Writer Christa D’Souza pictured at her home in 2007
The invitation to a birthday party on a boat to Capri in the summer of 2012 announced that the theme was the Seventies.
Which — although I normally hate fancy dress — was fine because for once I had something to wear: a floaty halterneck maxi dress which had always looked sort of ridiculous on the streets of London, but was just perfect for the occasion.
It was while I was getting ready, and looking at myself from behind in the hotel’s wardrobe mirrors, that I noticed it.
Overnight, apparently, I’d grown back-fat. Back-fat that sprouted in folds like a chubby baby’s from underneath the sides of my bikini top’s straps.
Suddenly, my party outfit wasn’t looking so great, after all. That weekend in Italy was a turning point in my life. From that moment on, it felt as if everything was subtly, but surely, changing. My underwear had become somehow ‘friendlier’ — or do I mean ‘tighter’? So, weirdly, had all my shoes.
My waist — never a strong point — was disappearing by the day, along with my hip bones.
Although I was theoretically still the same dress size, I was unhooking my bras a notch, tucking fewer things in, wearing baggier tops. Without realising it, I was beginning to dress like my mother. What fresh hell, I wondered, lay round the corner?
Two years later, in the summer of 2014, I found out. When the symptoms arrived, it was like being hit by a ton of bricks.
The hot flushes. The insomnia. The complete absence of sexual desire — snatched, as if like a rug, from beneath my feet. The palpitations. The dreaded restless leg syndrome, which causes a horrible, crawling sensation in your limbs.
All of them turned up within a month of each other. Compound all this with the fact my eldest son had shot up from 5ft to over 6ft and had developed a habit of picking me up whenever he wanted me to stop talking, and boy, at the age of 54 I understood the meaning of the words ‘old’ and ‘helpless’.
Lots has been written about the menopause (5,741 books on Amazon at the last count), but if you are like me you still have quite a few niggling questions. How long does it really last? Are hormones safe if you have had breast cancer? (I have.) If they are, will they make us fat?
The list goes on. Is the only answer to middle-aged spread a tummy lift? For back-fat, liposuction? Should I take up a hobby to make me feel better? Is it time I got a grown-up haircut?
Oh, Lord, then there is the old sex thing. What do we do about that? Is it our God-given right to feel horny until we die? Or is it time to finally admit that there are those of us out there who have barely done it with our other halves for years? And that we are fine?
Before we get on to the subject of sex we need to talk about the perimenopause — the years leading up to the main event; the drink, as it were, in the last chance saloon.
The perimenopause — the years leading up to the main event; the drink, as it were, in the last chance saloon (file photo)
Or, to put it more bluntly, those last remaining years where you can still have babies and your body is telling you to get out there and mate with someone — anyone, really — before it is too late.
Science tells us that the last of our trio of reproductive hormones to tail off is testosterone, which hangs around for a year or two after oestrogen and progesterone have bowed out.
Now testosterone, as we all know, is the male androgen which supposedly makes us pushier, hairier and — crucially — more sexually aroused.
Trouble is, it doesn’t necessarily make us more aroused by the partner we’ve lived with and loved and watched grow man boobs for the past goodness knows how many years. Or at least, that’s according to several glamorous, high-achieving women I’ve spoken to about their experiences.
If, however, you are in the throes of feeling like a sex-mad teenager all over again, I’d say: enjoy it while you can
‘It happened like clockwork to a group of us just before we hit 50,’ says Sarah, a 55-year-old music producer. ‘So much so that we even came up with a name for ourselves: “The 49-ers.”
‘I’d got to a point in my life where I knew no one was ever going to rip my clothes off in a fit of lust ever again, and I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to that feeling.
‘I think I went a bit mad, wearing glittery eye make-up, sleeping with younger men and trying to keep the party going for as long as possible.’
Another friend, a 55-year-old writer who is now a year into her menopause proper, remembers the sheer exhilaration of the ‘golden sexual experiences’ she enjoyed during her perimenopausal, ‘49-er’ phase.
‘It was so exciting,’ she says. ‘It felt like I was making up for lost time — having those experiences I never had at college or in my 20s because I was so screwed up about my body and too frightened and embarrassed to ask for what I wanted.
