So Much More to Come...the art of reinvention in midlife
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (October 2nd 2023)
Stories from the Noon retreat
Please forgive the tardiness of this newsletter, I usually try and write for you on a Sunday but it’s been quite the weekend. I delivered the manuscript for my book to the publisher at the end of last week, took my eldest child back to university on Saturday (so the nest is now officially empty! Sob…) and then ran a Noon Retreat at Wasing on Sunday. So not much time for writing…
So the empty nest – the house is very quiet and tidy. I remember when we first moved in, I was pregnant with my eldest daughter in 2002. We’d been living in a tiny one bed flat and the house felt huge, there was a whole floor we barely used. Well it feels like we are back there again. It’s echoey, the ‘floordrobes’ and troops of teens are gone. The house smells of polish and floor cleaner…
We’re not the only ones. I keep getting calls from friends saying: “Come and stay – we’ve got loads of spare bedrooms…” Well, ditto….
Another pal who is divorced and whose kids are both gone was saying she was walking round the supermarket last week and didn’t know what to buy just for herself. “I’m so used to buying strawberries for one kid and yogurt for the other and not the hummous with roast peppers because they hate it, that faced with my own shopping basket I can’t remember what I like, what I want to eat. It’s weird. It’s like after so many years of thinking of everyone else’s wants, I have erased my own. I kept wandering up and down, thinking what do I want? What do I even like? I came home with a packet of stir fry veg and a lemon and some dark chocolate. And I’d been to the gym after work… unheard of when the kids were home and I was running back to them… I felt like I was in my twenties again. But without the trip to the pub!”
It is certainly strange shifting out of two decades of parenting into being selfish adults again. One of the retreat women said: “I feel like I’ve been made redundant from my job as mother”. There was a lot of shared grief for this shift particularly from women who had given up careers they loved to raise their kids; both in the shadow of a successful man. There was a recurrent cry of ‘what happened to me? Who am I now?”
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After three years of Noon and my own reinvention, my advice is to follow what brings you joy. To remember what you love and try and do more of that… To that end we did an exercise where the women were in pairs and for two minutes had to hold eye contact while one shared with the other all the things that they loved, while the witnessing woman looked at them with love. Then they swapped. I first did this exercise as part of a Sistering workshop with the wonderful Clare du Bois. It was all about unpicking the way that we often judge other women, and judge ourselves – to make us remember how often we don’t show up just with total love, affection and joy in other women. How the culture too often enacts divide and conquer, turning us away from each other. It’s a good way to reset, to spend two minutes just gazing with love at another adult woman, pouring that upon her. And it is also good to remind ourselves of what we love. Try it. Write them down. I love water and birds, my husband’s kindness, my eldest’s smile and elan, the feeling of my youngest’s hand in mine (it is still delightfully squidgy, an instant sensual reminder of her as a toddler) I love the sun on my face in the pond and writing these newsletters to all of you lovely Queenagers because I can write exactly what I want and feel with no editorial interference, no-one else to please. That is so massive… And I love holding the Noon Circle and interacting with all of you amazing women!
The retreat is always a joy. It was our third one this year at Wasing and they are always different. This one had a rather gentle energy. Lesley’s yoga was all about being with ourselves, with closed eyes and going within, gently recharging. The walk across the ancient Wasing woods was autumnal – the leaves beginning to turn, yellows and browns in the green, a flock of tiny stripy birds in the oak trees, a wonderfully still green clearing in the centre of the forest where I spent the shortest night of the year around a fire, welcoming in the summer solstice. Then the lake, of course. Shallower after the summer, cool and grey/blue – you Queenagers were all brave and joyous in embracing the water. We sat in the lemongrass scented wood-fired sauna and chatted.
I am so in awe of all of you and your courage in transition. Several of the women had just left their marriages. One because ‘he just wasn’t it and I can’t settle for that’ – another had separated from her husband of thirty years and had bought a motor home in which she was touring around with her two dogs. Now that’s a Queenager adventure! One’s husband had died suddenly – her advice was to get our financial lives in order (ok!) while others like me were mourning departing children. All of us were wrestling with those big midlife questions: what next? Who am I? What is my purpose? How do I make the next years count? What is my legacy?
I was reminded again why this Queenager work matters so much.
The most shocking part of the Noon Circle was a woman who had worked in finance who said she and women like her were regularly described as: Frumpy, frail and forgettable. I say fuck those three Fs! We’re Powerful, Purposeful and Present – particularly for each other. I love the mutual support which emerges over these days, how the women arrive as strangers and leave firm friends; it really is new tribe in action. But also how the same themes re-emerge every time. The anger of feeling used, worn-out and then rejected. How women give so much and are left with so little. How when we are young we are pursued as conquests, as trophies: we have our bodies so objectified they can feel like they are no longer our own, as we’re reduced to breasts, or long legs, or a beautiful face. Then we’re ‘chosen’: married off and become mothers (or not). And once again we’re used as wombs, as carers, as wives in service to family; often doing the brunt of the domestic chores for everyone and the emotional work. Simultaneously these days we are also breadwinners or workers – again prized for our youth and enthusiasm and pleasingness and intelligence. But then discarded, expendable when we become more senior and experienced and – bolshy. Often penalised for standing up for ourselves, for whistleblowing on bad behaviour or calling out misogyny, or god forbid, starting initiatives to help other women. (I’ve heard from so many senior women that doing this is career suicide, it doesn’t stop us though!). Then when we have put up with all of this for thirty years, we’re whacked or volun-told we’re leaving – dismissed as Frumpy Frail and Forgettable. Well no wonder lots of us are angry and we want change and recognition.
The Noon Circle agreed on the need for a Queenager revolution. The present state of play won’t wash, it’s not fair. We older women say no – and for the first time in history we are a generation with enough financial clout, enough business smarts, and enough life ahead of us to write a new script. Of our own.
Society may write us off. We may become invisible to the male lens, be no longer useful to the patriarchy (which prizes youth, beauty and fecundity let’s not forget). But we are still here. We matter. We’re not going quietly. We’re Queenagers, re-writing the script of what this stage of women’s lives can be – adventure, purpose, new chapters, pleasure, love, joy, laughter. Role modelling what a different kind of story about the later stages of women’s lives can look like. Because that was all there too in the circle too: the woman who came out of a terrible divorce and is now wildly, giddily in love again, so much so that she’s considering tattooing his initials on her body. The woman setting off to travel the world in her motor-home, foot-loose and fancy free, the world her oyster. The two others starting up new businesses, both in helping women with their financial planning (oh wow does the world need that). A great Queenager taking up a big corporate job at 52, the first time she has ever had one. So many of us looking around and going – I’m not done, I’m half way through my life, look at me reinvent, look at me roar! Go Ladies!
So yes…. Look at us! One chapter is over but new ones are beginning.
Me? I’m heading to France for a week of total silence, yoga and meditation and swimming in the river. I didn’t get a summer holiday because I’ve been head down on the book and I feel like anything and everything I have ever thought, or felt, or been moved by has been wrung out of me into its pages. So I’m having a break: no phone, no email, no texts, no talking. Just sun (I hope) and peace and nature and silence. It is a deep dive into body and self and soul and all that there is – which too often in my busy life doesn’t get a look in.
So have a great week – and I’ll be back to chair our big Queenager World Menopause Day event with a brilliant panel including Dr Nighat Arif, Dr Lucy Ryan, Ritula Shah and the founder of the Menopause Café Rachel Weiss. Do join us 7pm online on October 18th – free to paid subscribers to this Queenager email.
Lots of love
By Eleanor Mills