London - The morning found me with a slight champagne hangover and the smudged remains of the previous evening’s carefully applied make-up on an unfamiliar pillow.
It was the morning after the night I’d been fretting about for the previous two and a half weeks, and the prospect of which had terrified me for the past three years. I had just spent the night with Stephen – the first man I’d been intimate with since the break-up of my 15-year marriage.
This was the first time in 20 years that I’d found myself lying beside a sleeping form with whom I’d shared none of life’s major milestones: not children, not mortgage, not wedding.
All we’d shared were a few jolly nights out, where we’d tentatively opened up to each other.
As I mulled this over in this strange bedroom, I felt confused. Here I was sharing a bed with a man who didn’t even know whether to offer me tea or coffee.
The encounter resulted in a torrent of emotion. What did it say about the new, unfettered me?
But at the same time I still fizzed with the euphoria I’d revelled in the night before. I’d done it. I had returned to a strange land where I hadn’t thought I belonged any more. A club to which I – a 45-year-old with a body battle-scarred by time and childbirth – thought my membership had expired.
It’s a place more and more middle-aged women find themselves nowadays, as marriages break down and society now fully expects – indeed encourages – us to embrace the dating scene again with the same gusto we displayed in our youth. Not so long ago, a newly single woman in her forties, with two children, would have been expected to put on a brave face, say nothing of her pain and resign herself to celibacy.
But today, when 42 percent of marriages end leaving thousands of women bruised and lonely, there is a belief that middle-aged women can and should find new love.
I was not of that mind, though, when my husband and I split up three years ago. I didn’t expect to find love again. Besides, the thought of being intimate with another man sent me into a mild panic. The creeping waistline, the not-so-perky breasts… how on earth could I ever undress in front of someone again?
To a man who has been with you through two pregnancies, stretchmarks are one thing. The thought of a new lover appraising them on your naked form is another.
Add to that the fact that I hadn’t even properly disrobed in front of my ex in the dying years of our relationship and you can imagine the fear that sex with a new partner instilled in me.
My ex and I had become more like brother and sister than Mr and Mrs, and, like many siblings, we fought like cat and dog.
But the things we argued about were far from familial. They were the classic gripes of long-haul coupledom: housework, childcare and money. In the end, the brawls became so unpleasant, so frequent and so personal that I asked for a separation.
My husband left the family home, leaving me alone with our two children, then aged nine and two.
It was, thank goodness, a relatively cordial separation – when my ex visits the children, he often stays with us.
After the split I felt sad for my daughter and son. When I had planned my family, this was not how I imagined life would turn out.
But I also felt tremendous relief. It was so wonderful to be single again. To have no one to argue with. To go to bed on my own. To not find dirty socks under the bed, and stubble in the sink.
But, inevitably, this euphoria didn’t last. After a couple of months, I was utterly exhausted. Every working mother with young children knows how difficult it is to do two jobs. Well, if you are a single working mother, it is twice as hard.
It left me with little inclination and no energy for another relationship. I wasn’t even thinking about dating, let alone sex. My sexuality was in a Snow White-sleep, from which I had neither the courage nor the desire to wake.
The wild, sensual woman I’d been in my twenties felt like a person I’d once known but no longer had anything in common with.
So, two years later, I all but ignored the flirtatious man who had recently moved into my block of flats. Well, I say flirtatious, but if I’m honest, I felt so off the sexual map that when we bumped into each other on the stairs and he complimented me on an item of clothing, or a new haircut, I thought he was just being friendly. Or gay. I mean, how many red-blooded men in their fifties can recognise kitten heels? “Very Audrey Hepburn,” he quipped approvingly as I waited in the lobby in a pair one evening.
But Steve persisted. For a few weeks that spring, the door to our building kept sticking.
One day, he buzzed my intercom at dawn to be let in.
He came up to thank me and when, bleary-eyed, I opened the door to my flat, he joked to the male friend with him: “Shame. I was hoping we might catch her in her nightie.”
I blushed furiously.
A fortnight later, I rushed in after the school run wearing scruffy Ugg boots, jeans and – worst of all – no make-up, and there he was again, in the hallway, flicking through his post. “I’m taking the morning off to play 18 holes,” he said, patting the bulging golf bag next to him. “Fancy playing with me?”
I declined and bounded up the stairs, my face brick-red.
But the penny was slowly dropping. I realised that I’d started caring about my appearance again. I started going to the gym, determined to lose weight.
Meanwhile, Steve’s admiring glances and gentle compliments were gradually becoming part of my life. Could it be that my long somnolent sexuality was finally re-awakening?
“There’s a new man in our block,” I giggled to a friend over a bottle of wine one evening. “I think he might be flirting with me. And I really like him.”
In the end, our old block of flats gave us an excuse to get to know each other slowly. An antiques restorer by trade, when the building’s wooden staircase needed work, Steve was chosen.
This led to several weeks of after-hours conversations at my kitchen table, discussing mahogany banisters. Fervent conversations ostensibly about work were really thinly disguised dates. Finally, he asked me on a proper one.
That was when the thought first struck me: What if things progressed and I had to peel off? For although I was feeling fitter and more attractive than at any time since having my daughter 11 years before, disrobing was still a terrifying thought.
As it happened, the date itself was a total blast. We had dinner in a lovely Chinese restaurant where Steve ordered ginger lobster with scallions.
As we ate, Steve’s hand gently caressed my knee. We were quite clearly building up to the First Kiss.
It was long and emotional, and I knew I had reached a milestone.
Later that night, an even bigger milestone beckoned. Sex. On the journey home, we kissed again and, after alighting from the taxi, enjoyed a passionate embrace on the pavement outside our block.
In the event, my fears and insecurities dwindled to nothing. Sex, I can report, is like riding a bike: No matter how long it is since you have been on the saddle, you never forget how to cycle.
In the heat of the moment, men don’t notice your cellulite, meaty upper arms or other imperfections.
Nor did I sit back and critically appraise Steve’s 50-something body.
Today, I am enjoying the most rewarding relationship of my life. Between the sheets, Steve and I simply click.
Yes, my body is less pert than it once was, but, despite all those hang-ups before Steve and I became lovers, I feel happier in my own skin.
I would say to any divorced, middle-aged woman terrified of contemplating sex with a man other than her husband, to put those fears to one side and embrace an exciting new chapter in her life.
After all, I’m happy proof that when it comes to sex, life can indeed begin in your post-divorce forties. – Daily Mail