Friday, April 23, 2010

Invisible me

Two posts I've read in recent days got me thinking about invisibility -- the visibility of pregnancy versus the invisibility of loss and grief, the visibility of the childed versus the invisibility of the childless, the visibility of the young & beautiful (& presumably fertile) versus the invisibility of the aging (women in particular).(In all three cases, of course, the invisible person being me.)

First, Mrs. Spit wrote a long, moving post about perception -- self-perception and perception by others.

"But I have 31 years of being the shining star in the room, the centre of attention, the vibrant, flamboyant one, and this change in priorities, this change in ethos is a hard habit to break. I am struggling about how to be genuine, I don’t want to be one of those people who is so focused on niceness they miss the ugliness in the world. I am trying to balance being resilient, not optimistic, how to reconcile knowing the very, very bad can and does happen, with knowing the good can and does happen. I’m trying to reconcile the crushing sadness of being still childless with a need to live and enjoy the life I have. I am working very hard to be silent, to allow others to speak, to leave a bit of mystery about myself. I am working on moving past being only Gabriel’s mum."
Then, Angie at Still Life With Circles wrote about the invisibility that a once-pregnant, now-grieving mother feels -- the invisible burden of grief that we carry:

"I have a newborn now. And that is all anyone sees, as though the last year and four months of submerging in grief were a tour in the Nam. I remember being a few months out from Lucy's death, and walking through the market--an invisible depressed person. Two months prior, all people saw was a beautiful 20 month old with crystal blue eyes, and a pregnant mama, and then, Lucy died, and we became mostly invisible. I was one of those quiet, fat, middle-aged women that no one noticed. I didn't smile. I didn't engage in eye contact. I didn't flirt. I didn't make chitchat. I was just another extra in the movie of life. Another grieving person with no scene to fit into.

"Now, I am a new mother, and people offer unsolicited advice as though this is my first child. People approach me beaming, peeking in the car seat, "Let me just see the baby for a second." Pregnant women ask me for car seat recommendations, and about my sling, and his weight now and at birth, and make allusions to how much my hoohah must have hurt. And I search behind their warm, open faces for the women ignoring me, squeezing their husbands hands a little tighter, holding their breath until I pass. Those are my people, even if they want nothing to do with me. I just want to cry with them and stop talking about this nonsense. I want my arm to gesture over Thor and Beezus and say, "This is not my whole story." I have never wanted a "My baby died" t-shirt more than now."

As I wrote in my comments to them, I have been struggling lately with an increasing feeling of invisibility -- that my life and work, as a middle-aged, childless woman, doesn't matter much to anyone, except perhaps within the small circle of my family & close friends.

I am uncomfortable being the centre of attention, knowing that all eyes in the room are on me. Have been for most of my life. I didn't like the visibility and stigma that being "the woman who lost her baby" gave me.

But I don't like being invisible either. I just want to feel like I'm a part of things, that I'm contributing and that people are paying attention & giving fair consideration to what I have to say and what I bring to the table.

Pregnant woman are the antithesis of invisible. After a certain point, it is difficult for most women to hide the fact that they are pregnant. You can't help but notice them, with their bellies sticking out to there (not to mention the loud complaints some of them make about the aches & pains they're going through, or the fawning attention that others pay to them). Years ago, pregnancy was supposed to be concealed, with voluminous dresses and blouses. Even when I was pregnant, just 12 years ago, my maternity outfits draped softly over my tummy, & I made do for quite some time wearing extra-large sizes of my regular brands. Today's pregnant women's maternity tops hug their expanding bellies, practically boasting, "Look at me!"

After my daughter's stillbirth, I remember feeling shell-shocked. For a short, sweet period, I had been pregnant. I had finally joined the exclusive sisterhood I had longed to be part of for so long. I remember saying these words to my support group facilitator, & how she nodded in sympathy. "And then," (as I told Angie in my comment) she said, "you got kicked out of the club." Oh yes.

