Beyond nappies and tantrums to big issues
Parenting can be hard labour but even tougher is the philosophical question it makes us consider, writes Alain de Botton: What is a good life? A new book offers some answers
One of the most peculiar things about our childcentred societies is that we do not, on the whole, write either very well or very deeply about parenting. Parenting manuals fill the shelves; accounts of what it is to be a parent, reflections on the sensations of nurturing a child to adulthood are remarkably absent. It is as if we were somehow ashamed of the experience, and unwilling to accord it the interest or cultural prestige it deserves. Or we are simply, after a day with the kids, too tired.
Helen Hayward’s achievement is to have written a book about the most ordinary things and to have located therein the most extraordinary insights and ideas. Her topic is beautifully, unashamedly “boring”. Almost nothing “happens” in A Slow Childhood. Thank goodness. There are no explosions, dramas or tense turning points. Yet from the stuff of ordinary life, Hayward has woven a narrative filled with tenderness, complexity, honest self-reflection and purpose.
In the best works of culture, we have an impression of coming across orphaned bits of ourselves, evoked with rare crispness and tenacity. We might wonder how on earth the author could have known deeply personal things about us, ideas that normally fracture in our clumsy fingers when we try to take hold of them, but that are here perfectly preserved and illuminated. They have — like Hayward — just been very aware of, and honest about, their own feelings.
Most of our lives are spent in situations of numbing sterility. There is usually no option but to conform and obey impersonal rules. We don’t in our work generally create anything of particular wonder or interest. We don’t know how to paint or play Chopin’s Scherzo No 2 in B flat minor. We can’t personally manufacture an iPhone; we don’t know how to extract oil from the ground.
And yet, without being conscious of the specifics, we are at points capable of doing something properly miraculous: we can make another person. We can conjure up the limbs and organs of a fellow creature. We can create a liver, we can design someone else’s brain, we can — by ingesting a mixed diet perhaps including bananas, cheese sandwiches and ginger biscuits — make fingers, we can connect neurons that will transmit thoughts about the history of the ancient Persians or the workings of the dishwasher. We can choreograph the birth of an organic machine that will probably still be going close to a hundred years from now. We can be the master co-ordinator and chief designer of a product more advanced than any technology and more complex and interesting than the greatest work of art.
Having a child definitively refutes any worry about our lack of creativity and dismantles (at least for a while) the envy we might otherwise feel about the inventiveness of others. They may have written a stirring song, started and sold a bio-engineering company or plotted an engaging novel. But we will have created the oddest yet most inspiring work of art and science around: one that is alive; one that will develop its own centres of happiness and secrecy; that will one day do its homework, get a job, hate us, forgive us, end up being, despite itself, a bit like us and, eventually, make humans of its own that can spawn themselves into perpetuity.
However much they may resent one another, grow apart or be worn down by the humdrum nature of family life, parents and children are never entirely able to get past the supernatural sequence of events that connects creators and created. Because two people met 15 years ago in a friend’s kitchen, liked the look of one another, swapped phone numbers and went out for dinner, there is now — across the table — a being with a particular sort of nose, a distinctive emotional temperament and a way of smiling that (as everyone remarks) unnervingly echoes that of a dead maternal grandfather.
Parenting ineluctably demands that one address the greatest, founding philosophical question: what is a good life? This question lies at the centre of A Slow Childhood. As each of us goes about answering it in our words and actions over long parenting years, we will at least know — as Hayward acknowledges — that we have been spared the one great fear that otherwise haunts us and usually manifests itself around