Maiden, mother, crone – it used to make a simple framework for women’s lives. We learned to tweak it to recognise and respect the place of women whose mothering phase was not occupied by childbearing, but by other forms of creativity.
As the Goddess community matures and more of us are in our 40s, 50s, and 60s, we are finding another problem with the basic triple Goddess; many of us know from bitter experience that there is no smooth shift from mother to crone, but instead, a long period of confusion.
Menopause, like puberty, gives many of us a bumpy ride. And, unlike puberty, there is no clear physical event around which we can organise our experience. Most of us only recognise our last menstrual period in retrospect, which makes it difficult to celebrate. And it takes about ten years for our hormones to settle down to their new, less dramatic, pattern. So it isn’t surprising that many of us are looking for a key image around which to crystallise this period of our lives. We are made in the image of the Goddess, so there ought to be an identifiable aspect which reflects the menopausal years, something to which we could aspire, which will guide our development… ‘The Queen’ can sound really positive – coming into our power, being in charge of our lives… but, in my experience, only on a good day.
I started exploring the Queen in my early 40s, pushed into it by uncomfortable changes in my life. By then I had broken up my marriage, been made redundant from my cosy full-time research post, and buried both my parents. I had a developing freelance research and training business, and a clear sense that it was now my job to hold the sky up over me – no-one else was going to do it for me. I was now committed to focussing on the non-domestic world, and to facing up to my hesitations around power. Operating as a consultant to an assortment of public sector health and social care projects, I had to learn to handle my own developing authority, and my relationships with and reactions to the women who had power within the organisations which paid me. I found out a lot about queens and their problems in the last fifteen years.
In the context of my work, power seemed to be about the ability to make things happen. I rapidly learnt, however, to take very seriously the limitations of leaders. Consultants are usually called in when managers do not know what to do – or do not know how to do it. Part of their role is to understand both the ways of the managers and the ways of the managed, and to look for creative ways in which these can be connected. I learnt to respect the knowledge of the managed, and their considerable capacity to sabotage changes they do not support – and to appreciate the constraints on managers, dealing with pressures from outside their organisation and their inevitably limited budgets. Queens they might seem, but their actual power was much more limited than I used to think.
Mine was limited too. I learnt to make good use of the authority my role and experience gave me – I could forward promising ideas and discourage ones I expected to be unrewarding, and I could set up processes with a reasonable chance of working. I also learnt, however, that, however good my judgement, in a fair proportion of projects little would happen as a result. Staff changes, budget cuts or policy shifts could mean that the questions I was paid to answer were no longer fashionable – sometimes even before the project ended. However hard I worked at involving staff at all levels within my scope, and co-operating with others to chart a way forward, there were times when I knew as I banked the last project cheque that this had been a waste of scarce resources – theirs and mine. In many cultures the Queen has more in common with a symbolic object than a source of power – and it isn’t all because of patriarchy. It’s also because power is more complicated than we tend to think.
So is the notion of being in charge of your life. New acquaintances working in organisations frequently envied the freedom and personal control they thought I had around work. True, I didn’t have to fill in holiday applications or sign in and out every day, and I could have the washing machine fixed on a day I worked at home. But there were other constraints. Any freelancer can tell stories of working through illness and public holidays because of a deadline, and of the effects on domestic life of fitting round clients’ demands. Watching my friends in senior positions now, I see some of them facing very similar patterns of invasion of domestic space, and challenges about maintaining boundaries between work and home.
Part of the enduring appeal of the Queen, for me, is about the management of boundaries – a queen sounds like a woman who can say ‘so far and no further’ and make it stick. But if you look at the history books, even the Queens who ruled alone weren’t always very good at it. Real life happened even to them, and it often happened on a very large scale. Setting limits on other people’s demands could well have been just as difficult for them as it is for us. They also suffered from obstructive inertia, from people who would say ‘Yes, your Majesty’ and then do as little as possible. And if you look at the fairy stories, the women with power to make things happen were often not queens at all – they were often visitors who understood how to shift other people’s boundaries and perceptions and then went away to leave them to sort out the implications. They were Fairy Godmothers.
This idea has been crucial for my own menopausal transition. I stopped bleeding finally when I was 51, and at 58 I’m now facing my second Saturn Return, so it’s safe to say that I’m now through the notional ten year adjustment period, and approaching croning and my wisdom years. I still, however, remember very clearly the exhausting emotional roller-coaster of my mid 40s and early 50s, and the Queen image did not help a lot then - because the issues for me were not about my right to exercise authority. I spent lots of time and energy taking charge of things, and it didn’t noticeably help me, though it got a lot of things done. What continued to tear at me was the persistent demandingness of my social world, and the tension between my own sense of obligation to care for others and my resentment of the ways in which they took me for granted. What pulled me through was finding another image. I wasn’t aiming to be Queen - I worked hard to learn to become a Fairy Godmother.
