The costumes we all wear, every day


By Valli Barrioz

Everyone puts on a costume at some point, whether for Halloween, a party, or a job — then we call it a uniform. What happens when we wear the clothes, when we paint or mask the face? Do we become the character we are portraying? Does a uniform make us official? Does the outfit change who we are, or the people around us?

Flashback: It is 1985 and I am crossing a busy street. I am on my way to a skilled nursing facility for my very first day of clinical work for nursing school. Surprisingly, the traffic stops to let me cross. I am not used to such courtesy! I wonder if perhaps my appearance could be a factor.

Rather than my usual hippie appearance, my hair is neatly pulled back into a ponytail. I am wearing a starched, all-white dress, white nylons, white thick-soled sturdy dress shoes, topped by a blue pinafore-apron thing that marked me as a student nurse. The nursing school somehow thought that looked professional rather than demeaning. I look more like Alice-in-Wonderland than a serious professional, but that was the state of the nursing profession nearly 40 years ago.

I never actually wanted to be a nurse. In fact, it took me a very long time to like being one. I would have happily been a starving artist, an actress, a career mom or a nanny. However, it was expected I would go to college and so I went. Somewhere near the end of three years of arts and humanities classes that led absolutely nowhere near a degree, I started to think I might like to be a doctor. But I also started to get too burned out on school to keep going.

It seemed like a logical and sensible solution at the time to drop out to be a full-time nanny. But a few months of that salary outweighed the burnout and I signed up for nursing school: a fast track to a living wage and at least related to medicine.

It was in a prerequisite class (early childhood education) that I heard a guest speaker talk about midwifery. The heavens parted, I got starry-eyed, and in that moment I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. They talk about midwifery being a calling. That was the moment I heard the call. Yet there would be many delays, diversions and roadblocks along that journey.

Fast-forward 35 years, three grown sons, two marriages, one divorce, a massive student loan, and a brand-new midwifery degree. Finally.

Now it is yesterday and I am walking to my car after an exhausting day in my new clinic job. I’m wearing cool-looking scrubs, comfortable sneakers and a long white lab coat, a stethoscope around my neck. My hair is neatly pulled back into a respectable bun. I almost look like a doctor. In fact, my patients insist on calling me that. A lanyard ID badge hangs from my neck that says I’m a midwife.

As I gulp the fresh evening air outside, it occurs to me to wonder how safe I am walking alone to my car. It’s a question every female learns to ask herself at an early age. Then I wonder if the outfit I’m wearing will evoke respect and thereby offer some protection?

Suddenly deja vu engulfs me as I remember crossing a street in a different uniform a lifetime ago. Then like now, I marvel at the effect a costume might have, on others and myself. I marvel at the journey I’ve made, and I marvel at the person I have become inside these clothes.

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Valli Barrioz

About Valli Barrioz

Valli Barrioz lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, sister-in-law, and two kittens. She is a nurse midwife/women’s health nurse practitioner, and is a passionate advocate of equity and justice, specializing in reproductive care. She loves to dance, hike, read and write, although most of her writing so far has been school papers.