Why it's a parent's duty to be daggy

Ben Mendelsohn guest starred as Jessa's father on the recent episode of <i>Girls</i>.

Ben Mendelsohn guest starred as Jessa's father on the recent episode of Girls.

I don’t want to talk about the TV show Girls again.  However last week’s episode did make me think about what girls (and boys) want from their parents.  More specifically, it made me consider if, when we breed, we need to become many of the things we hated as a child and all those things we promised we’d never be. 

Responsible, stable, safe.   

In fact, it may even be our duty to be daggy.

In the episode ‘Video Games’ Hannah accompanies Jessa on a visit to her father. Her dad (brilliantly played by Australian Ben Mendelsohn) is a self-centred, erratic hippy who has drifted from relationship to rehab to relationship.  It becomes clear Jessa’s bohemian front betrays a wounded spirit; she confronts her father for being utterly unreliable.  He responds with ‘You think I can rely on you?’ to which, Jessa yells back ‘you shouldn’t have to. I’m the child. I’m the child’.  I was yelling with her.  It was heart aching.

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It was also sobering.  At the moment I’m feeling a touch taken for granted, tied down, bound up and needing escape.  I considered running off to the Kumbh Mela spiritual festival in India but couldn’t organise the childcare.  I mused about attending Mardi Gras but felt too old, too fat and too hetero.  So last week in a fit of fury I screamed ‘That’s it I’m leaving’, turned on my sensible shoe heel and slammed the door.  I ran away from home. 

By walking around the block.

With the dog.  

Wild.

When I returned home five minutes later my son was in tears and my daughter pale faced.  I was thoroughly ashamed of myself; I’m the parent - tantrums, rebellion and running away should be their domain. 

I always wanted crazy cool parents. As a teenager I bemoaned my middle class, secure, stable, dressing gown wearing, cupcake baking mother and reliable daggy dad. Until I went to a sleep over and saw my friend’s ‘groovy’ mum getting a fix from her boyfriend. As she drifted off into heroin oblivion I felt a wave of panic go through me. The house suddenly felt, cold, unsafe, abandoned.  She was too out of it to look after my vomiting friend who had got into the cask wine, let alone admonish her.  As I tried to sleep I grew glad to have parents who I’d never even seen drunk.  

At University I grew more thankful as I learnt that psychologists have always believed a safe and secure childhood helps a person develop trust and security. Boundaries provide the bedrock for development.  Those of us who had such a childhood take its benefits for granted but the truth is, they set up an invisible safety net that supports, sustains and holds us daily.  It’s an unquantifiable base in which to leap into the world while providing an invisible trapeze to can catch us, and a net if we fall.

Then there’s the fact that we all need something to rail against. Last week’s dance moves video by Michelle Obama and Jimmy Fallon picked up on the embarrassment we love to feel about our parents. While Michelle wasn’t very good at being a bad dancer (she’s far too cool to be square) I delighted in her attempt to be daggy. 

It’s inevitable that kids grow away from us and, as they set themselves apart, they need to reject us to some degree. While I consider myself a good groover, whenever I bust a few dance moves my son dives across the room and tackles me in a way that makes me consider signing him up for rugby.  It used to hurt my feelings but I now feel it’s my duty to learn Michelle Obama’s sprinkler dance move rather than his coffee grinder.

Children also need something to rebel against.  I want my children to consider me conservative lest they turn out like Ronald Reagan loving Alex in Family Ties, or Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous who must have made herself dizzy with all that eye rolling.  Many children of seventies hippies have written about rebelling by becoming model mothers and lawyers; mortgaged and moderate in everything. They talk of craving convention and structure, rules and discipline.  For them, conformity was the most shockingly rebellious life style.  Some years ago, a child of hippies Sarah Beach wrote a lovely piece for Salon where she concludes “finding yourself should never trump the goal of giving your kids a safe, thoughtfully limited environment … Sometimes your mind can be so open, your brain falls out.”

But I’m not going too far in playing conservative.  I let my children download ‘I Love it’ and ‘Thrift Shop’ with a language and ‘don’t share’ warning and I didn’t over react when my son spray-painted our fence.  I won’t be betraying my beliefs or signing up to Corey Bernadi’s ultra-conservative faction of the Coalition.  Because you can’t rely on your kids to rebel.

In a longitudinal study, psychological scientist Richard Fraley divided parents into ‘authoritarian’ (strict with rigid rules) and ‘egalitarian’ (more open to children voicing opinions and bending the rules.) He found that at age 18, children with authoritarian parents were more likely to be conservative.  But interestingly he also found fearful children - regardless of how they were raised - were also more conservative.  This inspires me to continue my relatively lax rule setting, to act straight but not rigid and to minimise fear by providing safety, security and stability. Goddamit.

