The first thing that happened when we pulled up to the Agriculture Museum on Good Friday was a thick necked guy in a pickup truck gave my husband David a hard time about where we'd parked our tiny car. It's a 2009 Honda Fit with a bumper sticker that says, “Reading Is Sexy”.
“You've gotta move it forward!” said Pickup Truck, frowning at the five feet of space between his bumper and our fender. David squinted at him, confused. “But you've got plenty of room to get out!”
Pickup Truck shook his head and crossed his arms menacingly. His wife was busy getting their child out of a car seat. David shrugged his shoulders and got back into our car. This wasn't a battle that he wanted to choose. He moved our car a few more feet away from the pickup, and the pushy man and his family disappeared up the road towards the farm.
Briefly unsettled by this start to our family's day out, we broke the tension by making each other laugh on the long walk up to the gate.
“I should give that truck a good keying when we get back,” David said. I laughed because he is so reasonable I can not ever imagine him doing something like that.
“I was just wanting to rub my butt on it,” I answered. Which, for the record, is absolutely something I would do. Our toddler, Milo, rode high on my shoulders, pointing out bulldozers, oblivious to the tension that had just occurred.
Because we are relatively new to this parenthood gig, we thought the AgricultureMuseum was a good choice for a holiday Friday outing. It is a working farm that sits just southwest of downtown Ottawa. Because we have a membership to a clump of local museums, I'd gotten an email telling me all about the long weekend activities. Baby lambs and rabbits! Easter egg hunts! Music! Food! It sounded like the kind of thing people with young children were supposed to do on days off.
Weekends before having kids and weekends after having kids are like cousins from different planets. There may be some superficial resemblances, but almost everything is different. Pre-Milo you never would have found me at a museum on a holiday Friday, no matter how many baby rabbits they were offering. But suddenly, with a busy toddler to entertain, the AgricultureMuseum sounded like the place to be.
Unfortunately, it sounded like the place to be to almost every family with small children living within a few hours of the city and probably for a lot of out-of-town family guests as well. It was a complete mob scene. The barns and display areas were so crammed with people I think Milo found the sheer crush of humanity much more interesting than any of the animals. We dutifully hauled him through each building. He liked it when I pet a cow's nose, but otherwise didn't show too much excitement one way or another.
What got to me as we moved through the crowds, was the dead-eyed look on a lot of parents' faces. The flat calls of “Wait for me, Sweetie!” that filled the halls. I have never felt more like I was stuck in some kind of zombie apocalypse. Which may be a harsh way to describe a day at the farm surrounded by families, but it was true. It didn't really seem like any of parents wanted to be there. They'd chosen the outing because the local paper said it was the thing to do, because their kids were driving them nuts, because they felt guilty about letting them watch movies all weekend, because they wanted a photo of their daughter with a bunny to put on their Facebook page, because nothing else was open.
We weren't any different. Sure, our household has what may be an above average love for animals, but nothing about seeing farm animals chained to their pens while thousands of tourists gawk at them and their newborn babies warmed my animal-loving heart. We were there because it seemed like something that would amuse our kid for a few hours before nap time. Clomping along with all the other families, trying not to lose Milo in the crowded pig barn. It felt flat and crummy.
I never wanted to be the kind of person who did what everyone else was doing without thinking about it, and I certainly don't want to be that kind of parent. I know that as Milo gets older I will end up doing a lot of things for and with him that would not be my first choice of activity. My favourite joke is that if he really wants to rebel against our family's values and interests, someday I'll end up driving him to his Conservative Hockey Players For Christ meetings. But at least in that scenario one of us has chosen the activity on purpose. For now he's just as happy to go to the park and meet up with some friends of ours. He climbs and slides and swings with his friends, I talk music, friendly gossip, and local politics with mine.
