Mistakes, regret and how the Queen learnt being a mother is the job that matters most
07:51 GMT, 23 November 2012
There was a meeting of minds at Buckingham Palace this week as Kate Winslet stepped up to receive her CBE.
When the Queen asked if she likes her job, Winslet replied that indeed she does — ‘but I love being a mum even more’.
With which, in a flash, Her Majesty agreed. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s the only job which matters.’
A meeting of minds: Kate Winslet steps up to receive her CBE. When the Queen asked if she liked her job, Winslet replied that she loved 'being a mum even more'. Her Majesty agreed wholeheartedly
What a finely poignant insight. For even the most fervent of monarchists could be forgiven for also thinking — with the greatest possible respect, of course — that the Queen has not been able to devote as much time to motherhood as she might have wished.
Elizabeth II, of course, was not born to be Queen; without the abdication of her uncle Edward she would not have sat on the throne, and many believe she would have preferred to have kept it that way.
But if the history books will record her reign as one of the most stable and successful ever, her record as a mother is, frankly, a little less unblemished.
If the Queen had to defend herself, no doubt she could cite the call of duty. If she were reminded, for instance, of the day a very young Charles asked her, please, to come and play — only to have the door gently closed in his face and his mother tell him, ‘If only I could’ — she could truthfully claim that immense matters demanded her attention.
But does ‘duty’ entirely explain why, even if she were at home of an evening, she would not dream of having tea with her own children; not even popping upstairs to join them as they ate, with nanny and governess, in the nursery
Does ‘duty’ really explain why the family holidays — Balmoral for summer, Sandringham for Christmas and Windsor for Easter — involved the entire staff tagging along, so that even there the Queen could decline to muck in with the mothering
Duty bound: The Queen, with Charles in 1957, was unable to be as close to him as she wished
Certainly, ‘duty’ does not explain an image that has burned its unforgettable way down the years: that of a four-year-old Prince Charles, waiting to see his mother for the first time after her five-month Commonwealth tour . . . only to have her greet him by extending a gloved hand for the little boy to shake.
Compare that with another famous picture years later — Princess Diana, greeting her boys with outstretched arms on board the Royal Yacht Britannia — and the contrast is simply heartbreaking.
Those who know the Royal Family say that the Queen did make more of an effort after Charles and Anne when, following a ten-year gap to reflect, she had Andrew and Edward. Certainly, she is closer to her younger children than to her older ones.
The Prince of Wales has made no bones about his resentment of a childhood made miserable by parents who were ‘distant’ (in all senses: royal foreign tours ranged from six weeks to many months).
Charles has publicly laid bare his unhappiness, describing himself as ‘emotionally estranged’ from his parents, while craving the ‘affection and appreciation’ from them that they were ‘unable or unwilling’ to offer.
And even though his sister, Anne, younger by two years, responded with a typically robust defence of their upbringing — and even though we all know Charles is a bit of a self-pitying bunny — you only have to think of the straight-backed little boy and the remote handshake from his mother to understand his dismay.
Pictures of Princess Diana greeting her two sons with open arms on board the Royal Yacht Britannia were in stark contrast to ones of the Queen with Prince Charles
To this day, in fact, he and his mother have a strange relationship; they converse by letter rather than chat on the phone, make diary appointments to see each other, and he still calls her Your Majesty in public.
Suffice to say, it is not a normal way to conduct a mother-and-son relationship. The monarch’s staunchest defenders will say, rightly, that she is a woman raised in another age, and one who has been required to regard the entire British people as a kind of second family for several decades.
For all that, it must be devastating for any mother to see three of her four children’s first marriages end in divorce. We know that each of those marital breakdowns distressed the Queen greatly; a combination of her religious beliefs, the sanctity of marriage as drummed into her by her mother, and the ghosts of the nefarious romantic activities that engulfed her uncle King Edward VIII, all fuel a fierce hatred of divorce.
How, she must surely ask herself, did she raise a brood unable to make vows and then keep them Indeed, taken all in all, it would be surprising if the Queen did not look back and feel some pangs of regret about the way she raised her children.
So, when she says that being a mum is ‘the only job that really matters’, are these merely platitudes exchanged at a Palace function Or the wistful words of a woman regretting, too late, what she and her children missed
On holiday: The Queen is pictured here in 1968 holding Prince Edward's hand as she walks with her husband and their other children Prince Andrew, Princess Anne and Prince Charles at Frogmore on the Windsor Estate
The Queen is pictured with Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Charles has described himself as 'emotionally estranged' from his parents while Anne responded with a robust defence of their upbringing
I’m guessing it’s the second. But before you dismiss me as being a little sour on the subject, let me make a confession: I am among the many women who have reached an age when wistfulness and regret do take a cold grip on the heart.
Like the Queen, we worked most of our adult lives; like the Queen, we weren’t born to it — our mothers had mostly not had careers; like the Queen, we juggled our children and our work while everyone said coo, how marvellous, I don’t know how you do it.
Now, we look back and think: given our time again, would we really have done it the same way
And most of us, when we talk about it, say that we would not.
Don’t misunderstand: I have no women friends who would have wished to eschew the workplace altogether. We had our education, our ambitions, our ladders to climb, and most of us freely admit that, while some women do it wonderfully, we’d have been unbearably bad stay-at-home mothers.
The only job that matters: Does the Queen (pictured with Prince Charles and Prince Philip) regret what she and her children missed
But where we failed, I think, is that we never learned to prioritise the children. It was too often easier to say no to one small, beseeching face than to 20 grown-ups demanding a meeting, a decision, now.
Oh, we all did the right thing come the obvious must-do moments: sports days or carol concerts. Yet we all remember our guilty secrets, too — here’s one, just for an example.
I had A Meeting. My daughter was due for a dental check-up. So a friend offered to take her. How could any of us have known that the dentist would take out two teeth — her first extraction — without Mummy there to hold her hand Ooof. It still hurts.
But it’s too late now. Or is it
The Queen and I (such an enjoyable phrase to write, that) have one more thing in common: we are grandmothers. And I think it no accident that I and most of my contemporaries — quieter, now, on the professional front — are all over our grandchildren like melting honey.
It is not by accident that Beatrice and Eugenie call the Queen ‘Supergran’ and actually choose to spend holidays with her; or that Wills and Harry, Peter and Zara all pay openly affectionate tribute to her in the most touchy-feely terms ever to drop from royal lips.
Not so long ago, the Queen met a popular BBC TV CBeebies presenter called Mr Tumble, and told him with a glint in her eye that she knew exactly who he was. This was, it transpired, because she particularly likes to visit her son Edward’s young children Louise and James at home, and sit with them as they watch television.
Did she ever do that with Charles I very much doubt it.
I confess, I make more hours in any given day or week for my granddaughter than I ever made for her mother. I can watch her sleeping for an hour; I can muster the patience to dawdle by duck-ponds; I can’t wait for her third birthday this Sunday.
And so, if you believe in better late than never, eventually we mothers atone.
As it happens, I don’t entirely agree with the Queen that bringing up children is ‘the only job that matters’.
Without question, however, I know now that it is the job that matters most.