Saturday, 29 August 2009

My cloak of invisibility

A couple of weeks ago, DH and I looked after my sister's three small children for the weekend.

On Sunday morning, we took them to Mass. We sat next to another family, and the father struck up a conversation with DH.

There was a visiting nun there making an appeal on behalf of the missions, and at the end of Mass she stopped us and commented on how well-behaved the children were, and chatted a bit to the 5-year-old.

Several people caught our eyes, smiled and said hello.

The following week, of course, we were back there without the children. The visiting nun was there again, and she didn't meet either of our eyes at all. Nobody struck up conversation with us, and nobody smiled and said hello.

It also struck me that even though we attend this church regularly (not every week, as we live halfway between two parishes and often go to Mass in the other parish) nobody asked where the children had come from, or where they'd gone - because without the children, nobody noticed us at all.

I was reminded of the time many years ago when I lived in France. Every week for four months I sat in the same pew, and every week the same family sat in front of me, and turned round to offer me the Sign of Peace.

After four months, the congregation were invited to a special celebration after Mass, and I stood rather awkwardly wondering how to break into a conversation and introduce myself. The mother of the family that always sat in front of me, who had shaken my hand every day for the previous four months, came up to me and asked if this was my first visit to the parish.

I've heard some mothers complain that they seem to lose their identity when they have children, that to the general public they are seen as 'just' somebody's Mummy, and that nobody is interested in them for themselves.

Well, my experience is that unless I make a real effort, the general public doesn't see me at all.

I've given up going for coffee after Mass in my parish - when I first moved here, before I was married, I would sometimes go. Nobody would ever come up to me and initiate conversation, and if I approached somebody, the first question they would ask was, "Do you have children?" When I said no, they soon lost interest, and the following week when I saw them and smiled there would be not a flicker of recognition.

Yes, I have some wonderful friends - some Catholic, some not - but I didn't meet any of them at church. Because it seems that in church, childlessness acts as a cloak of invisibility.


  1. I remember when we started going to church in Hillcrest, how very isolating it was, although Fr Brian tried really hard to get people to welcome strangers. DH said to me then not to worry, when we had children suddenly we'd be welcomed with open arms into the bosom of the church, 'Catholics are like that, they love children'. It took what felt like a very long time for us (as you know) but he was right. It doesn't make IT right though, and it's terrible that your own church makes you feel excluded because of it. The only reason I'm recounting the story is to let you know you're right, and church people can be unbelievably crass. Perhaps you should have a word with the priest. DH actually did that, and Fr Brian made a real effort to speak to the congregation and talk about being welcoming to everyone. It happens in the greater community too, but somehow you expect churches to be beyond that sort of behaviour - people should be welcomed as people and children shouldn't be used as a kind of ice breaker, or worse, a ticket to enter the group.

    There was something I found with more ooooh value than a baby. Funnily, this was Campbell as a puppy - more strangers spoke to us when we used to take him out with us to shops than spoke to us with a new baby. Perhaps it's a South African thing??

  2. No, I think it's universal - I'm not much of a dog person, but even I stop and chat to people who have a cute puppy with them. And Campbell was definitely a cute puppy.

    The cloak of invisibility seems to be universal too, at least in Europe. I remember when I moved to my last parish, at the end of Mass on the first Sunday I went to introduce myself to the priest as a new parishioner. I'm sure I made eye contact with him as I approached him with a smile on my face and my hand outstretched ready to shake his hand, but he still turned away from me and walked off without greeting me. I was single then too, of course, so I was doubly invisible.

  3. I know what you mean about feeling invisible. After Mass I see all the moms talking with each other and their kids playing. We just walk out unnoticed. I guess it was different when we went to a younger parish (with college students and lots of singles), but now it's all families and I think we're one of the only couples without kids from what I can tell.

    Also: hooray for being cycle buddies! =)