Be honest, you don’t really think of the queen as a mother. You think of her as the longest reigning monarch of England who also happens to have famous grandchildren and an obscene hat collection. The Queen Mum, you think, now there was a mother. And Diana — well, what a mum. But less so Queen Elizabeth II. If you watch The Crown, you're probably wondering where her kids even are most of the time.
In: using nannies, breastfeeding, bagpipes, giving your children crappy white-bread sandwiches, dressing your kids like book characters, singing patriotic songs about the Empire. Out: baby-wearing, sobriety, affection.
Queen Elizabeth II is a working mum who predates the Ergo, soy formula, "attachment parenting," Molly Weasley, Chewbacca Mom, Target, internet forums, Hammer pants, the Czech Republic, Goop, disposable diapers, Hatchimals, the "poopening," and Park Slope Parents. What could I learn from taking a leaf from her parenting pages for a week, I wondered. So I delved into the truth behind The Crown, digging up everything I could about the queen's seven decades as a mother and, you know, having a Caesarian home-birth (😬 ).
There were some challenges I wasn’t willing to attempt at the outset: taking my children pheasant hunting, for one, and ignoring them while I tend to the infamous Red Box for another — claims abound that Queen Elizabeth II is a cool, distant mother who prioritized her responsibilities as monarch and outsourced childcare to an army of palace staff.
On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II is said to have breastfed all her children — a modern choice for royals (Queen Victoria thought it was something only cows did) — and to have doted on her babies, shooing away help whenever she could escape Buckingham Palace. She is seemingly a devoted grandmother — "Gan-Gan" to her great-grandchildren, whom she loves to spoil — and personal tutor to her grandson Prince William on the responsibilities of a monarch. During her grandsons' time at Eton, she apparently loved to have tea dates with them at the castle.
So, the quality of her parenting is up for debate. But in the way Queen Elizabeth II built a family and a sturdy modern empire (although colonialism isn't great), there are lessons to be had, even for those of us not trying to hold the Western democratic axis together. In a nutshell, the queen is a beloved granny and mum, and I'll be sad when she dies and we all think, "God, we are stuck with Charles."
Here is everything I learned.
Lesson One: Bread & Jam Is Fine For Tots
I ate my cereal out of a Wedgewood bowl, as does the queen every morning (store the cereal in Tupperware to keep it Windsor-fresh #tip). You might think fine-bone china is a poor choice to use around children whose favorite exploratory game is "throw it on the floor from the high chair and see what happens," and you'd be right. I kept the bowl out of reach of my 1-year-old frisbee-er, Japhy, but while I hopped up to fetch something or other (probably ketchup, which my 2-year-old Scout uses on everything from pasta to tofu), my daughter helped herself to my Rice Krispies. "Mummy, I ate your cereal," she told me upon return, chiming her spoon on my wedding china proudly like a steel drummer.
I also began the day with an Earl Grey tea (after I had a coffee, look I can't mess around with this stuff) and made finger sandwiches for my kids — we already had the Windsors' favored Wilkin and Sons jam in the house, and a solid aversion to cooking, so it worked out well. Cutting them into crustless fingers wasn't any more effort than snipping food into non-chokable pieces for my 1-year-old is normally. For the tea service, I used the teapot I inherited from my grandmother, Nonna, who coincidentally was a raging monarchist.
Typically, by the time I remembered to make an Earl Grey, an hour and a half into my "work day," I had gone half bonkers trying to work and also look after my kids. But, nice teapot.
I got to thinking: boy, there would be some perks if your mum was queen. You could watch all the polo matches you liked, and if you wanted a pet, you could simply add a corgi to the pack and give it a name like "Wombles." On the downside, not only would you have a relatively strict mother, but as the head of your country and the Church of England, you'd pretty much be in the wrong any time you crossed her, legally, morally, or in how you pronounced "Cecil."
The world is in adolescent rebellion now, eager to separate, to yank the reins away, but Elizabeth remains a mother of sorts to anyone who grew up functionally under the British crown, looking at the pictures of her coronation that hung in schools and government offices the same way you look at pictures of your parents' wedding and think: were they ever that young? Did the world ever exist before them?
Lesson Two: Faff About In The Garden With Your Children Once In A While
As the Queen has succumbed to pressure to open up the royal life to the public, we have been treated to progressively more peeks at the Windsors, starting with prolonged bench-sits at Balmoral Castle, and ending with the Harry + Megs Instagram story (#love). But hanging out pointlessly in nice clothes in your own garden in the middle of winter is much harder than it looks. I tried it with my brood and at no point during the shoot could any of us figure out what we were doing there, or what we should be doing. And it was v v cold. You can actually see our brains shutting off blood-flow to preserve the core.
Still, it was nice to be there in the yard, potting about with no real jobs or direction, much as though we were ceremonial heads anointed to simply be, and show up once in a while to wave at the public from the royal barge.
