At the end of the Women Starting Over conference in London recently, delegates were handed a little bag of treats containing two magazines (one of which was Countryfile), a card from a meditation coach, two lots of 50+ multivitamins, two sorts of anti-wrinkle moisturiser, a pack of artificial sweetener and two condoms (one male and one female), plus one anonymous envelope containing "natural intimate moisturiser". Not a bad insight into what women entering, or emerging from, the menopause are expected to be interested in.
Women in my age group – that funny space between not being young any longer but not properly old either – suffer from a bit of an identity crisis, it's almost as though neither we nor anyone else knows what we're really for any more. The conference goody bag suggests an interest in rambling and visiting National Trust properties as well as a desire to look good and rediscover sex (as witnessed by the rise in STDs among the over-50s). In many ways, it's a time much like adolescence – you think you know everything, only you don't and the world you thought you knew looks alien. In the increasing absence of traditional support networks of family and trusted friends, more and more women are turning to websites such as Mumsnet sister site, Gransnet, and Welldoing to deal with life-changing events. The Lonely Society, a 2010 report by the Mental Health Foundation, suggests that loneliness is on the increase and that older women in particular find themselves increasingly isolated. Three therapists, Louise Rawlins, Anna Kingsley and Juliette Oakshett, decided to do something about this, organising an all-day event tackling life changes, internet safety and sensuality.
Sex was left until after lunch, when new and old pressures emerged. One delegate said: "I almost feel guilty in not wanting to go and get laid tomorrow – like when I didn't breast-feed." Quite a few of us murmured "amen to that" . Then there's the age-old problem of actually finding someone you'd like to have sex with. My postbag as the Invisible Woman columnist indicates that the state of one's lady garden is of some concern, as in: "If I'm thinking about having sex must I get a Brazilian?" (Seriously? No.) There is also a big issue around "permission". The phrase I see again and again when meeting women at events geared towards our age group is, "I feel as though I've been given permission", which raises the question of why you feel you need it in the first place. Perhaps it's because my generation grew up with a good deal of baggage around sex and the single school session on the subject (girls only) consisted of being told that after sex you might want to "lie down for a bit" – although your husband (compulsory for sex) would be fine to leap out of bed and put up a few shelves.
We were not prepared for the idea of STDs, anything other than the missionary position or female condoms. But the times they are a-changing. Where the mention of sex at over 50 used to trigger "euuuww", it's now helped by well-known women who remain in the public eye well into their 50s – think Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Lange, Jane Birkin, Kristin Scott-Thomas et al.
The organisers described Women Starting Over as a "suck it and see" first conference to discover what we found most useful, what we wanted to know more about and what we felt was important but had not made the agenda. The next event held by Women Starting Over is called "Getting your Mojo back".