I attended a lecture last month here in Seattle that was open to the community. My husband was unable to attend so I brought along a friend instead and we walked in chatting away about the usual stuff. Our weekend, our kids, potential job interviews, stuff like that. We were still ensconced in our conversation when we took our seats so it was a few minutes before we realized that we were, quite possibly, the oldest people in the audience.
We glanced at each other quizzically. Did we miss the memo? Was this a lecture for college students? Early 20-somethings, maybe? Before I had time to fret over it, though, a young woman sat down next to me and promptly introduced herself. She was 22 if she was a day and we chatted amiably for a few minutes until her friends arrived and we all turned our attention to the front of the room.
At the midway point, during a break, she turned back to me and asked,
“So… how did you, like, hear about this?”
I told her that I had seen a notice about the lecture on Facebook and thought it sounded interesting.
“Oh… (nodding) that’s coooool. Good for you.”
Good for me? I was confused and she must have seen the question in my eyes because she followed up with,
“I mean, that’s cool, you know. That you, like, got out of the house and stuff. That you go to stuff like this. That’s really cool.”
Um, thanks? I didn’t know how to respond so I didn’t. I just nodded slowly and turned back to face the front of the room. She meant well but her words ate at me for days. I couldn’t quite identify why they bothered me so much. I rolled them around in my head and replayed them for a week and a half before I figured it out. Her words bothered me, not so much for their condescension, but because they poked at a feeling that has been festering in me for a few years.
I’m starting to feel invisible.
Pregnancy as a Bait-and-Switch
I started to notice it around the time that I had kids. Pregnancy can be a bit of a tease, I think. A fake-out. People notice you when you’re pregnant. Someone who wouldn’t even consider striking up a conversation with you under any other circumstance is suddenly shooting the breeze with you about all things baby. Folks give you their seat on the bus, fetch you water when you look a little peaked, and they smile at you and your adorable baby-bump even when you’re looking pretty haggard. So it can feel like a mighty quick turn-around from being the one that everyone sees to being the one that nobody notices at all.
The first time I remember experiencing that nagging feeling was at Pike Place Market in 2009. Jason and I took Gryffin, then 8-months-old, to the annual cheese festival and we stood among the throngs of people sampling cheese and bread and artisanal olive oils. I had Gryffin wrapped up on my chest and I shuffled in and out of the crowd next to Jason, as we slowly worked our way to the front of each booth. Nobody took any notice of me in one way or another and eventually my back and feet began to protest so Jason took over the baby-wearing duties. Almost instantly people took notice!
Oh! Look at you and your sweet baby!
What an adorable daddy you are!
Oh, make way for THIS guy! He’s got a little bundle in there!
Now that’s a real man right there!
At the time we laughed about it and used it to our advantage. People let us cut in line and offered Jason extra samples. Score! But it also made me feel sort of small. The second Jason wrapped that kid up on his chest he was getting fist-bumps and Awwwws from the folks at the market. A man with a baby is sexy. Desirable. A man with kids gets all sorts of kudos and high fives and a whole host of wow, well done, man‘s. But a woman doing the exact same stuff? Nobody’s gaze falls her way.
On the Outside Looking In
I’m not talking about being physically seen per-se. I’m certainly not hoping for more cat calls or street harassment. No, thanks. I’m talking about more of a gradual fading out altogether. It’s hard to pinpoint precisely. It feels like I’m talking, say, but that my voice is getting quieter and quieter and nobody notices. Like I’m standing outside a glass door looking in on a party I wasn’t invited to attend.
I’m not entirely sure why I feel like this or what lies at the root. At first I thought it was just part of getting older; that everyone must feel this way at my age. Or that maybe it was yet another inevitable component of becoming a parent. Jason doesn’t feel invisible, though. He doesn’t feel like he’s on the outside looking in. I’m feeling a longing, a yearning, that he’s not feeling. So it’s not simply age or parental status. And even just a few casual conversations with some of my girlfriends tells me that I’m not the only one feeling this way. It seems to be due, at least on some level, to being a woman.
I once heard a male writer say that he wants to be invisible when he writes; that he wants his stories and his writing to so carry the reader away that they aren’t aware of him at all. It seemed like a such a noble sentiment at the time and I wanted to share it. But I don’t. Not really. I write, at least in part, because I want to be seen. I write because I want to be part of the conversation. I write because I want my voice to be heard.
One of my all-time favorite movies is Rudy and it’s a scene from the beginning of the film that always stands out for me. Rudy Ruettiger has been dreaming about playing football for Notre Dame since he was a little boy. But he’s a mediocre player, his family is wholly unsupportive, and his grades are lousy so he settles for life at the local steel mill. During the lunch break at the mill one day, four years after graduating high school, his best friend, Pete, surprises him by remembering that it’s his birthday and he gives Rudy a gift. A Notre Dame jacket. Rudy looks at it with such reverence and awe and then he slowly slips it on. He looks up at Pete wistfully and says, “Do you think it looks good on me?” And Pete says,
“Rudy. You were BORN to wear that jacket.”
Pete saw Rudy. He’s the only one who really saw him. And Rudy came alive under his friend’s gaze. I remember coming home for winter break my freshman year of college. I had just spent 12 long weeks meeting new people, navigating life away from my parents and classes and studying, trying to figure out who might be my friends and who I wanted to be and I was exhausted. Before heading home, I had bought a new pair of shoes. It was a bold move for me. I had always declared that they weren’t my style and you wouldn’t catch me wearing a pair of THOSE. But I had come around to them and it felt like a big deal when I bought them. But nobody at school knew me or what a big deal it was for me; what a stretch it had been for me to buy them. I wore them home and I remember walking into the kitchen. My mom and a friend of mine from high school were waiting for me. My friend took one look at my feet and said,
“Nance! You HATE those shoes! What is happening??!!”
My mom was equally shocked and made a big fuss over my change of heart. After all that time away, it felt so good in that moment to be known; to finally be able to let my guard down and rest in someone knowing me.
Redirecting My Gaze
When I feel that nagging sense of decreasing visibility, when I’m overcome with the feeling that nobody sees me anymore, I’m going to home in on the places where I feel most known. I’m going to home in on my husband and my kids because I know they see me. They see me and they know me and among those three, I matter. I can rest there.
I’ll home in on the story of Zacchaeus in the book of Luke. If you aren’t familiar with it, Zacchaeus lived in Jericho and he heard that Jesus was coming to town. He was the chief tax collector in town and probably about as popular as an IRS auditor but he wanted to see Jesus. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The crowd, though, was so immense and Zacchaeus so short that he couldn’t see a thing. So he climbed a tree, hoping to catch a glimpse. And Jesus surprised everyone by seeing him up in the tree, calling out to him by name and asking if he could have dinner with him. That’s the rough equivalent of having Obama or Oprah or Beyonce seeing you in a huge crowd, calling out your name and asking if you want to go grab a bite. The story of Zacchaeus reminds me that above all else, God sees me.
I’ll home in on the spaces I share with my closest friends, who know and are known by me. I’ll home in on my church that celebrates the voices and the leadership of women. And I’ll try to broaden my perspective. I’ll expand my view and look outward. I’ll look for the people around me whose voices aren’t being heard; for people who long to be seen, for people who feel like they, too, are invisible sometimes.