Work, kids, husband. What sex?
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London - When the news broke that Sally Bercow, the British Parliament Speaker’s wife, had been having an affair with her husband’s cousin, my first reaction was not so much how could she, as how could she be bothered?
I just couldn’t understand how someone in their 40s with three children, one of whom is autistic, who has countless charity commitments and a large apartment in the House of Commons to run, would find the time, energy or appetite for illicit trysts.
For in this, as in so many other aspects of day-to-day life, Sally Bercow bucks the trend. According to a new study on the sexual habits of British women, today’s fortysomething female feels far from frisky.
More hot toddy than hot-to-trot, she is - the survey by health company Healthspan concludes - “anxious, unattractive and unaroused”. Less confident of her looks than ever before, she is plagued by insecurity and a low sex drive - unlike her twentysomething counterparts who, the study declares, are having the best sex of their lives.
This runs entirely counter to the “life begins at 40” myth to which previous generations subscribed. Weren’t these the years when family commitments were supposed to ease off, when women were at liberty to dive into more, shall we say, hedonistic activities?
If memories of my own mother at that age are anything to go by, this should indeed have been the case for me. Elegant, sophisticated and comfortable in her own skin, she exuded confidence.
Her children were grown-up, so she spent her newly acquired spare time pursuing her career as a talented artist, playing tennis and generally turning heads.
She was (is) both wise and beautiful, a bewitching combination. My male friends were all in awe of her, as were my girlfriends. She epitomised the fabulous 40s as an age where a woman could be at her absolute prime. Sadly, if this new data is anything to go by, those days are gone.
Plagued by weight-gain, exhaustion and peri-menopausal symptoms (the slow but inevitable tapering off of reproductive hormones in anticipation of the full-blown menopause), nearly half of today’s fortysomething women claim they no longer feel attractive.
Nearly two-thirds say they no longer desire sex with their partners. In fact, more than one in four women aged 41 to 45 say their sex life is virtually non-existent. So what on earth has happened? Why are so many women my age so forlorn?
One key explanation has to be the fact that while our parents are living longer, we are also taking longer to become parents ourselves.
Last year, the average age of new mothers in the UK hit 30 for the first time since records began. That means that more and more of us are having children in our mid-to-late 30s. By the time we hit the big 4-0, we could quite easily still have at least one child in nappies (my son, for example, was three when I turned 40).
Those years of labour-intensive mothering, with all the sleepless nights and early dawns, not to mention toddlers, school-runs, homework, action-packed weekends, teenage tantrums and all the other traumas and tests parents face, have been pushed back by at least half a decade, if not more.
This represents a deep cultural shift. How could it not have a serious knock-on effect on how women feel in their 40s?
It’s one thing running after small children in your 20s or early 30s; quite another when you’re ten years older.
Like it or not, the body isn’t as resilient as it once was. Lack of sleep takes its toll like never before. Joints ache, muscles slack, your back gives way. The old pelvic floor isn’t quite so bouncy any more.
At the same time, your outward appearance starts to change. It’s a fact that cell renewal starts to slow down, often dramatically, after the age of 35. Where it used to take a hairbrush and a quick slick of lipgloss to look fabulous, now things require a little more effort. Or they would, if only you had the time.
Since trips to the gym are harder to fit in around children, there’s also the problem of fitness/fatness. Slowly but surely the weight starts to creep on, helped by the female body’s natural tendency to thicken around the middle as the menopause approaches.
You need twice as much exercise to work off half the amount of extra weight - and yet you’ve never been so time, money and energy poor.
Now let’s add in work. Equality is a wonderful thing. But it means that now women, too, are expected to pull their financial weight in the family. Most couples these days require two incomes to keep a roof over their heads.
Unless she is very lucky, a woman must have a job. For younger women without children and family responsibilities, this presents few challenges.
But once you enter your 40s, the added responsibilities of seniority at work combine with new pressures at home. Just as the boss is starting to demand more of your time, the children are getting older and requiring greater emotional investment.
Chances are, the man in your life isn’t much help, either. Only last year, a survey for Woman’s Hour found that men do roughly half as much as their female partners around the house, and even then they shy away from the real drudgery, such as ironing and sheet-changing. As for childcare... well, let’s just be kind and say they do their best.
Once again, the buck stops with the woman. And since she can’t possibly neglect her husband, children or employer, she neglects the only thing she can: herself.
Forget trips to the hairdresser, manicures, facials or even basic maintenance. Most fortysomething women I know fall into bed at night too tired even to clean their teeth, let alone embark on an erotic odyssey.
The only bedroom fantasies my generation like to indulge in are the ones that involve actual sleep.
But it doesn’t stop there. To this perfect storm we must now add a new element: parents. Countless women now find themselves part of the so-called sandwich generation.
Or as one friend recently put it: “Whichever way you look at it, I’m changing nappies.” With elderly parents and young children to care for, there is not a cigarette paper’s worth of time for themselves. Which brings me back to the sex. Or lack of it. When a woman has all this to deal with, sex is positively the last thing on her mind. Darkened room, yes; holiday in the Maldives, yes; large glass of red wine, yes please, very much so. Sex? Good Lord, no.
So to recap: you’re tired, old, ugly and quite possibly fat. You are mother, shrink, maid, gopher, cook, carer, accountant, cleaner and the only person who knows how to use the tumble drier. You last brushed your hair eight hours ago, and tonight’s supper looks horribly like leftover fish-fingers. Again.
And somehow, amid all this, you’re supposed to find time to unleash your inner siren. If you weren’t so tired, you’d laugh.
Let’s face it, sex is just another chore. Something else to tick off your endless to-do list: ‘fix the leaky sink, take the kids to the dentist, book the car in for its MOT, call Mom, have sex with husband’.
Is there anything more depressing in life than scheduled marital intercourse? Especially when you’re feeling about as alluring as last night’s mashed potatoes (hang on: is that actually last night’s potatoes on your jumper?)
So you do the only sensible thing: wait until your partner has gone to bed, and the sound of his snoring starts, before creeping upstairs and sliding into bed next to him, taking care lest the poor fellow should wake and, you know, get ideas.
And there you lie, wondering why, despite the exhaustion, you can’t seem to get to sleep and feeling... what?
Guilty. Useless. Worthless. A complete and utter failure as a wife and a woman. Because you know this isn’t how it’s supposed to be - fabulous at 40 and all that. But you really can’t help yourself, and that makes you feel doubly terrible - not just for yourself but also for your partner.
The thought enters your head: if you don’t do something about the situation soon, he’s going to scoot off and find someone else - someone younger, less uptight and, frankly, a lot more fun. And, really, who could blame him.
And as you finally start to drift off, one final, bitter irony occurs to you. This is what’s known as “having it all”.