Some of the best friends I have, including my husband, were made during my time as a restaurant employee. It was not my intended career path, but a summer job before college launched me into a 13-year-long dysfunctional romance with the food service industry, complete with love and hate and debilitating co-dependence. With such relationships, there are important lessons to be learned. Hostess, server, bartender, and manager were jobs that were, I thought, a means to an end, merely a way to make the rent until my “real” life started. As it turns out, the job skills I learned waiting tables are actually life skills that have been invaluable to me as a parent.
The service industry is inherently about taking care of others, and so it is not too surprising that being a server overlaps with being a parent. There are the obvious similarities to restaurant work: Being on one’s feet all day, constantly clearing dishes, quickly eating food in a back hallway, being constantly asked for things, working nights, weekends, and holidays. But there are other lessons, learned in the trenches of the restaurant world, that have also served me well:
Multi-tasking is key.
When waiting tables, one never has a single thing to do at a time. At any given moment, a server has between three and 43 things he/she needs to be doing. Taking orders, bringing drinks, fighting with the kitchen about what the order ticket was supposed to say, gossiping with co-workers, wiping menus, rolling silver, bussing tables, dropping checks, answering the phone because the hostess stepped out for a smoke, making change, greeting new tables, checking the bathrooms, bringing more water to table 26 for the third time, filling salt shakers, making fresh coffee, dropping dessert menus, and having friendly conversation with the guests, are only a few of the many things that often need to happen simultaneously.
So, when I had kids, I was somewhat prepared for the onslaught of equally-important-yet-divergent tasks that come with parenthood. Although I am still a work in progress, the mental exercise of juggling changing diapers, making grilled cheese, cleaning spilled milk, nursing baby, making coffee, checking Facebook, brushing assorted teeth, continuous wiping off people and things, and so much more, was not an unfamiliar feeling.
And, like working in a restaurant, there is never nothing to do. As a good manager might remind me: If there is time to lean, there’s time to clean! (PS. I rarely have time to lean, at least not when the boss is looking!)
Breaks are important.
All that multitasking is exhausting, and as any seasoned restaurant employee can attest to, breaks are important! They might not be very long, but it is important to make them count. As a server, I would have a co-worker watch my station while I took a moment to pee, drink a glass of water, scarf down some French fries or other life-sustaining food, and take a deep breath.
These days, Dora is my co-worker. I will give her a high-five, walk past my happy customers who have parked their adorable rears on the couch, and take my well-earned break and do whatever I can to take that deep breath. When I hear the “We did it!” song, I know it’s time to clock back in.
It’s not forever.
Early in my restaurant career, on a particularly bad night full of unnecessarily grumpy customers, kitchen snafus, and bad tips, I got some of the best wisdom of my life. I asked a co-worker of mine, a “lifer,” how she handled it all so coolly. “Tonight is not forever,” she said. “In three hours I will be home and this shift will be over.”
This insight has helped me through a number of difficult moments since then, but you better believe that I have clung to it at times as a parent. The tantrums, diaper blow-outs, fevers, complete devastation of my once orderly home…they are moments in time and not forever. Take a deep breath and watch the clock.
Don’t take it personally.
Sometimes people are grumpy, no matter how well you are doing your job. I’ve had a man send back his toast because I wouldn’t butter it for him at the table. I’ve been cussed out (like, for reals, with all kinds of obscenities) for asking a customer to please put his shoes and socks back on and remove his feet from the restaurant chairs. I’ve had a customer storm out and have his lawyer call the restaurant because I handed him a menu when he sat himself. Although these scenes do come back occasionally to haunt me in my dreams, I try to embrace the idea that perhaps these people were unhappy anyway, even though I was doing my job as it should have been done. It was not always easy to maintain my calm facing difficult customers, adults acting like spoiled children who must have their way or they’d complain to a manager, but in my experience, dealing with these individuals with respect and a level head always worked better than getting mad back.
I have come to the similar conclusion with my dear children, who are actual children. Sometimes they are just in a bad mood. It is not necessarily an indication that I am doing anything terribly wrong as a parent, only that sometimes they are grouchy, just like the rest of us, because they are human. I try to, like the duck, let the grouchy water roll off my back and love them anyway. And I continue to provide them with good parental service, despite their abuse. But, if they insist on putting their dirty feet on the table I might politely suggest they dine elsewhere.
When overwhelmed, slow down—don’t speed up.
