My ex-husband and I separated two-and-half years ago, and since then I have discovered that dating at the age of 56 is not for the faint-hearted.
It’s not that there’s a shortage of men — dating apps are awash with people of my age looking for love. No, it’s the psychological hurdle to dating I feel I must get past as a mother of four. For no matter how liberated I feel, the prospect of getting out there again as a middle-aged mum does not thrill me.
Women like me don’t, by and large, spend large amounts of time, effort and money on making ourselves appear irresistible to the opposite sex. We don’t get Brazilian waxes, go on diets to fit into a size ten again, buy a whole new wardrobe of dating clothes and flirt online and in real life with men we don’t know. Or at least we don’t in my neck of the home counties.
Which is why I have thoroughly shocked myself by letting my children nominate me for ITV’s Love Island spin-off for midlife single parents, The Romance Retreat.
Lucy Cavendish: I have thoroughly shocked myself by letting my children nominate me for ITV’s Love Island spin-off for midlife single parents, The Romance Retreat
It was their idea, to be fair. When they saw the programme was looking for contestants, they got very excited. If I feel squeamish about the idea of dating as a boring, unwaxed, size 14 mum, they are positively gung-ho about it.
‘This is perfect for you,’ says Leonard, aged 19, who was the most enthusiastic. He’s a huge fan of Love Island and is desperate to be on it, but now he’s decided I should be on it instead. ‘You’d love it!’ he adds.
Love it? At first, I could think of nothing further from my comfort zone, but then I imagined myself being away somewhere warm, relaxing, meeting new people and, who knows, maybe even encountering someone special . . .
Trying very hard not to think about the cameras lurking behind every palm tree, I began to come round to the idea. After all, I’m a trained relationship therapist, so if I fail to couple up, I could always entertain myself by being everyone’s professional shoulder-to-cry-on. And I do find Love Island compelling viewing, the interactions — and what they say about people — endlessly fascinating.
Much like a dating profile, The Romance Retreat application involves me describing myself (‘funny, honest, quirky, talkative’), and what I am looking for (‘someone interesting and family orientated, who would go the distance’). Is there anything I wouldn’t be up for? I say ‘polyamory’.
This being Love Island-like, I had to upload a photo of myself. What the experience would entail should I be selected remains to be seen — ITV has not yet revealed if their middle-aged contestants will be expected to prance about in bikinis and share beds with strangers.
I’m not convinced the viewing public would want to see me in my swimwear — and I certainly wouldn’t indulge in any on-camera bedroom antics. However, I do think the prospect of a group of 40 and 50-somethings sharing a bedroom in an exotic villa, having been given a quick coating of spray tan, is ripe for hilarity.
And that’s before you get their children involved. The show also requires you to nominate a child over 18 who would be happy to be featured — in my case, Leonard — as well as a ‘back-up’ child. My eldest, Raymond, 26, has volunteered for this.
For no matter how liberated I feel, the prospect of getting out there again as a middle-aged mum does not thrill me
Let’s be honest, the combination of dating and children is usually a tough one to negotiate, especially when they are still very much in the nest.
On the one hand, mine are very good at bigging me up. My daughter tells me I deserve someone amazing who will love me and look after me, and my sons say any man would be lucky to have me.
And yet, like most of the younger generation, they are tolerant in theory and enormously judgmental in practice. On the rare occasions I have signed up to an app, matched, texted and then gone out, those super-lucky men have turned out to be not quite amazing enough.
Some don’t get beyond a casual glance. One poor man on a dating site looked perfectly lovely, but was 69. ‘Too old,’ claimed my 15-year-old daughter, Ottoline, dismissing him with a swipe.
They all agree the next Mr Lucy must be kind, honest, fun, healthy and solvent. But that’s about all they agree on.
Ottoline seems to want someone who has a female child around her age or perhaps older, so that she can have a much longed-for sister. They also need to be nice to her, talk to her, notice her, like her and take her out for treats.
‘Erm, I’m supposed to be getting a boyfriend for me,’ I keep telling her as she flips through any man interested in me on online dating apps. One man is ‘nice but dull’. Another is ‘nice but dim’. One passes her stringent list of qualities, but she decides he lives too far away.
Is she, in fact, sabotaging my chances because she is worried about me getting any kind of new partner?
No, she insists she’s fine with it and I believe her — as all 15-year-old girls should be, she is just very, very choosy.
Raymond, meanwhile, claims he wants nothing except my happiness. However, he can’t always suppress his strong sardonic streak. Recently, a suitor actually dared to come over to the house to go for a walk. Given that all my brood still live at home, I thought that was brave.
