A Fair Trade

DSC00174I really believe that looking into a mirror and thinking, “who is that old person?” is something that every middle aged person has done at one time or another.  Some of us do it on a regular basis, if not daily.  But the reality is that the older we get, the harder it is to identify with the image we see reflected back at us, especially in a well-lit bathroom mirror that emphasizes all the wrinkles and sags.  Middle age means no longer looking nearly as young as we feel, and knowing that it’s only going to get worse, not better, from here on out.  Talk about depressing!

Luckily, middle age brings other, more positive, changes than just the physical ones.  My body may be aging in all kinds of negative ways, but my sense of self is actually improving.  I have a very good memory of my childhood (which is kind of amazing, since I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday), and one thing I know very clearly about my early years is how hard I always worked at “fitting in.”  I paid attention to what the other kids wore, what games they played, and what they thought, and did my best to imitate that so that I wouldn’t be excluded.  Later, as a teenager and young adult, I did pretty much the same thing, doing my best to make sure that I looked and acted as much as possible like everyone else.  It wasn’t always easy, and I certainly didn’t always succeed, but I can honestly say that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be the person I thought others wanted me to be.

I can’t say exactly when “fitting in” stopped mattering so much to me, because it has been a gradual process, and one that I am still working on.  I’m sure reaching middle age had a lot to do with it, because the issues women deal with in middle age (menopause, empty-nest syndrome, aging parents, etc.) are a constant challenge to our self image.  Somewhere along the line, I have stopped caring so much about what others thought of me, and started caring a lot more who I really am, and who I really want to be.

It’s possible that this change is just a natural part of the aging process, now that I am at a point where I have to make intentional decisions about what I want to do with the years I have left.  Or maybe I’m just a slow learner and it’s taken me this long to learn what is really important in life has nothing to do with conformity, and that the people I actually care about have no problems accepting me just the way I am.  But whatever happened, I’m grateful.  I may not always recognize the old-looking woman who looks back at me from the mirror these days, but I am getting to know the “real me” a little better every day.  And that’s a trade-off I can live with.

Can You See Me Now?

I was talking to a friend one day, and she said one of the biggest surprises she had upon reaching middle age was discovering that she had become virtually invisible to almost everyone who wasn’t also a middle-aged woman.  When I responded sympathetically, she exclaimed, “Oh, I don’t mind at all!  Actually, I love it!  I can do whatever I want, and nobody notices!”

I’d heard middle-aged women complain about being invisible before, but being young at the time, I had assumed that they were simply complaining that the men they encountered no longer saw them as desirable.  And I thought, with all the callousness of youth, that they just needed to get over themselves.  But there is nothing vain or shallow about my friend, and she was talking about her work situation, not walking into a party and wanting the men in the room to stare at her with deep admiration and longing.  She meant that, as a middle-aged woman, most of her superiors didn’t really notice her enough to pay close attention to what she was up to, which gave her the freedom to do her job as she thought best without a lot of unnecessary interference. And since she’s both smart and hard working, she doesn’t need or want to be micro-managed.

But while middle-age invisibility may be an advantage in the workplace (although I’m sure it means my friend is also not recognized for some of her achievements), it can feel a bit uncomfortable when it spills over into the rest of our lives.  I once visited a new church three times by myself, slipping in and out of the sanctuary mostly unnoticed.  On the fourth visit, my husband joined me, and that time lots of people came up to greet us.  Once I was part of a couple, people actually saw us.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find that a bit annoying.  And unless I’m shopping in a store that specifically targets middle-aged women, I can usually browse for a very long time without a sales person approaching and asking if I would like any help.  Middle-aged invisibility is not just in our imagination.