For a brief time afterward, I felt all too visible -- naked, even -- as the spotlight shone on my husband & me in the aftermath of our daughter's stillbirth. Slowly, however, the spotlight began to fade, and the impact of our loss began to diminish and become less visible -- not for us, of course, but for those around us. I've sat, silent -- invisible -- while other women around me talk to each other, sharing stories about their pregnancies, their labour & delivery, their children and their activities and the funny things they said. Even if they knew I had been pregnant -- and I have met many people in the 12 years since then who have no idea about my reproductive history -- who wants to hear MY labour & delivery story?? I don't have any (living) children, so apparently some people/women find it difficult to relate to me.

As I wrote to Mrs. Spit, since the loss of my pregnancy 12 years ago, at 37, I have felt the invisible cloak of middle age descending upon me. (Has my aging these past 12 years been inevitable, or has it been hastened by my loss? I wonder.) We abandoned infertility treatment in the year I turned 40 -- & I have spent much of my 40s wandering through a haze of unfulfilled expectations, trying to rechart the path of my life, from the life I thought I was going to be leading to -- what?

I know it's not just me, not just infertile/grieving people who find themselves at midlife, questioning the direction their life has been taking (or not taking) to date, wondering, "Where do I go from here?" (And I know this isn't the first time I've rambled on about aging, & direction. Sorry. But it probably won't be the last either. My blog, my whine & cheese party, lol.)

Dh & I were recently talking about a Hollywood actress -- I can't even remember which one now! (hmmm, speaking of aging...) -- & he said, "She kind of disappeared, didn't she?" "She turned 40," I said, making a face.

We went to see a counsellor a few years back during a rough spot we were going through, & she immediately zeroed in on the fact that both of us were going through midlife crises of sorts. We're empty nesters whose nest was never filled, facing some of the same issues that parents face when their children leave home: "So that part of our life is over. Now what??"

Part of my middle-aged angst is work-related. I've never been career-driven, in the sense of trying to climb the corporate ladder, etc., but I (mostly) enjoy my work & the people I work with. This summer, I will have been with my company, & my department, for 24 years. There are a few in my department who have been with the company longer than I have, but I am the longest serving member of the department.

Longevity has its pros & its cons. Sometimes I feel like I'm becoming part of the furniture. I can tell stories to the young'uns about what it was like in our department when I first started (when some of them were still in diapers, no doubt) -- when I was taken aside by one of the older women during my first week on the job & told that "Women don't wear pants here, dear" (this was 1986, not 1946); how we functioned before we got voice mail (missed calls would bounce to the receptionst, who would take messages on little yellow slips of paper & deliver them to your desk later); how the writers still composed on typewriters and had to share two computers located in a common area, saving our stories on big floppy disks; how you would send something out for approval in the interoffice mail, sit back & wait a few days for it to come back again; how there was just one fax machine in the building for the most urgent communications; how people actually used to smoke at their desks (something we were talking about just yesterday).

I can, but I try to resist the impulse (although I sometimes fail). I know I must already seem ancient to some of them; I don't want to belabour the point.

I have not written much about it, but my office has been and is still going through a lot of changes. There are organizational changes, there are personnel changes, & there are demographic changes.

For 10-15 years, I worked with the a core group that included the same four women. We knew each other well, we worked well together. But then, starting about 5-6 years ago, one was let go, and two others retired -- including my office best friend. We knew each other so well, one of us would show up at the other's cubicle, wallet in hand, ready to go for a coffee, just as the other was pulling out HER wallet with the exact same intention. She's now having a blast --travelling, doting on her grandchildren (although biologically childless, she has several stepchildren), taking fitness and yoga and dance classes and tennis lessons.

These days, I go fetch my coffee alone, meeting packs of the office Gen-Yers -- many of them young enough to be my kids -- coming back from their own coffee breaks. They have lunch together, go the bars after work together, & hang out around each other's cubicles, giggling. They check out their BlackBerrys and iPhones (my cellphone is rarely on, and I don't even know how to text message). They talk about bands that I have never even heard of (and make me wince when they reference "Brown Sugar" as "that old song by Aerosmith")(wince = yes, it's old, but also no, it was actually by the Rolling Stones!!). They wear high heels and short, skinny skirts and layered T-shirts that would look ridiculous on me (and yes, I am jealous). I am both awe-struck and annoyed by their self-confidence, and slightly unnerved by the feeling that I am falling farther & farther behind, and won't be able to keep pace much longer.

