As India Knight says in the first chapter of her new book, “it used to be so simple”: whether you were a spinster or a matriarch, being a 50-year-old woman in say, 1955 meant being a 50-year-old matron. The fact that there are now far more possibilities for middle-aged women may be hugely welcome, but it also makes things a lot more complicated.

Growing Old Gracefully

Knight is much too honest to pretend that getting older is purely a matter for celebration—and not just because it’s weirdly surprising. Yet, as her title suggests, there’s plenty to enjoy. Many of the annoying (and as it turns out, unnecessary) anxieties of youth fade away as you discover such new pleasures as increased self-confidence and having a nice potter about.

In Your Prime: Older, Wiser, Happier
In Your Prime: Older, Wiser, Happier by India Knight is published by Fig Tree at £13.99

Most of the book, though, consists of practical and often reassuring advice. She begins with Beauty and Maintenance, emphasising the need to avoid the pitfalls of becoming Mutton, Mother of the Bride, Whacky (aka Art Teacher With Cats) or Hampstead Lady (aka I Love Culture, Me). From there, the same combination of humour, personal experience, good sense and a rather bracing tone are brought to bear on everything she writes about, from the menopause to thoughts of downsizing; from booze to late-onset divorce. She also tackles relationships of every kind, including with spouses, dates, tiresome friends, good friends and ailing parents. (There’s a powerful passage about the mental decline of her once all-powerful father.) And then, of course, there’s children, which for middle-aged women today can be grown up, teenage, still very young—or, as in this passage, other people’s…

"There’s no way of getting step-parenting 100 per cent right. But there isn’t a way of getting biological parenting 100 per cent right either. So cut yourself some slack, and now cut yourself some more. Remember, too, this isn’t something you signed up to. You fell in love with someone who happened to have children, and now here you all are.

An enormous amount of what happens next depends on the kind of relationship your partner has with his ex. I can’t emphasise this enough: it’s wholly, wholly to your advantage to encourage him to have the best possible relationship with her. If you’re the kind of person who says, “Why is your ex-wife being such a bitch?” when she’s done or said something mildly irritating and, frankly, no skin off your nose, you’re creating the mightiest rod for your own back. It’s not generally necessary to discuss people’s ex-wives with them other than in the most general—and, crucially, benign—terms.

NB: This also applies if said ex-wife is not general or benign about you, but specific and malevolent. The malevolence is a clunky attempt at shoehorning herself into your lives, because angry attention is better than no attention. If she wants to mutter darkly from the sidelines, it’s a shame, but what can you do, other than let her? Somebody has to be grand and behave well in these situations, and it may as well be you. Even if it doesn’t change anything, at least you’re not down in the mud, wrestling.

I’m strongly in favour of the full charm offensive when it comes to the mother of your partner’s children: a) you have something in common, and b) he fell for her. On the basis that he also fell for you and he doesn’t have dementedly horrendous taste, she must be OK. At least, this is broadly true. Everyone has a full on horror in their cupboard, but they’re not usually the ones they have children with. 

Now, the actual stepchildren. There are two crucial things to remember: They will have, now and for evermore, unshakeable loyalty to their mother. This is exactly as it should be. If you try to shake that loyalty or shift it towards you, you will be doing a terrible thing, and it will have terrible repercussions, mostly for you. They already have a mum. They don’t need or want another. It’s not a competition—and even if it were, you could never win. Divorce or separation do not break a family or cause it to stop existing. They merely make it geographically disparate. Assuming no one’s died, children have two parents. Nothing can change that—and you’re not one of them.

What this means practically is that if you are needy or selfish enough to try replacing the children’s mother in their affections, they’ll eventually hate you for it. Children liking you slightly more than they like their mother does their heads in. It is a great unkindness to even try."

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