And so, as you’ll know if you follow my Instagram feed, there was a big day for our family a couple of weeks ago. It was the middle one’s graduation, a day I found myself completely unprepared for in terms of impact. It was a bit like pregnancy when you find yourself so focused on the birth that it’s almost a shock when you have to take the baby home with you afterwards and you realise that in the space of a few hours, the shape of your whole life has changed. In a way this was the end of that journey because here we were, celebrating the outcome of so much hard work – the beginning of the rest of one of our boys’ lives. And then it hit me that it meant the beginning of another new stage for me too – because in midlife as your family moves on, so does your life – whether you’re ready or not.

You see I’d thought deep down that he’d be coming home for one last summer. As the days ticked towards the end of his student house lease, he and a friend were finding it hard to get a new place in Newcastle. They’re both in temping jobs and so with a shortage of rental properties in the city, they weren’t top of the list for landlords. But then, thanks to a network of friends they found somewhere and so two nights before graduation, they moved in. We arrived late that evening with a selection of suits that I’d ordered for him to try on and as he emerged in the one he liked best looking truly like the man he’s suddenly become, it hit me that he wasn’t coming home. Another cog has shifted in the gearing of our family life. If things turn out as he hopes he won’t ever be back for weeks of lounging on the sofa, playing on his X-Box surrounded by empty glasses and crisp packets. It will be quick visits only and I just wasn’t ready for that.

So for me, having us all together a couple of days later felt amplified in every way. More so perhaps because we were based in what has become our empty nest pad and so they were coming from their new lives into ours as all of our worlds briefly aligned. So here we were, up and out early because it was a 10.30am ceremony and it was good to know that we’d plunged straight back in our family groove… there’s usually at least one of them who does something to disrupt a nice family photo!

as your family moves on,

We headed across town with excitement bubbling but as I walked behind him in his suit, all I could think of was my little boy on his first day at school. As an August born he’d only just turned four and at the time I didn’t feel he was ready to go. If there had been an opportunity to delay his start I’d have taken it and I still think it would have been the right thing to do. My other August born however was quite ready to take his place, hugely envious of his big brother’s new book bag he purposefully took his own book along, just in case!

as your family moves on,

As I said on Instagram, our education system with its single emphasis on academic results doesn’t work for all children; there are so many other types of intelligence that simply aren’t catered for. This boy’s strengths are creativity and an ability to bond with people; he brims with wit and personality, making everything brighter and warmer for anybody who’s around him. And he’s the boy whose kindness knows no depths. I always remember him coming home from his first term in secondary school and telling me he’d deliberately fallen back in cross country so that the boy who was being bullied didn’t have to come last. As I commented on how hard it must have been when they were all finding their place in the new pecking order he replied, “but someone has to come last Mum, why shouldn’t it be me?” And that’s been him countless times over the years, putting other people before himself. I just have to hope now that he’ll balance his innate gentleness with a bit of self-assertion too.

His graduation felt extra special to all of us because however much we’ve worked to reassure him, being sandwiched between two brothers who find academia easy, he’s always felt ‘less’. So when he emerged from the robing room and I saw him there in his cap and gown, able to stand shoulder to shoulder with them academically, I could feel something inside him rebalancing at last.

as your family moves on,

As he strode off to take his place in the hall I was just so proud of him.

as your family moves on,

Of course unlike the rest of us he’s never more at home than when he’s on stage, so when his moment in the certification ceremony came, he shone!

It set the mood for the rest of our day because although getting a degree is a sign of individual achievement, it’s a family one too. All of the homework done sitting around the table… the exam revision… the results days… the cheering on of school plays and prize-givings together – they all lead to this celebration of celebrations.

Midlifechic sons 2023

And it was also a special moment for him and me. We’ve spent hours and hours battling together over the years to find ways to get through exams with his dysgraphia. This picture came up on my memories a little while ago and it made me laugh (although less so at the time). I’d left him to get on with a bit of GCSE revision and returned to find that he’d spent the time designing stickers with escape messages on them instead. You can see flipchart sheets covering the pictures behind him, they were all over the room in the hope that having them there 24/7 would drum in the facts and figures that he needed to remember for our antiquated, learning by rote exam system!

So as well as battling together there have been times when we’ve battled against each other too. I’m not pretending it’s been storybook easy – but it’s been worth it.

Nikki Garnett Midlifechic

In the end our relationship survived and is stronger for it – I think we’re both relieved that we don’t have to do it any more though!

Nikki Garnett Midlifechic

I didn’t caption my dress on Instagram because the day wasn’t about that but so many people asked that I’m going to add it here. I like to tie what I’m wearing for graduation into the hood colours if I can and his was a raspberry shade of red. This was the only dress I tried and I fell in love with it instantly, it’s from Cos and it’s also available in green, black or sky blue. It was still on the website until today (grrr!), in the sale, so you might find it in store. It’s a beauty, made from heavy ponte with clever ruching across the middle and a slimming asymmetric hemline. I’m wearing a medium and it was comfortable, almost generous. I teamed it with an old Mulberry clutch and, because the morning was chilly, a wool wrap from my beloved Hope Fashion’s first ever collection. The shoes are from M&S circa 2014 when they used to produce such incredible quality. Anyway here’s a proper picture of the whole thing.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

Dress (in the sale, also available in green, sky blue and black); M&S shoes (old); Hope wrap (old); Mulberry bag (old); Earrings

And so we celebrated. It was a day of pure joy.

