The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (September 17th 2022)
Endings, empty nests, grieving and moving on
It’s been such a weird week – as I write London is awash with mourners queuing overnight to see the Queen’s coffin. So much of what I’d planned was cancelled, lots in terms of Noon didn’t feel appropriate to post. I suppose it is right that a huge historic change is marked by a true inter-regnum; a pause.
The week began with a tea-party at my beloved aunt Eleanor’s where a host of my late grandmother’s 39 direct descendants gathered to eat cake and chew the cud. Granny loved the Queen and, like her, she also lived till her late 90s and drove herself around (being her passenger was terrifying) right to the end. It was wonderful to see the next generation so grown up and a new crop of little ones cheating at Grandmother’s Footsteps and racing around hysterically on a sugar high! It always feels sad that Granny is no longer there but looking at the enormous brood she spawned I know she would be pleased; she was an orphan, born in 1914 who lived through two world wars (she lost her father in the first and her mother soon after) but left the world 97 years later having had three kids, 13 grandkids and now 23 Great Grandchildren. That’s a lot of Millses!
This week has been punctuated by intense conversations with dear friends with kids starting new schools, or going off to university. New beginnings are tough; I’ve heard tales of fights, and tears and terror and getting it wrong (when they’re trying to do everything right). Golly, do we all know about that one!
Now I try not to bang on too much about kids in these newsletters because I know that nearly a third of you lovely Queenagers don’t have them. Yup, that is a massive statistic – and one that is not reflected in the mainstream at all – but it is true that nearly 30% of university-educated women aged 45-60 do not have children. And our Noon research shows that 40% of women sans-sprogs are that way entirely intentionally. We just rarely hear about them in our stupid skewed mainstream media. It’s one of the reasons that platforms like Noon are necessary, to change the lens on what is normal for women in midlife to one by us, about us!
Ok rant over, I promise. But there is a huge conversation to be had here about legacy and what that looks like for modern women. So many of us leave different bits of ourselves in the world: the businesses we have founded, books we have written, friends we have loved and touched. It is so important that a woman’s legacy is not all about her children.
Ok, that said, this week I am writing about family (that is mine in the pic above) because I’ve had so many conversations with mothers whose kids are off and who are facing the gaping empty nest that I was wrenched right back to this time last year when my eldest went off to university for the first time and I was in absolute pieces. It was weird and irrational (it drove my daughter completely nuts). But it was just a massive marker of the end of childhood; I felt an existential sense of sorrow, of one era ending and a new one beginning.
That feels relevant today because I suppose that’s also kind of where we are as a nation at the moment, in that weird sense of something ending and something new beginning, that strange liminal zone, the astral portal where life comes in and out. And change happens. That’s why the national mood is so emotional…
Anyway, when we actually got to her college and dropped her off I had to wear my sunglasses and kept nipping off to the Ladies to have a little cry and blow my nose. Yes, I told you, I was pathetic. She got – rightly – annoyed with me.
I wrote this little piece then because it captured how I felt and I have had so many of these conversations this week that I thought I would share it with you here:
“Your children are not your children/ They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself….You are the bows from which your children/As living arrows are sent forth”
I’ve always loved that poem by Kahlil Gibran. At the moments when our kids shift from one phase to another, on their journey to independence, it feels particularly apt. And never more so than now when my eldest daughter and all of her friends are off to university. Some went last week, others go tomorrow; like flocks of birds migrating for winter they fly the nest, heading off on the first stage of their adult lives.
For the whole of secondary school, our house has been full of girls – we live round the corner from the school so our sitting room has become an unofficial sixth form common room. It’s normal to come home and find a gaggle of teens drinking coffee or cooking cake in the kitchen. The chat is intense; I love their passion for the environment and their compassion for their friends, the crazy coloured hair and micro skirts and tops. Their dramas and triumphs are a constantly unfolding soap opera; who is going out with whom, who has “linked” (snogged) who is “peng” (fanciable/hot), who got in where to study what. Sometimes I am excluded as they huddle outside on the balcony in the cold sneaking a cheeky fag (I pretend not to know and am always desperate to hear the hot gossip being shared out in the chilly air).
But not anymore.
In a few short days they will have all left. The kitchen will be quiet. This time will be over. I pretend not to mind; I am quite the on-it mother as we discuss student finance, new bank accounts and whether she needs a meal plan in-hall (probably not). But when I think about it too much, or picture her bedroom without its constantly building ‘floor-drobe’ ( my god it is a mess) I get a bit wobbly. I don’t want her to know but when I think about her going my eyes fill with tears.
