, sawed down the legs to make it the right height and placed it in eyeshot of the front door, so you could see everyone coming home from work and school. Since then, the table has seen every holiday tablecloth at family gatherings and every hour-long morning coffee chat.
I love listening for hours about everything in my family’s life — every story and sentiment and thought that has run through their heads. My mother, grandmother and younger sister all love talking, which is lucky for me because I am always ready to procrastinate whatever I should be working on and lose track of time for a few hours to listen to their rants.
I’d lay down on the bench at our kitchen table, feeling the textured wood hit my spine as my mom talked about the struggles she faced having to redo schooling when she immigrated while also choosing to start a family. I would crawl into my grandmother’s bed at night, the room filled with the smell of her lotion, and listen to her talk about her favorite poets and what my horoscope was that week.
I honestly prefer knowing almost everything about my family. It makes me feel like my opinion matters and that they trust me for advice. But as much as I appreciate knowing what’s up in my family’s life, I can’t help but wonder if this contributes to my outlook on the future.
I always thought my family’s openness with me was a cultural thing. Most of the things that made me feel like an outsider growing up seemed to stem from my parents growing up in a different country. However, I was talking about this with my mom lately, and she said people often filter what they share with their family in her home culture of Romania as well. So, where did this come from in our family?
Perhaps it came from my grandma, who raised my mom and aunt in the countryside of a communist nation, when most of what they had was family. Perhaps it was having three strong-minded women who weren’t afraid to speak their minds living in one small apartment (or perhaps that just explains why my mother’s side of the family, who love each other unconditionally, seem to almost always communicate through yelling). My mother says she’s not sure where it comes from either — likely, a combination of all of the above.
I asked my mom recently why she decided to have children during her medical school residency program, where those in charge would look down on her for choosing to have a family.
“Sometimes you don’t know how much you can handle until you’re given that much,” she responded.
I was so fortunate to grow up under the privileged umbrella of my mother’s hard work. This was her goal in sacrificing all that she did, a sacrifice that motivates me to do my best.
However, knowing all those sacrifices is daunting at times. That motivation can sometimes feel like a directionless motor, propelling me into an ocean without a compass. This feeling only intensified during the pandemic, giving me my own feeling of being stuck.
During my last years of high school, I was frustrated to have foreign parents who wouldn’t let me do anything my friends could do and who constantly nagged about my life. Any time I got home from school — often late because of all the activities crammed into my schedule — I would only stay in the kitchen long enough to say no more than three details about my day, because I knew three would be enough to make my mom feel like she knew what was happening in my life. We’d argue a lot about me not sharing enough with them, but more often I’d avoid my parents altogether to avoid tension or conflict.
Going back home for what would be an eight-month quarantine after only a taste of the college experience, I worried that I would fall back into that avoidance pattern and regress to the time when college was just part of an elusive future. I had called my mother from my roommate’s bed, our dorm room littered with moving boxes, and started crying from the anxiety of going home. This was probably the first time my mom had heard me cry in years.
“What can I do to help you?”
My mom started asking me this question both on that call and once I moved back home in March. I always answered in a joking tone, saying if I knew I would tell her.
My joking tone aside, this made me start thinking about what would actually help me feel better. I realized I had become so used to listening to my family that I had a lot of anxiety about communicating my own thoughts and needs. The same way my family had always told me both the good and the bad in their lives, it was now my turn to do the same. The fear of not living up to certain expectations was the same thing holding me back from reaching my goals.
I laid back down on that same bench at our kitchen table, where I had sat for years to listen to everyone, and I opened up about what my mom missed in those high school days when I wouldn’t sit at the kitchen table for more than 20 minutes. I still felt shadows of the anxiety I felt years before, but I also felt heard and understood in a way that only someone who raised me could make me feel.
During quarantine, the kitchen table became the centerpiece of our home. My sister and I sat there to watch shows together and talk about the books she had read; my family FaceTimed my grandma and aunt from halfway across the world; and my mom and I resumed our old practice of staying up well past midnight to talk about anything and everything, enjoying each other’s company.
What was left of who I was in high school rejoiced when I discovered that improving my discourse brought more understanding and compromise from my parents. While I still love being the listener and advice-giver to others’ stories, I am a lot more conscious about being candid about myself and continuously working to become a more effective communicator with my family.
Past the era of being physically stuck inside, I still find myself spending the most time in the kitchen every time I go back home. I love being surrounded by the voices of my family, whether those voices are telling a story or yelling in frustration or ranting about a terrible workday or celebrating an accomplishment. Even when we eat meals at different times due to conflicting schedules, we all find time in the day to sit down at that kitchen table that has now become a vessel for dialogue in our family.
Statement Correspondent Iulia Dobrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.