Thursday 27 November 2014

My nest is finally empty...

At 53, school's finally out for empty-nester Celine Naughton and she has time to ponder the joys of middle age -- the main one being no longer caring what people think of her

Celine Naughton

Published 03/01/2014 | 02:30

‘Grey power’: Celine Naughton couldn’t care less about the strange looks she gets wheeling her pet pooch along the street
‘Grey power’: Celine Naughton couldn’t care less about the strange looks she gets wheeling her pet pooch along the street

Here's the plan: we'll have our kids early so that by the time we're in our 40s, they'll be out on their own and we'll still be young enough to enjoy ourselves. We'll have a great old time, we'll travel, see the world, maybe write books ...

Like the best-laid plans, things didn't work out quite like that. I'm now 53 and it was only last year that my husband and I finally joined the ranks of the empty-nesters. We planned a night out at our favourite restaurant to celebrate.

"Can I come, too?" asked the youngest.

"But you've only moved out.

"I can come back for the night. I'll drive."

"No."

It's not that I don't love my children, we're very attached, but it's a bit like making my first Christmas dinner -- I never realised it would take so long to cook. And nobody told me that kids stay in school forever.

Transition Year. An opportunity for students to gain valuable work experience, soak up some culture, mature ... Poppycock! It keeps the live register looking a little healthier, keeps school numbers up, ergo more teachers, and kept both my kids tied to the apron strings for an extra year.

Seventh Year. What did the eldest do when she missed out on her chosen third-level course by a few points? Repeat the Leaving. Another year.

Portfolio Course. What the younger girl did in preparation for art college. Another year.

College. Four years. Each.

Masters Degree. What the eldest did when a BA was not enough to get a job in the recession. Two more years.

By the time they were cooked, I was exhausted -- and broke, because kids are an expensive business. In fact, studies show that the outlay involved in raising my two alpha females from hatch to despatch is equivalent to the price of a villa in the Costa Lotta Euro zone.

(That doesn't mean I'd rather have a villa. I'm just saying.)

So finally, here I am, free at 53. No more school runs, no more evening study, no more college fees. As Alice Cooper said, school's out forever.

I now have time to ponder the joys of middle age. Yes, there are dreary aspects to it. My reflection in the mirror looks like a tired old version of myself, middle-age spread kicks in, things go south and the seven dwarfs of menopause come to play whenever they bloody like.

What -- you haven't met Itchy, Bitchy, Sweaty, Bloaty, Sleepy, Forgetful and Psycho?

Trust me, sister, you will. But thankfully, there are also rewards to reaching this venerable age, one in particular -- suddenly, I don't care.

Call it self-awareness, self-esteem, being comfortable in my own skin, whatever ... I have no need to dye my hair or wear excruciating heels, I don't care about the funny looks I get when wheeling my elderly Shih Tzu in her little dog buggy, and I rejoice in the simple fact of having survived this long.

What's the alternative? My brother died at my age.

Speaking of which, the 50s is typically an age during which we bump into old pals at funerals. Some, like my lovely brother Michael, may be the star of the show, which is a great catalyst for the rest of us to consider really appreciating life rather than ignoring it.

It was precisely such an occasion that prompted my brother-in-law and his missus, both 58, to head off this month to her native New Zealand on a four-month road trip in a camper van. Take that, anyone who thinks the 50s mark a decline towards decrepitude. I am tempted to paraphrase Geri Halliwell and punch the air while shouting, "Grey Power!"

There is much to be thankful for and even more to look forward to. Having known each other since we were four, my closest friends and I have as much fun now as we did in the playground -- more, in fact, thanks to a lifetime of shared experiences and the occasional bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

And while I might not live on Easy Street, I'm a lot better off than my mother who, at my age, held down three cleaning jobs to supplement the meagre 'housekeeping money' my father gave her. It was never enough.

We lived in the same house, but we were worlds apart. My mother was religious and accepted the number of children that God and her drunken husband gave her, and then worked her fingers to the bone to feed us.

Sure, she could have left him, but what then?

Her name was not on the deeds of the house. A woman at that time couldn't even get a hire purchase agreement without her husband's signature.

Agnes Naughton, like so many women of her generation, didn't have a choice. Instead, she made the best of what she had. She mended things. Socks were darned, jumpers patched at the elbow, shoes re-soled. Like the people and relationships in her life, broken things were not discarded, they were fixed.

When she turned 50, the bar on women working after marriage had only just ended, contraception became available for the first time and the women's liberation movement had begun paving the way for a new landscape in Irish social history.

Thanks to my mother and the generation between us, I had opportunities she didn't.

I've never darned a sock or patched a jumper in my life. I fix fractured things and bin the broken ones. Yet when Agnes was in her 50s, some of her kids started families of their own, while I am unlikely to be a grandmother any day soon.

As my girls often point out, theirs is the first generation in living memory to be less well-off than their parents. One has committed herself to a life abroad because there are no opportunities for her in her chosen career in Ireland.

Both are in rented accommodation and my eldest says that "planning for a mortgage or a pension -- a future -- are distant dreams".

I am sorry that our legacy to their generation is one hell of an economic mess, but I don't believe that the future is as bleak as they suggest. They are well-educated, they've travelled and had adventures beyond my wildest dreams at their age.

They are not bound by the same social mores that I grew up with. Advances in medical science tip the odds in their favour for living long, healthy lives, and new technologies are emerging so fast one can only imagine the possibilities for the creative pursuits they might enjoy in the future.

"Whatever will they think of next?!" was one of my mother's mantras -- and that was for mundane inventions, like Smash and suitcases with wheels. Not the internet, smartphones or cloud technology.

I have no idea what the world will be like by the time my daughters reach their 50s -- probably a reality version of Star Trek: The Facebook Generation -- but like any mother through the generations, I just hope that they will be happy, fulfilled and have wonderful people in their lives. And perhaps by then I'll get to travel, see the world and write that book.

Irish Independent

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