News, Culture & Society

Women’s lives have changed beyond recognition in one gen

There’s a mental image I have of my dear old mum, Norma, whenever she pops into my head unexpectedly.

She is usually in the kitchen at our family home in Perth, Western Australia. Her hair is cut in the same style it always was: a mumsy, practical, jaw-length bob, dyed and styled by her best friend — not terribly well, it has to be said — for decades.

That same friend was also responsible for making her rather unfashionable dresses, which usually had an elasticated waist. It mattered not a jot to my mother. A size 18, she was entirely content in her middle-aged mumsiness.

She was my mum and I adored her. That, to me, was what a woman her age should look like. What everybody’s mum looked like.

Amanda Platell

Left, Amanda Platell’s mother Norma in her 60s and right, the writer today, aged 60

When I look at photographs of her from that era now, however, another thought strikes me. 

Mum was probably the same age in those pictures as I am now. I turned 60 a couple of weeks ago, yet the difference between me and my mother at this momentous age could hardly be more conspicuous. Such are the joys of turning 60 in 2017.

The most obvious contrast is in how we look. I work hard to retain my size 12 figure. Three times a week I do 90-minute sessions of cardiovascular, weight training or boxing at the gym, and I watch what I eat.

My generation has an interest in grooming and fashionable clothes for which my mother and her peers had neither the appetite nor the budget.

I love clothes and have found a few designers who suit my style and my shape: namely Amanda Wakeley, Michael Kors and the High Street chain Maje, where I am happy to splash out on well-cut suits and dresses.

And let’s not forget the advances available to women my age in terms of holding back the years artificially.

I’ve had more than a decade of facial peels (where the top layer of skin is melted away with chemicals to reveal the smooth flesh below) and various non-surgical procedures. Unlike celebrities who deny ever having ‘anything done’, I’ve admitted to all of them.

I also have my hair dyed and highlighted every three weeks in an excellent local salon. One of my recent discoveries has been eyelash extensions and I have them done every month, too.

Let’s just say I spend considerably more than the few bob Mum would slip her hairdresser friend every few weeks to have her roots touched up.

Nothing more pointedly illustrates how society — and young men in particular — view the average 60-year-old woman nowadays than an experience I had at a pub recently.

 Lord, how the world has changed! We now have men adding a few years in order to date older women.

I was having lunch when I noticed the man at the next table looking at me. He was attractive — tall, blue eyes, blond hair, youngish — so I looked back. When my friend went to order drinks at the bar, the stranger strolled over and asked me out for lunch.

We met a week later and, as we chatted over Sunday roast, I noted that we had a lot in common — especially a love of politics.

He had told me he was in his ‘late 40s’ but later slipped up, revealing that he was 20 when Blair won the 1997 election. I did the maths: he was a mere babe of 40. He admitted he’d lied so I would go out with him again.

Lord, how the world has changed! We now have men adding a few years in order to date older women. Would this have happened to my mother? Of course it wouldn’t.

When she was 60, my mum would never have attracted a man young enough to be her son in the local pub. For a start she was rarely, if ever, a visitor to a pub. More importantly, she had also been happily married to my dad for 40 years by then, and was devoted to her three children and five grandchildren.

So it has taken just one generation, but the lives of women have changed beyond recognition.

After all, my peers were able to benefit from a university education, take advantage of the Pill, go on to shine in the workplace and travel the globe relatively cheaply. No wonder the world continues to be our oyster.

I¿m certainly not the only one who looks better than I should at 60. Whenever I see a picture of a glamorous mid-life woman, I check her age. Meryl Streep is fabulous at 68

I’m certainly not the only one who looks better than I should at 60. Whenever I see a picture of a glamorous mid-life woman, I check her age. Meryl Streep is fabulous at 68

To all those feminists I hear whining about inequality, let me say one thing: we women have never had it so good. We are spoilt for choice in terms of careers, enjoy a far longer window of opportunity for romance and have the tools to help us look younger than we have any right to.

Many of us — including me — are also lucky enough to have the money to do things we really want without having to ask a man for it.

I’m certainly not the only one who looks better than I should at 60. Whenever I see a picture of a glamorous mid-life woman, I check her age. 

Meryl Streep is fabulous at 68. Can former Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith really be 72? Former supermodel Christie Brinkley is incredible at 63, but she had a head start in the looks department. Both Michelle Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone will be 60 soon. 

It would be a mistake to think only wealthy women can defy the march of time. I wrote a piece a few years ago asking at what age a woman should stop wearing a bikini. When I suggested 40, I received a barrage of pictures from incredible-looking bikini-clad readers in their 50s and 60s, none rich, all outraged by what they saw as my ageism.

Of course, it’s not all shopping and champagne for us.

Yes, we new-age sexagenarians had the kind of careers our mothers could never have dreamt of, and can enjoy the rewards. But at what price? Personally, I have a restlessness and lack of contentment that, at my age, my mother could never have empathised with. There’s the rub: for many career women of my generation, life didn’t work out quite the way we expected.

As a schoolgirl, I had my life mapped out. I’d marry a lawyer, have five children, give up work before my first child and now be happily anticipating the arrival of my next grandchild.

