Am I invisible?

shutterstock_10882816-1280x960Growing old is not all sweetness and light.  Old women especially are invisible. ~ Ruth Rendell

I have said a number of times to daughter # 1 that the older women become the more invisible they are.  The last time I said it I guess she was tired of hearing me whine so she said, “You’re always saying that, Mom.  I don’t get it.”

I started noticing this odd phenomenon when I was in my forties.  I often took my husband’s grandmother to the ophthalmologist after her cataract surgery.  She was alert and intelligent and tuned in.  She would sign her name on the sign-in sheet.  Then the young woman who came over to check her in would look straight at me and ask questions about the patient.  I was completely taken aback.  I remember looking at her with a puzzled look on my face and telling her, “You need to ask her,” nodding toward Grandmother, “because I don’t know.”  (I must insert here that this grandmother was never known by any of the traditional grandma titles.  We called her Ole Shoe–another story for another time.)  So…Ole Shoe would give me a smile and respond to all questions herself.

If I’m not mistaken, this scenario played out every time we went to that particular office.  I guess my not-so-subtle message didn’t infiltrate the mind of my intended subject.

I don’t imagine the office staff person realized she was being disrespectful.  She was a nice person as far as I could tell, and very efficient.  Efficient is the word that struck me first thing this morning as I was reading my cyber friend Uta’s current post. Uta lives in Australia and she was writing about a very efficient agent who completely ignored her and spoke only with her husband Peter.  I’m thinking Uta felt invisible.  She would have appreciated some acknowledgment of her existence.  She didn’t get it.

After reading Uta’s post I started to do a bit of online research about older women.  I discovered an article Tira Harpaz wrote and guest-posted on Salon. (Go to salon.com and  type in women over 50 are invisible in the red bar at the top of the page.)  Harpaz suggests that women who are in positions of authority are able to delay the onset of invisibility.  I think that’s true but it doesn’t include the majority of older women.

So what are we everyday older women to do?  Do we have any control over how others perceive us?

I think we do. It may be limited, but we have some control. For me it means staying active. Having a firm step when I walk (unless the arthritis in my right ankle kicks in :))  It means speaking clearly and with authority.  It means volunteering.  It means asserting myself when necessary, without being strident.  (Not being annoyed and strident is hard for me.) It means saying, “Excuse me, I believe I was next in line.”  It means standing tall with a smile on my face and determination in my demeanor.

If this is an issue for you, I would like to hear how you stay visible and relevant.

Note:  The image of the invisible woman above is from the Harpaz article.

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31 thoughts on “Am I invisible?

  1. –The only women who are invisible are those who want to be invisible.

    And for those who ignore the woman over 50…Well, they can kiss my A*# !!

    Great post.

    Btw, I SEE YOU, Pat! I Hear you!

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    • One time at work on the assembly line, a group gathered around my work station and literally blocked me, standing around and small-talking. After repeated attempts to get in and complete my job, I lost my temper and stood foursquare in my space and went AAUUGGH! and even at that they were only mildly startled until they saw I was carrying a 2-foot combination wrench (and believe me, I was tempted.

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        • We all, it seems, feel invisible as we age, as our connections seem to disappear, deliberately or not. If you can spare me the time, here’s my recent example of slowly drifting away:

          WHERE IS THAT LITTLE GIRL?

          Can’t help but feel a little sentimental, even lonely, right now, as each day passes and time keeps slipping away. My daughter Victoria, away at college, texted me and informed me of a very touching song about a dad and his daughter. As she stressed, “It’s the cutest father/daughter song ever written…” She urged me to listen to it and focus on its relevance to, at this point, her hypothetical future wedding. She urged with warmth and an upbeat charge, as only she knows how.

          So I tuned in to “I Loved Her First,” by Heartland, a sort of country-flavor song based in good old fashioned sentimentality about a dad’s release of his daughter’s hand to her groom on her wedding day. The song, as the title suggests, is a touching testament to a father’s look-back in time—retreating, just for the moment, to the fond memories of his daughter—from her infancy, to the growing child, to teenage development, and finally to her wedding day, a quick snapshot of time remembered with a seriousness of purpose that is unique to fathers. Dad indeed loved her first. The song speaks of happiness and encouragement, as the daughter is effectively celebrated for her move to a new level in life. But the dad, too, is to be celebrated, saluted for his years of devotion to his daughter’s well-being, a care that could not waver, even under the most difficult of times. That the song is cloaked with a touch of melancholy is not so surprising. The dad, after all, witnesses before him what is only inevitable, a bittersweet reminder that his little girl, well, just doesn’t need him the same way anymore.