I picked up the notion from an essay published in 1993, by Sara Maitland1 , writing in her 40s, also looking for an image to bridge the gap between mother and crone. It hasn’t had much circulation in the Goddess movement, and that seems a pity – I’ve been sharing it since I found it myself, and watching the lights of inspiration come on in other women’s eyes. Forget about the pantomime characters – stereotypical menopausal types, absent-minded middle-aged women in unsuitable pink frills, with wands that tend to backfire. Developing as a fairy godmother is about finding a new approach to nurturing. In the fairy stories, these were powerful women – and they didn’t waste their time and their capacities on trivia. They appeared when their protégés really needed them, they sorted out the situation, and then they vanished – to do whatever fairy godmothers do when they were off duty. They made the decision about what counted as a crisis, and they decided when to go; we’re not talking here about the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, who had to come when summoned. And whatever they did when they were off duty, it was their choice, not open to other people’s comment and judgement.
Putting this idea into practice will be different for every woman, but our hormones will be helping us. Menopausal changes will reduce the urge to cuddle the world, mop its tears – and I meant reduce this urge, not extinguish it. As we move through menopause, we start to put ourselves on our own lists of people to look after, and not always falling off the bottom. We start to have impulses to be discriminating about looking after other people – choose the people, choose the issues, choose the timing. Becoming a fairy godmother means valuing those impulses, learning to accept them as messages from our newly emerging selves, acting on them with increasing confidence in our own judgement.
The beginning of wisdom, in fact, could be the progressive reluctance to pick up the physical or emotional equivalent of dirty socks. Your protégés (your family? your colleagues? your friends?) need to learn to do that themselves, and if necessary, they need to learn by their mistakes. Delegation is an art, and it isn’t easier to learn if you have good reason to fear that what you’re delegating won’t, at first, get done – but if the alternative is chronic exhaustion and exasperation, that’s a good reason to work on it. Trusting people to learn to cope isn’t just about practical things, however. It can also be important to recognise others’ responsibility for their emotional lives. Of course there are people in my life for whom I’m a listening ear in the latest crisis, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. But I’ve learnt not to feed my fret; I now refrain from following up routinely, a few days later, with an enquiry about how things have gone. I trust people to ring if they want me. And this means that when there really is a serious crisis with one of my family or friends, I have to date had the spare capacity to be where I’m needed, doing what is needed, even though from time to time it’s been touch and go.
And after the crisis? Well, fairy godmothers have time off duty. This is important; women who live their lives solely in service to others are bound to have trouble working out when to stop. If we don’t, the end of that road was acidly described by C S Lewis ‘She’s the sort of woman who lives for others. You can tell the others by their hunted expression.’ We need to have something much better to do than contemplating the dirty socks or their equivalent, and wondering whether to pick them up or not. Goddess-loving women have a good starting point here, in the festivals, the circles, and in the scope for creative expression through song and dance and craft as part of our spirituality. I find, now, that the groups with whom I variously stitch, sing and dance are an important part of my life. Sure, I’ll give up dance for the evening to have my grand-daughter to stay, or to be with a friend in crisis – but I wouldn’t want to lose it on a regular basis. And these things help me assess how important other people’s demands really are, and how far it is actually up to me to do something about them.
So what does this mean for my relationship with the Goddess? Thinking about this, I realised how influential the fairy godmother image has been in shaping the way I currently relate and respond to Her. She doesn’t pick up my spiritual dirty socks. If I lose track of the pattern of spiritual practice that works for me, she knows I’ll find out, probably sooner rather than later, that I’d better get my act together and get back to normal. She’ll listen to me anytime – and I hear her voice in the small happenings of everyday life, the equivalent of the half-sentences I drop into conversations with others. I’m increasingly aware that I need to pay attention, or I might miss something important. OK, I’ll get told again - but I’ve also had the tart recognition that I’d have had an easier time if I’d been listening earlier. Sometimes I pick up a non-judgemental reflection of how I am which makes me see myself more clearly, and shows me what to do. She shares and supports my joy in creating – when I write, run workshops, stitch, sing, dance or grow relationships with others. And finally, she breathes a sigh of relief when I finally realise I need time to rest, to ‘just be’. I can’t think of a named goddess who sums all this up – I’m just responding to the Great Mother in her fairy godmother aspect.
If you want to be a Queen, go right ahead – we could do with some more women comfortable with authority. But if you’ve got nurturing tendencies that can get out of hand – and many of us have – they could betray you. You might need a Fairy Godmother in your story as well. And if your menopausal wobbles and the complexities of your life make you feel that aiming to be Queen is a crushing burden, take heart. You might not need to do that. Becoming a Fairy Godmother might give you a better way to work on living happily ever after.
1. Sara Maitland, “On becoming a fairy godmother: role models for the menopausal woman”, in (ed) Joanna Goldsworthy, A Certain Age: Reflecting on the Menopause, Virago, London, 1993. Sara Maitland has also published a book of short stories on the same theme, On Becoming a Fairy Godmother, Maia, London, 2003.