I am a big believer in fresh air for yourself and for your kids, and here we had it, at about 25 degrees in the middle of winter. Extreme Scottish #goals.
Lesson Three: Remember To Relax Properly After Saying Night-Night
Second to wearing knickerbockers and shooting rabbits, one of the most British things about QEII is her supposed love of a tipple — not a parenting technique per se, but not not a parenting technique. I researched the claim that she drinks four cocktails a day and evidently she hasn't reached the ripe old age of 91 by getting sozzled every day of her life. Rather, her cocktail of choice is a single gin and Dubonnet, though she typically drinks a sweet German wine with dinner. (Let me remind you that she had a staff of nannies while her children were young, and time off is sort of her mantra for parenting.) For my part, a cocktail seemed more monarchic, so I ran with that. I didn't have the money to buy gin, but did have some lemon Absolut frozen into the freezer, so I figured on a vodka+Dubonnet. Then I couldn't find any actual Dubonnet, and wasn't about to pay $40 for its closest relative, Chambord, so I settled on the much more reasonable Campari.
After a full day of chasing my 1-year-old off the stairs and being on poop-watch for my retentive 2-year-old, I must say I really relished a slightly sour, slightly bitter, slightly freezer-burned cocktail.
Of course, I wasn't about to pay full price for Campari either (I'm the equivalent of whatever the middle caste is in Britain), so I got some off-brand Campari that was $20. So, a vodka and not-Campari stirred with ice and served in my in-laws' crystal glasses it was (I did this Christmas week while we were camped out there hoping for free nannying).
After a full day of chasing my 1-year-old off the stairs and being on poop-watch for my retentive 2-year-old, I must say I really relished a slightly sour, slightly bitter, slightly freezer-burned cocktail. Truly, nothing says "Oh thank god it's bedtime," like a twist of lemon in your "I didn't even know we had vodka" & "when will potty training end??" I would recommend it to any mum who has found herself two kids deep within the space of two years, as QEII did twice.
[Post-script: I could not handle drinking a cocktail every day for a week, and honestly cannot imagine that the queen does either. I quit this after three days.]
Lesson Four: Comb That Baby Hair
No one understands the power of appearances like the queen. The sartorial style of QEII and her family has worked as a disguise and a statement throughout their public life. It has been rumored that Prince George's anachronistic clothing is a red herring by the Duchess of Cambridge to throw creepers off his usual Boden-and-scruffy-hair scent. I don't know, though; the Windsors have been getting christened in the same lace maxi dress for generations; I honestly think they just enjoy doing fancy hair parts on their babies.
I tried some matchy-matchy outfits on my own kids, and can I just say, it was #timeless. There was no one to around to admire their retro fashion stylings, but it did make me feel proud of my contribution to their gene stamps. Rather than feel stuffy and regal, putting my kids in family uniforms felt like exactly what hundreds of families do at Disney World every day. It said to me, "the family that wears upper-crust-y uniforms together, stays together."
Lesson Five: Take Your Song Out (Like You're Marching Off To War)
Is there anything more endearing than singing war songs with your 2-year-old? Surely not. I remember worrying, while I was pregnant, that I would be damaging my baby if I didn't sing all the time. I expected to feel self-conscious singing to a squalling newborn. And I did. But later, when I learned that I could buy myself time during a squirmy nappy change by busting out an "Incy Wincy," it didn't feel so weird. As it happened, an electronic keyboard arrived the week of the experiment, and my daughter and I were able to try to play and sing songs from Moana... for the 10 seconds before my daughter turned on the calypso drum demo and ruined it. But we sang other songs — "Frosty The Snow Man" was a favorite, as was "The Grand Old Duke Of York."
Then I tried just randomly singing things to Scout, as if I was a scatting jazz singer: "I want you to sit up at the table and finish your din-nerrr, and then you can have some a-ppleee," I would sing, and she could sing back, "O-kayyyyy Muuu-U-mmy," as if she were a saxophone. I don't want to credit the queen for this discovery, but singing stuff that would otherwise sound naggy is a serious parenting hack. It made our pressure-cooker work-from-home days feel a bit more like quality time as I fretted about the amount of squashed chickpea on my clothing.
"The Queen is a very competent singer," Princess Anne once told a biographer in one of the all-time best casual chit-chats about one's mother. "I think we were very lucky as a family to be able to do so much together. We all appreciated that time." And my kids are welcome for me singing along with my old Creed albums on our Echo.
Lesson Six: It Takes A Village
So what do we do with claims that the queen was "emotionally distant" — as Prince Charles has claimed — and overly reliant on nursery staff to raise her children? It's true that if you look for them, you can find clips of QEII shaking her babies' hands like they're the mayor of Nob End.
Though I could never withhold affection from my kids, I did delegate bath time to my mother-in-law (as did QEII with her nannies) and let Grandma and Grandpa shower my kids with hugs while I carried on with work, as did Queen Elizabeth II with her own mother, the Queen Mum.
