I really, really try not to get resentful about the passage of time, but a couple of things gall me.
First, I’m a little hacked about all the great maternity clothes around these days. Women are flaunting their pregnancies in all kinds of fun ways — wearing form-fitting dresses and bathing suits and looking glamorous and — imagine! — unashamed. It’s wonderful.
I think of my own pregnancies in 1981 and 1985, when I spent much of my limited wardrobe time and expense on striving not to look like I was impersonating an over-ripe doily. I’d made my first maternity clothes foray at a nearby Bloomingdale’s, prepared for racks of chic clothes and hard choices. Instead, I almost had a small breakdown after seeing the tiny section they devoted to maternity clothes — sober, preachers’-wives’ numbers that swathed you in yards of dark cloth or little milkmaid outfits of ruffles and lace that (strangely) seemed to try to make you look virginal.
No glamour, no fun, forget the chic — just a bunch of sad-sack clothes you could lose yourself in for a few months. “The good thing about these clothes,” a saleswoman said, eyeing me pityingly, “is that you can continue to wear them after you’ve had the baby. Your body never goes back to normal, you know.”
I staggered out of the store empty-handed, except for a pair of pantyhose I picked out in a larger size than usual since, of course, there was no such thing as maternity pantyhose in those days. When I got home, I looked at the pantyhose and noted the size was called “stately.” Stately! I wanted to die. Instead, I just broke out the Haagen-Dazs, since my life was over, anyway.
Call the decade what you like — the eighties weren’t the good old days. And neither were the sixties and seventies, when I labored intermittently at a series of mind-numbingly boring office jobs. “Just look busy” — that was the mantra. We’ve hired you for your time, you belong to us, and if you’ve finished your work, just look busy.
I knew how to handle that. I was in my Russian-literature phase then, and I was halfway through War and Peace. So, I’d finish my typing or filing and crack open the tome. Nothing looks busier, I felt, than reading Tolstoy.
But, as it turned out, I didn’t look busy the right way. I looked obnoxious. One of the supervisors drew me aside to say it was bothering everyone else in the office that I was reading a book during office hours. I needed to look busy the right way. Also, I seemed to have a bad attitude. Could I work on that, too?
So I went to another secretarial job, where I was disciplined for opening the curtains to let a little light in and listening to the Watergate hearings on the radio. I quit that one, too.
But none of this was a waste of time. In the summers and year or so I worked as a secretary, I learned how people treat you when you’re not important. I hope I never forget that.
I also know I’ll never forget that “look busy” is one of the most ominous commands in the English language, right along with, “You’re going to love this story. It’s hilarious.”
Anyway, talking to younger friends, I’m now envious because looking busy has gotten so much easier with computers and the Internet. These days, I suppose, you can even read War and Peace online or on Kindle and people you report to will beam every time they pass your desk. It’s so much easier to be subversive, as well as glamorously pregnant these days — and I realize I was simply ahead of my time.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)