Helen Hayward’s philosophy on family has completely changed my life, and in ways I never expected it would. Many of my friends and family members would be stunned to learn, for example, that I now actually enjoy the housework.
One quote from Helen’s new book, A Slow Childhood: Notes on thoughtful parenting, found its way onto the bedroom cupboard door even before we’d exchanged contracts, because it made me completely rethink the way I was setting my priorities: “Start doing whatever you care about most today”. Not what you want most, or need most, but what you most care about.
Unsurprisingly, I found myself cutting back my work hours to spend more time with my children after reading Helen’s manuscript. I started heading to the school library twice a week with my four-year-old while his brother was in music lessons. I took the seven-year-old out of the Spanish lessons he hated and booked him into drawing classes instead. Now he’s spending late afternoons immersed in his drawing book instead of asking to watch TV or play electronic games. They’re both going to bed earlier and spending more time listening restfully as we take turns reading them to sleep. The Narnia books filled our summer nights, with the Faraway Tree series lasting through much of autumn. We’ve always read to the boys, but it was a chore before, eating into time we thought we needed for us. Now it’s my favourite part of the day, and theirs.
It’s the housework revelation that has been the most surprising for me of the changes Helen has inspired, though. She has made me appreciate for the first time ever the value to my wellbeing of working to keep a tidy and pleasant home.
“… Done in the right spirit, housekeeping can be just as uplifting as any other activity,” Helen writes in A Slow Childhood.
“There is something rather wonderful about being on top of it … It’s the domestic arts that give rhythm, depth and style to family life.”
She’s right. When we are parents, our home is the centre of our world. I don’t know about you, but I feel happier when it’s tidy, clean and pleasant to be in, and if it takes an hour or two a day to keep it that way, well, so be it.
As Helen (pictured below right) says of herself in the closing chapter, it’s about knowing how to “make my family’s rumpled beds without feeling demeaned by doing so, knowing how much a loving and attractive home means to me”.
I’ve taken a great deal more pleasure in the results of my efforts around the house since reading these lines, and been far less resentful of the three co-residents who leave the bedlinen exactly as it falls when they climb out of it each morning.
I’m not saying women should do all the housework, simply that if we like things to be a certain way and our partners have a different tolerance level or view of what is acceptable, then the easiest fix is to stay on top of those things ourselves without gritting our teeth and cursing their names all the while.
In terms of ensuring there is a fair division of labour in the household, a great solution is to put together a complete list of chores required to keep your home and family life ticking over smoothly, from booking parent-teacher meetings (me) and cooking to dinner (him) to wiping under the dish rack (me) and baking and decorating birthday cakes (him). Divide the items on the list into columns in line with who takes responsibility for them now, then discuss how you can allocate tasks more fairly.
This worked like magic for us, because I don’t think either of us had any idea how much the other was contributing. The nagging has stopped, there are always clean and ironed clothes to wear, the bins are always out on collection day and we get to school on time in the morning. I cannot recommend the chore list highly enough.
As for A Slow Childhood, if you’re a parent, or looking for a gift for someone you know who is or soon will be, it should be top of your list. Oh, and don’t just take my word for it. Philosopher, broadcaster and author Alain de Botton, who wrote the foreword for the book, has described A Slow Childhood as ‘a triumph’ that made him cry more than once.
I’ll be sharing some other pieces of life-changing advice from the book here and via our Twitter and Facebook profiles in coming days. If you want to get to that advice sooner, you can find the print edition in good bookstores around Australia or buy it or the ebook here.