Life no longer begins at 40, more’s the pity. Once when a woman reached that age her children would be grown, and she’d have spare time available to think about her looks and her own pleasure and interests. She was expected to be married and a mother by the age of 23 – and if she wasn’t would be a pitiful discarded object in the eyes of other women. Now according to research by Healthspan, brought to us by courtesy of the Daily Mail, you reach that age and your troubles are only just beginning. Women in the 40-50 age group, HealthSpan tells us, are no longer full of the sexual confidence and general bounce that marks our twenties, but are feeling anxious, unattractive and un-aroused. Research, apparently, proves it. Well it would, wouldn’t it. 40-50 year-olds are the group most receptive to dietary supplements that promise good cheer, beauty and vitality (another word for libido) in the ten year drift towards the female menopause – the perimenopause, as it is now referred to by those who may hope to profit by medicalising us all.
To be a victim these days can be an attractive option, so should the researcher ask a woman between 40 and 50 the right question on a bad day, like ‘Madam, do you feel ‘anxious, unattractive, and unaroused?’ she may well reply: ‘Why, yes! that’s me!’ Ask her on a good day, and she’s more likely to slam the door in the researcher’s face.
And it’s true that life today is exhausting for women. 67% of women in the 40-50 age group will be out to work and far too many of us on a minimum wage. We have our babies later and those in their twenties are still full of vim and vigour. Many in the age-group will still have teenage children – enough to make anyone anxious, such are current social pressures, not to mention so many ageing parents living to an unseasonable old age, or simply worrying that they can’t pay the electricity bill, let alone their fare to work; or that they comfort eat and are too fat – the mere glimpse of a fashion magazine (or indeed a porn site) being enough to makes self doubters of men and women both. All too many will feel a good night’s sleep is more important than a night’s good sex.
But once upon a time before the modern era a woman exhausted herself in other ways. Her whole life before the days of domestic technology would be taken up trying to keep the family healthy and fed. Families came early and were large, contraception being unavailable. There was a basic division of labour: one woman at home enabled a clutch of children and a father to leave it, to learn and earn. The plan then was to avoid ‘arousal’ – since it tended to lead to another mouth to feed – rather than to seek it. In the old pre-feminist days women suffered so men and children could thrive. Now men and women thrive, but I suspect it’s the children who don’t.
And when yesterday a Dr Bainbridge, an evolutionary psychologist, suggested to the Daily Mail that men chose intelligent women over pretty girls because they made good mothers, I laughed aloud. Everyone of my generation (I’m 83) knew that if you wanted to marry you never let on that you were intelligent let alone cracked a joke – the more placid and bovine you appeared the better. Pretty girls married first, followed by those who presented themselves as helpless and in need of advice.
But I must stop laughing, for the generations move on. Things are so different now. When girls stayed virgins (in theory) until they married – advisable in a pre-contraceptive age when the penalty for sex was pregnancy – men had to marry young, or find prostitutes to get access to sex. Nowadays that sexual relief for all is more widely encouraged marriage can become and matter of real choice, nor passionate desire. And a smart mother does indeed make a good mother.