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Confessions of the Invisible Woman

Maybe I’m still someone who for better or worse commands attention, aka “I still got it.” Except now, I don’t want it.

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invisible woman
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From my formative years through the mid-adulthood of my six decades, I attracted my share of attention. The positive kind was confidence-building, ego-boosting and just plain nice. And then, there is the other kind.

I’ve learned over the course of my life that you have to take the bad with the good, and that no one’s life is a boulevard of unbroken green lights. But dealing with negative attention was always exhausting — even when the vivacity of youth was on my side.

To be clear, I’m not talking about adverse responses one brings on oneself via bragging, brinkmanship or being a one-upper. You know, behavior that could merit a slot on a Real Housewives franchise.

I mean when you’re just being you, and it triggers something in someone else — ofttimes even someone you barely know, hence haven’t yet had time to offend. A few years ago, I left the comfort of my #WFH situation of 20 years and worked on premises for a couple of months. The job made me feel young again, but not in a good way.

My supervisor, two decades my junior, hated me on sight, evidenced by the way she looked me up and down, as her nostrils flared. I had been hired by HR for her department and it was clear she would not have chosen me if she’d had her druthers.

Dealing all over again with that kind of behavior really threw me, since I had spent the good part of the past decade actually enjoying the invisibility that I had come to understand made many women my age feel bad. I had grown accustomed to gliding through life with my silver hair (I stopped dyeing it seven years ago), virtually unnoticed, to do what I needed to do, being spoken to only after I’d asked a question or made a request of a salesclerk, and being considered harmless.

“Thank goodness that’s no longer me” became my mantra as I watched younger women trying to emerge from skirmishes with the title of “badass,” as well as fending off assumptions that go hand in hand with dewy skin and shiny hair. I remember all too well the people who anticipated that anyone who brought the pretty was a suspected boyfriend-stealer or that every eager young professional was Eve Harrington.

With my son Luke, 25, and daughter Meg, 22, now a long way out of grammar and high school, I too am far from the mommy-centric activities associated with their education that often turned so competitive they qualified as Olympic events.

As stay-at-home mother and freelancer, I often found myself a target of moms who had younger children to care for or worked outside the home and thereby could not drop everything to volunteer for the midday bake sales and such. They reminded me of my Bronx upbringing when my Italian American single mother, who worked full time in Manhattan, lived in fear of being labeled “a non-participating parent” and so to make up for a lack of physical presence, she’d always overdo it when it came to sending in a donation — whether it be an item to be raffled or a monetary contribution, many times outside our financial comfort zone.

I thought of her every time I was confronted with someone’s resentment of my flexible schedule and never engaged, although I did become drained by their hostility, eventually expending way too much energy avoiding them.

Then, of course, there’s the coup de grâce of unwanted attention: construction sites. In my late 30s, my mother once told me that you hate wolf whistles — until the day they stop. That was one of the only times in my life when this very wise, now 98-year-old woman, got it wrong. As for many of us, the leers and comments started at age 13 — yes, grown men trying to chat up a girl who could be, if not their daughter, their little sister. I do not regret being “admired” in that way.

I know there are a lot of “This Is What 60 Looks Like” websites promoting beautiful mature women, and even some a la RHONY’s Ramona Singer in bikini tops, cutoffs and high heel wedges dancing with abandon amidst onlookers. (FYI: Good for them. Truly, you go, girl.) I, however, have had my fill of being noticed in general, and now would like to just be, stay in my own lane, live and let live.

As for the temporary manager who plucked from me my Harry Potter Cloak of Invisibility, what was her problem? Because I’ve been in the business world since age 16, when my mother said that for my milestone birthday I’d be getting working papers, I’ve known my share of insecure employees who either feared for their jobs or that no one would respect their authority, then took it out on whomever was in front of them. At that particular job, well, tag — I was it.

Or perhaps I served as a trigger, a reminder of some 10th grader who wouldn’t let her sit at the lunch table; or she didn’t want someone on her team reminiscent of her mother; something deep-seated that I could not fathom or so simple, like I just wasn’t her cup of tea.

Or maybe I’m still someone who for better or worse commands attention, aka “I still got it.” Except now, I don’t want it.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels Fat Chick, Back to Work She Goes and the upcoming The Last Single Woman in New York City.

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