It’s one symptom women don’t expect: But hormone turmoil can drive middle-aged woman into the arms of a toyboy (file photo)
‘But now, in middle age, I wasn’t bogged down with childcare any more, and I felt more confident about myself and my body than I’d ever done in my life. I couldn’t remember the last time someone of the opposite sex had made a pass at me, so when it happened it was like a light being switched on.
‘I’d always hated the idea of cheating, and yet here I was, doing just that. I couldn’t bear the idea of going to my deathbed never having slept with anyone other than my husband again. To be really honest, I couldn’t bear the idea of sleeping with my husband again.’
If oestrogen is the hormone of mumsy compliance, then testosterone is the hormone of infidelity and novelty. Meaning that if you suddenly find yourself seeing your personal trainer in a whole new light, or — worse — thinking inappropriate thoughts about your 18-year-old son’s friends, don’t worry. It’s all perfectly normal. There are plenty of others out there just like you.
Dr Julie Holland, a psycho-pharmacologist, says: ‘We’re programmed to seek out an alpha male with the best possible genes, not the prince who’s charmingly slumped at our side.
‘Older women are more likely to get aroused when in the company of younger, novel, pheromone-secreting men. We naturally pursue youthful specimens because there is less chance of genetic damage in younger DNA.’
Not that everyone automatically becomes a member of the 49-er club, of course. Nor do all women lose their libido the minute the menopause kicks in.
If, however, you are in the throes of feeling like a sex-mad teenager all over again, I’d say: enjoy it while you can. Because chances are, when your periods stop for good, so will all trace of sexual desire. And that can be for some of us — far above and beyond the weight gain and the hot flushes and the sleepless nights — the unkindest cut of all.
After the menopause it felt like I was closed for business. Like the end of the world
‘I still remember that cold, panicky feeling of, what? But I love sex!’ says 54-year-old Anna (interestingly, one of the few women I talked to who considered sex the cornerstone of her relationship). ‘And I’m really good at it. After the menopause it felt like I was closed for business. Like the end of the world.’
But are our hormones entirely to blame? Maybe not, says Dr Holland, whose book Moody Bitches is about hormones and moods. ‘People have this idea that hormones cause behaviour, and this may be true,’ she says.
‘But just as often it’s the other way round, and environment and behaviour will actually trigger hormones. It may just be that our husbands and partners aren’t doing it for us any more.
‘Say you start working out with a cute personal trainer, you’re like — oh my God, I’m aroused! Well, his hormones are triggering your testosterone. Which is why I tell my patients, even if you aren’t feeling horny, go ahead and start having sex. Sometimes, even though you don’t think you are in the mood, once you get going, things change.’
Wise advice, no doubt. I must confess, though, that as I write this, I can feel a slight slump in my shoulders. The burden society puts on us older folk to dive into bed like 20-year-olds — is this the price we pay for living longer?
‘I was shocked when I went to my doctor after being prescribed HRT and straight off he asked me about my sex life, and wasn’t it amazing how testosterone has made love-making so much better,’ says Susie.
‘And I had to tell him that my husband, whom I adored, and I hadn’t had sex for years. When he then said, why didn’t I take a lover, like so many of his other clients had, I was confused and a little offended. Should I? When I’d sort of put all that to bed, and was fine with it?’
Susie’s testimony struck a chord with me. When I hear stories from my friends about the marvellous sex lives they are having: the stolen snogs in dark alleys; the naughty WhatsApp conversations; the clandestine sessions in Premier Inns, yes, of course I feel a stab of something. Friends for whom sex has remained pivotal to the relationship, they stick in my craw, too.
They stick in my craw because yes, I do feel guilty at not having worked harder at the physical side of things, of so willingly taking the path of least resistance, of falling into the nice comfy trap of treating my partner like my sibling.
So again I say it: to all of you out there who still feel a tiny iota of desire for your other halves, make the most of it. Because, like they say, once it’s gone, it’s almost impossible to get back.
Not that everyone automatically becomes a member of the 49-er club - nor do all women lose their libido the minute the menopause kicks in, says Christa D’Souza (file photo)
‘It’s a small death, the menopause,’ says my friend Sarah, ‘and I’m still partially grieving. But I made a decision that I had to go out and look for the silver lining.
