I was an unlikely candidate to apply for university. Aged 43, I had small children to care for during the day, a self-employed husband who needed support, and I was just recovering from major surgery.
The common expression for a woman like me is, I believe, a ‘kept woman’. I had never worked during our marriage – I had not needed to. Instead I had looked after our babies, taken care of the house and garden, and baked up a storm on my beloved 4-oven Aga.
But as I entered middle age I began to wonder: what if?
What if I had gone to university? What if I had developed a career? I began to look into the future when my children didn’t need my constant care. I began to see a space that I could fill…
I had always been interested in social history, especially one important point. What did mothers do with ill children before the establishment of the NHS? The more I looked into the sort of home remedies that they would use, the more interested I became. Then two things happened;
- I heard an interview on radio 4 while I was washing up at the sink and daydreaming. There was a Medical Herbalist talking about his work, and it became clear that far from being quaint necessities that woman had been forced to resort to before 1948, herbs were part of a proper, systematic form of medicine that was still used today. And one that people were still trained in.
- I read a glossy women’s magazine which had a piece on alternative therapies. One of them was about herbal medicine. A woman recounted her story; she had a chronic illness over many years that the NHS couldn’t resolve. In the end her GP had just put her on a permanent prescription of steroids which had had some nasty side effects. She went to see a herbalist and was cured in 6 months. So impressed was she with her treatment and recovery that she trained to be a herbalist herself. She even [very helpfully] gave the address of her professional body which oversaw the training.
What do you think I did?
I was on that phone, and applying to University before you could say chamomile.
Suffice it to say that I could only apply for the degree course after I had completed their foundation year in Chemistry and Biology. And I could only apply for their foundation year after I had taken Chemistry GCSE. So, after I had sat my Chemistry GCSE exam at the local 6th form college I collected my results on the same day as one of my sons. I then spent a year doing Chemistry and Biology at foundation level. I then spent 4 years doing a science-based degree in herbal medicine. I graduated when I was 51.
One of the people that I dedicated my dissertation to was the babysitter…
I am now 62 years old. I have a herbal medicine practice where I see patients, with a herb garden attached for me to grow as many of my own herbs as I can. My education has been a great help to my husband who developed Parkinson’s soon after I qualified. I can help his quality of sleep, his stiff muscles, and his dyskinesia.
A few years after I qualified I completed a 2 year teaching qualification, and then a 2 year course with the RHS. And then I started a training school for medical herbalists with a colleague who had trained with me. She is an academic with a PhD from Oxford, so I left most of the academic structure to her. Our school is in its 4th year of a 6 year course, it is degree level but we have to call it an Advanced Diploma because we are not a University. We are in the middle of writing 36 module descriptors because we are applying for accreditation. We are also starting the process of becoming an educational charity. Our pipe dream is starting a herbal hospital/ convalescent home, but we mustn’t run before we can walk.
My colleague is also 62. Somehow, running this school has given us a new lease of life. Middle-aged woman can so often feel that they have nothing to offer, but we feel that we are in the prime of life and our sails are set fair…