I understand that dating in middle age can be incredibly difficult but am I naive for believing that someone like my mother shouldn't feel limited? Photo: Stocksy
There is an old card that my mother treasures. Inside, the little girl's handwriting reads: "You are the prettiest person in the whole world. I hope I grow up to be like you." I wrote it to her when I was six and she says it was something I told her often. She also likes to say, in a self-deprecating way, that daughters outgrow their infatuation with their mothers. But for me, the sentiment remains. She is the most beautiful person I know, inside and out, though she doesn't always see it.
My mother exudes a unique beauty. She's intelligent in a way that is immediately known, never shown off. She's curious – a traveller and enviably worldly. Her elegance is unmistakable, as is her inherent style. But her most attractive quality is her enduring youth. This is what enables her, at 60, to dedicate an exhausting amount of time to her business, working late into the night and avoiding sleep. This is what keeps her travelling the world, intent on discovering new places and falling in love with different cultures. It's what sparks her cheeky sense of humour and infectious laughter. This is what sees her joining me for weekends in New York, giddy with excitement for a night of theatre and cocktails.
I rarely feel the age difference between us and yet, in some ways, my mother considers herself to be frustratingly "too old". I recently wrote an article about ways we can improve our sex lives and when I tried to gauge her opinion, she brushed it off. "I'm too old to think about these things," she joked. I pictured the woman who had accompanied me to a downtown karaoke bar where men half her age ordered her margaritas and thought "Really, too old?" I thought of her travelling the world alone, swinging her suitcase with ease and rushing back to the hotel for happy hour – she didn't seem "too old" for anything to me. And yet the topic seemed no longer relevant to her.
My mother isn't single. She has been in a stable relationship for a few years now. Her and her partner don't live together but enjoy regular coffee dates, walks on the beach and gourmet dinners. While I know she is content with the companionship, it is yet to feel like a true, great love. She's reluctant to take it to the next step. When we talk about it, she reasons that in middle age, everybody comes with baggage. This means you have to compromise, she tells me, much more than you did in your youth. Her boyfriend is kind, thoughtful and honest, so she is willing to settle. She also doesn't want to be alone and at 60, it's a frightening reality for her.
In a recent episode of the popular "Dear Sugar" podcast, writers Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond chat to economist Paul Oyer about "scarcity" in the dating world. The perception that women have fewer options romantically is examined against actual data. According to Oyer, statistics show that men live shorter lives than women, therefore supply and demand dictates that options for women in their 60s are drastically reduced. The episode speaks to the notion of "settling" and attempts to dispel some of the negative connotations around the idea. "I'm an optimistic enough person to say 'no, never settle'," says Strayed. "On the other hand... I also know that long-term monogamy is about accepting things that maybe aren't ideal."
Almond adds, "The reality is you're going to have to 'settle' with somebody, all of their pathologies and all of their neurosis... Because if it's a healthy marriage, you'll see all of them."
I understand dating in middle-age can be incredibly difficult but am I naive for believing that someone like my mother shouldn't feel limited? I crave for her to be swept off her feet, be it by extraordinary conversation or good sex, or both. If we're lucky, we are able to experience numerous great loves in our lifetimes, each different in what makes them extraordinary – be it be a great passion, great chemistry, a great intellectual understanding, or a great friendship. These shared experiences of rare human connection are what make life worth living.
My father has often told me that when he met my mother, she was remarkably irresistible; she was adventurous and unique. My parents were divorced when I was a teenager and while they did experience a great love for many years, the threat of divorce loomed throughout my childhood until, finally, it was unavoidable. After their marriage, my mother was in an emotionally abusive relationship for nearly a decade. What began as another great passion – seeing her smile with a newfound joy all over again – quickly soured. Her boyfriend revealed himself to be a manipulative and selfish person. After eight years and a battle with breast cancer for which he offered no support, she ended it. She was better off but unrecognisable. Her confidence was shattered.
Since the breakup, she has rebuilt herself to be the person I've always respected and loved. Her failed relationships have also accentuated the qualities I admire most: her strength, resilience and independence. I'm so proud of her success, but I long for her to be truly happy in her romantic life. Maybe I'm impatient and that is something that will eventually develop with her current partner – or perhaps it's not even really something she worries about. Maybe "great loves" are something she is willing to leave, comfortably, in the past?
I recently watched the movie Wild, based on the memoir of the same name by Cheryl Strayed. In it, Reese Witherspoon's character is grieving the loss of her mother. "She was the love of my life," she says in the film. Afterward, I considered my own relationship with my mother – could it be possible that at 60, I am my mother's great love? Separated by oceans, we remain the best of friends and I admire her more than any other woman I know. After all, she will always be the most beautiful person in my life.