My Friends Say I'm A Cougar And I Don't Know How To Feel
Welcome to Ask A MWLTF (yes, that’s Mother Who Likes to F*ck), a new, monthly anonymous advice column from Scary Mommy. Here we’ll dissect all your burning questions about motherhood, sex, romance, intimacy, and friendship, with the help of our columnist, Penelope, a writer and mental health practitioner in training. She’ll dish out her most sound advice for parents on the delicate dance of raising kids without sacrificing other important relationships. Submit questions here, and keep an eye on our Instagram stories for ways to ask questions, too.
I’m a forty-two-year-old, recently divorced, single mom of two school-aged kids. A few months ago, I started dating for the first time in almost fifteen years. I went on a few dates with the usual suspects — men in their mid-forties and fifties, most of them divorced with kids. A few of them were nice enough, but none of the dates went anywhere. No chemistry. No spark. Somehow it always felt like work. After a few months of this, I lowered the age range on my dating apps to twenty-eight on a whim. I was surprised by how much attention I got, and it wasn’t long before I began casually dating three different men in their late twenties and early thirties. Two of the relationships fizzled, but the third one developed into a full-blown romance. At twenty-nine, my paramour is twelve years my junior, has never been married, and is still at the beginning of his career. Despite our lack of shared life experiences, it feels like one of the most exciting and healthy relationships I’ve ever had. I was more than a little surprised, then, when one of my closest friends jokingly referred to me as a cougar. We were at another friend’s house for dinner and before I knew it the joke had caught on.
At first I tried not to let it bother me. I consider myself a pretty laid-back, sex-positive person. And honestly, I’d kind of liked it when some of the matches on the dating apps had commented on my MILF-y qualities. I am a mother, after all. And I like feeling as though people I’m attracted to find me desirable, as well. But calling me a “cougar” seemed like an entirely different ball game. A cougar, after all, is a predator, one small step above a “groomer.” And if that’s not bad enough, a cougar is a joke, an object of ridicule. Isn’t the assumption here that any woman in middle age or beyond who takes a romantic interest in younger men can only be a punchline? All evening, I kept asking myself, “If I’m a “cougar,” what do you call a forty-two-year-old man who finds women in their late twenties and early thirties attractive? It’s so common we don’t even have a word for it. I know my friends didn’t intend to hurt me. Still, it’s left me feeling vulnerable and confused. I’d been feeling proud of having gotten over the emotional turmoil of a divorce, adjusted to single motherhood, and still finding the time to dating someone great. Now I can’t help but wonder if there might be something seedy to my midlife reawakening. Am I being overly-sensitive, or are my friends being jerks?
— A confused “cougar”
Dear Confused Cougar,
It doesn’t sound to me as though you’re very confused at all. If anything, your clarity of mind and comfort with your own romantic goals and desire is somewhat confusing for those around you. It seems there are a few different issues at play here. Your friends are having a bit of fun at your expense, and while their intentions may be innocent, innocent barbs can still hurt. If they’re good friends, they should listen when you tell them so and ask them, politely, to stop. If they’re not great friends, they may reply that you should lighten up or learn to take a joke, but that brings me to the second issue implicit in your question— the silliness, campiness, or even absurdity of the cougar archetype.
You’re right that the romantic phenomenon of middle-aged men dating slightly younger women is too common to warrant a name. It is only recently, and only in cases of significant age differences and power differentials, that mainstream culture has begun to frown upon these types of pairings. Isn’t it interesting, though, that when the man is older it’s always a frown and never a laugh. Some of us have begun to admonish men who prefer to date younger women, but to admonish something is to at least take it seriously. In condemning a person’s behavior, we lend it a certain significance and gravitas. Laughter, on the other hand, is so often an expression of contempt. To laugh at someone is to take them down a peg. No wonder, then, that the image of the “cougar,” a woman in her forties or fifties with revving libido, has become a popular punchline. We live in a culture that, even today, is comfortable with women over thirty-five being mothers, grandmothers, and not much else. We also subscribe to an ideal of motherhood in which mothers cease to be sexual beings, or human beings for that matter. The fact that you’re challenging these comfort zones tells us more about our culture’s need to keep women in their place, sexually and otherwise, then it does about your personal preferences and appetites.
All that said, it is interesting to think about the way that age differences, and also generational divides, play out in romantic partnerships. If you’ll forgive me a generalization, I’ve noticed that a lot of young men these days have developed life skills that eluded their fathers and grandfathers. I’ve met men in their twenties and thirties who know how to cook and clean, who know how to talk about their feelings, who know how to respect a woman’s boundaries. I’ve also met septuagenarians who display the fussy helplessness of a hungry toddler. Perhaps what attracts you to these younger men is not their age per se, not their full heads of hair or tight abdomens, but their lack of the the toxic male entitlement that seems only, at least in some quarters, to be falling out of fashion. Good luck and go get ‘em, Cougar.
Penelope is Scary Mommy’s resident advice giver. She holds not doctorates or proper training, but has years of life experiences to help guide her answers.