It was the early 2000s, and her name was Sue. (It wasn’t).
She was somewhere in her mid-thirties, with young to middling offspring she would gush over at any given opportunity. She was always hovering somewhere between dishevelled and mutton-dressed-as-lamb, and alternated between brash and beleaguered. She laughed too much, contributed too little, and spent a lot of time talking about her age and her weight. (And other variously inappropriate personal – and occasionally gynaecological – details).
She liked to hark back to past projects and achievements, and seemed resistant to change – surprised by it, even. She may once have been good at her job, but the office largely humoured her and stuck her where she could do least damage. Like a mostly harmless but undeniably grating mascot.
Back then, in my early 20s, she didn’t impact on me very much. I may have felt fleetingly sorry for her, before dismissing her as irrelevant to my hard-working, hard-drinking, rather hard-nosed existence. She was alien. Other. Older.
She struck me, with some degree of hindsight, as a woman on the cusp. There was an unattractive air of desperation and disconnection – a whiff of lost, or loss, or something. There was something brittle about her, confused. Barely contained emotion framed by heavy-handed, clumping mascara.
And because it was clear to me she was in imminent danger of teetering over some invisible edge sooner or later, I steered well clear of the fallout.
I didn’t even recall Sue, if I’m honest, until today. Because I saw her for the first time in nigh on 14 years.
In the mirror.
Because, I realise –
I am Sue.
It happened this morning. I was trying desperately to find clothes suitable for a hot day in the office, and eventually squeezed into a circa 2010 New Look skirt slightly too small for my postpartum body (although my leftover ‘baby weight’ in now more accurately ‘toddler weight’) and teamed it with a ubiquitous black top. On which the toddler promptly, and inevitably, deposited toothpaste which wouldn’t scrub off with a bastarding baby wipe.
To make myself feel better about this I threw on a jazzy scarf and some ancient lipstick. As I did so I planned how I was going to regale my colleagues with amusing weekend tales of small people shenanigans (for the adult interaction, cheap laughs, and momentary validation). And I got a good look at myself in the mirror.
And there she was.
I am Sue.
The resemblance was uncanny – and unquestionable.
I am the slightly inane, slightly insane, slightly manic, slightly depressive, slightly irreverent, slightly irrelevant, under-achieving, over-sharing, out of phase and out of practice, middle aged, middle-of-the-road woman I pitied in passing when I first started my ‘career’.
Middle is in fact a very appropriate word. Because that’s what I spotted in Sue and recoiled from – that cusp, that in between – that displacement. Being neither one thing or another, and not enough of either.
Stuck in the middle with Sue.
Because now I too find myself somewhere in the middle, in between competent and incompetent, functional and dysfunctional, too much and too little, comic genius and crazed bag-lady, 1950s housewife and Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl, creative and random, young and old, thin and fat, mother and worker, professional and personal, good parent and bad parent, asleep and awake, me and – someone I don’t recognise.
Now I’m the one that’s interjecting too loudly, crying too quickly, misjudging social/professional cues, getting sidelined, humoured, possibly even pitied. Definitely avoided. I’m the one with waning skills, conflicting priorities, impaired logic, bursts of absurdity. I’m the one slightly flailing, frequently self-deprecating, often bumbling, out of date, and out of sync.
At some point I stopped being one of the young office crowd, a whipper-snapper with oodles of potential – and I became a part time and part mum-zombie, mid-level manager going nowhere fast, juggling children and work with a spectacular lack of multi-tasking skill, being fast outstripped by the younger, hungrier and better.
I am Sue.
And I’m as surprised about it as she was.
I’m not a exactly sure when Sue arrived, but I very much suspect motherhood was the catalyst. Little shits.
During this special time, some people find themselves – come into their own. Others find Sue.
If I could go back now, I’d be a lot kinder to Sue, because I’ve since walked a mile in her kitten heels, dragging whining children and double my original arse behind me. And I’d give my smug, superior, emotionally detached, well-rested, unburdened and unlined face a well deserved slap.
Now, I think Sue and I would be friends.
We’d probably go to the pub (after bedtime, obvs), giddily excited to put on our glad rags, get pissed on half a bottle of Chardonnay, guffaw in ever-increasing decibels, end up crying about the Disney alligator baby, dance on a few tables because life is too short, declare each other our best friend, and be home to snore at our exasperated spouses by 11.30.
(I personally would of course follow this up with days of social anxiety and personal shame, dissecting every word and move as I gradually and painfully recall them, ‘cos that’s how I roll. Sue probably does too).
I don’t know what actually happened to real Sue, who I think eventually got muscled out of the office, but I like to think that she went on to something better. That she found her feet again, her place outside the limbo of ‘in between’. That she got some proper rest and proper perspective. That she bought some new make-up. That she found appreciation for her humour, her experience, her post-traumatic share-response and her unique sense of fashion. That she shed the extra stone she always complained about. And that her kids grew up knowing how fiercely and stupidly she loved them.
I’d like to tell her I’m sorry for judging her. I’d like to tell her that I get it now. I’d like to tell her that I am Sue, too.
I would like to think that probably, at some point, every one of us has looked in the mirror and seen Sue – and marvelled at how she got there.
If you’ve ever had a Sue, or a Sue moment, if you’ve ever lost yourself in between – in the middle of life, priorities, pressures, if you’ve ever struggled with your role, your identity, your purpose, if you’ve ever looked up and suddenly realised you’re someone or somewhere you never thought you’d be – let me know.
Maybe it was motherhood that sent you to the edge, stuck in the middle, arrested your development. Maybe it was something different but equally wonderful/traumatic. Oh, maybe you’re not carrying the extra pounds, and maybe you’re still mostly competent at your job. Maybe you’re better dressed.
But if you’ve ever caught a glimpse of her, walking past a shop window, please channel your inner Tony Curtis and comment ‘I am Sue’ here or on Facebook.
I don’t need details if you don’t care to share them. But this week I do sort of need to know it’s not just me.