I was walking the dog the other day and passed a young man in a baseball cap working in a neighbor’s yard. He looked up, smiled, and called, “Good afternoon, Ma’am!” I smiled and waved back, but inside I was shrieking, “Ma’am?! Ma’am?! I’m not a Ma’am!”
I look in the mirror and I don’t see a Ma’am. Next year I will be fifty, so chronologically, I am firmly in Ma’am territory, like it or not. Why did his respectful greeting bother me so much? I’m not one of those women contemplating Botox. My biggest worry when it comes to aging is that my knees will keep me from running or I won’t have the energy for my ever expanding garden habit. Age isn’t such a bad thing. I’m looking forward to less responsibility and more time in the hammock.
But I don’t want to be a Ma’am. Ma’ams are not sexy. They are not fun. They are not hip, interesting, or exciting. They wear cardigan sweaters, let their hair go gray, and cart around a few extra pounds. Ma’ams drive too slow on the highway and grumble over the check-out person who forgets to give them the extra ten cents off per pound on their ground beef. They complain about kids today and resent school taxes, pierced eyebrows, and loud music.
Perhaps I am affronted by the reference because being referred to as Ma’am reminds me that I am past my prime, fighting the inevitable creaks and pains and pounds more every day. I’m surprised by my age. I look at my face in the mirror and don’t see the years unless I’m not wearing my contacts and lean in close to be sure my eyeliner is lining my eyes and not my cheek bones. I’m startled by the tiny crosshatch marks and obvious wrinkles. Where did they come from?
Sometimes when I see a picture of myself I cringe at how old I look. How did that happen? How could I possibly look that old? Certainly, I don’t feel that old. I find myself talking to a thirty-something mom and thinking of her as my age only to be startled out of that assumption when she doesn’t understand a reference I make about the 1980s, she having only been a toddler at the time.
Maybe it’s denial; this insistence that I am not old enough to be considered a Ma’am. More and more I find myself ducking out of pictures not wanting any more documentation that I am aging. I even vainly untag less than flattering pictures of myself on Facebook. If there isn’t any photographic evidence, I haven’t aged. I’m fooling no one I know, but it’s the principle of the matter. I’m not old. And I’m certainly nobody’s Ma’am.
When I reached my late thirties, a friend explained to me that we were becoming invisible. She said that teenagers, young adults, and men younger than sixty didn’t see us anymore. We were no threat and held no potential as a sexual being. Therefore, they looked right through us. We could be classified henceforth as middle-age mom.
I remember telling my children when we entered an amusement park or a mall that if we were to get separated, look for a woman who looked like a mom and ask for help. Mom’s are safe- no danger there.
To my friend, the fact that our age rendered us invisible was like a super power. We could get away with all manner of mischievousness and no one would suspect because no one who looked like us would do something like scribble graffiti in the bathroom stall or drink wine from sippy cups in public. We were invisible. I laughed, but when I considered the truth to her assessment, it depressed me. People didn’t see me? Did that mean I no longer mattered?
When my oldest child was in preschool, he had a friend who always answered, “Yes, Ma’am” when I asked him a question. I thought, “What manners!” and wished I’d taught my own children to speak to adults with such respect. But now I’m guessing that would only cause another innocent pedestrian to spend the better part of her day worrying that she’d grown old without realizing it.
Of course, you could point out that I referred to the greeter as “young man” and he probably wouldn’t appreciate the reference either since he is of the age that he must shave every day and can legally buy alcohol. Of course, I didn’t call him that to his face.
Time slips past and our bodies age, but our minds are slow to follow along. Maybe that’s why we are still so easily irritated by innocent references to our age. Will I be as bothered by the title at seventy as I am now? Perhaps my mind will have grown up enough by then to let it slide. Or maybe I’ll finally feel like a Ma’am. I hope not.