The Single Files: over 50, over child-rearing and unattached

Mon, Feb 18, 2013, 00:00

Our week-long series continues. For people in middle age, looking for a new partner can be a daunting prospect, but facing a future alone isn’t easy either, writes HILARY FANNIN

Between the ages of 50 and 63, separated and divorced women outnumber their single sisters. Their stories are entirely individual, but among the warm and dynamic women I spoke to in this age category, there are some shared patterns and concerns.

Three are mothers of adult and teenage children. Having parented these children, they placed their own lives partially on hold until their offspring gained independence. Conversations with them tend to veer towards their interest in finding a new partner, now that their children are older and they finally have more time to themselves. The idea of looking for a new partner can be quite daunting. However, facing into a future alone, with the fear of becoming overly reliant on sons and daughters whose care and education has involved much personal sacrifice, is also not a straightforward prospect.

Re-entering the fray

Gill Doherty is 51, elegant and spirited. She was widowed eight years ago when her much-loved husband died as a result of an aggressive cancer. The shock and numbness have almost lifted now; the dark days when, she says, she pulled over on the motorway, overcome with despair and unable to drive, are behind her. Her children, a son and daughter, are now in their teens.

Armed with the confidence of having once been in a strong and happy marriage, she is ready to start looking for a new partner. Her decision to wait until her children were older before doing this has, she believes, stood to her and to them. For many years after her bereavement she felt “cheated, not single”; now she recognises that “there is a me in here somewhere”, and is finally comfortable enough in her own skin to re-enter the fray.

Her work as an IT trainer is varied and stimulating, but, she says, most of her colleagues “are about 12”. So where do mature women go to find men their own age in this country? The internet, the first port of call for many singles, has, Doherty feels, been a total waste of time. A brief dalliance with a dating site, which charged €50 a shot to view a profile, unwittingly led her to “sleazy men looking for email sex talk”. She had two dates; neither merited a second meeting.

She is “railing a little against suburbia”, frustrated with a society that seems to make decisions for her and with social mores that favour the married classes. Despite a “wonderful group of girlfriends” and the support of family and neighbours, couple-dominated dinner parties and the school gate leave little opportunity to meet someone new. But “you live in hope that Mr Right will walk into the office”.

Those coupled-up dinner parties can indeed be an exclusive club, one that Siobhan O’Donnell, 51 and the mother of a teenage son, has, at times, found herself excluded from. O’Donnell, a holistic therapist, has a judicial separation from her husband of 20 years and, like Doherty, describes having a circle of close female friends and a busy, fulfilling life. But couple rituals tend to prevail at the weekend.

O’Donnell, calm and delicately beautiful, “trusted and adored” her former husband; she “loved being married” and was, for a time, shattered by the ending of the relationship.

Recently, however, she has begun to look for a new partner, encouraged both by her son, whom she describes as “a lovely, open, mature person who has had to grow up faster than other teenagers”, and by a sense that she doesn’t want to look back in 10 years and say, “I should have done this”.

Having joined an exclusive and expensive dating agency (the fee was almost €1,500), she has had a number of dinner dates with apparently eligible men. She describes, not without humour, arriving at the designated restaurant and being shown to her date by the maitre d’. She has met some interesting men, she says, but none of the dates have moved her beyond the restaurant door.

There are often “issues”, she adds cautiously. Some men are still living at home with their mothers; others are enmeshed in difficult situations with their children and former spouses.

O’Donnell has put her membership with the agency on hold for now. For her, mindfulness, living in the now and trying not to worry about the future are the keys to emotional wellbeing.

‘Every bill is yours’

Jayne Baird is 57, the mother of an adult daughter and co-owner of Little Fish Designs, a jewellery store in Blackrock Shopping Centre. Charismatic, funny and resourceful, she falls around laughing when I ask her whether, after being alone for almost 30 years, she would like to share her life with someone. “He’d want to be a bit of an oddball, someone slightly off-beam,” she says, adding with zest: “I may have been single for 30 years, but it was not without the odd romp.”

More seriously, she concedes that she wouldn’t mind someone “to share her dotage with”. She has some fears about growing old alone, but mainly, as with the other interviewees, she doesn’t want to become a burden on her only child.

For Baird, singlehood was all about single-parenting, having brought up her daughter almost entirely alone. It was tough in the early days, living in private rented accommodation in a middle-class Dublin suburb without central heating or a washing machine. All around her, families prospered.

“It wasn’t easy,” she says. “You make all the decisions, have all the responsibilities. Every bill is yours, nothing is shared.” Unable to afford a car, she and Kelly, her daughter, went everywhere together on her bike.

Unlike some of the other women, who at times find themselves excluded from family activities and suburban rituals, Baird experienced no discrimination at any stage in her life from neighbours or friends.

Invited to every drinks and dinner party going, and being a welcome addition to any table, she credits her dearly loved friends and neighbours with playing an active and vitally positive role in Kelly’s upbringing.

So singlehood is good, a positive state? “I’m not a tough old cookie,” she says. “As I get older and have more time for myself, I think, yes, I’d like someone around. But,” she adds, her brown eyes flashing, “if I’m in bed with my Dr Hauschka night cream on my face in my fluffy pyjamas, watching Mrs Brown’s Boys, I don’t necessarily want to be nudged.”

Being single ... in your 40s

“Being single is a state, not a condition. Singlehood is not a disease,” says Susan Conley, a 48-year-old journalist and writer, divorced since 2009. A witty, independently minded blonde, Conley loved being married, but the relationship ended.

Instead of throwing herself into another relationship, Conley took the inventive step of learning to ride a horse. “Every single self-help book you’ll ever read will tell you to live in the present. The horse knows if you’re not paying attention,” she says.

She is now a proficient horsewoman and, more importantly perhaps, she is clear that the loneliest place to exist is inside an unhappy marriage.

Her friends and colleagues are hugely important. “I am grateful for my life,” she says simply. “One of the great things I’ve achieved, having gone from being married to divorce to being single, is that I’ve become so much better at asking for help.”

Conley has not had a child. “That ship has sailed,” she says, “not without regret.” She points, however, to the importance of her role as “a parachute aunt” to her American-born nieces and nephews.

For Conley, the negative implications of living alone are tempered by the knowledge that she is a person who needs her own space. “If I did live with someone again I’d need my own tree house, a room of my own. I need my solitude.”

I ask if the Sex and the City fantasy of rotating boyfriends like rotisserie chickens holds any relevance for her, and she laughs. “Certainly not in this city. I don’t know anyone who lives like that.”

Internet dating she describes it as “a myth . . . There is a fantasy that you are going to meet all these men, and really it’s just about clicking on to the next profile in the belief that there is someone better on the next screen.”

Being single is “just the now”, she says. She is busy and productive: her new digital novel, That Magic Mischief, is available on Amazon now , and while she is interested in meeting “a human man”, she is refreshingly candid about her priorities. “Sure it would be lovely, but, frankly, the horse would have to come first.”

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