We were sitting on the Little League bench ostensibly to watch our 11-year-olds play, but instead we were doing what we moms typically did — grumble about parenting, aging, work, menopause and marriage.
“I don’t know what’s happened to my libido,” one mother said to me in a hushed voice. “I’m just not interested in sex anymore. You know what I mean?”
“Absolutely,” I answered, nodding my head perhaps too enthusiastically.
But it wasn’t true. I was about a year out of a 14-year marriage, and as a 40-something I was extremely interested in sex. What I wanted to say to her was: “If you had a new lover, you’d find your libido. It’s not that you’re no longer interested in sex; it’s just that you’re no longer interested in sex with your husband.”
Middle-age moms get a bad rap when it comes to sex. They’ve either lost their sex drive because of hormones, or they’re too consumed with their kids, exhausted from trying to have it all, having body-image issues, or they’re not spending enough “quality” time with their husbands. (Or perhaps they’re too preoccupied being mad at them.)
Those reasons might be true for some wives. But give those mid-life women divorce papers and a new lover or two, and just watch what happens.
Despite the myths about middle-age women no longer being sexual beings, I have never met one who didn’t appreciate being seen — and didn’t feel — like one post-divorce.
I spent most of the first year after my divorce focusing on my kids, my career and doing essential self-care. I had no desire to date, let alone be in a relationship. This was years before Tinder, but there were always men on online dating sites who were interested in a fling, especially with a woman who wasn’t eventually going to demand: “Where is our relationship going?”
Divorced men and divorced fathers are allowed to remove love from sex. But divorced moms? They’re judged much more harshly for harnessing their sexuality.
“There is a fear that a single mother’s sexuality will jeopardize her child,” Martha Albertson Fineman, law professor and author of “The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies,” tells Brain, Child magazine. “We have changed our attitudes about sex outside of marriage, but expectations for mothers have remained unchanged. You are expected to put your children’s issues above your own, including your career and your sexual appetites.”
Which is indeed what women overwhelmingly do in their marriages. In a Kinsey Institute study of sexual satisfaction in the United States, Germany, Spain, Brazil and Japan, women in committed relationships report feeling more sexually satisfied after 25 years, much more so than in they do in the first 10 years. Of course, that’s when the women in the study were busy raising kids. “If there’s a bigger buzz-kill than kids, I don’t know it,” says sociologist and sexologist Pepper Schwartz, AARP’s relationships expert and the author of numerous books.
Menopause makes planned or unplanned pregnancy a non-issue for women, and that’s liberating. Sex can just be about pleasure, not procreating. It’s also when many women feel more confident about themselves, know their bodies better, understand what turns them on and are better able to express that to a lover. They’re also less willing to put up with bad sex. Getting to that point can take a few decades.
Adding a divorce to the mix can make those changes even more pronounced. “For women who appear to have ‘low desire’ in long-term marriages, many times when they get divorced they’re sleeping around with everyone,” says sexologist Tammy Nelson, author of “The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity.”
This is not to say that married middle-age women can’t maintain or reboot their sexual mojo. It helps to have a flirty and sensual connection. “People who go along to get along are not really fulfilled,” says Stella Resnick, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, and author of “The Heart of Desire: Keys to the Pleasures of Love.” “Sexual aliveness is a key factor in relationship satisfaction.”
If a woman doesn’t have that kind of marriage, it can be easier to be categorized as having lost her libido. “People confuse the loss of sexual interest with the loss of sexual interest with a specific person. So it’s not a sex problem, it’s a George or Tom problem,” Schwartz says.
Which is why a divorce can feel so liberating for many women, even if they aren’t looking for a new partner and even if life is more challenging. It can create enough tension to make them feel alive and rediscover their sexuality. “It wasn’t gone,” Schwartz says of the married woman’s stalled libido, “it was asleep.”