Soon after my first marriage broke up, I had to take my then seven year-old daughter, Hannah, shopping for clothes. It had always been something she did with her mother, while I mowed the lawn or wrote. But no amount of scribbling or gardening was going to fill the empty cupboard in my daughter’s bedroom. I had to get out and prowl the racks with her.
We went to Dimmey’s in Geelong during summer school holidays. We were bunking with my parents for a few days. Before we left, Mum asked: ‘Do you want me to take her and you can go to the beach?’ The idea was appealing, but I was locked into the notion that anything Hannah’s mother could do I could do, if not better, at least capably.
Hannah led me around every square metre of tables and racks festooned with coloured cotton, while the red lights spun their bargains and the announcements told us what we already knew: we were at Dimmey’s, and we could pay less here than anywhere else for ‘quality clothing’. I wasn’t sure about the quality but I was rapt at the pricing: six dollars for two t-shirts, twelve dollars for a pair of jeans. Dimmey’s wouldn’t put a severe dent in my skinny post-divorce budget. And, even better, it hardly mattered what I bought Hannah; she was at an age when she couldn’t have cared less about brands or where her clothes came from. She worked on a variation of the Don Smallgoods theme: if they looked good, they were good.
By the end of our trip, my feet were aching. I groaned as Hannah tried on the last of the eight-dollar, three-quarter length pants.
‘Just pick one, sweetie. And then we’re going.’
‘Can I have a hot chocolate?’
Yes, ten hot chocolates. Anything to get out of there. When we eventually did arrive back at Grandma’s, Hannah fashion-paraded every item – and every possible combination of outfit – while we all ‘ooohed’ and ‘ahhhed’ at her style. And I forgot, as quickly as possible, about our shopping expedition.
Maybe it’s a reality of being a parent in a separated family, but I have often been concerned that I’m not doing enough to make my children’s lives okay. But how can I ever do enough? I’ve denied them what they understand as a fundamental right: their parents together, loving them in one house. No matter how resolved I have become to the truth that, yes, I am doing the best I can and I can’t make up for the past, there remains something inside me that chews away, never far from the surface, telling me to make amends.
I suppose this accounts for my deep feeling of gratitude when I walked into Hannah’s Year Four classroom early in the school year following our shopping expedition and found hanging on the wall the poster she’d created to depict her three holiday highlights – one of which was shopping with Dad.
At her birth, I vowed that when Hannah grew up she’d never enter a department store and think the loudspeaker announcement ‘Welcome Shoppers’ was directed at her. When she was in Prep, we watched television commercials and I asked her what it was that companies were trying to sell. Even before products appeared on screen, she would answer accurately: ‘hamburgers’, ‘cars’, ‘phones’, ‘perfume’ or ‘toys’.
Later, I pushed her further. I asked her what particular advertisements were trying to make her feel. That question initially took her longer to answer, but soon her responses came as quickly as the ad breaks themselves. ‘That I need that toy to be happy,’ she replied. ‘They’re saying their hamburgers are great and I’ll be happy if I eat one. But they’re not that good, Dad, I’ve eaten them. And they’re never that big!’
My campaign to inure Hannah to the evils of consumerism stayed on track through early primary school. Eventually, she came up with the question: ‘Why do you hate McDonald’s so much, Dad?’ If she’d been carrying pen and paper, I’d have told her to take notes. I told her you can’t drive from one town to another in this country without seeing a Golden Arch. I asked her what a green road sign meant and she said she didn’t know, whereas she had no trouble remembering the McDonald’s symbol. I ranted about their abuse of the environment and, in my pièce de résistance, I told her: ‘They make kids work there – and don’t pay them a thing.’
A few weeks later, my mum picked Hannah up from school and, for a treat, took her to McDonald’s. My daughter stopped short in front of the glass doors and looked with concern at her grandmother: ‘You’re not going to make me work here, are you, Nanny?’
I’d pushed it too far. In the ensuing years I have relented; I occasionally take her and her younger brother, Hugo, to McDonald’s. I’m hoping this tactic prevents a backlash in their twenties when, free of my influence, they might eat burgers and fries for every meal. It seems to have worked; neither of them goes crazy, like some of their friends do for fast food.
But Hannah, unfortunately, goes crazy for shopping. And I feel partly to blame.
In July 2009, US president Barack Obama admitted he hates shopping. What a refreshing piece of information. Here was the president of the free world acting free. The bloke hates to shop – and he looks decent.
It is great to know I am in good company whenever I tell people I dislike prowling the streets – or the web – for clothes. Dads like Obama and me, flat out with work and family, want a shop where we can buy in one hour all the halfway fashionable clothes we will need for two years, without having to try any of them on, without listening to any Top 40, and where no one tells us we look good, even if we look tragic.