My son was civil but kept raising an eyebrow at me every time this poor man said anything. When the chap actually started a sentence with ‘this is an interesting story’, and it then turned out to be a rather dull one about the difficulties of parking in his local multi-storey, Raymond’s eyebrow virtually shot off his forehead.
I am dating men — I favour fellow countryside and dog lovers, ideally who live nearby — who either have children who live elsewhere or are grown up enough to have left the nest entirely.
It’s not very relaxing to bring a man into my home when he has to face four older children, who quiz him on everything from his intentions towards me to what he does for a job.
And one peril of dating men with their own significant relationship histories was brought to my attention when I enjoyed a dinner with a fellow parent, only for him to text me the next day to say he’d decided to ask his ex to marry him.
Leonard has been known to judge not just my potential dates but my own credentials, too. He works as a personal trainer and managed to get me a free membership at the very upmarket fitness club where he works. For a week, I loved going there, doing yoga and dancing around to Zumba and swimming but, at the end of it, he took me aside and gently told me to ditch my old baggy tracksuit bottoms and faded T-shirt. A bit of make-up wouldn’t go amiss either.
‘Make an effort,’ he said. But why would I want to get my hair done, put on make-up and wear expensive new gymwear to go and get sweaty? ‘Have you had a good look around?’ he said.
So what am I looking for? What most other people are looking for. Someone fun, kind, active, optimistic — and with their own teeth. My children think I’ll find this on Love Island, and who knows?
The next day I decided to pay more attention. I got what he meant. All the women, of whatever age, looked amazing — perfect hair, nails, kit and bodies. The men were similarly well turned out.
‘If you want to meet an active, fit man with money, you better up your game,’ he told me.
This is the Love Island attitude, of course — the idea that maximising your attractiveness to the opposite sex is all about your appearance and is essentially a full-time job. But for the over-50s, this no longer washes. We already have full-time jobs and this is not where we thought we’d be at our age.
I am happy to admit that my romantic history is fairly complicated. Raymond was the product of a major relationship I had in my 20s, and the other three I had with a second long-term partner of nine years. My ex-husband is not the father of any of my children.
Yet I assumed I’d be married for the rest of my life, happily wearing jeans and wellies while walking the dogs. Watching Midsomer Murders in the evening in companionable silence, not shouting to make myself heard in noisy cocktail bars with men I’ve barely met.
The truth is, for quite a while after the end of my marriage, I felt lost and hurt, which is not a state of mind conducive to successful dating. When men asked me out during this time, I found that I couldn’t trust myself to interpret their signals correctly.
I felt rusty and sad, and I couldn’t believe that anyone would want to be with me anyway.
It took me weeks to clock that men were interested and then, when I did, I found myself unable to enjoy their company without questioning their motives.
At the beginning, my children were hugely supportive of my desire to be alone and heal. Every time I burst into tears (ooh, around a million times a day), they got me tissues and patted my back and ran me baths.
My daughter said supportive things such as ‘all men are evil’ and ‘never trust any man ever’, which made me laugh. She was 13 at the time.
But, gradually, I think they probably got a bit fed up with my tears. Friends were increasingly unsympathetic too, in the nicest possible way. ‘You’re not still single, are you?’ they’d ask, incredulous. ‘How long has it been now?’
Now I am beginning to believe they’re right.
For the past few months, I’ve noticed that other people who split up about the same time as me and my former husband are now lovingly coupled up with other people. I have friends whose hearts were broken, but here they are, wreathed in smiles and holding hands with their next beloved. If they can do it, so can I.
A year ago, I decided to make a big change. I sold the family home we’d been in for more than 20 years and we moved closer to my mother, who is in her 80s.
The change of scenery seemed to do us all good. It felt as if we were all moving on and, over the past six months, I have begun to expand my dating horizons, too.
I now see it as an opportunity not only to meet new people but do new things — be it ice skating, wild camping or just swapping my treasured lie-ins for a 6am jog — and I have dated more men.
Being less choosy helps consolidate my idea of what I am looking for. It feels fresh and exciting — but also daunting. As older people, we get set in our ways and we have baggage, but I have decided to be expansive, not take it too seriously and have some fun. It’s all very new to me.
So what am I looking for? What most other people are looking for. Someone fun, kind, active, optimistic — and with their own teeth.
My children think I’ll find this on Love Island, and who knows? At least, if I do get picked, for the duration of my time on the show I won’t be just a mum who cooks and cleans and washes socks.
I will be an attractive woman, possibly wearing bikini, with her own needs, opinions and desires. It’s taken a while, but finally I am starting to feel like my old self again. Bring on the fake tan.