Looking at Me

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I spent a lot of time looking at my hands this past week. I don’t know when they started looking so old. The skin is thin and the veins are always visible and if I extend my fingers out fully, there are thousands of tiny little wrinkles. The hands don’t match how I think of myself.

I got a card from my mom and she had written on the back of the envelope:

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I burst into tears when I saw it. Why? Because she had articulated some of that bad feeling I was having about my birthday. She doesn’t think of herself as old enough to be the mother of a forty year old. Where does time go?

At a recent women’s luncheon, a woman in her eighties made some remark. A woman in her thirties sitting next to me whispered, “Oh! Aren’t they so cute?!”

I wondered what the older woman would think of being called cute. I bet she still thinks of herself in much the same way she did when she was younger. Don’t get me wrong, she knows her body is old and doesn’t work as well anymore. But the woman inside – that woman is the same. But we don’t see her. We just see the old woman. And we call her cute. Which undermines everything she has to say. Whether we meant to do that or not.

Maybe this is what I’ve been afraid of. That people will stop seeing me. That maybe they already have. Maybe I’m just the middle-aged white woman, which means whatever they’ve categorized that as in their head. I’m not a woman that has scaled mountains, ridden down small waterfalls, competed in collegiate co-ed roller hockey, built a kiln from scratch, given birth at home, preached sermons, won awards, created puzzles, stretched my horizons. A woman who married her high school sweetheart and made it work against all odds.

For some reason, turning 40 scared me. I truly didn’t expect it to. And, really, if people are dismissing me as a middle-aged white woman, they’ve been dismissing me as something or the other my whole life. I can strongly remember being distrusted or belittled by bank officials and employers when I was in my late teens and early twenties. It really didn’t matter who I was. My age was all that mattered.

Are we all just too busy to take the time to step out of our stereotyping habits? I had a serendipitous moment when I read this great blog post about being a black woman in a place where people don’t expect to see black women. The author expressed the desire to be seen for who she is, to be more than “the only black person in the room.”

I realized that was a bit of my concern, although on a much different scale, when I watched the older ladies at that meeting and I pondered getting older myself. I don’t want to be just the mom. Or just the old woman. I don’t want to be filed away as some stereotype. I want people to see me. To get to know me. And I’m afraid that people dismiss you more and more, the older you get.

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Boys in Tutus

When I arrived at the preschool to pick up Hal this afternoon, a dad in the hallway informed me that Hal was wearing a pink tutu. Perhaps he thought this would faze me. It did not. I have a long history of little boys in frilly dress-up.

When I reached the half-door of the classroom, it looked like there had been a fabric explosion. A little boy, not Hal, was strutting about the room in a long gauzy green dress. Another boy was struggling with a hot pink tutu. Yet another was in a blue number.

A little girl in a pale pink dress and a cow head approached me at the door. She explained that her mom (who was not present) had let her wear her Halloween costume and patted the soft horns on her head.

“Are you a cow princess?” I asked her. She nodded and beamed with delight.

I hadn’t yet found Hal. The teacher was sitting against the wall, looking slightly apprehensive. “We are playing dress-up and they can wear whatever they want. That’s what he chose to wear.”

I followed her gaze and found Hal on the floor in a fairly unremarkable dress, looking worried.

“Hal, you look absolutely stunning but we need to go to church. Can you take it off and get your shoes back on, please?”

He smiled broadly and proceeded to talk to me about all the various dress-up options. I noticed that the only children wearing the boring “boy” dress-up uniforms were… girls. And if all the boys weren’t wearing dresses, I’m pretty sure it’s just because there wasn’t enough to go around.

Hal doesn’t have a lot of experience with dress-up dresses. Daryl, on the other hand, lived in them for quite some time at around the same age. His sister had a chest full of them. He coveted them, hoarded them, tried to sleep in them. He thought dresses were the best thing in the world.

One memorable Sunday before he was potty trained, he quickly dressed himself for church. Unbeknownst to me, he had taken off his diaper and donned a pair of ballet pantyhose instead. When I came to pick him up from the nursery after the service, the lady explaining his accident to me was looking at me very strangely. Since most kids his age couldn’t dress themselves, particularly not in something as difficult as pantyhose, she had assumed I had done it. That was a rather awkward moment.

As Hal and I left the school today, he told me how much fun it was to try on dresses and how much he’d like to have some at home. I agreed that it was fun to dress up. I’m not worried about my son and I am grateful that his school does not enforce strict gender stereotypes when it comes to playtime. Donning a fluffy dress doesn’t make a little boy confused or gay. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s secretly a girl inside. It simply means that, let’s face it, the fluffy dress is a lot more fun than the police uniform. Unless the uniform comes with a gun. Or maybe a sword. Daryl took the best of both worlds when he infamously ran around my brother’s house in a Disney princess dress with a plastic sword shoved down the front. I believe he called himself a “Ninja Princess”.

“Mommy,” Hal said as we approached the car, “I want you to wear some dress-up. I mean real play dress-up, but not little. Big. For you. Not a real dress, a dress-up one. I would like that.”

“Ok, Hal. We’ll have to see about that.”