In the summer of 1965 wild child singer/songwriter Janis Joplin tried to become normal. She had a nasty speed habit and went home to Port Arthur Texas to clean up - even putting her hair into a beehive and donning modest dresses to simulate sameness. But she couldn’t do it. Within a year, her genius and passion had drawn her back to San Francisco where she began her meteoric rise to become the wild woman of blues, the goddess of rock and the Queen of psychedelic soul.
Janis Joplin told her fans
‘Don't compromise yourself. You are all you've got.’
When I was a young, rather less wild woman, I understood her. But as I age I’ve had to reject her advice. Because the truth is, I’m not all I’ve got. And when you have other people in your home, in your family and in your workplace, compromise is unavoidable. Unless you are a superstar operating in your own stratosphere, you have to submit to society. But it seems the process of giving in accelerates when we breed. Kids make hypocrites of us all.
I realized this before I even gave birth. Just back from three years in India, I was a vegetarian but the fetus growing inside me gave me an urge to eat steak. I submitted to my daughter’s taste before she could even whinge at me and for all my pre-birth plans to use reusable nappies, I succumbed to disposables before I even left hospital. I set some principals for her – such as healthy food and no television but by the time her brother was born she’d begun eating peanut butter white toast in front of the TV.
By the time he was two we were out of our cool beachside pad and living in the suburbs, eating lollies in front of movies. I’d even allowed an anatomically annoying Barbie doll into the house (I was secretly impressed when my daughter gave Barbie a buzz cut and drew tattoos over that ‘perfect’ body). Then, my partner changed jobs, going ‘corporate’, and accused of ‘selling out’ by a couple of colleagues. When faced with significant costs for significant needs of our little boy, he didn’t hesitate. I then realised I’d certainly compromise and swallow my pride to give my son all the help he’d need.
Years later, we are still compromising. From the time we get up (early) to the time we go to bed. Our kids have meant a change to the car we drive, the holidays we go on, the house we live in and how often we go out.
My kids are still in primary school but I’m now being asked that most constant of Sydney questions - ‘Where are they going to high school?” And here’s an area in which I may sell out again. I believe in equality, diversity and being part of a local community and yet, in the interests of my children, I find myself considering (if we can possibly afford it) sending them to a private high school. It’s a compromise I may make if if I think they need it.
All around me, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and others head off to mass every Sunday, offer up cash for the collection plate and buy confirmation dresses for their daughters. Some of them believe in God, a few believe in the Catholic faith, but many don’t. Instead, they are swallowing their cynicism, pulling back their shoulders and pretending so they can get their kids into a good school that’s relatively affordable. While I often roll my eyes at an atheist suddenly finding their Catholic ancestry, I’ll admit I’m also a touch jealous. There’s a lot to admire about a Jesuit education - although when I read about what’s happening in St John’s College at Sydney University I must question what happens at some schools to make those young men’s behaviour so foul.
Parents want their kids to do as much as they can and as well as they can. We want to spread the risks of harm and maximize the benefits and opportunities. We compromise to give them as much opportunity and privilege as we can afford.
Of course the problem is, we also want to do the opposite. To help them become resilient; to be able to face hardship. It’s a constant balancing act where we adjust the levers; always trying to know when it’s time to give them a pat on the back or a kick up the bum. And, if I compromise for them – working hard to give them a decent start in life, I want them to be thankful and not develop a sense of entitlement. Much compromise is the downside of privilege. At least we can compromise. Many have no choice.
So do we tell our children how we changed for them? Where we sold out? How we gave in? Perhaps to some degree. While I don’t want them to see parenting as a submission, a burden or a sell out, I do want them to realize their privilege. I even occasionally revert to the ‘eat your veggies, there are poor people in Africa’ argument. When my son asked for a new toy the other day I showed him a photograph of a little girl clutching a beer bottle as her only plaything. When my daughter bemoaned we were the only kids without an upstairs I showed her pictures of slums. When they next bitch about each other I’m gong to make them watch ‘Eight is Enough’ or ‘The Waltons’. That’s torture.
At the end of the day, compromise is not a dirty world. When we yield to others’ needs, wants and problems we embrace life in all its glorious interconnected mess.
Yet there are some fundamental areas I won’t compromise – my integrity, my honesty, my ethics and the legality of how I act. I won’t lie and pretend to be something I’m not. I’ll be open about the choices I’ve made and why. We all have different places where we draw the line on selling out and they are personal decisions to make. But I’m with Janis Joplin’s polar opposite Mahatma Gandhi when he said
So while I’ll always admire Janis Joplin, I’ll stick with the skinny guy in the loincloth rather than the cheese-cloth-clad wild woman of soul.