The invisible mother

Everyone loves you when you’re pregnant. (Well, maybe not everyone — there are those militant anti-breeders who will shoot you disgusted looks when you deign to enter Five Watt Coffee, distended abdomen in tow.) But in general no matter how lousy you might feel, you can count on friends and strangers alike to smile at you approvingly and insist that you’re “beautiful” and “glowing.” 

For women who crave the spotlight, the pregnancy experience often draws an enthusiastic audience. For those of us who are more reserved, the unasked-for attention can feel imposing — but at least you know your existence is recognized. 

Then your baby is born, and everything changes.
Your friends and family stop by to meet the baby (emphasis added for effect). Grandmotherly types charge at your stroller, cooing aggressively at your infant. 

Unless there’s a demand for a name or age, these stranger-baby interactions frequently don’t even include a glance in your direction. You’re now a mode of transportation, a source of milk, an invisible caretaker. 

Disappearing act

What happened to all that gushing about your vibrant beauty? 

The smiles of approval from strangers? The slightly unsettling, “Hey there, mama!” from the random guy on the street? You used to be a goddess-like symbol of fertility — and now, evidently, you’re just a spent vessel.  

I took an informal poll on Facebook, asking the members of my Minneapolis Mamas group whether they’d experienced a feeling of invisibility after they became mothers.

Happily, a few women reported that they’d never felt invisible, that in fact they’d never felt more important and valued than when they became mothers. 

However, most of the responses were more along these lines: 

“It’s hardest at home — I often felt and still feel invisible to my husband sometimes.” 

“The vast majority of my struggle in the transition to motherhood was to be doing this quietly heroic thing alone, both in my own home and in society, and then to also be invisible, ignored, devalued and/or actively judged while doing so.” 

“My daily adult interactions are often limited to preschool drop-offs, grocery-store checkout clerks and my nanny.” 

“I was surprised at how lonely becoming a mother can be.” 

So, it looks like I’m not alone. 

The twilight of my sex appeal  

When I talk about feeling invisible as a mother, I’m not just talking about the isolation associated with parenting young children while working from home or the mysterious name change I’ve undergone (from “Shannon” to “Lydia’s mom”). 

I’m also talking about the fact that dudes no longer check me out.  

“You shouldn’t feel that way!” I scold myself silently. “You’re too old to be noticed anyway — you shallow, ungrateful imbecile.” 

Relationship expert Esther Perel — in her book Mating in Captivity — explains that the struggle is, in fact, real. She calls it “desexualization.”

And it is, she argues, “a mainstay of traditionally patriarchal cultures, which makes the sexual invisibility of modern Western mothers seem particularly acute.” 

“Perhaps it’s our Puritan legacy that strips motherhood of its sexual components,” she says.  “Perhaps we are convinced that lustfulness conflicts with maternal duty.”   

So there! It’s a widespread cultural phenomenon — along with objectified “MILFs” and male movie stars celebrated for their “dad bod” physiques. 

The way I see it, if the Whole Foods cashiers can label my husband “the hot dad,” then maybe the cute Pizza Lucé counter dude could at least give me a weak smile instead of staring right through me like a sliding glass door.  


Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.