Last night, getting off the London Overground at Kensal Rise, I was accused by a group of drunk, loud-mouthed, relatively posh boys of being a ‘yummy mummy’.
I had heard them shout, “Welcome to middle England!” as the train pulled into the station and had scowled in their general direction. This prompted them to follow me on the platform, saying, “I bet she’s married to an advertising executive!” (wtf?) and then shouted, “She’s a yummy mummy wearing jogging bottoms!”
It took all my strength not to turn round, face them on a full platform, to say, “Actually, I’m a single, childfree, publishing executive who eats boys like you for breakfast.”
In reality, I was on my way back from a day-long hike, wearing leggings and cross-trainers. The boys had confused me with the mums’ yoga tribe that is part of the rich fabric of the Kensal Rise and Queen’s Park community. They’re everywhere – usually in their late thirties or forties, skinny, wearing drapy jersey items, holding a juice or a green tea from a local cafe and either looking zenned-out from yoga or looking a bit fraught. The only bit of that list I tick is the age one, and maybe the odd drapy jersey item. And yeah, ok, I was looking a bit frazzled after the hike.
The YM is the predominant fortysomething-female tribe in my area and I’m not part of it. I moved here two years ago, two years after my separation, and thought a lot about how to infiltrate its ranks, wanting to make new friendships with women of my own age. I joined a local group that has events for women but the tribal subsets were already set in stone. You see I’m not at the school gates, in the morning yoga class or at the coffee meet-up at our local deli so to them, I’m pretty much invisible.
After a while I stopped trying to infiltrate. In the main, the friendships I’ve forged here are with younger people. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a great set of people in my building – the infamous ‘gold building’ in Kensal Rise – and we socialise a lot. I set up a Facebook page for residents to facilitate it and I’ve met some really wonderful, genuine people.
At first I was acutely conscious of the age gap – they’re anything from late 20s to late 30s – and kept pointing it out every time we went to the pub. There were genuine looks of puzzlement: “What are you on about?!” they’d say. But there is a societal stigma about middle-aged people who hang out with younger ones, like they’ve never matured enough to keep up with their peer group or they’re trying to hard to hang on to their youth.
But what if you’ve done the whole mature couply thing for quite a long time, decided it wasn’t for you, re-entered non-couply society and found that most of the people at your age are still at the mature couply party? It is one party I’m happy not to be attending right now, but I’ve had to accept that I’ve left the cosy weekend dinners for six round at someone’s house, planned weeks or months in advance, for spontaneous meet-ups at the pub with whomever happens to be around, followed by dancing at Paradise or a party back at someone’s flat.
Long live spontaneity, in my view.
Because my new local friends have welcomed me into their lives as a person they want to hang out with, I no longer feel the urge to refer to myself as ‘the oldie’ – it just seems inappropriate now. What’s particularly lovely is that I have a couple of young couples in my circle of friends whom I love dearly. Back when I was in coupledom, we’d never have thought about hanging out with a single friend, so strong was the tribal urge to bond with other couples, and the stigma around their situation. Thank goodness that little ‘rule’ has been broken.
One thing I’ve grown to loathe in life is the way some people try to box you up, in a category that is age-appropriate. I cringe when I hear people say, “But he’s 18, so of course he’s just going to want to hang out with his mates, get drunk, have lots of sex and go wild at music festivals.” What if he’s 18, wants to concentrate hard on his studying, hang out in a coffee shop on his own, have a little bit of sex, or no sex, and camp with one good friend in a remote village in Wales?
Why do we pressure people to tick all the age-related boxes?
Similarly, one might hear someone say, “But she’s 35, she’s going to want to find a man quickly, marry him, have a child, buy a house and enjoy weekends at B&Q.” Aaagh! What if she wants to take a gap year to travel, concentrate on her career, date several men without marrying them, and rent in a really cool place that doesn’t require DIY?
You can see where I’m going with this.
People assume stuff about me. I know they do. They see me on a train, running in Queen’s Park or walking down the road to Portobello and think, “Married, just been to yoga class while the kids are at school, off to have lunch at an artisanal cafe that sells vintage furniture on the side, before picking up Tarquin and Oberon from school and making them eat quinoa for supper.”
Sometimes I feel like wearing a ‘Baby On Board’-style badge that says “Single, childfree, not doing what you think I’m doing.”
I assume stuff about people too – I wish I didn’t. I assumed younger people wouldn’t be interested in getting to know me, I assumed other fortysomething women would want to welcome me into their tribe even though I wasn’t wearing the right headdress, I’ve assumed fortysomething men would want to date me.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
But there is something so right, right, right about not being in a tribe.
Or building one of your own.
Because you can.