Amanda Platell (pictured, aged 20)

Amanda Platell (pictured, as a young woman)

As a schoolgirl, I had my life mapped out. I’d marry a lawyer and have five children, writes Amanda Platell (pictured, as a young woman)

Instead I am single, dating and the closest I get to loving a child is someone else’s — although there are plenty of them around: nieces, nephews, godchildren, prospective new partners’ kids.

Today, one woman in four over 40 has not had children. For some —although I suspect not many — it is by choice. Others just didn’t find the right man at the right time.

For me, it failed to happen naturally. I didn’t leave it too late but IVF didn’t work and nor did praying. It just wasn’t God’s gift to me.

Like so many childless women, I fill my life with other people’s kids. But it is an enduring sadness for me. Although I don’t cry any more when I pass Baby Gap, I often linger and wonder ‘what if’. On a bad day I’ll walk in, pick up a baby’s pink romper suit and imagine how a little girl of mine would have looked in it.

My mum had problems getting pregnant, too — but then she started much earlier. She left school at 15 and first met my dad, Frank, at a wedding, then again at the local library when she was 18 and working as a secretary. They married two years later and will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary next February.

They tied the knot at a time when, in Britain, around 30,000 couples divorced each year, compared with more than 105,000 last year. During my entire childhood, we knew of only one couple who went their separate ways. Now, 48 per cent of married couples divorce within 15 years.

My parents had my older brother Michael when Mum was 26 — old for that era. Then she gave up work and became a full-time mum. She loved nothing more than caring for us all. She returned to work as a school secretary when we were teenagers, to make ends meet, but hated it.

Looking back at those old photos, I can see Mum was so glamorous when she was young. But it was tough raising three kids on little money and cooking, as she did in the early days, on a wood stove.

Those years of struggle took their toll. For years she couldn’t even go to work ‘dos’ with Dad, as she didn’t have a going-out frock. Exercise was frowned upon as being unladylike.

Not that she ever craved a different life: ‘I never wanted to be a working mum,’ she would often say. ‘But your education is everything. You have to have that “bit of paper” to get on in life now.’

Mum was determined we would all go to university, which my two brothers and I all did, becoming the first members of our family to make it past 16 at school.

After university, I became a journalist on a local newspaper and began to make my way in the career in which I longed to succeed and still love. 

Mum couldn’t have been prouder of me. All Mum ever wanted to do was marry a man who loved her, settle down and have a family. It’s easy to think that women of my generation necessarily had dramatically different hopes and dreams. Not so: that’s what I wanted, too, but life had other ideas.

Believe me, there¿s never been a better time to be single and 60, writes Amanda Platell

Believe me, there’s never been a better time to be single and 60, writes Amanda Platell

However impressed Mum was by my career, I know it saddens her that I never had the other things in life we both valued so much: a long and happy marriage, children and emotional security — someone like Dad to take care of me as he had her all those years.

I was the first person in our family to divorce, in my early 30s, after a marriage lasting only six years. I know that Mum, a devout Catholic, was ashamed, as even years later she had still not told anyone.

She was heartbroken when I told her I’d ended my engagement to Christopher ten years later, and upset when my next long-term relationship ended.

Being single at 60 would have been downright scary for Mum. But the number of people aged between 45 and 64 who live alone has risen by 23 per cent over the past decade, the majority of them women.

Divorce statistics for those over 60 — the so-called silver splitters — have shot up by a third over the past decade. And many women in this demographic never bothered to marry in the first place.

Reaching 60 can be tough for anyone, single or otherwise. After all, it’s a big number. If you are lucky enough to have parents still alive, as I am, there is constant worry about their fragility and care. I can’t imagine a life without them.

Mum is 89 and has Alzheimer’s, and Dad is 91. I know the moment I’ll lose them is approaching and it fills me with a terrible subliminal sorrow that permeates my existence. I sleep with two phones by my bed, just in case.

The fragility of life has taken on new meaning for me. Regrets? Yes, I have a few.

I regret I never found my Frank, a man who would love and stand by me through thick and thin. I’m sad that I never found what my mother’s generation took for granted: stability, security and the joys of a long, loving marriage to help cherish life’s triumphs and cushion its trials.

But if ever I start to feel sorry for myself, I just think of my brother Michael. A married father of two small children, he died when he was 41. What wouldn’t he have given for two more years, let alone two decades?

I guess the most important thing about growing older gracefully, which I hope I’m doing, is to believe not just in the glass-half-full philosophy of life, but the glass overflowing. And I don’t just mean Chablis.

Turning 60 may be no bed of roses but it’s time to smell the perfume and count my blessings: good health, great hair, friendships worth more than their weight in gold, a job I love, the chance of romance.

I suspect one reason why I try to live life to the full is that aged 17 I was in what was very nearly a fatal car crash. My surgeon told me afterwards that I was lucky, I should have died.

Like many people who have had a near-death experience, I found it robs you of a sense of planning, of the future.

‘What will you be doing in five years’ time?’ my accountant asked me recently.

‘No idea,’ I replied. ‘But I know what I’ll be doing in five days.’

As it happens, I’ll be on a date with a man indecently younger than me, in the full knowledge that he probably finds my house and car as attractive as he does my smile.

Fun, freedom and frolics. Believe me, there’s never been a better time to be single and 60!