‘The year when every scrap of oestrogen had left my body was the year I discovered ambition. That was when the focus on being in a sexual relationship shifted and I started fantasising about leadership and running companies instead.’
Pippa, another 50-something friend, agrees: ‘There’s a strange bullishness that takes over — I always worried while in the thick of bringing up my children that I had peaked in my 20s and it was downhill all the way, career-wise.
‘But now I can feel a little flame reigniting. Having done years of mashed veg and traipsing to the local swings, it’s suddenly about you, as you haven’t been for years.’
According to the renowned 20th-century anthropologist Margaret Mead, ‘there is no more creative force in the world than a menopausal woman with zest’. But there may be a price for your marriage.
I’d always thought it was the men who did the midlife walking out on their partners, but apparently not. Statistically, it is we who are more likely to want out once the children have left the nest.
It seems that for every woman who believes that because she’s let herself go she doesn’t deserve any better, there’s another who feels that actually, after years of dutifully putting supper on the table and having sex with someone who, frankly, she now no longer finds attractive, she damn well does deserve better.
What about the woman who flees the nest and then realises she’s made a terrible mistake?
‘You look at your husband and you think: “It’s my turn,”’ says a 55-year-old friend, married with two grown-up children. ‘For 25 years I’ve put your shirts in the washing machine, listened to you talking about your work and cooked your dinner.
‘Those same nurturing hormones that keep you making dinner every night for two decades — after the menopause, they switch off.
‘This more or less coincides with your children leaving home, which leaves you and your husband alone together. The last time you had this much time together, you were as horny as anything. But it’s a different story now the oestrogen is wearing thin. The desire to look after him, to cook and take care of things, let alone “do it” — it just evaporates.’
But what actually happens to the 50-something women who decide to take the drastic option? What about the woman who flees the nest and then realises she’s made a terrible mistake?
The woman who wakes up not in her rambling family home but in a poky flat next to the karate instructor she left her husband and children for, who cannot believe the appalling error she has made?
‘It was like a drug. I felt alive, like a light had been switched on. And I couldn’t see why it was wrong. I looked great, I felt great. I felt I was really living and that I deserved it after 20 years of devoting myself to my kids and my husband.’
So speaks my friend Katy, a novelist and mother of three boys who, at the age of 49 — another 49-er! — found herself ready to end it all for a semi-professional tennis player she met while working in Spain.
‘What is scary, in retrospect, is how little guilt I felt,’ admits Katy, 53. ‘I remember thinking: this is really working. OK, my husband is a little miserable, but after all, he’s been happy for 20 years.’
Finally, says Katy, a friend persuaded her to see a therapist. ‘I told the therapist I might be on the verge of ruining my life, but even then I still didn’t get it. I’d nod my head as she talked about intimacy and sharing and a deeper kind of love, and then the minute I walked out I’d be texting my lover.
‘It really was like a fix — I’d been chemically taken over. But eventually I managed to quit him — I still don’t quite know how.’
Four years on, after some serious rebuilding, Katy is still with her husband and profoundly grateful for the way things turned out.
Yes, she is now on hormones, which she describes as ‘helping things along’. ‘We still have sex — we did it this morning,’ she says. ‘It’s different from “affair” sex, but it always feels good.’
Katy is deeply grateful to the friend who recommended the therapist and knows it would have been a terrible idea to run off into the sunset with her lover who was, she admits in retrospect, ‘a pretty second-rate person’.
‘I look at it now as a choice between having almost everything — a wonderful, secure home and family, happy children, companionship and shared values and the joy of sharing books, music, friendships, extended family and history — or the intoxication of selfish, self-reflective fantasy sex and the bubble of pure freedom,’ she says.
‘Had I acted on that second choice, my life would have been a very diminished, very self-oriented and ultimately very sad. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss the moments of bliss.
‘In the clutches of hormonal shifts and changes, the world looks a very different place, and love and empathy get wiped out. It is incredibly easy to make terrible mistakes.’
- Extracted from The Hot Topic: A Life-Changing Look At The Change Of Life by Christa D’Souza, to be published by Short Books on May 5 at £8.99. Offer price £6.74 (25 per cent discount) until May 10, 2016.
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