Our parenting has always been in the context of church life, which inevitably means fellowship lunches – bring & share – pot suppers – whatever we want to call them. You know, time after worship around food and together time with the church family.
It’s never been particularly optional being the vicar & family which means over the years I have had to come up with a number of coping strategies for us as a family to get through these as smoothly as we can.
It’s not that we don’t like them, or don’t think they’re important -we do. It’s that they’re perhaps one of the hardest bits of church family life for us as a family.
They are often noisy, and crowded – that’s a really good thing, but hard for us. There is an unpredictability about them; the room layout will be different, timing will be an inexact science, you never know what food there will be (even if quiche is a given in most churches here in the UK, what flavour!?!), or who might sit with you! So many unknowns. And you’re expected to eat, in front of people! Something that is at times an overwhelmingly paralyzing, stressful thing. There is almost inevitable sensory overload, and anxiety about the uncertainties, and the social demands – together these can make a fellowship lunch both daunting and very exhausting.
I was reminded just this last weekend of all the years I have been alongside children and young people finding all this overwhelming because we had an 80th birthday in the family with a big meal at a carvery to go to. Not easy, but we did it.
So over the years I have got us through these meals using a variety of coping strategies and I just wondered if any might be helpful, or jog a new thought that might be helpful for you:
- Using a social story about what might happen, what the room might look, smell, sound like. And what I can say if someone talks to me.
- Taking a familiar chair – easy enough for us when B was small, partly because she was petite for so long our portable strap on any chair highchair could come with us everywhere.
- Trying to face them away from the whole room in our choice of seats at tables rather than expecting them to cope right in the middle of it all facing all the other tables.
- Allowing under table picnics and play as needed – and brushing off the looks and comments of others (life’s far too short!). In fact I have often found other children come and join in.
- Taking the kids choice of food and keeping some back to make sure they get some at the table we sit at.
- Bringing their own packed lunch.
- A bag of distractions! Bubbles, games, fiddles and fidgets, a favourite book or set of little play things, colouring.
- Set challenges or play a game: how many people can you count wearing purple, etc. Or an ‘eye spy’ sheet of things to look for and tick off during the mealtime.
- Not staying to the end, but leaving when the kids are reaching their limit – when possible.
- Creating a breakout space – either bring a bag of stuff and a picnic rug, or organize to use resources from church. A designated area that’s there to escape to, slightly tucked away but safely in sight.
- Negotiating how long we’ll stay, or what might be eaten (for example, eat one thing then we’ll go) – and sticking to the agreement.
- Staying alongside rather than mingling, reducing the fear of people not known so well joining the table or coming over to chat.
- Ear defenders.
- Arrange in advance who will fill your table so there are no surprises – again not always possible.
- Accepting that sometimes it will all go belly-up and there will be tears.
- On that note I try to make sure there’s inbuilt time for recovery afterwards – though again this isn’t always possible.
- Daring to decide it’s just not possible or helpful to get there at all this time , and making the decision to give it a miss – trying not to ‘feel’ that. This is a tough one for many of us – hugs may be required!
- Taking a travel cot to use as a play-den when little. Added benefit of the mesh sides shielding some of the constant movement in the room in terms of visual sensory input. Also the familiarity helped sometimes.
I would love to hear your strategies as a family, if you also find yourself wanting to join in with fellowship lunches.