When I was learning how to be a daycare teacher, we talked a lot about the idea of modelling. As teachers we were expected to model all kind of things for the kids in our care. We wore warm clothes when we went outside to play on cold days. We ate our vegetables at lunch time. We said please and thank you. Being a parent makes me think about modelling all over again, and this time its way more intense. I want to model sincerity for Milo, and one way to do that is to be honest about what activities I enjoy and don't enjoy. He doesn't have to think that I love every minute of everything I do with him. In fact, as he gets older I think it will be important for him to know when I'm legitimately enjoying something and when I'm being selfless and doing something he wants to do that I find completely dull.
This summer I'll take him to see Jeff Tweedy, who is basically his favourite Muppet, play live at a local music festival. We'll take long bike rides and avoid stressful car trips because neither of us like them. We'll have breakfast in a crowded diner and go check out the dinosaurs at the museum nearby so he can crack us both up by roaring at them.
The best memories I have of growing up are from times when my parents were having as much fun as I was. The family snowball fight that erupted in a restaurant parking lot one night after dinner. My dad playing guitar for me when I was five, singing along to a bunch of kids' songs I loved that he'd proudly learned the chords for. My mom reading books to me that we both liked. I don't think any of those occasions were the result of either parent thinking “Oh, this will be a special and enriching experience.”
As parents we have no idea what actions and activities will make our kids' best memories, but I think it's more likely to be a time when there were honest good feelings all around, not a sense of trudging obligation. Chances are, all Milo will remember about our visit to the farm that day was that Mama wanted to rub her butt on some cranky asshole's pickup truck. Which is totally cool with me.
The Punk Parenthood Questionnaire
As with any challenging, unpredictable experience, it helps to have solidarity with others who are experiencing the same thing. Finding other parents to talk to is essential, finding other punk parents to talk to is special and amazing. Every column I ask one parent from the punk community to answer the same questions about his/her experiences raising kids. If you'd like to be interviewed, drop me a line at [email protected].
This time I interviewed Kevin Dunn. He lives with his partner Anna and his daughters Strummer and Barrow in Geneva, New York where he involves himself in a slew of DIY projects.
Jennifer: How does your background in the punk/underground scene affect your parenting?
Kevin: We named our second daughter Strummer after Joe, so I think there has been a direct impact! Anna, my partner, gets credit for that. She came up with the names for both our girls – Barrow (nine), and Strummer (seven) – though both are a gesture towards me and my family.
But your question is really about parenting. At some point in my life, a dedication to a DIY punk ethos became deeply internalized, so it probably affects my parenting on a variety of levels. I really promote my kids’ creative expressions. We’ve got musical instruments all around the house (most of which I can’t play) as well as paints, pens and markers. I remember when Barrow and I were flying back from a visit to my parents. She was probably four or five then, and on the plane we decided to make a zine about the trip. I think it was her idea! Because I make zines and have zines around the house, DIY cultural production is probably normalized for them.
I am also encouraging of my girls to be comfortable doing their own thing, even if it means being an outcast. When I was growing up, my mother was obsessed with social status and was always telling me how to act and dress in public. I try never to do that. They can wear whatever the hell they want, as long as it is relatively weather-appropriate. As a result, they both have great style. But both do struggle with being a little ostracized at times, for very different reasons, but Anna and I just try to provide unconditional love and support, while also role-modeling being comfortable (and proud) of being different.
Jennifer: What quality of yours do you most hope to pass on to your kid?
Kevin: Shit, that is a hard one. I guess my silliness and sense of humor is the most honest answer. That and a commitment to getting stuff done, not just sitting around complaining about things.
Jennifer: Have you found solidarity within the punk community when it comes to parenting? Do you have different experiences in different groups of friends?
