Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: That all-purpose excuse - the male mid-life crisis

Why are women expected to survive the ravages of time quietly and with dignity?
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Mark Oaten, who fell from grace into the swamp of squalid disgrace, has resurfaced to tell his story to a Sunday newspaper. Students of the media and of politics could learn much from a pictorial analysis of his photo which accompanies the confessional piece. Remember who he once was - and possibly will be again - an ambitious, smart and dextrous politician aiming to lead the Lib Dems into the 21st century, by making them fit for a controlling stake in the shambolic New Labour political landscape.

Instead, the happily married father of two was exposed as a closet gay with a weakness for rent boys. He has been trying to put together his ruined life and collapsed personal relationships since then.

He is pictured sitting on a manicured lawn in his constituency, Winchester. In the background loom the spires and mullion windows of the cathedral, a reminder of undying England which age never withers. Oaten's face is handsome, his eyes intelligent, but age is coming in to claim his head - only lightly covered in trimmed stubble. Stubble on his face though indicates sorrowful contrition.

He is wearing a light open-necked shirt and a very attractive grey-striped, linen-mix jacket. Jeans and scuffed loafers complete the picture of this thoroughly modern man, reaching 40. Bloody hell, only starting his forties - what I would give to be back in that intellectually and sensually most exciting decade.

But then what would I know? I am only a woman. Mr Oaten believes the end is nigh already: He acted as he did because of a mid-life crisis: "I really felt I was losing my youth . The problem was ... compounded by my dramatic loss of hair in my late thirties. This really knocked me for six. I started to look noticeably older." E-mailers, he goes on, accosted him with enquiries about his fast hair loss, making him "more and more obsessed by its disappearance. For me it was a public sign that my youth had ended".

First searches on the internet indicate over 8 million entries on this syndrome. I gave up reading after 30 because the tedious self pity became unbearable. The mid-life crisis (MLC) can afflict men as they reach 30, or 40 or 50, sometimes later. And it was ever thus. In John Dryden's play All for Love about Antony and Cleopatra (1678), Dolabella, a character, says: "Men are but children of a larger growth; Our appetites as apt to change as theirs, And full of craving too, and full as vain."

When is the male of our species not in crisis? From being intolerable teen "Kevins", they turn into compulsive studs in their twenties, when they must offload their oats, and then, wham, they are lost creatures wandering the plains crazed and dislocated.

One of the sources I checked quoted Jean Coleman, a consultant clinical psychologist who helpfully describes what this can mean: "Hormone production levels are dropping, the head is balding, sex vigour diminishing, stress is unending, children are leaving, parents are dying, job horizons are narrowing, friends are having their first heart attacks, the past floats by in a fog of hopes not realised, opportunities not grasped, women not bedded, potential not fulfilled and the future is a confrontation with one's own mortality".

As a wife and mother of a young man in his late twenties, I would never mock this list of woes. That would be heartless, foolish and tempting fate. I lived through one marriage with a man terminally in the throes of MLC and it was wretched. We were almost the same age, but as birthdays came and went, he got hypochondriac, restless and miserable turning me ill, edgy and perverse. And true enough when he started balding, young girls caught his eyes more, and eventually one his heart.

Why are women expected to survive the ravages of time quietly and with dignity? We go through more severe physical changes and losses. Mark Oaten you should see swirls of my hair gathered around the plughole in the bath these days after just one shampoo. I still grieve that I can never have another baby through natural conception. The world is harsher to us older women. And it is juvenile men, among them those that most fear their own fading attractions, who set the cruel standards of female beauty and sexual appeal. Many of these men deal with their own physical degradation by opting for younger models, an indulgence society accepts, indeed expects.

What has been bad for the gander is now passing on to the lady goose. A growing number of women in the US are now claiming to be suffering from their own mid-life crises. One study at Cornell University showed them surpassing the figure for men - 36.1 per cent to 34 per cent. The most plausible reason given for the surge is that American women feel they can now express rage, melancholia and hopelessness as they age because they have achieved parity with men in economic might and social rights.

The winds will blow the syndrome over to us in no time. You could argue the unprecedented popularity of cosmetic surgery in Britain is a response of an affluent female population to a now acknowledged mid-life crisis caused by biology and culture. They will not suffer in silence and put up with grumpy old men. Household eruptions over who is suffering the most seriously debilitating MLC? Margaret Beckett ditching her caravan for a Harley Davidson and leathers? I don't know whether we should fear or cheer the news.