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.