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I’m going on a date for the first time in twenty-five years. The last time I went on a date it was 1993: pre internet, pre craft-gin, pre avocado-on-toast. I hadn’t even heard of Judith Butler.
I’m not sure what I want out of dating and my inner feminist is nervous. She’s been very much in charge for the past four years and she is threatened by this unexpected development: “You’re going to go all man-pleasing,” she nags. “You’re going to start adapting your personality to his.”
“I’m not,” my inner heteronormative-man-pleaser wheedles, “not this time. I’ve learned a lot. It’s more like taking on another hobby: choir, running, dating. It’ll be fun.”
I’ve excavated a date outfit from the mid-life crisis of my wardrobe: I’m going for understated cool and effortless glamour. I’ve moisturised and applied all the makeup I own (six pieces). I’ve blow-dried my hair with a brush and I’m looking pretty hot. My inner feminist rolls her eyes at our reflection in the mirror. “You’re internalising the male gaze, you sell-out.” She’s very wry. But we like to win and we’re storming the patriarchal stronghold of heterosexuality. We need to be fully armed.
A week ago, I created a profile on a couple of popular dating sites. All the advice tells you not to mention previous relationships, religion or politics. I described myself as a politically engaged atheist, a left-leaning, environmentally conscious mother of three, four years out of a two-decade marriage who enjoys reading, fell walking and singing in a choir. I’d date me: OkCupid would give us a 93% compatibility rating. I struggled to find any photos of myself, so I opted for two taken at bootcamp and a third from Christmas last year. I’m wearing one of my favourite fair isle winter knits. My inner feminist encouraged me to view my profile as a filtering opportunity.
Despite my best efforts, an attractive, single man of my age has volunteered to meet me at a local pub with a garden and craft ales. He manages, for an entire three hours, to be charming, adult and funny. And so do I. We rock the date. But the biggest surprise of the evening is that, for the first time in many, many, many years, I feel that unmistakable quickening of the pulse and the dopamine rush of biblical lust. At the end of the night, as we say goodbye, he leans in and kisses me. I’m forty-four and I’m being kissed under a sky full of stars on a summer’s evening. I seem to have fallen into yet another brilliant activity open to single people in their forties.
“I told you this was a good idea,” I crow at my inner feminist.
And it really was. I dated a few men over the summer and what I discovered is that dating as a wizened forty-something feminist is much more empowering than dating as a shiny anxious twenty-something. This time round, I’m less worried about whether they like me (that’s for them to puzzle out) but I am curious and open to what I feel about them, whether we connect, who they are, what their perspectives are on politics, family, Brexit, running, veganism, #MeToo. Happily, all the men I meet are interesting and flatteringly interested in me. My inner feminist protects me from inauthenticity because she is seeking connection: she doesn’t need a relationship, but she’s interested in the possibility that she might want one. And I need some protection from the truism that life is “better together”. Although the heteronormative catechism has grudgingly accepted that it’s preferable to be happily single than unhappily in a relationship, it still recoils from the idea of happily single. Having been single for nearly half of my forties, I’m baffled by this. In most ways being single is much easier than being in a relationship, even a good one.
Whether or not the dates lead to another date, they are all time well spent. After all, how often do you get to trade stories with men whose lives parallel your own while flirting with the delicious possibility of sexual connection?
Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate what makes mid-life dating so terrifying. We know how dark human beings can be; we know we are making ourselves vulnerable to further rejection and disappointment; we know how hard we can fall and how long it can take to pick ourselves back up and limp on. Yet this is precisely what makes them such luminous acts of courage and hope.
As I navigate this anachronistic landscape of middle-aged dating, it begins to dawn on me that the marriage-and-kids narrative of relationships has no place here. At first this is disorienting but then liberating: there is an opportunity to unshackle our relationships from what is, after all, a patriarchal construct. If we have learnt little else by now, we understand that life is an uncertain process and the “soul mate” discourse dominating dating stems from an ideology which aggressively and effectively annexes the uterus for male reproductive purposes. So rather than seeking definition and certainty in these familiar narratives surely, it is more adult and egalitarian to embrace contingency. To enter relationships in a respectful spirit of creative negotiation, to bring kindness, humour and gentleness to this most intimate and exposing of human interactions?
Who better to drive this than our inner feminist? Women are great at relationships: it’s our domain. So if you are fortunate enough to find yourself sipping a decent tempranillo across the table from some man who is engaging, respectful and makes the blood sing in your veins, perhaps view it as an opportunity to spark a bolder, brighter story of relationships, whether they last two hours, two months, two years or two decades. And don’t be afraid to make the first move, because I don’t think any of us really understand why we show up; these are new stories, waiting to be written.