Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Status Quo Part One: The Schultuete

As mentioned before, there is a lot more ironing going on in the world than most Americans realize. Also more stair sweeping, window washing and flower bed tending then they would believe. Cars get washed AND vacuumed every Saturday, bikes and boots cleaned after every use. Breakfast is served with fresh flowers on the table - and the butter in a real butter dish, not straight out of the package. Lunch is a three course affair and school snacks consist of hearty whole wheat bread with sliced peppers and fruit. No Fruit Loops, no Mac and Cheese and certainly no Twinkies. And yes, people really do iron T-shirts and jeans.

All of which is NOTHING compared to the social stress of arts and crafts in kindergarten. I used to be pretty proud of myself for using a pair of scissors to cut out figures and stick them on a straw. Fingerpaints and homemade Play-dough. Or just a piece of paper and some crayons. I'd even let the kids do it. You know - creative play.

Then I enrolled my kids in a German kindergarten and learned how naive I had been. It started innocently enough with a parents' afternoon to make lanterns which the kids here carry around the neighborhood at night for a few weeks at the end of October/beginning of November culminating in a big celebration on St. Nicholas Day. Less sugar than Halloween. A strong moral message about a kind Catholic saint. And burning candles inside of paper lanterns carried in the dark by small children.

Now one CAN buy lanterns in the store. If you want your children to be the laughing stock of the kindergarten. If you want to emphasize, yet once again, how really not German you really are. And so I sat down excitedly with the other moms on tiny little stools around tiny little stairs and learned the hard way that making lanterns out of cardboard and wax paper was not for the faint of heart - and certainly not for children.

At Christmas time we got a sitter so that both Damon and I could join the other kindergarten parents in baking Christmas cookies. I brought a rolling pin and some cookie cutters. And learned about pralines and sauces and creams and all sorts of concoctions that required more equipment than the American army invading Iraq. Or is that a bad analogy? I also learned that children were not invited to help with the felt fruit we were making for the Christmas fair, or the painted wooden Santa figurines or the scented candles, tie-dyed scarves or hand-painted ceramics. I gotta hand it to them, for a nation of engineers, these women can craft.

For the various obligatory bake sales, I've pretty much learned to get by with baking an American wedding cake, putting the dough in muffin tins and topping with rainbow colored sprinkles. No icing - even a German child wouldn't dare touch American icing. But the sprinkles are pretty special. I use the same sprinkle trick for sugar cookies and those sell really well too. The secret lies in doubling the sugar, but what they don't know won't hurt them.

But there was pretty much no escaping the Schultuete, a large cone made out of cardboard and filled with school supplies, sweets and small gifts, that the first graders carry on their first day of school here in Germany. It's a rite of passage and a very big deal.

I went in to the parents' (meaning, of course, mothers') afternoon full of expectations - that we were doing this together, that we would be led through the process together and that the kids would of course be participating. As mothers fought for pink and purple paper and started grabbing various things and speaking about a "charbon" I realized how wrong I had been yet again. Charbon? Isn't that the French word for charcoal? Why were we making charcoal? What about the school bag - shaped like a cone? (Envision a horn of plenty from an American Thanksgiving.) I would have started with a cone. And then decorated it. Silly me.

It was ugly. I did sit at a table with four other moms also working on the unicorn motive and so we cut out pieces of paper for each other. Four hooves times 5. Five horns. Ten eyes. By now I had figured out that a charbon was a template. But the work was grueling, boring, and serious. No chitchat, no help or instrucion and - as with most social events in Germany - not something I as an American considered working as a group. I didn't even look at the moms with glue guns and ribbons. Heaven forbid, I actually also let my child help with the cutting.

All of which meant that my daughter had the only unicorn Schultuete that looked like it was made by a child, and not by a professional wedding designer. And we stuck stickers on it and decorated it ourselves at home. It looks like something put together by a kindergartner - which in fact it was.

Which is why I got tears in my eyes this week when my friend Sue announced that she had gone out and BOUGHT a Schultuete for her daughter this year. You go girl! "I am just never going to be able to compete with what these women crank out and frankly I just have better things to do than to bother trying." she calmly explained. My hero! It turns out Lori had bought one for her son last year too, out of ignorance of the entire bastelling process she says, but a step into freedom just the same. I chickened out with Andrew too, and sent Damon to put together a simple Indian theme. But Aidan and Matthew are going to the toy shop and picking out their own. I'm a wimp, but I have role models now.

