Bringing kids to festivals is the worst kind of performance parenting
Jennifer O'Connell: If you thought I was fun before I had kids, the toddler-toting festival-goers brag, see me now!
And baby came too: Mini festival goer at last year’s Electric Picnic. Photograph: Dave Meehan
I’ve always thought children at music festivals represent the worst of every possible world: a three-day whingefest for the children; an expensive, muddy, logistical nightmare for their parents; and a bore for everyone else, who just want to be left alone to enjoy the music and vomit into the recycling bins at 6am, or whatever grown-ups normally do at music festivals when they’re not busy looking for somewhere to change a nappy.
If you can’t think of a more imaginative way to dispense with €500 than spending a weekend queueing in a field, then go right ahead. Because bringing a child to a festival mostly involves queuing – for overpriced hotdogs, for Spongebob henna tattoos, for the one Portaloo in a 5km radius that’s rumoured to still have toilet paper.
The general campsite resembled news footage from a humanitarian crisis
Dragging your child to a festival is also – let’s call it what it is – the most egregious kind of performance parenting. Look at me, those toddler-toting festival-goers are bragging. If you thought I was fun before I had children, see me now, with my dinosaur-print anorak, my whimsical braids and my endless supply of wipes and bananas! Look at me, dancing to Neneh Cherry while I queue in the rain for four €18 vegan burritos that taste like cabbage-flavoured cardboard!
If you can see past the layers of glitter paint, you’ll spot the misery in their eyes, the haunted look that says they’d really rather be home with their slippers, a bottle of Malbec and a new Netflix series. They know it; you know it; and they know you know it. But their entire self-worth depends on no one saying it out loud. The only thing standing between them and despair is the increasingly fragile illusion that parenthood hasn’t changed them.
But parenthood does change you. For starters, it makes staying at home a lot more attractive. I brought two toddlers to Taste of Dublin once, and I’m still recovering. So what madness possessed me to bring three of the little sods to the All Together Now festival in Waterford?
I know exactly what madness. We bought the tickets during a miserable week in February, when my husband was working in Brazil, and I was juggling my own work travel schedule with half-term play dates, scouting trips and hockey camps. I was suddenly taken with a vision of myself as a carefree sort who doesn’t mind showering in a teaspoon of water and antibacterial hand sanitiser. Let’s just go, I emailed him late one night. By the time I came to my senses, the time difference meant it was too late. The tickets had been bought.
I could have left the children at home, or passed the tickets on to someone more deserving during the intervening months – there are a few people I’d be happy to subject to 72 hours of slow torture in a damp field – but stubbornness or delusion kicked in. There was also a sense of urgency about it. The nearly-teenager will shortly age-out of family pass tickets and the desire to be seen anywhere in the company of her parents. That idea alone made me sad enough to reach for the stripy lilac rain mac.
I wasn’t completely wrong about everything. Some of it was just as awful as I expected. Not the traffic, actually: we managed to miss the chaos and scenes of existential despair playing along the N24. The general campsite resembled news footage from a humanitarian crisis, but we weren’t staying, so it didn’t matter. Then there was the mud. There was oceans of the stuff, mud that clung to you like a bad dream. There was a lot of queuing.
But I was mostly wrong. Mostly, it was magic.
The best way to enjoy a festival in the company of your children, I’ve learned, is to manage your expectations. No problem there for me. And second, it’s to avoid indulging in anything that suggests you’re apologising to them. No compensatory €5 helter skelter rides. I spotted one multigeneration group spreading a rug on the floor of the crowded marquee during a raucous Anna Calvi set, and handing out colouring books to their little band of unhappy pre-schoolers. If you feel the need to bring colouring books in your festival survival kit, just stay home.
We did spend time in the kids’ area learning circus skills and graffiti art, but mostly the weekend was about wandering in the woods after dark, eating noodles on the wet grass, bumping into old friends, and arguing about whether Lisa Hannigan or Jose Gonzalez was better. It was watching the older ones lose their minds to Patti Smith, some 60 years their senior, and the five-year-old dancing in the rain until she keeled over with exhaustion. If you spotted me there, rocking to Bombay Bicycle Club in a downpour with a little girl in a ladybird rain mac, that wasn’t despair you saw in my eyes. It was the knowledge that life is short, and there are hot showers at home, and everyone should dance in a muddy field with the people they love, at least once in their lives.
Would I go again? Well, Electric Picnic is coming up, and I’m currently shopping for a family-sized tent.