Judge Not

IMG_0371I was talking to a friend the other day about her decision to retire from teaching at the end of this school year.  This is a big change for her, and naturally she is a little apprehensive about exactly how retiring from a full-time job will impact her life and her family.  I was listening to her concerns with genuine sympathy right up to the moment when she looked at me and suddenly said, “You haven’t worked full time in years, and I’ve always wanted to ask you….what exactly do you DO all day?”

Now I can be just a wee bit of a snarky bitch at times, so the immediate answer that sprang to my mind was, “Nothing much.  I spend my days sitting in the recliner, watching TV and drinking Diet Coke.  Every few hours I get up to go the bathroom, but that’s about it.”  Of course, I didn’t actually say that, but I was definitely taken back by her question.  I honestly didn’t know how to answer.  I could recite a list of the things I am doing with my days or remind her that it is quite possible to work very hard without actually being paid, but I was afraid  that would sound defensive, and I know she didn’t mean to offend me.  But if I didn’t explain exactly how I spent my time,  then I risked confirming the implication that I was simply wasting my days away.  I felt judged, and not in a good way.

I remember a young woman who lived in my college dorm, who was very pretty in that Farrah Fawcett style that was all the rage back then.  She always hurried past me when I met her in the hallway, barely acknowledging my presence, even though most of the other women were usually willing to stop for a chat.  Frankly, I thought she was stuck-up.  But then one day I met an obviously confused, middle-aged woman in the lobby who was asking for her, and later heard the young woman on the phone, patiently repeating the same information over and over again.  I found out that the confused middle-aged woman was her mother, who had suffered brain damage in a bad car accident years before.  And the young woman I thought was a snob was really just too busy to stop and talk, what with constantly dealing with her mother’s issues while she was trying to earn a college degree.  I had judged her very harshly, and I was completely wrong.

And I think that’s the problem with judgement:  it is so often completely wrong.  We don’t know what other people are going through; we don’t know what their hopes and dreams are; we don’t know why they make the choices they make.  And as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, we don’t need to know.

I’m sure the fact that I don’t have a real job anymore does strike some people as odd, but I know that I am living a life that is both productive and worthwhile, and the arrangement works for my husband and me.  I also know that as a former stay-at-home mom who spent a lot of time and effort on books that were never published, I am a bit sensitive to questions about how I spend my days.  But that’s beside the point:  I really shouldn’t have to explain my life choices to anyone.  And I don’t have the right to judge other people’s choices, even when what they are doing makes no sense to me whatsoever.  As long as there is no neglect or abuse involved, I really do think that the old “live and let live” advice is right on target.

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.