Who's for Loneliness?

December 1967

The lonely years that await the woman whose family is growing up -- you have read about them ad nauseam, and as you reach the age of forty or forty-five you begin, dutifully, to brace yourself for them, to prepare to be a model of an un-possessive mother.

And what happens?

One by one, your family begin to be in for lunch as well as for the evening meal. Then half of them begin to leave home later in the mornings, the other half to arrive back earlier in the afternoons. More and more often the dread phrase "I don't have to go in today" drifts down the staircases and across the landings of our homes, and yet another figure is to be found lounging in front of the television and saying "Where's lunch?"

"When we resolved that we'd never interfere with our children leading their own lives," sighed an old acquaintance of mine "we never thought that they'd be leading them here!" and: "I'm fifty-six already!" wailed another "And I'm still cooking for five, three times a day. When does it start, this loneliness business?"

And I couldn't tell her. What I could tell her was that hers were not the only middle-aged eyes to be fixed longingly on that empty future so confidently predicted by our columnists, but in practice seeming to be for ever retreating just beyond our grasp. Next year, we say......when she has got her O-levels.....when he has started at University......when she joins those nice girls with a flat in Aberdeen.....

And does she join those nice girls in Aberdeen? She does not. Instead she finds a job not ten minutes away from home, so that she can even get back for lunch. They mysteriously give her half her afternoons off, too -- the very afternoons when her younger sister, in the sixth form of the local grammar school, condescends to go in for a few lessons.

Because that's another thing: most schools nowadays seem to have adopted (or at least have failed not to adopt) a policy of allowing their sixth-formers to stay at home whenever they are not actually due for a lesson; and if a boy or girl is only doing two or three A-levels, lessons can be few and far between. Whole mornings can be spent legitimately spread-eagled on the sitting-room floor, radio on, essay spreading out over ever wider areas of carpet, and the whole interspersed with sorties into the kitchen to make coffee and rail against destiny.

And your son at university? Does he stay there for half the year and go off on exciting trips abroad for the other half, as you had so confidently -- or even sadly -- anticipated?

He does not. Not your son. Other people's sons, perhaps, but not yours. Your son comes home for his vacations, and eats. He comes home every other weekend in term time, too, bringing one or more friends with him; and the weekend lasts till Tuesday because the Monday lectures are such tripe, he can work better on his own. And he does, too -- you can't complain he's idling. He works with the radio on in his room, too, as well as the one which helps his sister with her essay in the living-room.

And it goes on for years. It goes on from the moment when your eldest child goes into the sixth form until your youngest leaves university and gets a permanent job. That is, if you have three or four children, a span of something like a decade.

Nobody warns us of this decade. Nobody tells us that in our forties and fifties we will be moving into an epoch of non-stop companionship comparable only to the pre-school madhouse when our children were toddlers round our feet all day. Nothing has prepared us for it; it hits each mother afresh, and at first she often reacts with incredulity. She thinks that this week is exceptional........that last week happened to be rather hectic......that next week, surely, everything will be back to normal again. Normal? She just cannot believe that her long, peaceful years, with everyone reliably out of the house from eight-thirty to four, are really over.

But they are. All her earnest little plans about developing her interests....about building her own life....about seeing more of her friends -- all, all are battered into irrelevance by a maelstrom of comings and goings, of arguments and despairs, of parties and heartbreaks. All the ineffable poignancy of youth, its tremulous joys and sorrows, you'll get the lot, you won't miss anything; because young people nowadays don't go off and weep in solitude the way we used to: they come and weep in the kitchen. We've brought them up to confide in us all too successfully. They don't go off their food any more, either, in my experience; so if you think you can cook one less chop because your daughter has just lost the love of her life, you will have to think again. Pale as a ghost, eyes swollen with weeping, she will be there for every meal, including elevenses.

So if anyone, ever again, talks to me about lonely middle-age; or about my interests; or about letting my children lead their own lives, I shall hit him. Or else invite him to lunch.

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