It’s visceral, not logical. Intellectually I am proud of my daughter for fleeing the nest, heading off to university. But emotionally it’s different. I know she will never come back; never live here again in the same way. The eighteen years we have had when she has been with us always is coming to a close. It’s a new phase, a new time. But it is also a loss – it hits deep, I am reminded of so many other markers and other losses along the parenting road; the sadness of stopping breastfeeding, the leaking of the milk, that bond of flesh feeding flesh grown in my womb broken. I was inconsolable – but then I went back to work, and it passed.
Or the first day I dropped her at school, her trying to be brave, pretending insouciance, and then at the last a frantic, “Don’t go mummy…” her bottom lip trembling. I stayed strong for her, biting my own lip to stop the tears, then cried all the way home. Or when she left primary school for the last time – on to big school where parents are banned, where even appearing outside school is an embarrassing sin.
And now gone again.
I’m not the only one who feels this. I chatted with a pal whose daughter left last week. She says every time she walks past her daughter’s bedroom she weeps. Another friend was so desperate for a glimpse of her offspring when she left last year that she drove all the way to Bristol to take her some extra towels (my daughter would kill me if I did that). Another friend tries to reassure me, saying she’ll be back – confiding that she longs to tip her own nest, sick of her boomerang adult children who never seem to leave.
I think I’d love it if she came back. One of the joys of lockdown was the teenagers being around so much more; forced to be at home with the boring old parents, cooking, mooching, revising, watching telly cuddled up on the sofa. Heaven.
So to those of you earlier on this parenting road – relish the days, revel in those pudgy hands, those clinging hugs. Store them up for when those children, like arrows, shoot away from you into the future. Bittersweet.
Gosh, re-reading that now I have tears in my eyes again. Maybe also because she has been around(ish) most of the summer, but is now back off to Uni. It reminds me of how visceral it was.
What I would say to all of you Queenagers hitting this for the first time, is they docome back, rather a lot. But I was right that it is not the same.
They come back used to running their own lives. Out of the habit of telling you when they will be back. Irritated if you ask if they’ll be using their own bedroom or staying out with friends. They are of course part of the family, but are also adults. Rightly, they don’t want to go back to being twelve, however much you might like them to be. Family holidays have a different dynamic: we drank cocktails together, went out for dinner late, walked around town in a foursome, drank Aperol Spritzes on sunbeds.
It’s lovely. But different. She has her own life now, which is as it should be…I’ve had incoming pics from Eastern Europe where she’s been swigging steins and climbing battlements with her chap. She is an independent young woman out exploring the world, in love. I am pleased for her.
There’s even a tiny bit of me which quite likes using her bedroom when she is at uni as my office; which (whispers that it) almost looks forward to having it back. Although I love my children I am also relishing not being so constantly responsible for them; having a more adult kind of life back. There is so much more time for me and my own passions, friends, legacy…
So of course, feel sad for your empty next, mourn the passing of that part of childhood. But know that this too will pass. That life morphs and new things fill the gaps – and it will be alright.
Everything we’re trying to do at Noon is to help Queenagers at this time find their new chapter; walk into the next phase.
I’ve learnt over the last few years of tumultuous change that the shifts from one phase to another are intensely painful, come with real tears, are like limbs being ripped off. But that if we really allow ourselves to really feel the pain of the passing, of the loss, if we acknowledge it, cry a bit (or a lot), find solace in friends and partners and the things we love doing, then the pain passes and new things grow.
Life is a series of deaths and new beginnings. When large trees fall in a forest they create space for new growth. Change is difficult, sure, but it is also evidence of life.
So enjoy your transitional weekend dear readers!
And if you fancy more of me I did this podcast with a great Queenager called Sarah Pittendrigh which more than anything sums up what I am trying to do with Noon and this newsletter so if you fancy something to listen to try it:
(Or here in glorious technicolour – they filmed me when I thought it was only sound, so forgive the informality):
Lots of love
P.S. Two dates for your diary:
- Late notice, I know, but I’m running a small intimate group in Soho at 7 pm this Tuesday 20th September to talk about sex and sexuality – past members of this newsletter will remember that Noon has been helping some young French Engineers develop a new kind of vibrator for midlife women. There are a few spots left – it’s free, I’ll provide drinks and nibbles – they will have prototypes and we’re going to talk about how we feel about sex, our bodies and sexuality as we age. This is not for the fainthearted, but if you fancy coming email me email@example.com and I’ll give you some more details, I’ll have to do this on a first-come-first-served basis.
- Noon Book Club with the AMAZING MAGGIE SHIPSTEAD author of GREAT CIRCLE Thursday 22nd September at 7 pm. It’s free to join, I’m REALLY looking forward to it
(If in future you want to get the book club book, free, and you want to support my work why not become a paid subscriber – just click here