          I began to trace back my own steps in time, and realized just how short the passage is—it seems like just yesterday that we went from diapers, to book-reading and story-telling, to playing sports and games together, to watching her develop, and to witnessing finally her move from me to her friends and boyfriends. She is 18 now, and I began to cringe; could it really be 18 years? What dad hasn’t said those words as he watches the reality that his children are no longer children? The days of serving as role model and entertainment-master are gone; I no longer need to hold her hand for the same reason. In the process, a cold reality sets in: children evolve, dads age. As time marches on, the dad is more relegated to the sidelines, a bystander on the outside looking-in, thereby locked into sudden aloneness. An ironic twist of life is harbored: once elated while bouncing my baby girl on my knee, by holding her hand while walking with her for her first day of school, and by teaching her to throw a softball or to hold a tennis racquet, I am now deflated by the loss of that same little girl. Maybe somewhere in the end there is a meaning to all this. Maybe it is found in looking forward and not behind me. Maybe, just maybe, I will believe that someday. Maybe that song was written for me.

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          • How we miss our little girls, Ken. I had three of them. If we’ve done our job well, they do indeed evolve. On a positive note for parents: Aging fathers also evolve as they age, as is evidenced in your art. Thanks for your heartfelt comments. Oh, and she may not be on your knee any longer but she will always be your little girl.

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            • Thanks for the good words and listening to me. I guess it takes another parent to understand–frankly, maybe I didn’t get it when my own mother expressed a similar sentiment.

              Best to you,

              Ken

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  2. Strangely enough, I do not feel invisible. Perhaps it’s the small mountain town where everyone knows everyone. In fact I sometimes feel far too VISIBLE. I seem always to be the one the husband approaches in the grocery store to ask if this is what I think his wife meant by an item on the list. Or the short ladies who cannot reach something always seem to ask me to get it for them. Of course, I don’t mind but sometimes I feel as if I am wearing a sign that says, “Ask me. I’ll help you.” Even in the book store strangers are always asking me, “Have you read this?” Fortunately for them, I am a good judge of books. 🙂

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  3. Oops….I did reply to the Jessica Savitch post, didn’t I?. Another problem with this aging thing. But I truly don’t want to complain about any of it. Toni told me when we were turning 50 that she had no patience with anyone who was finding it difficult as she had thought she would not have that opportunity. Thanks God she had it and 15 more wonderful birthdays.

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    • Hi Kathy. I hope you are doing well. I thought of you when I was writing about Ole Shoe since you’re the one who gave her the nickname. I recall lots of good conversations with her. She was special.

      It’s hard for me to even think of Ken as an older man. Where does the time go? It makes sense, though, that it wouldn’t be just women. Sometimes I wish I were taller. I used to think that when I was teaching, too, because most of my students were taller than I. I don’t know whether height would matter.

      I totally agree with Toni. I have no cause to complain. And I’m grateful for every day and hour that I have here with family and friends. But I don’t think it’s whining to do some degree of consciousness raising about some of the obstacles older people encounter. I guess I’m pretty transparent when it comes to things that bug me. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so good. I pray for discernment so I will know the difference.

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      • Just not the right Ken….I was speaking of my Executive Director and friend. Sorry for my lack of clarity. I think you are a very wise woman, Pat, and wish we could spend some time together

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  4. I think this is my first “reply” to your blog, Pat. Firstly, thank for the story about OleShoe! I had never read about older women being invisible and about five years ago I started to tell my executive director that I sometimes felt this way. The other part of this older woman phenomena is when I do say hello or somehow make myself to known to some younger people, they can look at me as if I am slightly deranged!! Interestingly after hearing this, Ken began to notice the same invisibility himself, even as a very strong 6 foot tall man, so I think it is somewhat true for both genders.
    I so look forward to reading your blogs!