Now, my boss for most of the past 16 years -- the last remaining person from the old, familiar group I once worked with -- recently announced she, too, will be retiring -- at the end of next week!! Needless to say, the prospect of getting a new boss, after 16 years, added to an organizational review now under way, has me feeling slightly unnerved.

Can I say that I'm also just a little bit envious?? Whenever people ask me about my goals in life these days, about where I want to see myself in 10 years, my response is usually "retired." I say it jokingly, or write it with a wink ; ) -- but I'm not entirely joking. Dh & I have saved where our friends & relatives have spent on big homes, fancy cars & lavish annual sunspot resort vacations. And of course, while we don't have the joys of children, we don't have the expenses of bringing them up or educating them either.

So it's possible that we could both be retired within the next 6 years -- definitely within 12-16 years, & hopefully sooner than later (barring any more big dives in the economy…!)(but hopefully not TOO soon...!). We're both looking forward to finally having lots of free time to pursue our interests -- volunteer work, maybe going back to school, some travel. Tackling the mountains of unread books around the house.

And yet -- it seems sad to me that I have so little else to look forward to in my life right now. Life begins at retirement? Really?? So what do I do between now & then?

I know of so many couples who work hard all their lives, finally reach retirement -- and within a year or so, one of them is gone. My uncle (my aunt's husband) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just days after my grandmother's funeral & died suddenly in bed just a week later (& was buried the same day as my mother's hysterectomy)(not a good few weeks for my family…!) at age 65, just a year after his retirement. I remember my aunt telling me how glad she was that they had taken a long driving trip to California and a tour of England and Scotland in recent years, that they hadn't waited to do some of the things they had always wanted to do.

My 50th birthday is coming soon. Many of my ancestors, on both sides of my family, lived well into their 80s & 90s -- it's entirely possible that I could live to be 100. (On the other hand, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.) Even so, it's a reasonable assumption that my life is at least half way over with.

What do I want to do with the years that remain? (And with the years that remain before I retire?) How can I contribute, leave a lasting legacy of some sort (since I won't be leaving a family)?

I don't want to be forgotten. I want people to know that I was here, to feel I made a difference.

I may shy away from the spotlight… but that doesn't mean I want to be invisible.


  1. It's hard to know what our legacy will be. What thing or things we did or didn't do that will remain behind us like a vapor trail in the sky long after the plane has passed. It represents the presence of a tangible thing but not of what it carried.
    I suppose it is easy to see a legacy in those with children. We have, fingers crossed, left behind a living piece of ourselves that in a perfect world will do the same over and over.
    As many moms I know come to find as our children get older, we start looking again for 'ourself'. We want to make a mark that goes beyond the lives we had a hand in creating. In that way you are not so different from so many moms. As we all seek an identity that is independant from our child(ren). Fo me, as a parent, I have always taken the view that every accomplishment of my childs is thiers, not mine.I have always shied away from using the phrase "I'm proud of you" because it in many ways implies that I had something to do with thier achievement. And really I don't. In the end, at least for me, we are all soley responsible for our own success and our own failures. I celebrate mightily with my kids when they have them and I beam as any other mom would, but I try so hard to let them own that success because it is theirs alone. The same is true of the opposite.
    My long drawn out point is, while it is the obvious conclusion that those who live with children have a built in legacy, it does not begin to tell the whole story of who we are, not always.
    I suspect for many dead baby moms, we fear that invisiblity when it comes to the child who will not live to tell the story. Whose story we continue to tell so that they also have a lasting legacy. And we also fear the end of their story will come when we stop telling it.
    You have written beautifully here about so many things you have done both in memory of Katie and for the living children of other family members of yours.
    I think you have created more of a legacy than you realize.
    You won't be invisible, not you. You're presence is too substantial, too palpable. But I agree, that those who see you may never really see all of who you are, who you were and who you will become. And I have no idea how to make them...I think it may be impossible.

