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