The Invisible Woman

I wish I could say I wrote this; I didn’t, but I found it moving enough to remember it six months later.

It started to happen gradually.

One day I was walking my son Jake to school. I was holding his hand and we were about to cross the street when the crossing guard said to him, “Who is that with you, young fella?”

“Nobody,” he shrugged.

Nobody? The crossing guard and I laughed. My son is only 5, but as we crossed the street I thought, “Oh my goodness, nobody?”

I would walk into a room and no one would notice. I would say something to my family like, “Turn the TV down, please,” and nothing would happen. Nobody would get up, or even make a move for the remote. I would stand there for a minute, and then I would say again, a little louder, “Would someone turn the TV down?” Nothing.

Just the other night my husband and I were out at a party. We’d been there for about three hours and I was ready to leave. I noticed he was talking to a friend from work. So I walked over, and when there was a break in the conversation, I whispered, “I’m ready to go when you are.” He just kept right on talking. I’m invisible.

It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I’m on the phone and ask to be taken to the store. Inside I’m thinking, “Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” Obviously not. No one can see if I’m on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all.

I’m invisible.

Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this?

Some days I’m not a pair of hands; I’m not even a human being. I’m a clock to ask, “What time is it?” I’m a satellite guide to answer, “What number is the Disney Channel?”

I’m a car to order, “Right around 5:30, please.”

I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated sum ma cum laud – but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again.

She’s going¸ she’s going¸ she’s gone!

One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well.

It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself as I looked down at my out-of-style dress; it was the only thing I could find that was clean. My unwashed hair was pulled up in a banana clip and I was afraid I could actually smell peanut butter in it. I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, “I brought you this.”

It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn’t exactly sure why she’d given it to me until I read her inscription: “To Charlotte, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.”

In the days ahead I would read—no, devour—the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work:

No one can say who built the great cathedrals—we have no record of their names.

These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished.

They made great sacrifices and expected no credit.

The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.

A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, “Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof? No one will ever see it.”

And the workman replied, “Because God sees.”

I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, “I see you, Charlotte. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you’ve done, no sequin you’ve sewn on, no cupcake you’ve baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can’t see right now what it will become.”

At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride.

I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on. The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.

When I really think about it, I don’t want my son to tell the friend he’s bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, “My mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table.” That would mean I’d built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add, “You’re gonna love it there.”

As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we’re doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women.

Author Unknown from The Invisible Woman by Nicole Johnson (thanks Jennifer!), though I first saw it at Kasie Sallee’s blog, The Art of Life

How does this post make you feel?
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14 thoughts on “The Invisible Woman

  1. That is absolutely beautiful! I love everything, but the sentence near the end that says, “We cannot be seen if we’re doing it right.” That thought kind of stings. Sure we aren’t seen the majority of the time, but it is possible for someone passing by our cathedral-in-progress to admire the uncompleted foundation. Other than that, it’s perfect. It made me tear up. I’ll be stealing it for my personal file. Thanks for the pick-me-up:)

  2. It IS beautiful.

    I would like to add that the meaning of everything that is beautiful in that story does not diminish even if we love our families so much we let them know how we feel.

    To say, after the phone call, calmly and naturally: “Darling, I would like to tell you something that is important to me. When you come to the room and ask something when I’m on the phone, it makes me feel sad, like I wasn’t appreciated. I’m not mad or anything. I just wanted you to know how it felt for me. Now, what was it you wanted to ask, darling?” teaches compassion and consideration. And not just those words, but to tell your partner, if you have one, how everyday running of the household makes you feel. By having discussions with your children about empathy, for example after a TV-series you both like to watch by referring to something that happened in the series, or making it a game or with the help of a story.

    Telling others how we feel is also one of the biggest gifts we can give and can make both our lives and the lives of the others more fulfilling.

    (It helps if you refer to a specific incident “when you did THAT particular thing…” (never say “you ARE like this” or “you ALWAYS…”) and just tell how it made YOU feel and don’t expect to know what the other person meant or felt or their motives. I know of no incident when anyone would have gotten hurt because people truthfully told them “When this and this happened, it made me feel like this”.)

    I’m sorry for making such a long comment. It’s just that I think that letting others know how we feel is a very important part of loving our families and people around us – and also ourselves!

    And I liked the story, because it helps us see we are doing something meaningful even when it feels like we really are invisible :)

  3. I love that story!! I first read that probably three or four years ago – but it all came back immediately upon reading the very first sentence – powerful indeed.

    I am trying the very best I know how to build my cathedral – although a very odd manner I guess I should say. My husband and I are about to take off to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina – with our ten-year-old twins!! We can’t wait to get on the road and I’m sure it will be a fabulous experience for our boys.

    You can read of our journey at

  4. I’m one of those women and I know plenty more where that came from and so I’ll be sending this to all of them in hopes of giving them the same hopeful feeling I just got from reading this beautiful entry.
    Thanks, it sure does help knowing you’re not alone in feeling that way.

  5. I think it’s sentimental crap. Sorry, but that’s how I feel. That woman has to grow the guts to stand up and be noticed. Her little boy doesn’t see her? What??? OK, little buddy, want to get to school today? Ask nobody. Yes, kid, I’m nobody you said the other day, so today nobody is taking you to school. When you decide that I’m somebody, I’ll take you there. And hubby dear, the next time you ignore me at a party, you’ll have to get a cab to get home ’cause the Invisible Woman is driving herself home. SHE can see herself, so she’s driving.

    Try that, honey, and the “men” will see you. Remember, Men Are Slime.

  6. I’m sorry that you don’t sympathize with the author. But I still believe that the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the work that mothers do WILL go unnoticed and unappreciated. Granted, the speaker in the story could do more to make sure that people look at her. But behaving like a shrew is more likely to alienate the people that she’d most like to see and recognize her efforts.

    The philosophy that “Men Are Slime” also prompts the question: then why marry or reproduce at all? Why would we want recognition from “Slime” or the possibility of creating more “Slime” in the first place?

    If we can’t show any respect whatsoever for men, why should we expect respect as women?

  7. Where are the tissues? Thanks for reminding me yet again that my work is valuable even if it isn’t seen.

  8. Due to a number of violent, hateful comments on this piece (yeah, really), I have decided that we must close the comments.

    Unfortunately, it appears that a number of people, most of whom are not brave enough to make themselves actually ‘visible’ with a real name, email address or URL, have chosen to make this blog a platform to their own unhappiness and failure to accept the fact that scrubbing floors, changing diapers and making and enforcing rules is thankless work which will almost definitely go unnoticed by anyone but God himself. I’m sorry that so many people missed the point of this poignant essay (which I did not write, thank you).

    But frankly, abusing me personally is never an acceptable way to try and make a point. Not only does it violate the comment policy of this blog, but it violates the common rule your mother may have had for you: if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.

    If you would like to look around a bit more, I actually write on the topic of finding fulfillment in motherhood, finding value in our own lives with or without the validation of outside sources (and yes, your kids and husbands are “outside sources”).

    If you would like to engage in an honest and open conversation on this topic, please visit any of the other posts on this topic. Else, please see yourself on to other websites; I’ve been “enlightened” enough, thanks.

    Edited to add: For those of you who find this post offensive because it allegedly encourages mothers to accept that they’re invisible, please see my interpretation of the message of this piece.

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