Older and newer: embracing the grey

When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection. So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.

I have started this blog to document some of my thoughts and experiences relating to perimenopause, which is, for me, more than a bunch of hormones conspiring to age me beyond all recognition and turn me grey.  Far more than that.  And a million times better, too.  I feel as though I’ve been gearing up for this for years, starting at the age of 33 when I developed feelings for a man other than my husband.  That was the beginning of a process of reassessing my life, and it started with an infatuation.  I thought it was love, but it was really a glimpse into a multi-faceted world of opportunities: different people, places, conversations and friendships.  It turned out to be nothing; we were both married and he wanted an affair, nothing more.  I stopped seeing him and spent months agonising over what had become of my marriage.  When I told my husband that I thought it was over, we decided to go to counselling (Relate) and managed to negotiate some changes that suited us both and gave it another go for ten years.  But the unrest of that fling stayed with me.  It was the beginning of the end – or the end of the beginning.  And that’s what I think this midlife business is all about.  Whether we stay in a relationship for life or not, our relationships do change.  We change.  I started to want more for myself.

I was brought up brethren.  Plymouth brethren.  Strict parents, nothing worldly, long hair, a head covering in meetings and a skirt and never trousers.  No discos, no version of the Bible other than the good old King James with its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘sayeths’.  The meeting was a solemn affair and women were under what was termed ‘the headship of men’.   I married under that and we didn’t really stray far from the tree until I went to university to study English Literature at the age of 32.  Suddenly I had options.  I was getting good grades and realised I had a brain and over the next years I graduated, took my PGCE and became a teacher.  I left the brethren, got fit, ran two marathons, raised my three kids, kept an eye on my ageing parents and got grey hair.  I coloured it religiously, obsessively, red, purple, blondey, streaked, dark, covering the roots increasingly often, sometimes every three weeks.  I couldn’t afford hairdressing fees and did it myself using L’Oreal products and then, scared of carcinogenic chemicals, Holland and Barrett brands.  The greys grew in abundance.

My marriage ended, finally, in a fizzled out mess of empty abandonment.  He moved to London with his job and I got to spend all week raising my two youngest whilst holding down a job and dealing with the middle daughter’s bulimia.  They were the most heartrending two years of my life and certainly the most difficult and painful of hers.  Whilst he was away pursuing his dream job, I wrote letters, chased the NHS, called my MP, shouted a lot about the CAMHS waiting list and funding problem and finally she got treatment.  During her time waiting for treatment, she went from mild anorexia to full blown bulimia, characterised not only by binge-purging but also regular panic attacks, self harm and, on one occasion, after a relationship breakup, an impulsive suicide attempt.  He told me I was exaggerating her illness and he continued to return home later and later on Friday nights, we returned to Relate, nothing changed and I ended it.

For the next year, I battled depression and anxiety, took a course of antidepressants, learned to look after myself, started dating again, had loads of fun, and developed more grey hairs.  When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection.  So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.  His response, ‘Is that it?’ surprised me.  I still hung on to this idea that men do not fancy grey haired women.

Now, I’m a feminist.  Honestly.  A strong-minded, educated, mid-40s woman who believes in absolute equality, despises shallow frivolity and obsessions about perfection and considers our brains to be our biggest asset.  But I still want to be considered sexy and that, although I hate to admit it, equates with youthful.  I think we all do.  Men, too.  But lots of women I know struggle with the whole grey hair thing.  Although, I was talking about this with a colleague the other day and he said he reckons loads of men dye their hair secretly.  Loads.  Anyway, I toyed the the idea of going grey for some months and finally went to the hairdresser, asked them to chop out as much colour as they could, take it as short as they could without shaving my head, and went natural in one fell swoop  I bought a L’Oreal purple shampoo, which tones the remainder of the previous brassy overtones, and now I have silver streaks that are all mine.  People think it looks lovely.  I’ve had so many compliments.  My fiance loves it.  My kids think it’s cool.  My students have commented positively.  And I feel like my hair now matches the rest of me.  Older and newer.

My youngest is about to go to university, my house is on the market, I’m saying goodbye to the first half of my life: the day to day life of a working mother and the packets of hair dye.  I’m about to move away, buy a place with my fiance and say hello to the second half which is still brand new, with doors to be opened and memories to be made.

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