Things My Father Taught Me: Joe Hildebrand

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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As co-host on Network Ten’s Studio 10, Joe Hildebrand doesn’t mind sharing his strong opinions on everything from parenting to politics. And in real life? He’s a thoughtful man who’s not afraid to admit to some insecurities – the flow-on effects of a childhood scarred by an emotionally absent father.

“My dad left my mum when I was about six years old, so the memories of when I was really young and we were all living together in the one house were my happiest. I remember staying up very late watching television with him. He wasn’t exactly a strict disciplinarian. At such times I just felt as though we were two peas in a pod – as though we were simply bigger and smaller versions of each other. I idolised my father enormously.

“His own dad died in a car accident when he was a boy. That must have been very hard for him, and he talked about his mum being in bed a lot, so there was probably some chronic depression there. I think he inherited that – and I think I most likely inherited that too.

“I’ve asked myself sometimes whether the reason my dad didn’t really know how to be a dad was because he hadn’t had one for so much of his life. Maybe that’s his ‘Get out of jail free’ card. He was a very intelligent man and very worldly, but he was part of that generation of free-wheeling hippies who had all these ideological notions of selflessness and peace, love and understanding, but who, when you actually drill right down to it, were pretty narcissistic, hedonistic, commitment-less people who did whatever they wanted to do and called it freedom. He was a travelling troubadour – a folk-singer. When he got sick of a place or a person he just left. My mum was probably too naïve to see what was coming. She fell in love with his mind. She always said he had a first-class mind, and she was right, but she didn’t pick up on the gaps in his emotional make-up that were part of him too.

“And so my attitude to being a father to my own son is a bit like that of the Berenstein Bears. The dad tries to teach his son all these important things but just completely fucks everything up and then justifies it all by saying, ‘Well, this is what not to do!’ I feel like I’ve had some very good lessons in what not to do. I’ve moved heaven and earth to make sure I’m there for my son. I work from home as much as I can and just try to be around.

“Being a parent comes naturally to most people – I mean, that’s how we’re still alive as a species. There’s a natural, effusive love in me that can’t be stopped. But I still need to remind myself to work harder at some things because it’s the little moments that kids remember.

“I think of that every time my son asks me to bounce on the trampoline with him and I have to say ‘no’ because I’m working or busy or something. The rational part of me says it’s not a big deal – it won’t scar him for life. But the real test of a father is what you do day in and day out. Because you never know what – twenty or thirty years from now – is going to be that memory where your children think, ‘Yes, I had a good childhood’, or ‘My father loved me and I feel okay about my place in the world.’ You don’t get to choose that moment. True love is abiding, not grandiose. It’s consistency, not grand declarations. It’s jumping on the trampoline with them when they ask you to.

“In some ways, you stop needing your parents once you become one. It sort of closes the circuit. Now that I don’t need Dad’s approval or love I am much more forgiving of him. So when it comes to nature versus nurture, I think it has to be nurture. It has to be nurture or all hope is lost. If it’s just nature, then we keep on making the same mistakes and throw our fates to the gods and pretend there’s nothing we can do.

“And that is the thing I love about being a dad, as much as it terrifies me. It is a chance to fix your own little corner of the world, a chance to make a better person than you are. Despite all the work, it’s really not that hard. It’s difficult and tiresome and scary at times, but it’s also so much fun and so natural.

“The really hard part is knowing your children can never possibly love you quite as much as you love them. I guess you just hope that if you’ve done your job right, they’ll love theirs even more.

This is an excerpt from Things My Father Taught Me, by Claire Halliday. It features interviews with a collection of Australian identities talking about the impact their relationship with their dad had on their lives. Buy it: here