Midlifechic family 2023

Our boy looked so happy. He’s still a long way from knowing what he wants to do – two years of a drama degree spent in lockdown with no chance to perform and then a final one focused on written work has killed his passion for theatre at the moment. For now he’s working in a pub but he has a roof over his head, a good friend by his side and the rest of his life is out there somewhere… at the other side of the door he’s just opened.

as your family moves on,

Midlife- as your family moves on, so does your life

The thing we need to bear in mind as midlifers is that life for this generation is going to be completely different to ours. All of the forecasting shows that they’re (hopefully) going to live for longer which will mean working for longer too. Lots of the jobs that are key now will become obsolete and others that we can’t yet imagine will spring up in their place. We’ve reached the end of what has been known since the mid 20th century as the three stage life: education/single track career/retirement. Our children are more likely to build their working lives in ten year portfolio slices which is good because if they have to work until their late 70s or even early 80s as is currently predicted, they’ll need to enjoy what they do and also take breaks along the way.

as your family moves on,

Analysis shows that we’re already seeing disruption to the traditional pattern of aspiring to own a series of houses that get progressively bigger, accompanied by a focus on the accumulation of stuff to put in those houses… which keeps us on the treadmill of needing to earn more. One of my mantras has always been ‘you can’t have freedom and security.’ Mal and I have always opted for freedom, it can be scary but it gives us control over how we spend our time. I suspect that it will be even more of a propensity for this generation, their model will be a different one and so there’s no point in any of us trying to compare their lives to ours. They’re facing a very different trajectory. We need to acknowledge that we’re living through a work revolution that’s every bit as big as the Industrial Revolution. If we thought the Digital Revolution that we’ve seen since the 80s was big, the AI Revolution (Artificial Intelligence) is going to blow it out of the water.

as your family moves on,

Having that in mind helps me to worry a bit less about my boys taking their time to work out what they want to do. We’re on the threshold of a different kind of future. As parents, if we want to stay close to our adult children we’ll have to work hard to understand it so that we can keep in tune them. They have no choice other than to keep moving forwards, we have to decide whether we want to keep our minds actively open and move forward with them or be left behind.

Nikki and Mal Garnett

A few extra thoughts

So we were lucky to have such a special day as a family and that was brought home to me even more two days ago when we went to yet another friend’s funeral; there have been far too many this year. This time it was for Alex, an old friend from the school playground. There were five of us who were mums of three boys and we had an instinctive understanding of the energetic chaos that we each faced. We were also members of the same book club which, as they do, always ended up being more about wine than reading. Alex was one of life’s good people; a consultant paediatric anaesthetist, committed Christian and just all round nice woman. She’s one of many whose cancer journey wasn’t helped by lockdown, the sad irony being that her husband was the consultant in charge of the oncology department.

As I looked around the village church it was filled with family, neighbours, medics, her faith group and friends. It just goes to show that life’s not fair; sometimes you can’t be saved, even when you’re surrounded by doctors, faith and love. I watched her three boys dressed in suits just as mine had been a couple of weeks earlier but in such sad and different circumstances. I hadn’t seen them for a while and they looked so grown up but even so, it struck me that it’s just a coating. In their early twenties there’s no way that they were ready to say goodbye to their mum. Yet they did, with love and grace.

Alex’s husband had written a thoughtful tribute to her which the vicar read out to us because he couldn’t manage it himself. And in it there was a message from Alex to her friends. During her last few days when she couldn’t eat or drink, she’d asked him to make sure everyone heard this and I want to share it with you. It was “drink the good wine before your tastebuds go – because one day they will.” And knowing Alex I can say that she meant it quite literally but metaphorically too.

Those of us who survive the people who dearly wanted to carry on owe it to them to live our lives as well as we can. We have a duty to appreciate what we have and the opportunities that are open to us, to make the most of them and enjoy the time we’re given to the full. Alex’s comment brought a smile to the face of everyone in the congregation and that’s what we want when we go really isn’t it? To be remembered well, with a smile, by people who care enough about us to honour us at our funeral. So I guess the other message is about spending your life in the right way with the right people and not wasting it on a scrabble for more money than you need or a life that looks good from the outside but is empty of meaning.

So my friends, even though it’s looking like it’s going to be a bit of a washout weekend, I urge you to ‘drink the good wine’ – literally or metaphorically, that’s up to you. For as long as we’re lucky enough to keep on living we should do our best to shine even brighter for those who would have loved to, but can’t. I’ll be back next Friday.

Disclosure: ‘Midlife – as your family moves on, so does your life’ is not a sponsored post

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