Thirty-nine was the first year that age showed up on Ellen’s face. It had visited intermittently, before. After a sleepless night, an evening with an extra glass or two of wine. It showed up after a long day in the sun. Then it left as subtly as it had appeared. However, thirty-nine was the year that it settled in.
It settled in between her eyebrows. It made itself known on her neck. It was fickle and etched on the left side of her mouth while not even visiting the right side. Standing in front of the mirror, Ellen saw that she no longer looked as young as she had once felt.
She cleared her throat. A feeling of foolishness flashed in her stomach. “Hi. My name is Ellen, and I am a lactation consultant. I’ve…” Her voice faltered. Talking to herself. The mirror. The lines. The bad lighting in the hotel bathroom made her look like a ghoul when she had left the house in the morning feeling quite pretty and fresh. Why didn’t life come with a filter like her cell phone?
“Hi. My name is Ellen,” she started again. “I’m a lactation consultant with fifteen years of experience. I… I…” Well, she couldn’t really say that, could she? She’d had fifteen years of thinking about being a lactation consultant but in actuality had spent the last fifteen years lactating herself, or weaning, or waking up in the middle of the night for babies, and now teenagers. Fifteen years of wanting not to work so she could focus on family. Now she was approaching middle age with no experience, no Botox, and the inability to form a professional-sounding introduction.
“Hi. My name is Ellen,” she stated clearly. “I’ve spent the last fifteen years honing my expertise as a mother and lactation consultant. My goal…” Goals, what about goals? She had no goals. After college, before kids, before and after marriage, maybe somewhere in that decade, there had been some goals. Somewhere in the parenting years, she had had goals. No, she thought bitterly, not goals, just daily targets. A whole running list in her head of targets, a target for bedtime, food for the family, what errands to run.
Ellen took a deep breath. The small business meet-up was convening in the conference room down the hall. Signing up had seemed to be an opportunity. Now it just felt like pressure. Pressure to sound professional, to fake it until she made it. She had been doing that all these years without even realizing it. Then one day, she woke up and felt the faking, the heaviness of doing the same stress day in and day out with a smile. The burden of motherhood was the only thing she was offered without any strings attached.
“Hi everyone. My name is Ellen, and I am so excited to be here.” Ech. That sounded wretched. Ellen hated unnecessary hyperboles. She hated flowery adjectives and trite, overused expressions. Her brain was overworked and under-stimulated. All that small talk she had to make day after day. She spent her days making small talk with the teenagers in her son’s carpool. Small talk with the grocer. Small talk with the twenty-something with a blue streak in her hair who made her morning coffee. Small talk at the gym. The small talk was exhausting. Keeping herself small was exhausting. Her therapist had asked her why she kept herself small. Small was safe. Small was manageable. Small was the opposite size of all her big feelings. Big feelings had been the theme of thirty-seven and thirty-eight, which is how she ended up at thirty-nine in front of a hotel bathroom mirror talking to herself so that she could make a small introduction to a medium-sized group of people who had bigger ideas than her. And bigger resumes and bigger opportunities.
“What is the story you are telling yourself, Ellen?” She asked herself in a serious voice, a nod to her even-toned therapist with who she had spent years thirty-seven and thirty-eight excavating the past decade with. Another deep breath. She felt tears come to her eyes. “Get a hold of yourself, Ellen. A crummy introduction and streaky mascara, and everyone will see you for the middle-aged mother you are trying not to be.”
“Hi! My name is Ellen, and I am a lactation consultant. I work with mothers of all types of backgrounds. I am fluent in French and…” What a useless fact. Who in the world would need a French-speaking lactation consultant in Ohio? Who in Ohio even spoke French? French was not a small language. It was not the language of her thirty-nine-year-old face with fickle wrinkles and streaky mascara. It was the language of her fifteen-year-old self who had had not just goals, but more importantly, a vision. The vision certainly hadn’t included this bathroom or the bad lighting.
There was no way to do this, the transition to middle-age and working, as opposed to middle-age and bored, as gracefully as she would like. She was simply too rusty to be graceful. Too resentful to be graceful. French women were never rusty or resentful. She should have moved to France. Where was she in this mess of feelings and thoughts? Perhaps, it would be better to wing it. Whatever came out of her mouth would be better than this rehearsed monologue. Sixty seconds to introduce herself. Sixty seconds to sell herself, promote herself. Sixty seconds to sum up her skills and get noticed. At thirty-nine, it was all she was being offered. Her teenagers hardly gave her sixty seconds. Her husband only gave her sixty seconds.
At least this sixty seconds was new and fresh. It wasn’t part of the routine on repeat in her life. It wasn’t part of the emotional monologue in her head that she couldn’t escape even with over one hundred sessions of therapy. It was sixty seconds to do something different. Sixty seconds to be someone different. Not someone who resented all that she had settled for. Sixty seconds to flash a smile, make some not-so-meaningful eye contact, and sound more energetic than she felt.
“Hi, my name is Ellen,” she said more to herself than her imaginary audience. She cocked her head to one side. Even with thirty-nine years settled upon her face, she knew her best angle. She raised her eyebrows, threw on a smile, and tucked her hair behind her ear. Sixty seconds to fake it as a professional certainly felt like a better form of faking than all the other faking she was used to doing. Thirty-nine and stepping out of her comfort zone, Ellen exited the bathroom and went to talk to someone other than herself.