Monday, June 19, 2017

Invisible Women

Earlier this morning, I came across an article about middle-aged women and how they become invisible to society. The link is here.

I have read many such articles as I have aged. Once a woman turns 40, it seems the world has little use for her. This is particularly true if you are childless, whether that is by choice or circumstance. A mother always has a role, but the childless middle-aged woman is superfluous.

In the article, I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

In a world where women are almost always defined by their relationships (daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, grandmother) it strikes me as important to shed a light on the woman herself. What is she without all these shoes she has to fill? Well, she’s an existence and she’s an existence that either disturbs her surroundings—or is in the danger of retreating from them: like mist.

Not only is a woman an "existence," she's a person. A human being with needs, wants, desires and all of the other things that every other person on the planet wants. Men are not defined by relationships, per se - they are defined by who they are, and in today's capitalistic society, by what they do. He is an architect is more likely to come before he is a fatherHe is a farmer, a venture capitalist, or a banker, but he is a husband is not the first thing out of anyone's mouth except his wife's.

Women, however, are indeed wives, mothers, daughters, etc. before they are what they do. I am more often introduced as James' wife than I am Anita the writer. I am even acknowledged as my father's daughter sometimes before what I do and who I am, despite the fact that I have been married far longer than I ever lived at home.

My mother struggled with this lack of recognition and a troubled self-perception when she hit her 40s. There she was with a daughter married by then, her child-bearing days over, and she was my mother, my father's wife, and a file clerk still after 25 years at the job she'd had since she was 15. She did not grow old well even though, since she died at the age of 56, she never actually grew old. She had problems with grey hair and wrinkles and the signs that she was no longer a sweet young thing. She needed the male gaze and male adoration to assure herself of her self-worth, as I think most woman do, and for her and for others the loss of that can be devastating. This was in spite of the fact that she was a mother, daughter, career woman, etc.  My mother also was infertile before her 30s, but she had two children before doctors removed her female parts.

Incidentally, tomorrow is my mother's birthday. She would have been 73.

I, on the other hand, hit middle age and invisibility when I was 29 and doctors removed my womanly parts. By that time I was well aware that I had no place in the world, that doctors talked over me to my husband about the fate of my uterus, that the knowledge that I couldn't have children, a subconscious fact known since I was 23, had left me a shell of a person. The hysterectomy only confirmed what society had already imprinted upon me. Being childless made me no one. A girl is no one, as they said of Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. A misogynistic quote if I ever heard one.

My fate having long been accepted, I shrugged and moved on. I moved through my 30s and 40s and into my 50s with the knowledge that I was no one, and invisible to most. Some will argue with me on that - I know you, they will say. We know your byline, others will say. We know you. You are not invisible.

Maybe not always, no. But most times, yes.

I am friends with many childless women; we find one another somehow, I think. Even people who know better - who know I never had children - forget and ask how my children are, assuming that somehow one magically appeared beneath my pillow one night and I went on to raise it to adulthood. The assumption amazes me.

As I move into my mid-50s, and quickly approach the age my mother was when she died, I find myself looking back at the many things I have done and not done. On some fronts I am quite accomplished, with three college degrees, thousands of published articles and photos, a decent if not McMansion-type house, and a loving husband. On other fronts, I think of opportunities I have missed out of fear - fear that I was not good enough, that I was less-than, that I could not cope or manage with whatever it was before me. Fear that I might become visible if I stepped out of my comfortable space. I do not do things like travel alone, for example. I wanted to travel when I was younger but my husband was tied to the farm and we seldom went away. Now I am not healthy and I think I should not travel. But if I don't go now, I will never go.

I suspect I will never go.

My grey hair does not look bad on me. I wear it well; it is a true white, not a gray, and it is soft and it blends fairly well with my lighter brown hair. The wrinkles - I am fortunate there, so far, though I have been dismayed to note that I am going to be one of those people with a downturned mouth if I make it to a ripe old age, and not one with a perpetual smile. So long as it is not a smirk I shall find it agreeable, I suppose, though I really did hope for the upturn of lips.

