Down with the kids: is it time I grew up ?
One of my favourite things to do as a child was to sit on the living room rug and look through my father’s university yearbook. I loved that book: Aside from the novelty of seeing my father young (and with hair!), it seemed like such an exotic historical artefact. My dad had gone to college in the 1950s and all those black-and-white photos of young men with square haircuts and buttoned-up white shirts were so distant from my world, they might as well have been taken in the 1850s.
My parents weren’t like Captain von Trapp at the beginning of The Sound Of Music, cold and cut off from his children, but there was a definite boundary between their world and mine, reinforced in my mind by that yearbook. I found that immensely reassuring. I could shelter in that boundary when I was overwhelmed by my life, look at theirs and know that all this childish nonsense would soon pass. Being an adult would be different. Which is why I feel a little sorry for my own children.
By the time you read this, I’ll be at Glastonbury, blowing off some hard-won steam for the first time since my babies were born nine months ago. Turns out — who knew? — being a parent is hard, and I wanted a mini-break from it. But I remember my parents when they were my age and I can assure you they weren’t running off to music festivals. Nor were they listening to music by pin-up pop stars aimed at 15-year-olds. I, on the other hand, have been listening to Justin Bieber, who is basically half my age, for the past six months on a loop. When the story about Taylor Swift’s alleged relationship with Tom Hiddleston broke last week, I spent the next hour texting my friends about it. Did I mention that I’m 38? The day Prince died, my mother — who was my age now when Sign o’ The Times was released — said to me, “I didn’t realise people cared about him so much”.
Then there’s social media, the online testament of everyone’s need for validation. What do today’s children think when they see their parents on it, doing exactly what they do: Using emojis and acronyms, hoping for likes and fishing for followers? I will be able to ask my own children in a few years’ time. I’m enormously grateful my parents couldn’t ask me.
One of my favourite film characters is Amy Poehler’s “Cool Mom” in Mean Girls, the awful mother who wears Juicy Couture tracksuits and tries to hang out with her teenage daughter’s friends, because “you girls keep me young”. Cool Mom actively tries to be like a teenager. I’m worse: I feel as if I don’t know how to be anything else. When I caught myself last week doing the Bieber Sorry dance while preparing my children’s dinner, I realised I’d gone past annoying Cool Mom status to Generational Parody.
Sure, there were parents in the 1980s who listened to Michael Jackson — and not just the Jackson 5, who they grew up with. But they were seen as eccentric, the kind who might offer you a beer when you were 13. Now, every parent I know listens to Miley Cyrus, never Billy Ray, who we grew up with. Some parents say sharing culture and social media with their children brings them closer together, but my response to that is a sceptical face emoji. As a child, what I needed most was my own space. No children should feel insecure about their mother having more Facebook friends than they do.
I don’t think the generations should be storeyed and separate, with the children sealed off in a separate wing, brought out once a day to kiss pater and mater good eventide (although ask me again in two years, when my twins are toddlers). But today’s generations are so melded, with everyone swilling around in an open-plan office where Swift’s 1989 is always playing and everyone’s on Instagram, where can a child take a break from the melee, or from their parents?
My generation has refused to move on, partly because we’re all expected to stay young and with it for ever, and largely because we don’t want to. And that’s fine: It’s nice that I don’t have to start dressing like Hyacinth Bucket and retune my radio to Drive Time FM as soon as I hit 40. But it does make parenting a little confusing. Is there a middle ground between Captain von Trapp and Cool Mom? I’m determined to find it. These children keep me young, you know.
— Hadley Freeman is a Guardian columnist and features writer.