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  5. You’re a poet, Ducks, and you made my soul glow with your comment about music. Music is one of the most important things in my life.

    Also, I love ‘Ghost’ and Patrick Swayze. I think we older people do indeed see and acknowledge each other with purpose. It’s good that we have each other.

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  6. I don’t know if you familiar with the film ‘Ghost’. In it Patrick Swayze, now deceased in the film, goes on the subway and meets another ghost.: Only they can see each other in all their detail. Perhaps that is the same for older people who view the world with the same level of experience and common vantage point. I am not defeatist, and you certainly do not deserve to be. Sometimes the finest music is not audible to everyone. Those who can hear it enjoy a privilege. That’s what I feel when I comer and read you Blog.

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    • Hi Caroline. I know that poem. And I do wear purple and red and shocking pink and electric blue. They all go well with the white hair. And I suppose I must want people to see me coming…and going.

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      • All my daughters, all three of them, even Gaby who spent her life in a wheelchair and passed away last year being close to 55. well all the daughters have been dyeing their hair for many, many years. Most of my granddaughters too started dyeing their hair by the time when they had hardly grown up. Also my mum always had her hair dyed, even in bad times. Whereas all through my life I’ve been happy with my natural hair colour. I’m really the odd one out, aren’t I?

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  7. I’m not sure I my emptiness is the result a the “growing old” syndrome; I still have my wit, my sense of humor. The blood still pulsates in me to create, opine, and evaluate. I have written before about the loss of “belonging” as the years role by. As I once wrote in this column, young people evolve; we age. The cry for “who wants me now” is replaced by “who needs me now…” Yes, the feeling of an invisible existence is just a parody for emptiness.

    But I must diverse for a moment and discuss a little heart-felt loss that has just made it rounds. You see, one of my young daughter’s and son’s friends–his name is Rob–just succumbed to cancer, wiped out at 19 years young, a battle lost within just 9 months of his fatal diagnosis, a death sentence to an otherwise bright, athletic, young hopeful. The Devil’s disease is uncompromising; it takes no prisoners, just executes. Growing old? Rob never had the chance, and, while I, too, shriek with emptiness–the ravages of time clamp us in, but free our young to move forward, leaving us alone to watch their development as we water down–I feel lucky that I have even had the chance to watch my young move on. So, I began to think, just why am I feeling empty? I haven’t battled any dreadful disease and I still have my interests and my abilities. The convoy of visitors attending Rob’s wake, waiting patiently on endless lines just to enter the focal room, was, well, of parade proportions. All waited on line to pay their final respects to the family, to view this fine young man for a last time, indeed a fanfare and following for a family whose lives have forever changed. We applaud Rob’s memory. We bow to his parents. And we salute everything that can be made good out of a senseless loss. The tragedy, in a weird small way, was flipped by support, a metaphoric order was placed for the clown-prince of survival to laugh in the Devil’s face. But who would be there for me, I wondered, when it’s my turn? Perhaps I should start handing out free tickets, else nobody will care or even notice.

    Growing old? We must. Aging gives us meaning. Just ask Rob, but nobody ever told him.

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    • Thank you, Ken, for putting this post in perspective for me. Your sense of loss of young Rob is palpable. Sometimes, when a grandchild teases me about one of my many foibles, I tell them that one day they will be old; that we who are old are lucky. Over the years, as a high school teacher, I had the misfortune to attend a number of funerals of youth who died far too soon. Nothing is sadder.

      Thank you for sharing this story. You’ve made me think in a way that I didn’t before I read your comments. Peace and good thoughts to you.

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  8. This is a fantastic post! I think it is both an age thing AND a gender thing and multiplied when you both are a woman and old. Many people over the years, tradesmen for example, always deferred to my husband assuming that I (as a woman) had nothing between my ears. Even my husband would often take the glory in any of our shared achievements as if I did not exist, or that I simply existed to get him where he needed to be – even though I had often been the one who had got us to wherever or whatever he was feeling glorious about. It was a double whammy then to have not ever really been shown that deserved respect as a person, as a wife, as a woman; to have then been ditched for a much, much younger variety.
    Over the past 18 months since that happened, now not being constantly in the shadow of his stronger personality, I have gradually felt more vitally alive than I ever did in my partnership with him. People are listening to and seeing ‘me’ as an individual. So I am striving to keep ‘me’ out there, and am continually pushing to be seen for who I am. I am ready to make my mark on the world. And, as I enter my sixties, I will fight against being seen by that new label of ‘old’.
    Thanks for giving me some ego fuel today 🙂