But back to being invisible. My name is fairly well known locally, thanks to all of those published articles. People who think they know me but do not know me are often surprised to find the face and body behind the name. They see that I am older, grayer, fatter than they thought. Because fat people are invisible, too. Or maybe invisible people become fat in hopes of taking up space and not being invisible. I'm not sure about that. Anyway, people know my name and then I think they try to forget they met me, preferring instead the byline and the invisible to the byline and the reality.

I find being invisible irksome when it comes to health care, trying to get something off the top shelf at the store, or being noticed in a crowd when I need to be noticed. Male doctors are dismissive and they do not bother to find cures (so I see female doctors when I can) and they ignore what I say. It is so bad that I haul my husband to important doctor appointments because they will listen, then. If I am in enough pain that the man is along, then they pay attention. At the supermarket, if I need help, I've taken to blatantly walking up to a tall person and asking for it; otherwise a sales clerk will walk by me without seeing me standing there, perplexed, as I try to figure out how to get the honey from the back of the top shelf. (I have discovered that is a good use for my cane, by the way.) At the theater the other week, I desperately wanted the fellow picking up trash to notice me so I could wave him over and hand him my popcorn and drink so I could use both hands to get down the stairs, but despite my waving and even a furtive "hey, you," I remained invisible.

No one should be invisible. That includes me, other women of a certain age, poor people, mentally ill people, disabled people, old people, fat people, or unattractive people. Everyone deserves eye contact, a smile, and acknowledgement. It takes so little to nod your head and show you've seen someone. It doesn't mean you have to donate money to them, but you have, at least, given them their humanity.


  1. Wow!! How timely is this! My life now has left me feeling totally as you described and I don't have your various accomplishments or any accomplishments to fall on to feel remotely different.. I've done nothing special. I can't and will never be anyone's mother even though I still have my female parts. I have no sisters or brothers. I am my mother's daughter but no one has ever referred to me that way. She feels I'm her greatest accomplishment but I've accomplished nothing but getting through life day by day, invisible. I have no husband and the man who holds my heart & dreams ... well, let's say our relationship is invisible to others ( it's complicated). I have struggled with being invisiblemost of my life but especially as I get older like you stated. Basically, I think we all want to feel special or at least needed and we feel neither when we are invisible. Invisability is part of the reason I've been somewhat annoyomous on here. I've become accustomed to a lifestyle of anonymity. I'm an invisible woman... glad to met you.

    1. I'm afraid it's the culture, and a left-over from the days of the housewife. You are not alone in how you feel; I suspect it is pervasive but seldom discussed. I think everyone is special in her own way, but it is easy for the person to lose sight of it. I hope that you find contentment (and visibility) somewhere along the way. And I still haven't figured out who you are. :-) Your anonymity remains safe. But maybe you will one day decide this is a safe space (or via email, anyway) and let me know who you are.

  2. My mouth turns downward also, as my mother's did, and her mother's, and her mother's. LOL It's a genetic thing I suppose you could say. I try to be conscious of it and try to smile more, but sometimes it just doesn't feel natural to do so. "Oh shit", I tell myself, "it's really not important anyway". I'm tall and yet at times I still struggle to get things down from a high shelf at the grocery store and need to ask for help. I feel somewhat invisible some days too, but other days I say, "fuck it", throw my shoulders back with pride and quit worrying about it. I really don't think it's a 'childless' issue, or a 'weight' issue, but rather a self esteem problem. Asked what they think of themselves, I think that even the prettiest girls have some of these same issues, they're just better at hiding it.

    1. I'm sure it is a self esteem issue, but I think it is also something society encourages. It is not something I worry about, really, but I think it is important to acknowledge that societal mores do not favor the older woman.


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