I still think the whole homemade Schultuete thing is a cultural quaintness worth preserving - for the Germans and especially to those who enjoy it and to whom it means a great deal. (Seeing the prices in the store, I also tend to think that most Germans are too cheap to fork out the 12 Euros.) I also believe that I felt so much pressure to make Ryan's so special because I remember moving to the USA the summer before first grade and asking my mother, with profound disappointment, where the heck my Schultuete was. "Oh, they don't do that here ," she nonchalantly replied, not aware as an American that she was taking away a big rite of passage I had come to expect as a German kindergartener. I also believe it's the reason I am still drawn to little German pencil cases, complete with sharpener, eraser and pencils in every color of the rainbow, sharpened to peak perfection. I never got my Schultuete.

I got something else though. Living between two cultures, I became myself, not a carbon copy of what any one of the cultures expected of me. And my children, all of our children, Sue's and Lori's and the rest of us between two (or more) worlds have that same opportunity.

You know, the kids don't care if they fit in like all the other kids. They aren't like all the other kids. And they know nothing else. Instead of trying to make them into little "charbons", one just like the next, trying to fit the mold, I'm going to give them a blank sheet of paper and let them draw whatever they like.

And I'll be damned if I'm going to teach them how to iron!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


What have I been thinking?

For the past five years I have been the dutiful mother, trying to fit myself into the image of a German housewife, so that the house would be clean, the clothes ironed and the meals cooked. Okay, I give, I never really bothered much with the ironing. The house was never as clean as it should have been and the meals are generally cooked on the fly. So that I was never really living up to the standards that I had set for myself to begin with.

And you know what? They were standards that I set for myself. The status quo here in southern Germany revolves around a stay-at-home mom, with perhaps a job in the mornings 10 to 15 hours a week once the kids are in grade school. But one she can always cut out on when the kids are sick or there is a bake sale at school. I'm still not sure how they do it but grandparents as baby sitters figure heavily. This leaves plenty of time to clean the front stairs regularly, tend to the flower beds, clean the windows, organize the kitchen and closets ...oh and iron. There is a heck of a lot more ironing going on in the world than the average American can imagine. But noone ever forced my to live up to these standards.

Trying to keep up with this has been exhausting, mostly because I've never really bothered to try. I just keep feeling guilty about the fact that I am not trying. The stairs are done once every two weeks, the flowers are dying on the front balcony, and the kitchen and closets are places I'd rather not venture alone - and so I rarely do. A few years back we had some German neighbors over and, as they admired the skylight windows reaching to the ceiling, asked how the heck I cleaned them. "I don't." I replied. "No really," they asked, "how in the world would you get up there?" My guess is a mop on a long handle. Honestly, I'll let you know when I bother.

The problem is that I would have liked to have one of those German housewives myself, because I'd love the house to be not only clean but immaculately organized and alphabetized. I'd love to take the time I used to to clean the entire apartment, top to bottom, in preparation for final exam time. Problem is I have four little people messing the place up again as fast as I can pick it up.

And frankly, I've got other priorities. I'm either outside doing something with the kids - or inside doing something with them.

But wait. I'm starting to justify it again, starting to make excuses for not being something I never had any intention of being in the first place.

Would I like to be the type of person who takes the time to keep her car clean, to cut the kids' hair regularly and to get her own hair and nails done periodically? It doesn't really matter if I do or if I don't, because I've been trying to be that person for the last five years and it just doesn't fit. I'm glad I gave it a try though, really glad I gave it my best shot at fitting in, at living the status qou.

Because now when someone tells me how brave I am to have chosen the path I have, or about how great it is that I did things on my own terms, I can honestly say that I had no choice. It wasn't bravery, or the spirit of adventure, or even stubborness.

I have no choice but to be myself first, and mother and imperfect wife and housewife second and third. The kids aren't complaining. Our neighbor just came up the dirty stairs to share some homemade Iraqi cookies to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Aidan and Matthew ran to the door naked, and promptly gobbled up the sweets while I finished up on the computer. The sand has escaped from the sandbox outside onto our living room carpet, I've still got spring clothes sitting in a pile to be brought into storage downstairs, and dinner certainly isn't taking care of itself.

And we've got three more hours before the pool closes.

I can't be a perfect housewife, but I can be myself. See you at the pool.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Five Little Monkeys

"What are you trying to prove?" asked one friend when she heard about my miscarriage. "You've already got four kids."

"But I don't understand." says my mother, "If you find it so much easier with two kids than with four, why are you even considering adding a fifth?"

My Dad feels I'm too old. My sister simply says I'm nuts.

How can I explain that the characteristics that got me through college and veterinary school, that got me INTO an Ivy League college and veterinary school are the same characteristics that keep me going now. I have never chosen the easy route. I took AP classes in highschool, did all the extracurriculars and worked after school. In college, I took more than the required credits per semester, took some classes two years early, did extra research and stayed for summer sessions.

