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.