Mind the (Age) Gap: Debunking Cougar Culture

by Novi Zhukovsky | 4/24/19 2:20am

At Dartmouth, we love our icebreakers, particularly ones that require us to go around in a circle and say a fun fact about ourselves. In order to avoid the awkward moment when it’s suddenly my turn and I’ve mysteriously forgotten everything about myself, I have built up a small repertoire of fun facts I know are foolproof. Here are my go-tos. My last name (Zhukovsky) means town of beetles in Russian; they filmed 30 Rock in my apartment building; I’ve never broken or fractured a bone (knock on wood!); and my personal favorite — my parents are 17 years apart. Yes, you read that correctly. My mother was taking her SATs when my father was born on the other side of the world.

As a child, the age difference mattered little to me. Honestly, it felt like I got the best of both worlds: a responsible mother who looked after my sister and me and the young, fun-loving dad who always knew how to have a good time.

Rahul Varma ’21 shares a similar experience, though his parents have a slightly less extreme age gap. His mother is a little over nine years older than his father. However, for most of his childhood, he didn’t even notice that there was a difference. He recalls that the first time he realized the reality of their age gap was when he came to college and observed how much older the other dads were. 

“My parents weren’t really involved with other parents growing up, but now, when I meet my friends’ parents, the dads tend to be older — like in their 50s or 60s — and my dad just turned 40.”

Varma also feels similarly to me about the positives of having parents with this age gap — older mother, younger dad. He claims that because of his father’s young age and childlike tendencies, his father was able to do things with him that older dads wouldn’t have been able to. 

“Growing up, I got to go outside and do things with my dad, which I definitely think would be different if he was the older one,” Varma said. “I love having a young dad. Other people’s dads couldn’t play soccer with their kids or run around and do active stuff.”

Additionally, he suggested that his dad’s young age enables him to be up-to-date with hip trends, which is something that he said his sister really appreciates. While his mother never really has the patience to follow the latest fads, his dad plays along with them to entertain his sister. 

“Having a cool dad for her is really important,” Varma said. 

However, Varma did say that the large age gap poses a few challenges. Namely, during family outings, people will assume that the group consists of a mother, a son and a friend — not a father. And yet, Varma illustrates that this misconception is partially due to the fact that his parents are of differing races, with him resembling his mother more than his father. 

I too have experienced weirdness being with a very young-looking dad. (He is now 44.) There have been many occasions when I have gone out with my father and have been misidentified as his date or friend. Needless to say, those moments are much dreaded. And there was one time when my family and I were walking down the street, and a homeless man confused my dad for a third child in the family. (While I found it hilarious, my mom was not too happy about that one.)

The way my parents met was also unusual. According to my mother, Emily Benedek, this is how the story goes: 

“We met in 1994, before there really was an internet, let alone internet dating. I was writing a story about computer hackers for Details Magazine, and I was told about a guy who was the best hacker in the world. I sent him a letter through a program called Elm that had been installed on my computer by a computer guy. We sent each other emails, and we could type in real time — like messages today. It was all quite exotic.” 

The veil of secrecy offered by the computer enabled them to hide their real ages. My dad claimed he was 24 instead of 20, while my mom claimed she was 34 instead of 37. An age difference of 10 years didn’t seem too bad. But then, when she found out how old he really was, he had already moved to New York City, and by that point, it was too late. 

However, my mom didn’t find that the age gap was a problem in their relationship, and she didn’t really care how others might have perceived it. 

“How other people felt about the age difference didn’t really concern me. He looked young, and I looked young, so it wasn’t really important. I liked being with a younger guy — I mean, what’s not to like?”

My sister Hannah shares my mother’s nonchalant attitude about the age gap as well. 

“Growing up, I didn’t think that it was weird. I thought it was cool and unique, and I liked telling people about it,” she said. “Maybe other people thought it was weird, but it never bothered me.”

While my father’s youth may have been a contributing factor, my mother said that the ultimate failure of the marriage after 18 years stemmed from cultural disparities.  

Similarly for Varma, while age difference may be a minor cause of family tension, his parents’ differences are mainly due to their culturally different upbringings, his mother being from India and his father from Berlin. He said that his mother’s role as the more responsible parent is partially due to her older age, but also that her Indian background is a major factor for her parenting tendencies. 

However, Varma has noticed that his parents’ age gap has become more prominent as his mother’s athleticism has begun to decline. 

“We used to do a lot of camping and hiking together, but recently it’s become more difficult for my mother because she’s just getting older,” he said. “She’s turning 50 this year. So there’s tension in that way because my dad still wants to hike with the family, but that’s difficult for my mom now.”

However, all in all, these relationships seem to pose few negatives. In fact, Varma even said that he prefers having an older mother and younger dad. And yet, these types of relationships are often relegated by society into the category of “taboo” and “bizarre.” The older woman is branded with the term “cougar” — and most of the negative associations are directed at the woman in the relationship. 

While Varma has never heard that term used to describe his own mother, he doesn’t like it. 

“I do think it’s a problem because it’s definitely a gendered issue. You don’t see that same reference for an older man and a younger woman, so I think it’s kind of a biased term.”

My sister feels similarly about the word and suggests that it reveals something larger about how our society views women.

“I think the stigma suggests that our society does not value older women and has not accepted that an older woman can be appealing to a younger man,” she said.

“‘Cougar?’” asked my mother, “I don’t even really know what it means. Except for maybe Kim Cattrall in ‘Sex and the City.’ And more power to her, what the hell. The 1950s model of marriage, which persists in some quarters, is an older man taking a younger woman to train to be his helpmate, support, sexual object and the mother of his children. This is getting old, no?”

In all seriousness, however, she does find the stigma surrounding these types of relationships to be emblematic of our society’s difficulty perceiving women as autonomous beings with as many varied drives as men. 

“Relationships are difficult in the best of conditions. I think as a society, we are slowly, slowly learning not to judge the ways other people seek happiness and fulfillment,” my mother said. 

My mother wants to make clear that she does not advocate any particular arrangement and believes that the choices we make are not necessarily more sensible than the arc of Cupid’s arrow. 

“As a society, we have begun to break down stigmas about interracial relationships and same-sex relationships, and we’re even starting to acknowledge and legitimize the idea that some people consider their gender non-binary. I don’t think it should be too difficult to accept that in some cases, women are older than their male partners.”

I think women should be allowed to engage in relationships with whomever they want, older or younger, without being branded “cougars” or “gold diggers.” By assigning these labels, we are only reinforcing stereotypes and rejecting the reality that women are human beings with varying preferences. 

So the next time we find ourselves judging a relationship with an unconventional age gap, we might do well to remember the old Mark Twain saying: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”