All of which now seems like a complete waste of time now. Except I had fun too.

I get bored living the status quo. I never wanted the quiet home and hearth. I figured I'd be in Africa by now, letting a Maasai warrior watch the three or four kids I had while I continued with my research. They'd be educated in the evenings, learning from life in the wild. Never really thought about a husband at all.

I had a blast with the first kid. Couldn't wait to get out of Connecticut and show her the world. Living near Geneva with two kids was fantastic; within reach of the Italian Alps, speaking French and meeting people from all over the world. THIS was why I had kids. Okay, in comparison Germany has been a sobering reminder of reality, and the double whammy of twins slowed me down for a bit, but I'm finally waking up again to why I had kids in the first place.

Kids are fun. You get to show them the world, you get to show them YOUR world, you get to show them that life is fun and for the living.

I didn't have kids to turn them into carbon copies of the rest of suburbia; I had them to be free spirits and to do whatever they wanted, to be whatever it is everyone else is afraid to be. Funny enough, by trying to integrate them here into Germany, I forgot that I didn't need them to be like everyone else, didn't even particularly want them to be like everyone else. I tried to fit in so that they wouldn't feel like foreigners, so they wouldn't be embarrassed not to be like everyone else.

I didn't want to be like everyone else in America; why the heck was I trying to turn myself into a German housewife? Same story, different country. Boring.

And so now that I am back again, now that I can do anything I want, the last thing I want to do is what everyone else expects of me. It's just not me.

I don't know if I will have a fifth child. I do know that it's an option. Not everyone else's option, but mine and mine alone. (Well, Damon has a little say in the matter, but he's wanted five since we met.) I've got other options too - going into a veterinary public health program in Berlin, working at a veterinary clinic in Stuttgart or perhaps wildlife rehabilitataion in the area, enrolling in a philosophy program in Freiburg. Writing my novel. All of which will still be there after another child.

I guess people worry about me, about what I am giving up for myself by being the mother to so many children. But you know - I love it. It's a job I am fairly good at, one I continue to grow into and learn from, one that keeps me moving forward and satisfied of work well done at the end of the day. And it's a damned lot harder than anything I ever studied in school. My life hasn't stopped for my children, my outside interests are still there. And they will still be there when the children are grown and gone.

I'm not doing it to prove anything to anybody. Not even myself. I'm not doing it because it's easy, but I'm not NOT going to do it because it's hard either. I'm just not someone who chooses a path because it's the easiest or the fastest, I choose a path because its got a better view or is more fun to travel. Mostly for the fun. And it is fun.

Oh yeah - I also just love babies. And my sister is right, I am nuts too.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Two's Company

The older two have been away visiting their grandparents in the USA for two weeks now and I'd like to say that we have all been missing eachother terribly. Truth is that we've only telephoned twice, once to see that they arrived and once this week. Ryan and Andrew are having the time of their lives and barely have time to make it to the phone. "Mom? AGAIN? Didn't we talk to you already?!" No word yet from my parents on how THEY are holding up, but the kids are in paradise.

Damon and I, in the meantime, are having a second honeymoon. We have two pre-school age kids and it is heaven. Easy. Piece of cake. I've never had three kids, so I know nothing about three being a crowd, but two is definitely company. What a breeze!

Two is, in my mind, definitely the sane amount of children to have. Although noone has ever accused me of being sane. With one kid you have to get used to having to pay constant attention to someone other than yourself. Although, in my case, she was such a joy, that it really wasn't all that hard either. With two kids you have to learn to divide that constant attention into more than a single focus. Life-changing but also doable. By the time you hit three you are on a constant merry-go-round and my guess is it just keeps spinning faster the more you add on.

The trick would be learning to keep your balance.

It gets even trickier once a couple of the kids are in school. Then come the endless appointments, the school projects, the bake sales, the swimming and music lessons, the soccer, baseball, horsebackriding, dance. (Rock-climbing, judo, karate, Irish dance, violin, choir, theatre.....add your own here.) While none of my KIDS are overscheduled or under stress, I certainly am. Homework sucks. Group projects are a nightmare. And baking isn't a problem but volunteering at the damn event certainly is. I like most of our afterschool activities, having cut out the ones that don't suit us as a family in the past two years, but it is still an exhausting schedule.

The biggest problem is that we never have time to just BE anymore. We have an hour or two before the next appointment. Or we have to wait an hour - or two - for someone to finish up her homework. Homework kills the independent spirit and should be outlawed. Period. If they can't teach it on school time, don't shove it onto our free time at home. Period.

I really needed this summer break.

