Women of a Certain Age
– Essay by Nancy Slavin & Painting by Mary Kimber –
I don’t know when I became invisible. For a while, I didn’t notice people were not noticing me, stuck in my own little human narcissism that believes for sure people notice me as I walk by, or they check me out from their car window next to mine at the stoplight, or they see me in the store, when mostly they do not. Perhaps they never have.
Maybe I turned invisible as soon as I turned forty. I was so busy nursing my newborn, who by four-months old, needed to be fed every three hours because in the aftermath of her birth—for a geriatric pregnancy like mine—constant gallbladder attacks forced me to change my diet. The baby needed much more fat than my breastmilk was giving and she wailed with hunger at every turn. I held her. I fed her. I looked into her eyes—her little newborn-grey eyes turning big and brown and full of tears and need—and I said, “I see you, my love. I hear you. I am here with you.” She learned sign language for milk first, her little squishy fists opening and closing like a beating heart. Babies must be seen to remain alive. Even if they are born blind, children must know they are visible to another human otherwise they will fail to thrive.
Adults do not need to be visible to stay alive, not officially. If I made it this long on the planet, my need to be visible to others is no longer for survival, it is just to feed my ego. Does my ego need more fat? What is the correlation between being visible and being hungry?
I spent my forties looking into my child’s eyes. What a gift, that I could mostly be home with her, working online while she napped, or only gone for short hours teaching a writing or violence-prevention class here and there, or maybe attending a yoga class for myself to feel, in a quiet moment, how wrecked my body actually was postpartum, so wrecked I eventually stopped going to yoga. In fact, I stopped caring about my distended belly, my sagging body parts; I had a child to care for and that seemed far more important. Maybe that was when I became invisible, when I let myself go?
I am so lucky I got to spend my child’s early years with her, looking at her, letting her know I saw her not as I wanted to see her, not as I dreamed her to be, but for who she is. She is so different than me—independent, fierce—walking off to the park on her own at one and a half years old, dancing on a stage in front of an audience since she was three, getting on a bus to preschool at age four with no concern she’d be hurtling down the highway away from her mother. I cried like a baby that day and took a picture of my red watery eyes. So much of how I see my daughter is by seeing how she says goodbye.
I wrote this sentence once: motherhood is nothing but loss. But maybe motherhood is a process of becoming invisible, of losing ourselves to the child who needs to be seen.
As a writer, I have spent a lot of time wanting to be seen. Actually, that sentence is inaccurate. I’ve wanted my words to be read so that people can see me. I want what I write to be an expression of my insides in ways that are true and vulnerable so that other people relate so much they feel me in their insides, like a pleasantly electric pulse, one that relaxes the muscles, the same one that pumps the heart. I have daydreamed of walking down an airplane aisle and seeing someone reading one of my books. I imagine the person so engrossed they do not recognize my face from the book jacket. Does the writer need to be fed every three hours to thrive?
I have likewise spent a lot of time comparing my outsides to other people’s insides, which is a phrase some people say that I’ve never fully grasped. For when are people’s insides ever visible except when something terrible has happened, like an open-heart surgery or a gunshot wound or a deadly virus that turns your insides out?
I do not put my face on social media anymore. This fact is not a hard and fast rule, but since my hair has turned gray and my belly has not flattened and youth is wasted on the young, I just don’t see why my visage is needed among all the noise. I am a Gen Xer, the last generation to not experience adolescence online, and for that I am so grateful I can and do get down on my knees to count my blessings. In middle school, other girls bullied me plenty in real life (irl, lol), putting notes they wrote and signed from me in a poor boy’s locker without me ever knowing until one night during a school dance, they dedicated a song to me and the boy. The DJ said our names over the loudspeaker and my face turned hot and I couldn’t breathe while my guts pushed to come out of my body. I stumbled into the locker room as the other girls cackled with laughter. The poor boy had thought for weeks he and I were dating and he was left on the dance floor alone; in fact, he was the one the girls bullied more than me. Years later, when I saw him on the train, I still pretended both he and I were invisible. I avoided his eyes and I got off the train just a few stops later, and I felt so ashamed of my cowardice. Years after that, when I had grown up, I found him online, and I wrote him a private message, telling him the truth of who wrote the notes and how I was so sorry that I couldn’t see him then and that I can now. He is a grown up too.
I worry about my daughter, now a middle-schooler who is growing up fully online, even more so now in the pandemic. She mostly has private accounts but she does stream one video game and our rules for her access is she cannot show her face nor say her real name. Because the bullies are still out there, hidden behind screens, anonymity and invisibility turning them ever bolder and crueler. The digital age is all about being visible, accumulating likes and hearts and virality, while I simultaneously shroud into invisibility. The whole thing makes me feel quite old.
When my daughter was in kindergarten, one of her school friends asked if I was her grandmother. I said, “No, I’m her mom.” The kid insisted several times I was my daughter’s grandma because my hair had turned gray. “That’s because I’m her mother,” I said. The kid did not get my joke. I am so analogue.
My own mother, who is thirty-three years older than me, tells me she was old, for her generation, to birth her last child at that age. She also tells me I need to stop saying I’m old. My mother is right. My mother is abacus.
I’m so old I took five years of Latin in middle and high school. Does anyone even teach the dead languages anymore?
But I loved the myths I learned in Latin class. I once wrote a poem about Persephone and Demeter (Proserpina and Ceres in the Roman version) as an allegory of my daughter’s harrowing birth, where I had to go down into the underworld to retrieve my daughter. Ceres traded her life so her daughter could be free. If you mess with my daughter, the middle school girl inside of me, who could not do anything when she was bullied except cry and duck into the locker room, who could not tell the poor boy, who was the real target, the truth, who could not look him in the face years later on the train but finally found the courage somewhere inside herself to come clean, will stare you square in the eye until you turn inside out.
At some point, women of a certain age become invisible in the US. That certain age is variable, I suppose, depending on one’s willingness to “put herself out there,” but if age gives me nothing else, let it be this: knowingness that the word visible comes from the past participle of the Latin vidēre, “to see,” the root of which is weid-, which also gives us these words: guide, wisdom, kaleidoscope, Hades, unwitting, envy, idea, and history.
If you cannot see me now because of my age, because of my body, because of my graying hair, please know, this invisibility is my superpower. The more you don’t notice me, the more my power is fed. I notice how you leer at my daughter, how you bully another, how you forgot to hide your jealousy, your shadows, your dark flickering past. I may be invisible to you, but I see everything about you. There is so much more to me than meets your eye.
Nancy Slavin’s work can be found in Dame Magazine, The Manifest Station, Rain Magazine, Barrelhouse, Literary Mama, Hip Mama, and Oregon Humanities Magazine. Nancy is a freelance editor and writer, nonprofit worker, longtime community college English and writing instructor and a violence-prevention educator and organizer. Find her on Twitter or Instagram @nancyslavin1.
Mary Kimber has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, where she also studied film and photography. After a long career in the legal industry, Mary returned to painting in earnest, in 2014, from her home in Forbes Park, Colorado. Living in the mountains above the San Luis Valley, Mary participates in community art shows, such as the Monte Vista Crane Festival, as well as public art projects, notably, the 2019 Swoop of the Cranes. She is a regular exhibitor at the Narrow Gauge Bookstore Cooperative, in Alamosa, Colorado, and has been published in the Conejos Writer’s Circle Anthology in 2018, 2019 and 2020. She primarily works in watercolor, but also uses charcoal, pastels, pen and ink, and in recent years, has also been involved in printmaking.