Book review: A slow childhood – notes on thoughtful parenting

A Slow Childhood – notes on thoughtful parenting is written by Helen Hayward. Hayward is a freelance writer living in Hobart, who spent a large proportion of her time overseas before settling down with her husband and two kids in Australia again.

A slow childhood is a short read and it is written in a memoir style with succinct chapters, each of which contain hints and ideas for parents at the end. The book explores Hayward’s journey of transition from a life focused on career to a life focused on family. It took me some time to warm to the author for a couple of reasons.

Firstly the book is written from a position of privelege, something which the author does eventually note. With their first child they had a nanny come to the house for three hours a day, four mornings a week for three months when she was in London (paid for by her mother who was in Australia) and then with their second child, they again had someone come to the house for 12 hours a week for a number of years.

Not having had this luxury, part of me initially reacted with thoughts that it would be easy to provide children with a slow childhood with that level of support. Hayward acknowledges this saying:

To be really present with my children without sacrificing my ambitions I needed quite a lot of help. It didn’t take a whole village to raise Alex and Emma. But it certainly took more than just Paul and me. I don’t think that I’d have been as loving and responsive with them, as I mostly managed to be, if the world hadn’t been loving and responsive to me.

Whenever a book stirs a reaction in me, I try to dig a little deeper and ask why? Yes the book is written from a position of privelege, but I too write from a position of privelege here on the blog. My privelege may not be the same as Hayward’s, but I certainly have had more opportunity and support than many mums.

I had a choice about returning to work. I had time to explore and learn online before turning what I do into a small business and income for my family, something that I know many women simply did not or will not have. Acknowledging this allowed me to drop the judgement and look more objectively at what the author had to say.

The second reason it took me a while to warm to the author was how everything initially seemed to be okay for her, it seemed a little too rosy. Yes she was giving up her career and devoting herself to her kids, but besides a few remarks it seemed like all was golden, until the chapter “Heffalump trap”.

Once I’d fallen on to that bed of dank leaves, that was it. I couldn’t climb out. The more I shouted, the more I asked Paul to reach down his hand, the more I felt trapped. It wasn’t dark down there. I could see the clouds scudding across the sky between the branches overhead. However, because I was at the bottom of the hole it was impossible to see the world as it really was.

I think every mum or primary carer at some point as felt like this. You have days on end of whining, sickness, mess and see very little of the outside world and you cannot imagine it ending. For when you feel like this, the author has excellent advice:

Make a cup of tea or call a friend. Leave off hunting for a solution. Like all intense feelings, desperation passes.

Having warmed to the author and her story, I found there was much to learn and note from A Slow Childhood:

  • When devoting yourself to your family, don’t do so in a way that you lose or deplete yourself, in the end everyone loses if this happens.
  • When at home with the kids when they are young, get out and about and do things that you will both enjoy. If animated movies aren’t your thing, do art galleries that have kids sections etc.
  • See being at home as an opportunity to re-engage with what you loved doing as a child.
  • Accept that you will lose some of yourself, but if you surrender to this and don’t begrudge it, you have so much to gain in return.
  • It is okay if you are surprised and find yourself taking on a more traditional role than you ever imagined for yourself.
  • Don’t waste time expecting others to value what you are doing, the key is for you to value what it is that you are doing for you kids.

Throughout A Slow Childhood the author places no judgment on the choice other families make in terms of working and childcare. She heartily encourages parents to avoid comparisons and to come to peace with the decisions they have made. Hayward shares how she herself came to peace with her decision to forgo her career and stay with her children. It was a choice that wasn’t without its moments of doubt, but by valuing the time she could spend with her kids, she was allowing them space and time to grow with out rushing through the days.

Through the later chapters you see the simple ways that as a parent we can allow our kids to have a slow or slower childhood:

  • Creativity hides on the other side of boredom and it is ok for the kids to get bored.
  • You can make a choice not to do extra curricular activities (her children did no weekend sport).
  • Kids need materials and time to help find their creativity.
  • Time spent hanging out with the kids isn’t wasted time.
  • To have an adventure you don’t need to do too much, a map, some lunch and some daring can make great memories.
  • Changing how you see cooking an evening meal from a chore to a task that helps bring the family together each night can make a huge difference.

What I loved about A Slow Childhood was the value and importance the author places on the humdrum elements of family life that she undertakes. For someone who has followed a somewhat similar path to Hayward, there have been moments when making the 100th muffin for the month I wonder how different things would be if I had returned full time to the corporate workforce?

Over the years of parenting, I have become more and more attached to the humdrum elements, not because I adore making lunches, mopping the floors or folding the washing, but because I want to make our home a place where we all like to be and can enjoy comfortably. Hayward sums this up beautifully towards the end of the book:

And yet what I’ve come to realise is that it’s the domestic arts that give rhythm, depth and style to family life.

For me this book is very much about being comfortable with the choices that you have made – and realising that those of us who come from a position of privelege, have a choice to be comfortable with it. It is not arguing that everyone should make the same choices as Hayward, but I think it offers valuable insight for those who feel pulled by career and motherhood.

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