  2. Loribeth, whenever you ask that question --'How can I contribute, leave a lasting legacy of some sort (since I won't be leaving a family)?'-- I can't help by wondering why you don't seem to see the answer, when it's so obvious to all of us.

    Write your book already.

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I know what you mean. I'm in the middle of a donor egg cycle at the age of 41 after 7 years of subfertility and recurrent early losses. A friend who knows asked how I was and I replied that the hormones I was taking were making me feel tired and nauseous. "Just wait till when you get pregnant!" she said. Where would I start - that I've been pregnant 4 more times than she has even though she has 2 kids, that there should have been a huge IF instead of a when in her remark, that feeling tired and nauseous because I was pregnant would be almost a joy. Anyway, I said "hmmm" and changed the subject. And the desire to leave something behind . . . I bet a lot of us childless folk who feel the urge to do that in some way - I suppose it depends a lot on your interests & talents as to what that becomes.

  4. This is really preceptive, Loribeth -- I've actually WISHED myself invisible at various moments over the past three years. I didn't want people to see me after I had been pregnant, but now had no baby. I didn't want to look at them, I really didn't want them to engage with me. During this pregnancy, I would've been happy with drapey mu-mus so at some point I could either say, "Voila! Baby!" or just wear them a few more months with sunglasses and a glass of something in my hand.

    But I too don't want to be nothing, and certainly don't want to be remembered for nothing. You have helped so many people, it's really difficult for me to imagine you slipping away like a vapor.

    Great post.

  5. This is a very thoughtful post (as usual!). The legacy of childless women was discussed in one of the UK books I read -- "Beyond Childlessness," I think -- and it was something that was a real concern across the board. My friends who are single and approaching age 40 (and are pretty certain they will never meet anyone in time to have biological children) are puzzled by this, too, especially my friend J. who only has one niece and nephew, whom she hardly ever sees because her brother is divorced from the kids' mom.

    D. and I are pretty good savers, and although we are some years away from retirement, we have talked about our visions for that time. There are possibilities, and then there are practicalities and personalities. Meaning, not everyone wants to sail around the world or pull up roots to relocate after retirement.

    Thinking of you at this time of reflection.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I've thought about my/our invisibility in different contexts.
    We are, essentially, invisible to my extended family because we do not have children. It helps a bit that we live a thousand miles away, so we have to spend less time with them. In a way, it's a relief - we both hate being the center of attention, so now that we are not the newlyweds in the family, and we are not having children,'s kind of reassuring to settle back into anonymity.
    But I worry about the legacy we will leave, too. When you don't contribute to the next generation in an obvious's difficult.
    I know we will all leave a legacy behind...and you, of all people, will certainly leave a legacy for the next generation. But sometimes it's hard to see what is obvious to others.

  7. Wow--I found this post very moving and thought-provoking. And to echo a previous commenter, I've always wished you would write a book. I think you have such a great head on your shoulders, such a great way of explaining things, such a calming presence, a teaching presence. I'd read it in a heartbeat.

  8. beautiful post Loribeth! I don't have a good answer for you, but I think you contribute alot to this community. You are hadly invisible in these parts, and I imagine that you are hardly invisible in real life!

  9. this is a wonderful and moving post, loribeth. it says so very much about living without children and with babyloss as a woman today. thanks for sharing this.

  10. Wonderful post and lots of things that I am beginning to think about as I have hit 40.

    I agree with others--you should write a book.

  11. Very strong post, very thought provoking- it's interesting to see this perspective because I've been asking some of those questions myself as I played out all the what ifs in my head.

    You aren't invisible. I agree with other commenters, I would totally read a book if you wrote it. You write well, and are so insightful and you get the thought across so well. With me it almost always seems to get all tangled and jumbled before it even hits the page.

  12. Ditto what Mel and the others say about a book.

    Although that's certainly not necessary for you to have affected me in a positive way. Your voice is gentle and insightful and full of grace. I am glad to know you, Loribeth.

  13. Thanks for sharing this link, Loribeth. The topic clearly struck a chord with us both!