While Obama and I can avoid shopping for ourselves, our kids are another story. Hannah’s excitement about her Dimmey’s début with Dad had created a monster: two years ago, she decided that her tenth birthday should be a shopping party, followed by a sleepover. Her friends’ mothers looked at me like I’d lost my trolley. Notwithstanding the fact that I’d have to go shopping at Highpoint (also referred to by locals as ‘No Point’) on a Friday night, I’d be doing it with five Year Four girls. ‘You’re brave,’ was the popular rejoinder, or a smirk that said, ‘Good luck, fool.’
My then girlfriend (now wife) Jo looked at me with equal scepticism. ‘Is that a good idea?’ she winced. She’s as anti-consumerist as I am, and couldn’t fathom why I’d take my intelligent, media-savvy tween daughter shopping for her birthday. Wouldn’t it undo all I’d been trying to tell her about how brands aren’t important and that shopping is a necessity not a hobby?
‘Probably,’ I replied. But when you’ve seen your daughter’s classroom poster – and you’ve also seen the horror in her eyes the day you had to tell her that Mum and Dad would never be together again – you make these kinds of concessions.
And the shopping trip was okay in the end. We visited Smiggle, smelling the fruity eraser. We skipped through games shops, jewellery outlets, irritating tween-girl clothes shops, and drank too much hot chocolate. The girls spent less than ten dollars each and, far from needing brands to impress each other, were happy to buy pens with fluffy feathers. They had a special and unusual night (shopping with a Dad? For a party?) and Hannah kept telling me in private that she loved me. That’s worth the tangle of bodies in any megaplex. And, as I kept telling myself, it was a once off.
But no such luck. As part of their dual home arrangement, my kids have a birthday party every second year at my house. Last year, Hannah’s twelfth, the roulette wheel spun and landed on me again, and Hannah wanted a repeat performance of the Shopping with Dad Poster Boy Tour 2007. The same wince from my wife – and, this time, from me.
‘Hannah, I don’t know. Can’t you think of something else?’
‘But it was fun last time, Dad!’
We were hitting a volleyball over a net in the backyard. I offered her alternatives: a disco, a gymnastics party, a pizza night, an indoor pool party, a picnic.
‘The girls loved it too, Dad! They all want to do it.’ My pride swelling, I tried my last weapon: the truth.
‘Sweetie, I don’t think it’s good for you to have a shopping party. Shopping isn’t a hobby.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘No, it’s not’, I said. I gave her all the listen-here-young-lady reasons why it isn’t – the main one being that it isn’t creative, not like the drawing and writing she likes to do.
‘Yes, it is, Dad,’ Hannah repeated, fixing me with one of the most serious expressions I’d seen from her. ‘I’m being creative when I look for clothes, when I check out the colours, and I think about the different things I’m going to wear and how they express me. It’s not just shopping, Dad – we find out about each other because of what we like and don’t like. And we talk and we, well, hang out.’
She didn’t really have the words for it, but I knew what she meant: she and her friends bonded when they shopped. Like I’d bonded with her. A week later she designed an invitation – ‘Confessions of a Shopa-Holic’ – and a month later I was at Highpoint with five Year Six girls, their mouths full of gum and Lady GaGa lyrics, each arm carrying two shopping bags full of tween jeans, things that smelt ‘nice’, fake gold bracelets, rubber wrist bands (a black one given to me with the word ‘strength’ written in white) and, I discovered later, in Hannah’s shopping bag, Mother’s Day and ‘Stepmother’s Day’ presents purchased with money she’d received for her birthday.
And while that final ring of the cash register thrilled me, Shopa-Holic 2009 still gave me pause. Wasn’t I, literally and figuratively, shopping for my daughter’s love? Yes, she’d bought some presents for her mother and stepmother, but in allowing my desire to please her to override my values, hadn’t I weakened my brand?
An answer came a month later. The kids and I went to the Pompeii Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum during school holidays. A proper, no nonsense excursion: lots of ancient artefacts, paintings of angry Mt Vesuvius, educational 3D films – and people’s tragic deaths described in detail. Afterwards, we ate lunch, quietly thankful that we didn’t live near an active volcano. A three-year-old in a cute dress walked past and I felt warmth for her – she wasn’t likely to be crushed by falling debris. But Hannah’s eyes followed her intensely.
‘I hate that,’ she said. ‘She doesn’t even know what brand she’s wearing. Kids don’t need brands.’
But my daughter was still wearing mine. I munched my pie in triumph – bring on the teenage years, I thought. Well, maybe not bring them on.