Kevin: Regarding the first part of the question: yes, in parts. I’m in my forties, so many punks my age are parents as well. But I also hang with punks who are much younger and/or kid-less. They tend to be totally supportive and appreciative of the whole kid-thing, but there are simple chasms of differences that cannot be bridged because they don’t have kids and I’m no longer kid-less. In some ways, I think having kids fundamentally re-wired my brain and it is hard to even access the ways I understood the world pre-parenthood. Of course some folks, punk or not, just don’t want to have anything to do with kids and get bored when conversations become kid-centric. I totally get and appreciate that. But I’ve found enormous support from the punk community. Like Danielle Bailey of the band Jabber, who regularly sends my daughters awesome gifts such as handmade posters saying how strong, beautiful, and amazing they are. My daughters have those posters framed next to their beds, with Jabber stickers on their window shades. Having strong female punk role models is enormously important and appreciated by my whole family.
With regards to older punk parents, I’ve found that there is a shared set of experiences that we can connect over. It happens a fair amount that I’ll be talking to someone within the larger punk community and the fact that we have kids will come up. The conversations that tend to follow are usually quite different from the conversations I have with non-punk friends who are parents. The core difference is that my conversation with punk parents often has a component of talking about how we are incorporating elements of our DIY punk ethos into our parenting – exactly what your first question gets at. (And I think it is telling that that was your first question) I remember talking to a certain punk luminary who had just become a dad and we started talking about strategies for raising our daughters to be punk feminist riot grrrls. That is not a conversation I have with my non-punk parent friends. The conversations with that set of friends tend to simply focus on the more banal aspects of parenthood, like diet and schooling. Without wanting to over-generalize, I think my punk parent friends tend to be more critically reflective about the politics of parenting, especially when it comes to cultural politics.
Jennifer: What music are you most excited that your kid is into?
Kevin: One of the most important parenting practices my dad engaged in was to be supportive of whatever music I listened to. Once he got me Mötorhead’s “Orgasmatron” for Christmas because I asked for it! I try to be that supportive and open-minded. But of course Barrow and Strummer are being brought up in an environment that is deeply steeped in music, with something on the stereo all the time. They both claim that the Ramones are their favorite band. I thought that they were just saying that to butter me up, but then one afternoon I realized that they knew all the words to the entire first album. It blew my mind. I get excited that they like female-fronted bands. Right now they are deeply into Sinead, Blondie and Dott. I remember when I showed them a video of a young Little Richard playing piano and I could literally see their minds getting blown. That launched a huge fascination with 1950s rock’n’roll, which was cool. Yesterday Strummer had to fill out a form and one of the questions was “what is your favorite music?” and she answered: “rock’n’roll and mountain music.” We listen to a fair amount of old time mountain music (Anna is from the mountains of NC and Doc Watson lived a few miles away), so I was stoked to see her write that as an answer.
Kevin: That is tough, because they crack me up all the time. A few days ago, Barrow nibbled on her pizza slice until it was in the shape of a face and then made it speak in an Elvis voice saying “I’m Mr. Pizza Butt.” That was some high concept comedy. This morning Anna, my partner, said the words “banana smoothie” and Strummer instantly started singing Southern Culture on the Skids’ song “Banana Pudding” (but singing “banana smoothie” instead). Or, a few nights ago, a great song came on the stereo during dinner and, without missing a beat, we all stopped eating, hopped up and started dancing. I’m not even sure what the song was, but it was an awesome and hilarious scene.
Jennifer: Who should I interview next? Why?
Kevin: I’d be really interested to hear how some male musicians would answer these questions, especially ones with well-known, um, party habits. People like Isaac Thotz (The Arrivals; Treasure Fleet), Paddy Costello (Dillinger Four; The Arrivals), Todd Congelliere (Toys that Kill; F.Y.P; etc) or Jon Lewis (The Dopamines). Isaac has been a parent for a few years with a couple of kids, while Paddy, Todd and Jon are recent dads, so they’re at different stages of parenthood. I’d probably be interested in hearing Isaac’s thoughts. I don’t know him personally, but find him to be a smart, creative, reflective and rather fucked up individual – all qualities I appreciate.