So, although I agree with my friend that there are distinct advantages to the freedom that comes from living in a culture that doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to middle-aged women, I think there is also a downside to middle-age invisibility.  Because all of us, even those with a healthy self-esteem, sometimes need a little validation from other people.  We need to be reminded that we still have lots to offer the world, that we still count, and that we are still beautiful, both inside and out.  Which might be why, as we live out our middle years, we tend to spend so much time with other middle-aged women.  They still see our worth, and we see theirs. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

A View from the Edge

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I finally got around to transferring old home videos from VCR to DVD the other day, following a lengthy battle with a VCR/DVD converter that lasted for the better part of the afternoon and included lots of swearing and threats on my part and a steadfast refusal to “record” on the part of the converter.  But once I got things working correctly, I was able to sit back and watch lots of old footage of birthday parties, holidays and family gatherings.

The first thing I noticed was how different my kids looked back then.  Where they ever really that small?  Did my son really speak in that high-pitched voice?  His voice is so deep now that he’s actually hard to hear in a crowded, noisy restaurant.  Then I notice my husband.  Did he really have that much hair back then?  But finally, I notice….me.

I’m rarely standing directly in front of, or even looking at, the camera.  I’m hovering around the edge of the frame, handing out sippy cups to toddlers, lighting the candles on the birthday cakes, and tidying up the wrapping paper as the kids tear into their gifts.  You can sometimes hear my voice off-camera, shooing the dog out of the way, prompting the kids to say “thank you” or offering someone a tray of Christmas cookies.  Was that really me, always on the edge, directing the others, cleaning up after them, but never really in the thick of things?  And is it still me?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  Even in my middle age, there’s always something, or someone, who needs my care.  And like so many women, I tend to put the needs of others first, without even giving the matter much thought.  It is, after all, part of what being in a relationship means….sometimes caring for others more than we care for ourselves.  Selfishness can very quickly equal loneliness.  But at what point does putting others first mean I’m not meeting my own needs at all, not using what little creative talent I have, and not being true to myself?

If someone were filming my life now, would I still be that shadowy figure, almost hiding around the edges?  It’s hard to know, but it’s something I need to think about.  I think it’s something all of us need to think about, if we want to live fully and genuinely.  I think each of us needs to find our own balance between what we do for others and what we do for ourselves, because no one was meant to “hide their light under a bushel.” Not a single one of us.

A Mid-Century Life

I was watching the show “House Hunters” on HGTV the other morning, and the young couple trying to select their new home ended up choosing what was referred to as a “mid-century house” because it had been built in the 1950s.  Which is, of course, the exact same decade in which I was born.  As soon as they bought the house, the couple began a full-scale rehab to bring the incredibly “old” house “up-to-date.”  Needless to say, I turned off the TV.

I’m used to thinking of myself as middle-aged, and even as the tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation.  But mid-century?  That just sounds so old!  Yet there’s no getting around the fact that I came into this world in the late 1950s, over half a century ago, and a completely different era.

When I was a young child, our family had only one car.  We were luckier than most of our neighbors in that my father took the bus to work most days, thereby leaving my mother with a car to use when she needed to go somewhere.  She spent a lot of her time driving not only my sisters and me around, but often the neighbors as well.  I remember many trips to the zoo with my mother and her two friends, Peggy and Rosemary, in the front seat, each with a baby in her lap.  The older children, and there were usually at least seven of us, were stuffed into the back seat.  No one had ever heard of car seats or even seat belts for children back then.

When I was in first grade, the teacher once asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up.  The boys gave a variety of answers–policeman, doctor, lawyer, truck driver, etc.–but each of the girls answered either teacher or nurse.  As far as we knew, those were the only two choices available to us.  We also wore dresses or skirts to school each day.  Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, which always made swinging around the monkey bars at recess without showing off our underwear a bit  of a challenge.  Television sets were black and white, and had about four channels which only worked when the antennae on top were placed just so.

When I think back on my early years, I have to realize that it was indeed a long time ago and a very different world from the one I live in now.  So maybe it isn’t such a mystery why I sometimes feel just a little bit like a stranger in a foreign land.  Adjusting to change is a natural part of life, but dang!  Women in my generation have adjusted to more than our fair share, even when most of the changes have been for the good.    So I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little patience and consideration as we cope with it all.  And by the time we reach the full-century mark, we’re going to be needing a LOT of patience and consideration.  Consider yourselves warned.