Friday, 7 June 2013

Cougar Slutting

This morning I was rushing back from buying gift wrap for son's 7th birthday, when I was waylaid and forced to have coffee with some other mothers from his class. Forced, I tell you.

Somewhere in the chat, one of the mothers proudly displayed bright red shellac nails, and told us she'd found a lady whose own children are in nursery, who does nails much more cheaply than on the high street, and that as a result she could allow herself to have a manicure every three weeks, rather than never.

Another mother promptly reminisced about her own mum, who had frowned upon nail polish as risqué. As a result the daughter now feels naughty whenever she has her nails done. Luckily her mother's opinion hasn't actually stopped her doing what she wants with her nails.

Which led somehow to a discussion of Cougar Slutting. Which made us all laugh immoderately. What was a Cougar Slut? And how wonderful that, if you turn it into a verb, 'to cougar slut', it can never be in the passive. She was cougar slutted conjures wild lesbian visions rather than anything more pernicious happening to the woman…

Even as we laughed at the picture of ourselves as Cougar Sluts, pacing the night city on the hunt for a hapless younger man, her nails glowing red, we were discussing women who actually do choose to have relationships with men far their junior, deciding in a flourish of coffee cups and muffins that such relationships were deliberately doomed, then setting off on domestic errands, the world put to rights.

I'm perhaps not a Cougar Slut (my daughter wears more nail polish than I ever have; and I'm usually in bed by 10.30pm).

But it got me thinking about my own encounters with younger men, as I gracefully hover in my fifth decade. Germaine Greer has written about the female adoration of the Beautiful Boy. When I first heard about this, I sneered and found it distasteful. Now I'm not so sure. Young men, for me, seem to fall into three categories these days.

Let's start close to home. When I think about my son, I realize that I worship his strong little body, at each stage of its development. I love the completeness of it, and its self-sufficiency, his glorious lack of self-consciousness as he runs around in his pants. I worship my daughter's body too, but it's a different feeling, she is all gangly colt and enormous eyes, and I want to protect her. Clearly this stuff is cultural, because she's no more fragile or less complete than he is, yet look at me, investing in all those gender stereotypes! Do we ever really see?

Then there are the young men I pay… I had my hair cut this week by a young male stylist, and realized it is a completely different experience to having your hair cut by someone of your own gender. I felt transformed, utterly beautiful, was amazed at the thrill when he washed my hair. It made the older lady next to me giggle when I thanked him. What, exactly, was I appreciating?

Don't worry, I'm not intending to throw myself at the poor boy, I'm talking about the physical sensation it provoked, and how much it surprised me. I enjoyed feeling my head massaged, and having a good-looking young men pay so much attention to my hair — and also felt entitled to enjoy it, rather than self-conscious or ashamed, as my younger self would have done. He paid professional attention, I paid him.

I also practice yoga with a relatively young male teacher. There are moments when he applies physical pressure with his hands or upper body, to my back, to get me to let go and stretch or twist more deeply. It is a profound sensory experience, that borders the sensual, although it never strays over that border. It shocked me deeply the first time he did it, and I didn't know what to think. Now I'm more accustomed to it, and reassured by the fact that he does this to all the members of his classes, male and female. It startled me into a physical realization of how completely taboo it is for a woman to be touched in any way by a man once she is married (never mind the difficulty involved before marriage).

Finally, young men who pay me. What now? Well, I also tutor teenagers, and so am often in a position of authority, and on my own, with young men. It is always odd to receive money at the end of a tutoring hour from a very young man, because of all the associations that saturate the concept of men giving women money for a service. Both parties are embarrassed. I have learnt to avert my eyes, and pretend the money isn't there. It's better than giggling.

When I was younger, and taught men only just my junior, the difficulty lay in maintaining authority and deflecting sexual attention. Now, by virtue of being middle-aged, I physically look like an authority figure, and a mother, so the difficulty has shifted: I can't look cool, I can only be myself (and accept that they probably think I'm a mad old bat a lot of the time). And I find that I experience maternal feelings towards these young men, wanting them to be safe, admiring them as I do my own son, aware of their fragile self-esteem.

Only maternal feelings? Isn't there anything more? I think I'd be lying if I didn't point out that part of that maternal feeling is a tiny sense of loss in myself, an irrevocable tipping of the scales in which my sexual being has moved into maturity, fruition, completion, and can never be again potential, mystery, uncertainty.

Perhaps that's what older women adore in younger men: their own lost youth.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

One plus one doesn't equal two

When our second child was three months old, I flew from Sydney to London with him and our three-year-old firstborn. My husband stayed in Sydney to finish things off.

Without going into the details, the experience of flying, alone, with a breastfeeding infant and a toddler, for twenty-four hours, was almost exactly the same as labour.

I knew the pain would have to end at some point, and I also knew that I was completely on my own, while simultaneously surrounded by people looking at me, just as most women are during modern births.

The main two differences were (a) the lack of epidural on the plane, and (b) the fact that the stewardesses actively ticked me off, rather than telling me when to push.

Nothing could have drilled into my brain better the understanding that we had not added to the family in having a second child, but rather that we had gone forth and multiplied.

No one talks about what it is like to move from one to two children. There is no What To Expect book, with do-gooding and inapplicable advice for the neurotic to measure themselves against. You are expected to get on with it, to know what you are doing, by virtue of having had a first child.

Talking to an old friend last weekend, I was reminded about what I subsequently did. Both she and I responded to having a second child by immediately plunging ourselves into heavy and difficult projects, with long hours, while simultaneously either moving house or renovating a house. Both of us lasted around two years in this state of frenzy, literally running between activities, managing childcare as though it were a small business, before dropping out, completely exhausted. Both of us felt we had something to prove, that we were supposed to swim like swans, paddling furiously underneath, maintaining home and work fronts simultaneously, and smiling as we did so. The women's lot — and what a lot it was. We became military machines, hollowed out by stress, our children simply logistical problems to solve, to be ferried, fed, clothed, activitied, playdated, alphabetized. Husbands receded, and resented. And then both of us came to, and stopped. We both learnt to rebel against orthodox success criteria.

This weekend, I have been talking to my mother about her experience of moving from one to two children.

My mother moved from Holland to Iran in mid-winter, 1970, to an unfurnished house, in Teheran, with a twenty-month-old and a six-week-old infant. Within days, my father had been flown to a distant oilfield. All my mother had was a chauffeur, who drove her from market to shop, buying furniture. He was both husband and wife to her in those early days. After a year, she had to go back to England to 'rest' at her mother's.

How many more women behave like this after having a second child, I wonder? Do women successfully negotiate the changes involved in having one baby, think they've got it nailed, go for the next to satisfy their Baby Hunger, and because so many people have badgered them about the next baby, and because women have been having more than one baby since time immemorial (except in China), and then feel that they must conceal the consequences?

If this is what they are doing, then my question is why? Do they fear being judged as inadequate? To whom are they proving themselves? Is it to other women, or men… or is it to themselves — shocked and terrified to find themselves so much closer to not coping than they ever were with just one baby? What do they think they are trying to achieve? Success or sanity? To me, it felt like the moment when society at large finally got me, finally had its revenge on my ambition and drive for self-determination. Lean in? Just try not to fall over.

One of the worst memories of that post-flight time was one night when an old friend came for supper, while I was living alone with the children in our London flat, without our belongings, which were still in Australia. I tried to tell her how much I was struggling. She stared at me, and then said without emotion, "But you chose this." I felt physically winded. The gulf between us yawned.

Several years later, when she finally had her first baby, and then a second, she quietly said to me at a reunion, "I understand now."