Tags: TV

What "Parenthood" Taught Me About Parenthood

As the six-season drama wraps up, a father reflects on what he learned from watching Joel, Julia, "Bug," and Victor Graham work through their toughest times.
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The first time I ever called my daughter “Bug,” I remember my wife turning and looking at me with contempt.

“Don’t call her Bug,” she said. “Where did you even get that from?”

To be honest, the first time I said it, I didn’t even realize where I’d picked up the cutesy moniker. It just came out, as do so many other silly little names I’ve called my daughter, Skylar, since she was born.

But by the time I’d said it enough times for it to really stick as a nickname, I knew exactly where it originated.

“You know the whole ‘Bug’ thing?” I asked my wife over dinner. “How I’ve been calling Skylar ‘Bug’ for the past few weeks and you get all upset and tell me to stop because our daughter is not an insect?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “What is the deal with that?”

“I figured it out,” I said. “It’s Parenthood.”

“The show?”

“Bingo.”

And so began an hourlong conversation about a show that my wife didn’t watch. By the end of it, however, she understood that the nickname was cute enough (and totally harmless) and she never once asked me to stop calling our kid "Bug" again.

That’s how these Jason Katims shows get you. You start watching something like Friday Night Lights or Parenthood during a weekend Netflix binge session and you don’t realize that they’ve seeped into your actual daily life until you’re calling your daughter “Bug” and chanting “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.”

In the case of Parenthood, the series just hit me at the perfect time. After mostly avoiding it during its premiere season on NBC in 2010, I completely fell in love with it through the power of Netflix and I’ve never looked back.

I could extol the many virtues of this television family for pages and pages of text (six season worth of virtues!), but I’d rather just tell you why I think “Bug” became a thing here in our house and what Joel, Julia, and mostly Sydney Graham have taught me about being a dad.

Sydney Graham (played by the adorable Savannah Paige Rae) was 5 years old when Parenthood began its six-season run in 2010. The daughter of Julia Braverman and Joel Graham—the show’s “perfect” husband and wife—was precocious and clever beyond her years.

My own daughter was 2 in 2010 (she just turned 6 this month), but seeing Sydney on the TV screen week in and week out immediately made me think of Skylar. She was the daughter I wanted to see my kid grow up to emulate. She had the perfect parents and the beautiful house and the family that just had it all together.

I think that’s why “Bug” slipped into my real life so easily. It was a natural extension of watching Joel and Julia call Sydney “Bug” every week that I pulled out of Parenthood and made Skylar my own little “Bug,” be it cuddle bug or snuggle bug or any other type of adorable insect.

Watching Skylar grow up three years behind Sydney has been rather eye opening. It’s like watching the future unfold before me, watching Sydney tackle the kind of problems several years before Skylar would.

The similarities were too many to ignore. Joel was a stay-at-home dad, helping to raise Sydney most of the day, while Julia worked in a fast-paced professional environment. She was the breadwinner and he was fine with that (for a while).

I’ve been a work-at-home dad for nearly a decade now. I changed diapers and put Skylar down for naps while I worked at my desk next to her with the composed fervor that I imagined Joel did when Sydney was 2. I wanted to be Joel Graham. The perfect husband. The perfect dad. The man who could make everything right with a well-cooked pancake.

And then things started to fall apart for the Graham family. It didn’t happen all at once. Little bits here and there started to crumble the foundation of the show’s most unblemished family dynamic.

Sydney broke down and started to feel a huge amount of jealousy toward her new brother Victor, whom her parents had adopted. She was becoming mean and angry and not the adorable “Bug” I was used to seeing every week.

Would Skylar become an annoying, bratty kid if we introduced another baby to this house?

The thought terrified me. At the moment we are very content with having one child—and Sydney's reaction is certainly not the reason we've not had another. But if ever we do decide to have another child, at least we have some sense of what we could expect from Skyalr, from watching Sydney work through her jealousy and grief, missing her life as an only child.

Of course, just as things started to look like they were turning around for the family, as Bug began to embrace having a brother—what's a TV drama without, well, drama—something else broke. Joel and Julia switched places: He wanted to have a career and Julia became the stay-at-home parent, which simply wasn’t part of her DNA). And with the new dynamic, infidelities and mistrust crept in. Before we knew it, Joel was moving out of the house and into a one-bedroom apart with a big TV.

Having witnessed something quite similar as a kid, I could imagine what Sydney and Victor were going through. I don’t know many details about the few weeks that my father spent sleeping on the couch of his parents' house when I was younger. I don’t know why he left, but I’ve always suspected it was not unlike the situation between Joel and Julia. I distinctly recall hearing my father tell my mother not to pack his clothes in garbage bags because he didn’t want them to “smell like pine.”

You would think that my own childhood experience would be enough to ensure that this will never happen in my household. That her parents will never let it get to that point because her father knows, first-hand, what it feels like, and wants to protect Skylar from bearing the torture of bouncing between two households. 

And maybe it is; it's certainly in the back of my mind. But it didn’t fully register on the emotional scale—perhaps because I experienced it so many years ago—until I watched Sydney cry herself to sleep when her father wasn’t home. That was my “Bug” in pain on TV. That was my baby as much as it was Joel and Julia’s because, after six seasons, Skylar and Sydney have become so intertwined in my head.

Watching that pain of separation—and the elation of their reunion in the past few weeks as the show winds down to tonight’s series finale—has conjured, for me, the pain I felt when my parents weren’t living in the same household. It was the trigger I needed to be that much more protective of my family. Thanks to “Bug,” I would do everything I could to make sure Skylar would never have to go through this.

Am I a soothsayer? Certainly not. Can I guarantee that things will always be beautiful and perfect and great for our family? Obviously not.

But I can learn from what I've been watching all these years. Those scenes have brought me to tears so many times, dredging up feelings I’ve hidden away inside my mind for years. And, I hope, those feelings will translate into action, precaution, doing everything in my power to try to make things work in our house, in our marriage, and in our parenting. Yes, I believe a good story, even on TV, can have the power to do that. Even if Parenthood hadn’t pulled me in, resonating with me and engaging me with its tear-jerking and emotional ways for these past six seasons, I would like to think I would have continued watching for the lessons it’s taught me about myself, my family, and my daughter. That would have been more than enough to make it all worth it.

Because I related to the Grahams in so many ways, I always found myself pulling for them more than anyone else on the show during their tough times these past few seasons. You might even say that I’m firmly on Team Joelia.

Even more so, though, I’m Team “Bug.” I’ve seen my daughter through Sydney, and as we saying good-bye to the series tonight, I know I’ll keep calling my little one “Bug” for as long as she’ll let me.

Judging by what I’ve seen on Parenthood, that probably won’t be very much longer. I guess they have to grow up some time.

Scott Neumyer is a freelance journalist and photographer whose work has been published by Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, ESPN, Wired, Sports Illustrated, and in many other publications. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, daughter, and their two cats. Follow him @ScottNeumyer
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