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I’m a matriarch, and proud, says Paula Coston

April 26, 2013

She doesn't have to be his mother or grandmother to support him in his family, you know. Image courtesy of photostock/

She doesn’t have to be his mother or grandmother to support him in his family, you know. Image courtesy of photostock/

My dictionary defines a matriarch as ‘an older woman who is powerful within a family or organisation’. If I had the power, I’d like to exclude Melanie Notkin from that definition. She’s the founder and CEO of Savvy Auntie. And what is Savvy Auntie? If you look online, it claims to be ‘the only multiplatform lifestyle brand designed specifically for [the powerful segment of PANK®s, Professional Aunts No Kids]’. So, I discover, the particular ‘segment’ of the topic I want to write about is cynically labelled a ‘multi-billion dollar demographic’ and an ‘under-targeted’ marketing niche. Oh goody.

Whoever I dedicate my posting to this week, it certainly won’t be Melanie Notkin. I’m not remotely interested in the cash cow potential of strong older women. What I am interested in is their social and emotional value.

In my last post, I urged any readers out there to reinvigorate that wonderful word ‘matriarch’: to reinstate it in their lexicons, and give it its full due. Matriarchs need not be mothers, I would argue: they can come in many shapes and sizes.

Take Ann(onymous). She’s single. Her neighbour has a lively, pretty daughter, Fi. Since Fi was 8, she and Ann have spent time together, not because Fi’s mother needs the space or time: just because Ann and the girl really like each other and share a sense of humour. One weekend, for instance, 10-year-old Fi comes to stay with Ann. They cook Chinese together, pretending they’re on a live cookery show, hamming up their demos for the imagined camera. They watch DVDs in their pyjamas in front of a blazing fire; and in the morning, they stroll down to the nearby farm and collect foaming milk in a jug, fresh from the cow.

Or Ann Other, 49. Her cousin is in the throes of a divorce. AO spends two or three nights weekly staying over, not only giving her suffering cousin emotional support but also helping the eldest son Zach, aged fourteen, with his homework. He’s suffering too from his parents’ separation. When it gets to his exam time, she moves in and, through gentle revision sessions, tries to help him see that he can do well in his exams. She gives this support for over two years.

Ma has loving relationships with men, but sadly none of them lasts. She has a godson Jamie, the son of her best friend. Over the years they’ve talked about books, music and what he hopes for his life. From his baptism on, every Christmas and birthday she gives him something: illustrated Bible stories, a cricket bat, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, jazz composition software, and – for his gap year before college – Rough Guides to various parts of the world; they’re the notches on a joint tape measure of their lives.

Tria, also single, is close to her seven nieces and nephews, the children of her various siblings. She sees them at least bi-monthly. She takes her sister’s three sons to Warhammer World in Nottingham on the train. With her eldest niece she visits exhibitions of textiles and green fairs, two of their shared interests. She coaches another nephew in a couple of the school subjects he’s less keen on. With the youngest two she plays with them in the dens they build the garden, or acts out stories with them that they all help to invent.

Paula, 51, has formed a bond with her business partner’s daughter Sarah, 23. In this relationship, Sarah tends to take the lead. As her career begins to develop, she invites Paula to her executive flat for confidantes’ weekends; when she acquires a live-in partner and moves to a big house, Paula still visits – sometimes seeing Sarah’s partner too; sometimes the two women just talk, philosophise about life, spend time together alone.

Confession time: those women were, and are, all me. I’m 58 now, but – apart from extending my auntly/mentoring/helpmate’s support to grandmothers as well as mothers these days – this role shows no sign of changing or diminishing. I may be post-menopausal, single and childless, but I believe I bring a little something to others’ children and their families.

I know from looking around me that I’m not alone in this activity. Many women are out there inventing, fulfilling, re-shaping functions a bit like mine. Whatever their cynical motives, I think that Savvy Auntie is right in spotting this trend.

Cast your eyes over my word list on Wordnik (‘Positive Womanhoods’), and my last post here. I’m hoping some of you agree that we need new terms in the English language, glossing the role of the matriarch in its family-widest sense. Although none of them, let’s forbid it, should be terms as crass as PANK® or Savvy Auntie.

Please do feed back on what I’ve said – especially if you feel you’re a female fellow spirit: a different kind of matriarch, like me.

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