I’m not saying we should all get too boring.  But perhaps it’s wise to hide our wild side from our kids. They need to know we can cut lose but they also need to feel safe, secure and perhaps superior.  They need to know we are responsible.  At the end of the Girls episode Hannah calls her parents to tell them ‘there’s times when I feel like we have nothing in common… but at the same time I just feel like there’s a hammock under the earth that’s protecting me. And it really means a lot and that’s because of you and I’m grateful.’ Jessa’s family made Hannah realise the unquantifiable strength and power provided by her infuriatingly normal folks.

So, I’m resolving to enjoy turning into even more of a dag.  To some degree I even consider it my duty. 

Besides, hammocks can still rock.

23 comments so far

  • I loved this article. I have lived long enough to be an embarrassment to my children because I am such a dag. I look forward to the day when they can appreciate it

    Commenter
    Principal John
    Date and time
    March 05, 2013, 7:56AM
    • There are a growing number of bad parents because somewhere we developed this ridiculous idea that you shouldn't judge other people's parenting. But at what point does it end? Would you judge a mother that leaves her children alone all night? a single mother that has a revolving door of boyfriends? a parent that smaks? a parent that whips their kid with a belt?

      There are a lot of people out there who WISH that other people had judged their parents. As a person who had two very bad parents, I wish that some one in the community had confronted my mother and told her she was a bad parent.

      Well done Sarah for being a good parent, and appreciating your own parents.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 8:51AM
  • "When I returned home five minutes later my son was in tears and my daughter pale faced."

    What mothers don't realise is that verbal abuse hurts much more than you think and that moment will stick with your children for years. Think before you speak.

    Depending on the age of your kids that 5 minute walk may have seemed like 1 month to them.

    Commenter
    SmallTalk
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 05, 2013, 8:59AM
    • @SmallTalk
      Just mothers? Or are the words and attitudes of fathers (and other primary carers) equally as important?
      And for the record, you yourself made an incredibly presumptuous and wildly insulting comment within this site recently (regarding a woman who miscarried a pregnancy). I pray she never read it. A negative or judgemental comment from ANYONE can last for years right?
      Perhaps YOU should think before YOU speak.

      Commenter
      Mama Bear KD
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 9:11PM
  • Great article thank you Sarah, this parent caper is certainly a baptism by fire. I can totally relate to your feeling of needing to break out, I felt the same way about Mardi Gras! I strive my hardest to keep a safe, consistent and supportive home environment for my family, it comes at quite some cost and sacrifice of my own needs and desires and is all about finding balance.

    SmallTalk - I'm guessing you have some experience of verbal abuse, and I'm very sorry that you carry your hurt with you. I'm quite sure Sarah felt about 1mm tall when she returned from her stressed out moment and her children reacted the way they did. We are not perfect, this is life and it's a path of learning.

    Commenter
    ecobabe
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    March 05, 2013, 10:29AM
    • @ecobabe

      No problems with abuse for me, I lived a life similar to Sarah, boring parents and the typical absent father syndrome of the time.

      Nowadays with the help of childcare its gone from absent father to absent parents...

      I have been a witness to mothers stating in front of their kids saying they wished they never had kids. That sort of stuff doesn't really help self-esteem - and in reality its the "cool parents" which would blurt out such stuff to the detriment of the child. "kids are such a drag man".....

      Commenter
      SmallTalk
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 10:43AM
      • I should add my children know I would never leave them and by taking the dog they did realise I was just going to cool off!

        Commenter
        Sarah Mac
        Date and time
        March 05, 2013, 11:19AM
        • Is Sarah moonlighting as my mother to try and explain her outrageous behaviour at Old Sydney Town in the 1980s, in which she would purposely be disruptive in order to get attention from the 'soldiers'??!!

          Commenter
          Jocelyn
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 05, 2013, 12:32PM
          • I love playing at being a dag to my teenagers - it's fun - letting loose your inner dag is so liberating! (and also my secret payback for all they put me through sometimes!)

            Commenter
            Jen
            Date and time
            March 05, 2013, 12:41PM
            • I loved your article Sarah - it was honest and well considered. I have always valued the stable life my parents provided to me but never moreso than now that I am a parent and have such a good model to work from for my son. Fortunately (for me), he is still young enough that he thinks my daggy ways are funny.

              Commenter
              Anna
              Date and time
              March 05, 2013, 1:18PM

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