This concept took me a while to embrace, but once I did, what a difference it made! In the restaurant, I’d be triple sat with drinks at the bar waiting to be delivered, a table that was unhappy with the temperature of their steak, another table that was in a hurry to pay, and a table that was ready to be cleared and reset for their second course, which I’d be only kinda sure that I fired, and then I’d get another table and someone who needed a half-caf latte to go, and suddenly I’d feel like my head was about to explode into a million pieces. I needed to be at least four people to do ALL the things and be in ALL the places at once. All my multi-tasking muscles went limp and, hydra-like, for every one thing I accomplished, four more tasks would appear. And I would freak out and run around like a chicken with my head cut off, and I would flounder and turn into a terrible server until somehow, miraculously and usually with the help of my colleagues, things would slow down again and I would do my side work and go home. For the uninitiated, that feeling of being helplessly behind and seeing no light at the end of the tunnel is referred to as being “in the weeds.”
A wise manager of mine stopped me one night and said, “Slow down.” Whaaaa? I’ve got a gajillion things to do; I cannot slow down! But she insisted, “Slow down.” And I did. And all the things got remembered, and they all got done. And it was all fine. I was stressing myself above and beyond the actual tasks at hand, which was making everything seem impossible.
Some days I feel like I’m in the parenting weeds: too many needs to be met and not enough time to do it all. But when I slow down and let the whirling chaos settle around me, I am able to see more clearly what really needs to be done. And most of the time it has to do with being present with my family, which takes no running around at all.
Woe to the employee who tries to get a shift covered when he/she has refused to ever cover anyone else’s shift. This comes down to common decency in the workplace: Help out your coworkers, and they will help you out in return.
In my post-restaurant life, I try to pick up shifts where I can: watching a friend’s kid so she can go to the gym or not giving my husband grief if he has a night out with the boys. Then, if a Moms’ Night Out comes along, I feel like it won’t be too hard to get that shift covered.
This is the concept that separates a good server from a great server. A good server will bring you ketchup when you need it; a great server will bring you ketchup before you need it. Sometimes this skill comes from experience: knowing that a guest will need ketchup with his fries because nine of the last 10 people who ordered fries also asked for ketchup. But sometimes needs can be preemptively met by tapping into one’s empathetic abilities: What would I need if I were eating fries, or drinking coffee, or clearly in a rush to get back to work, etc.
As a parent, I’ve learned to anticipate some things from experience. On our last trip to the zoo, for example, I ran out of snacks, so next time I will bring more. But there are other, more empathetic ways I have learned to anticipate my kids’ needs. I think about how I might feel going to school for the first time, meeting a new babysitter, or getting pushed at the playground. I think about what I would need and use this to help smooth an otherwise bumpy situation.
Own, and then fix, mistakes.
Things go wrong. They just do. Sometimes they’re in your control, like when an order gets put in wrong, and sometimes they’re not, like when the kitchen catches on fire and burns table four’s entrees. In my experience, dealing with mistakes openly and honestly works a heck of a lot better than feigning ignorance or passing the blame on to a coworker: “Guess what, guys? I messed up your order, so it’s gonna be another five minutes. I’m really sorry. But please enjoy these free nachos while you wait. Now I’m going to go make sure the kitchen is rushing your food.” This goes over better than, “Uhhhh, where’s your food? Ummmm, I don’t know. I’m gonna go hide in the break room until you leave…”
With my kids, I do make mistakes from time to time. (I know, I know, hard to believe, but it’s true.) But I want them to trust me to be honest with them, so I try to, age appropriately, own up to my mistakes. And then I try to fix them. This is what happens when I forget something I said we’d do, my kids call me out on it, and we end up doing something else (hopefully) equally as fun.
Learn the art of the check-in.
As any graduate of a corporate restaurant chain training program can attest, checking in with your guests is important! Even if you don’t have time to do anything else, stopping by to say “hey!” makes your table feel taken care of. Some restaurants implement a “two-minute/two-bite” rule, where you are supposed to check back with your table after the food arrives within two minutes or within the guests taking two bites of food, so if there is a problem with the meal it can be handled right away.
I use this move with my kids all the time. If it is a heavy chore/work day, I will try to periodically “check in” with my kids from time to time while they are playing or coloring or doing whatever they are doing. “Everyone doing OK over here? Anyone need a refill on their sippy cup?” They feel like they are getting attention and their needs are being met, even though I am also doing dishes or editing photos or folding laundry. And I get to know what they are up to without feeling totally stuck next to them. It is a way of being present while also getting stuff done.
Develop a healthy appreciation of beer, wine, and spirits:
I’m just gonna leave it at that…
For the record, I wasn’t always a stellar waitress, and now that I’m a wife and mother, I don’t always get those jobs right either. I’m sure there are days when I would get a pretty nasty Yelp review from my kids, if only they knew how to post one. I’m hoping, though, that over time my tip average will be in the 20% range and my guests will leave both satisfied and full of love.