When my boyfriend started suggesting date night ideas for our upcoming fifth anniversary of our first date, COVID-19 wasn’t yet a global pandemic. The threat of the new coronavirus hadn’t yet closed schools, canceled events or shut down restaurants for dining in. We were free to plan a fun night out without worrying about quarantines and stay-at-home orders.

But the closer our anniversary got, the more the coronavirus was spreading in the United States and the more social distancing guidelines were being implemented. We stopped making lists of fancy restaurants and started wondering if the best we could hope for was a nice bottle of wine and a Netflix movie.

In the grand scheme of the pandemic, a canceled date night out isn’t something to complain about. But through it all, I’ve given myself permission to feel disappointed for everything in my family’s lives that are affected by coronavirus, from my kids’ school year ending in March and their sports seasons not even starting, to the vacation my boyfriend and I already booked and our fight to get our money back. I promised myself to quickly move on after acknowledging each disappointment, finding an alternate plan for what I could and letting go of what I couldn’t.

When it came to that anniversary date night out, not only was I able to come up with an alternate plan, but that plan ended up turning into a night my boyfriend and I will never forget, in part because we included the kids.

Typically with their father on the weekends, my tween daughter and teen son happened to be at home that night with us. At that point, we had only been self-isolating for a couple of weeks, but the monotony of being stuck at home all day every day and the inevitable cabin fever were already plaguing us. We all needed something to shake things up and boost our morale.

So we turned what should have been a romantic date night out at a restaurant with a dessert that spelled “Happy Anniversary” with drizzled caramel into a family date night in. 

I cut the tags off the dress I planned to wear on that vacation, put on makeup and curled my hair. My boyfriend, dressed in his date night clothes, retrieved our curbside pickup order from a local restaurant that was versatile enough for me to order shrimp and scallop risotto and my daughter to get a hamburger and fries. The kids dressed up as well, then helped me set the table and the mood with candles and music.

If I closed my eyes, I almost felt like I was being seated at a table in a restaurant instead of my kitchen table where our family eats dinner every weeknight.

My kids chose to eat from their to-go boxes at the island in the kitchen to give the adults “privacy,” but one of the best parts of the night turned out to be our lack of privacy, the openness of the flowing conversation the four of us shared as we all reminisced about life five years ago, a life that looked much different than it does now.

Five years earlier I was a divorced single mother living in an apartment with my seven- and eleven-year-old kids. Dating is tough for a woman closing in on 40 who hadn’t dated in fifteen years and even tougher for a single mom. I didn’t tell my kids I was dating, but by my third or fourth date with the man they now call their stepfather, my son had figured it out.

“I remember when you two first started dating,” my son said during the anniversary dinner. “You kept getting a babysitter, and I asked if you were going on dates and if it was with the same guy.”

“I remember your first date,” my daughter chimed in with a giggle. “I remember calling you and leaving a message asking if you knew that poop was flammable.” Although at the time she had no idea what exactly she was interrupting with her silly phone call, I’ve told the story enough times that it’s what she now automatically associates with our anniversary.

As we ate, we talked about how I wanted to go on a few more dates with this new man to make sure he was the one I wanted to introduce to them. We talked about the day I finally did introduce the kids to him as my boyfriend and how everyone instantly got along. The more we shared the stories of us, the more I realized this anniversary didn’t just mark the day I met my boyfriend, it also commemorated the beginning of our family. And it made me thankful instead of disappointed that COVID-19 had canceled our date night out because it gave us the opportunity to celebrate the family we’ve grown to be over the last five years.

The dinner didn’t last long. After we ate the main course, my daughter served us the dessert she had made earlier in the day, and within minutes of eating that dessert, the kids asked to be excused and ran upstairs to put their sweatpants back on. In the few moments my boyfriend and I were alone while cleaning up the to-go boxes, I told him I loved every little thing about our anniversary date.

I loved that the kids were home and got involved. I loved that we all got dressed up even though we didn’t go anywhere. I loved that we supported local business. I loved reminiscing about the day I met my partner in life and the day I introduced him to his stepchildren. I loved that we have happy stories to reminisce about, and I loved knowing we will have so many more to share in the years to come.

Most of all, I loved that such a small thing like a family date night in could act as a bright light in this dark time. The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented event in our lifetimes, and as the entire country tries to find ways to manage the stress and anxiety associated with it, I know I’ll have to continue finding creative ways to find the light in the dark, to recall happy moments, to practice gratitude, to seek out the joy in the little things.

And when all this ends, I’ll never forget my fifth anniversary that celebrated not just a first date, but the creation of a family and how that family gets through tough times together.

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