The most gutting anecdote pulled from a week living and breathing QEII is the reluctant departure of the queen and Prince Philip on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth in 1953, when Charles was 5 and Anne 3 — an event portrayed on The Crown (distance is kind of ~theme~). Reports are that the queen cried saying goodbye, to which: duh. (I mean Jesus, I have come close to crying outside daycare on seeing my daughter lit up in the window after dark, the last child left carefully working away at a puzzle. And that was eight hours.) Upon her return, the queen said her children were "terribly polite... I don't think they really knew who we were." And therein is my personal nightmare, if anyone wants to devise a Room 101-type torture based on intimate knowledge of my psyche. If your kids feel unloved, then the rest is sort of bullshit. You've failed as a mother, haven't you?
I kept coming back to Charles, the more I read. He was very close to his grandmother, the Queen Mother, who adored him as a sensitive, young boy. The Queen Mum once wrote to her daughter in 1954, when Charles would have been about 6, "You may find Charles much older in a very endearing way. He is intensely affectionate. And loves you and Philip most tenderly." No matter your parenting philosophy, or the era, all I can think, on imagining such a tender-hearted little boy as my own, is giving him all the hugs. As many as he ever wanted — Papua New Guinea can wait! — and telling him constantly how much I love him — maybe even singing it to him to the tune of something patriotic.
"My darling Charles, I can't tell you what charming and heart-warming things I am always hearing about you," the Queen Mother once wrote him, "Everyone loves you and is proud of you."
God, the weight of that patch job kills me.
The imagined sight of the queen poking at some sizzling sausages and scraping burned potato off the bottom of a pot while wearing a kilt is honestly my own personal version of hygge.
But that's in part why the queen is such a fascinating mother figure. As a working mom, I feel the friction of my two jobs throughout each day, and yet I have no problem throwing off my career aspirations to loll about with my kids. I imagine it's quite different when the entire world seems to be sliding on its tectonics. The queen has perhaps not been the most demonstratively affectionate mother, but she clearly dotes on her kids.
Lesson Seven: Bangers & Mash, Bangers & Mash
Among the more relatable tidbits on the queen-as-mum is the revelation that while they were off living their best quiet lives at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland, she would cook supper for the kids herself — bangers and spuds, to be exact. The imagined sight of the queen poking at some sizzling sausages and scraping burned potato off the bottom of a pot while wearing a kilt is honestly my own personal version of hygge.
Cooking sausage and potato for my kids was an achievement solidly in my grasp, as I can purchase both of those items at the bodega on the corner. I ticked it off on day four. I resolved to put my phone out of reach and be present with my kids as on a true vacation; lie on the floor and let them climb back and forth over my head like badgers in a burrow, laying still as they put their fingers into my nostrils (why, children), a woman who is happy to call herself a mum foremost.
So, How Does One Parent Like The Queen?
The final lesson from a week focused on the ups and downs of being a monarch and a parent is that, I mean fuck it, you have to forgive yourself when you're a less than perfect mom. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth was cold with Charles, but they seem to get along famously today. And she has clearly carved out special time for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as she notches up birthdays. For her era, and for the responsibilities she inherited, the queen has seemingly navigated an impossible quandary and found time to delight in her kids.
(Another lesson: I hate not wearing mascara.)
Queen Elizabeth II has watched prime minsters dissolve as fast as bath bombs, has reined through war and peace, and stood as a sort of ward of time itself in her pearls. It's a bit how parenthood feels.
Before I had a baby, it felt like I existed in some infinite zone where I could fart away entire Saturdays at expensive brunches without ever feeling the abyss encroaching; feeling the effects of time but not really the emotion of it. Then I had my daughter and bam. The love! The fucking grief! For your parents even though they're still alive, for your long-gone grandparents and the days you have shed without squeezing any life out of them. God knows how the Queen can handle that poignancy as a parent and as a monarch.
That first time you fell and skinned your knee, do you remember looking up at your mum's face to see, well, should I panic, or is it OK? Queen Elizabeth II embodies the Keep Calm & Carry On ethos like the best of mothers. She is, as ever, a mum who has realized — at some point, possibly when she had her later two children – that only your kids matter (provided the world doesn't fall apart); that creating a stable family is the most important thing (assuming there isn't a mutiny at the Suez Canal).
Your Only Job Is To Love Them
They say the sun never sets on the British Empire, and the queen must have a sense that, once she is gone, it may very well set on her democratic monarchy, but I can't think of a truer motto for parenthood. After a week out of the office doting on my kids, dressing them as tiny royals, and feeding them jam sandwiches, the enduring takeaway is that you are a parent every waking second and through the night also.
At the end of it, how do I feel about Queen Elizabeth II, reigning mum? I'd take a scone with her any day.
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