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    • Hi Elizabeth. I appreciate your comments. I agree that it is also a gender thing. Maybe that’s why the ageism I’m encountering now bothers me. I’ve lived with sexism all my life. I remember taking my car to the mechanic because I was having a problem with the brakes. I was about 30 at the time. The repairman couldn’t find anything wrong so he told me to take the car home and have my husband drive it and see if he thought there was a problem. Well, EXCUSE ME, you jerk!

      Your last paragraph above says so much about your healing. Sometimes we have to escape from that ‘husband appendage’ in order to become who we’re meant to be, even when it isn’t how we expected our lives would progress. It’s a grand feeling to finally be happy about being divorced.

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      • Yes, it was a long time coming.
        It seems to me that to get to that point I had to finally accept that what I wanted (a happy marriage where each person allowed the other to grow as an individual) was not something that my husband ever wanted so it was not something that I ever really had. Although the realisation of losing the happy marriage is sad, at least I am now able to live the second part of the dream (living a full life where I am able to grow as an individual).

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    • Hi “Mother”. Thanks for your comment. Marginalized is a good description of how I feel sometimes. I don’t like to call excessive attention to myself but neither am I a shrinking violet.

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  9. This is a very widespread phenomenon and as I get older I find it more and more aggravating. Trying to be assertive without being strident doesn’t come easily to me! I’m thinking of dying my hair flaming red and wearing it in dreadlocks – then maybe I wouldn’t be invisible? 😀

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    • Hi Cat! You’ve made me giggle. I know one thing for sure: hair color matters. When I let my white hair grow out a few years ago and stopped having it dyed, I noticed a huge difference in how I was received by people who didn’t know me. I hope you’ll send a photo after you do this dastardly deed to your hair. 🙂

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  10. Sorry, I want to mention another very assertive person who was 23 years younger than I. This was our quadriplegic daughter Gaby who passed away one year ago. She was in a wheelchair, yet never to be ignored. She always made certain people would take notice of her. She was extremely good at talking to people. May she rest in peace.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Uta. It sounds as if you and Peter have a wonderful mutual relationship that allows both of you to feel comfortable. That’s an ideal arrangement to my way of thinking.

      I appreciate your relating observations about your mother, friend and daughter. They remind me that personality probably plays a big role in how we react in these situations. And that we’re all different and that’s a good thing.

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      • I agree, the difference is a good thing. Feeling ‘invisible’ can be a good thing too. You have time to observe people and even feel amused about the whole situation. Another good thing is, it all went quickly. They didn’t make us wait for very long and fixed up our papers very quickly. You’ve said: “It means asserting myself when necessary, without being strident.” This is how I definitely feel tool.

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  11. Thanks for this post, Pat, and for the link to my post. About staying visible and relevant I’d like to say something even though you pointed out in your blog quite a few very good examples how not to become invisible.
    I had a very good friend, 15 years my senior. When Peter was at work and the children were at school, I had often had time to drive her around to her appointments. She always handled her appointments totally by herself. To me it was natural to stay in the background. This friend was a very assertive person and no way would she have tolerated to be ignored. Another woman with assertiveness that comes to mind was my mother. Oh boy, was she assertive!
    I always knew I would never be like my mother or like this friend of mine. To be honest it doesn’t really bother me to stay in the background. I don’t mind when Peter graciously fills out some form for me together with his identical form. Handing them over for processing there’s no need to ask me any questions. Everything is in the form already. We could do it the other way around. Me filling in the forms and handing them over, mine and Peter’s together. Then probably Peter would be ignored.

    In a social setting I wouldn’t like being totally ignored. It would upset me and I would probably do something about it. But in a workplace setting it doesn’t really upset me. I try to understand that it isn’t a personal thing. It’s just workplace related. The same happens to us when Peter and I are together at a checkout. Peter is in the front and getting the attention. I stay behind and pay the bill once all the items are processed. In a workplace situation like this “How are you?” is said to the first person that comes along.

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