Friday, November 25, 2011

memoirs of an invisible woman

One day I woke up and I was invisible.

There was no flash of eerie light, no potential nuclear catastrophe, and no attempts to blow up a cat. Just eyes that slid past me, spaces that didn’t accommodate my buggy-wielding self properly, and even friends and workmates who more or less forgot about me unless I, rarely, met them in public spaces or attended their events. I encountered a new world populated by other mothers of young children, one that had been invisible to me before I had a baby. Between nine and four, when others are at school or work, they emerge, gathering in cafes, at the library, in the park, at the playground. Like a certain invisible man (and, just to be clear, I’m not being so crass as to compare my situation to that of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), I had to re-negotiate how to live life as one of them: an Invisible Woman.

The Invisible Man in Memoirs of an Invisible Man had to re-learn how to live his life in his newly invisible state: how to dress, how to drive, and how to work. Similarly, I had to figure out when I could shower and dress (before my husband went to work? while the baby had her morning nap?), what I needed for the baby in order to get out of the house (practically everything) and where to hang out in the days with so many minutes to fill (see above). Inhabiting my previous life as an autonomous subject in control of my own destiny, it was a new challenge figuring out how to structure the day when there was no particular place I had to be, and a small person with a large appetite and no control of her bodily functions to look after.

And then there was the outside world to navigate. Like most new parents, I can tell you the exact location of the small handful of decent parents’ rooms in the CBD are, I know which cafes to avoid due to their cramped space and appalling bathrooms, some of which were unfortunately old favourites, and my first check on entering a new place is whether there is a change-station and a debris-free space for uninhibited crawling. Thanks to helpful websites like City Wrigglers, this information is now available online, before you need to venture out. There may be a dearth of such facilities, but at least knowing where the half-way decent ones are makes venturing out a little easier.

So much for accommodation of my new priorities. But what about my personal feeling of invisibility? Until I made it back into the outside world after the baby had been born, I was not aware how much of my sense of self was dependent on having a job and earning my own income. I have been financially independent since my late teens, and didn’t even let my first date pay for a movie ticket on my behalf. Now, aside from a small weekly allowance that I had saved up for myself over the preceding nine months, I had to look to someone else to pay the bills and provide. For someone accustomed to paying her own way, it felt very retro, and not in a good way.

Despite the adage ‘every mother is a working mother’ the message that a mother’s (unpaid) work is as of much value to the economy and society as those in paid employment just hasn’t become a reality. In New Zealand, new mothers who intend to return to work are entitled to receive fourteen weeks’ paid parental leave. This is a relatively recent, and welcome, development. Yet the amount received is less than the minimum wage, sending a clear message that looking after a new-born baby has even less economic value than the most poorly-paid positions available in the job market. It’s better than a poke in the eye, but not much.

Feminist Naomi Wolf writes about her ‘demotion’ on becoming a mother in Misconceptions (2001):

As my life slowly resumed, I received one tough lesson after another in my sharp demotion of status .... From both men and women, from young baby-sitters to plumbers to cable installers, I noticed a new flippancy in relation to my time: it was newly valueless. People who would never take for granted that my husband should sit around waiting for them seemed to assume that I had nowhere to go, and nothing important to do. (179)

Carrying her analysis further, she describes how the geography of cities, as navigated by women with small children, makes clear how little their role is valued: she encounters bathrooms with limited or no change facilities, and playgrounds without shelter from either the sun or the rain, some even without fencing and gates, or bathrooms.

I can certainly relate to this after my trip to the supermarket this morning: the only trolleys that could carry a child were the absolutely massive ones for which there is virtually no room in the aisles. When I went to pay I had to manouevre awkwardly between the checkouts, knocking my legs and hips painfully several times as I had to squeeze back and forth to get my shopping out. Why couldn’t the space between the checkouts be wider? Or the smaller trolleys have child seats? Occasionally, help is offered - and gratefully received - by those without babies. But it feels frustrating to be dependent on help for things you know you could do yourself if the environment had been built differently.

Wolf observes:

The message you receive from your work environment about how valuable your work is affects your psychological well-being. Every day I was getting the message that the work the women I knew and I were doing had little value: the needs of people sitting in bus shelters and municipal lobbies ... were more carefully met than were the needs of moms and kids in the places in which we gathered. (178-79)

We are repeatedly told that looking after small children is the most valuable job there is. And yet where are the policies, and structures in place to make this an economic reality as well as an emotional and moral one? By this, I mean extended paid parental leave that is more than a token amount (including paid leave for fathers of newborns - this is currently unpaid), more actual rather than merely nominal flexibility in work places (so many new mums I know who have tried to return to work have been told it’s full-time or nothing - facing such a choice most have opted to resign), and easier public spaces and services to navigate (this is slowly changing, not least because of such things as the Accessible Public Transport Inquiry).

And in the meantime? The Invisible Man had to learn to live with his condition, as I have to live with mine. He managed to make it work for him though, eventually becoming a millionaire through fraud.

As for me, I’m still buying Lotto tickets.