About six months after my mother’s longtime partner died, my sister and I encouraged (read: forced) our mother to sign up for some internet dating sites. We helped to draft her profile, select photos, and walked her through the complex clicks to make her availability public.
Everyone knows someone who fell in love via the internet or who got frustrated and gave up. But how many of us are coaching our mothers through the trials and tribulations of dating at age 72?
According to Experian Hitwise, an internet tracking firm, the number of people over 55 who have visited internet dating sites increased by 39 percent between 2008 and 2011. While Match.com allows the user to limit a desired age range, other specialized sites cater to the “mature” set, including include Seniors.com and SeniorPeopleMeet.com, which is run by A.A.R.P. Noticing the market opportunity, there are now even websites dedicated to offering advice and tips for on-line dating for those over 65.
The search for love reveals so many things about who we are and what we care about. Watching my exceptionally hardy mother go through this online adventure has been instructive in ways I never could have imagined.
I see, for example, that an older woman can insist that a man fit into her life and not vice versa. My mother jogs or goes to the gym every day, works part-time at a community college, helps my siblings with their kids, participates in several book groups, and has a wonderful assortment of friends. Yes, she wants a boyfriend, but she is unlikely to compromise her commitments for a date.
She knows her process. Beautiful and articulate, she soon began getting “winks” and “nods” and corresponding with various men by email. Some made it to the next stage: talking on the phone. And a bunch have met the bar for a face-to-face meeting. She quickly figured out that coffee was an ideal meeting length, or lunch if they drove far to meet halfway. Dinner was out of the question, she realized, after several excruciating hours with a man whom she realized wasn’t her type in 30 seconds.
After each of these dates, I text her, “Well?” and wait to hear the report:
“I paid and he didn’t even offer to split.”
“He was very nice . . . and boring.”
“He doesn’t read the newspaper.”
“He talked about himself the whole time.”
But the most typical return text: “He was too old.”
Older women have to cope with age discrimination, fueled by the ridiculous assumption that a man should be with a younger woman. After meeting several men who could never keep up with her, she realized that she should have posted her age younger. But our culture’s obsession with youth prevented her from lying about her age, so she has to confront the fact that a younger man would be more appropriate but less likely to see her as a viable mate.
Men have it easier. According to the U.S. Census, in 2010 there were almost one million more women than men between the ages of 70 and 74 living in the U.S. But in spite of unfavorable odds, older women cut to the chase because they simply don’t have time to be coy. Date by date, my mother has gradually articulated her preferences. No men who “worked for the government for many years: they’re too obedient.” Good relationships with adult children: essential. Close connections with grandchildren: desirable. No “big dogs” or “multiple cats.” All natural fabric clothing highly advantageous. Anyone who makes it past to a second date gets a name from my sister and me: “Doctor Steve”; “Quiet Sam”; “Funny Vince.”
Older women have the wisdom to understand this exercise as a kind of performance, albeit an entirely sincere one. My mother’s writing has improved, as she crafts each form: the initial flirtatious gambit; the extended e-conversation; the various exchanges of disclosures; the modulation of emotion if enthusiasm wanes; the kind rebuff. She has mastered conveying her warmth and curiosity over the phone.
The scenario isn’t always neat. After her second date with “Nice Mike,” which was dinner at a fairly fancy restaurant, I was nervous when she didn’t text by 11 p.m. I called my sister. “Do you think Mom was kidnapped?” Suddenly we find ourselves worrying about men as she did for us as dating teens.
She hasn’t found “the one” yet. But she is working through her grief and sees herself as someone with another romantic life still to come. Relative to the men she’s met, she feels young and attractive.
She may not have found Mr. Right (yet!), but in the process she is finding herself.
Stacy Wolf is Professor of Theater and Director of the Princeton Atelier in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University and the author of Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical (Oxford, 2011). This piece is via The Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellowship Program at Princeton University.