The boys and I spent twenty minutes checking out a caterpillar in the park in Stuttgart the other day. The same amount of time we spent in the bathroom in the Natural History Museum and the total amount of time we made it through the Dinosaur Museum. In between bathrooms, museums and caterpillars we just walked through the park singing songs and looking at things. Going on a bear hunt. Running foot races. Feeding the crows our bread. Doing ABSOLULTEY NOTHING on OUR OWN TIME with absolutely NO OTHER PLACE TO BE. Commitment free. What a luxury.

It also helped to have only two children, in the same age range, to entertain. No seven year old complaining that he would rather be playing soccer. No nine year old slouching behind complaining of boredom. In reverse, I wasn't having to entertain two three year olds during an hour long dance or judo class.

More importanly, no guilt, that you aren't meeting the needs of at least half of your family all of the time. (Never mind the husband and dog; one can fend for himself, the other is allowed on the figure out which is which.)

Regrets? None at all. But having two away is teaching me a lot about how I want to go on from here. Life doesn't HAVE to end when you have kids, even twins. It's not the kids that are killing me, it's the demands and obligations we pile on ourselves after having them. F it all, I want to spend more time looking at caterpillars and less time selling coffee at the kindergarten picnic.

Not to care what others think and do my own thing, aka Ralph Waldo Emerson. Do I think I can do it? Not at first - I am a big wimp - but I am certainly going to give it a try.

I may not be able to slow down the merry-go-round, but at least I can learn to enjoy the ride.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Philosopher Mom : Part One

How does a twenty-first century housewife carry on an affair with a nineteenth century preacher? Let me introduce - or reintroduce - you to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Be, and not seem." As my own words take shape in my head, and as ideas struggle to take form, I feel no guilt in leaving you to words penned from a higher source - while I figure out the muddle of my own thoughts and get them down.

"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

Taken directly from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" as found in "The Spiritual Emerson" by Tarcher Cornerstone Editions, 2008.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I've Already GOT A Job!

I'm getting a little tired of well-intentioned people telling me that I should find something to do for myself, something besides household, husband and children.

Generally it's mothers with one child, already 9 or 10 years old, who feel it is vitally important to my well-being that I find a job outside the home. Or a man. Let's face it, they have NO idea what it takes to manage a large family. It's work enough without a paying job thrown into the mix.

"It'll be good for you," they say, "something just for you that doesn't involve constantly being there for someone else." "You need something just for you alone."

Yeah right. Problem being that I HAVE a job, keeping the house within standards expected by the health department, feeding a family of six and being there for the kids in the afternoon. And has anyone seen how much laundry four children generate? In a day?

Add to that the fact that I LIKE my job. Who do they think I had the kids for anyway?!

The kids are in school and kindergarten in the mornings. That gives me 15 hours a week to myself. I can clean the house, buy groceries, organize the clutter that accumulates with six people living together, do laundry.....or I can go to the gym and workout. I choose that latter and I feel fantastic for it.

I come home at noon to pick up the twins from kindergarten, meet Ryan and Andrew at the door, prepare a warm meal for a family lunch - Damon is able to join us. Then we have homework and music and soccer and English Club or playdates to coordinate. Sometimes we get a free afternoon to do nothing or to spend at the pool. It is a full, demanding and exhausting schedule.

But it's the job I chose - albeit without fully knowing what I was getting myself into - and it's a job I enjoy and want to devote myself to. It is also a time-sensitive assignment: it won't be there anymore in a few years.

If I use my precious 15 hours to find a paying position somewhere - most of the suggestions naturally suggest returning to veterinary medicine - that gives me no time to devote to myself. Yes, I enjoy medicine and I do feel drawn to returning to it in some form in the future, but spending my mornings in a high-stress, high-paced environment right now is not going to give me the break I need.

I've got enough guilt of my own - about not bringing in an income, about not using the education I have - without also hearing it from others that I am now also required - in addition to home and family - to find a job in order to fulfill myself.

By the end of the day I am plenty filled as it is, thank you.

Why do I have to be a supermom? Why are all the mommy success stories written about mothers who have done MORE than manage hearth and home? Why isn't being a mother enough anymore?

I'm an emancipated woman. Unlike my Iraqi neighbor, I chose my marriage, chose to have children and chose to stay home with them. I am not hidden in the kitchen, I do not have to wear a burkha and I am allowed to drive a car and go out unescorted by a male relative.

The women's movement was about choice.

When did we decide that a woman was less of a woman - or worth somehow less as a person -for choosing to stay at home with the kids?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Third Grade Math Part Five: Ehrgeiz Scenario

Ehrgeiz is one of those funny German words that seems to mean different things depending on the context in which it is used. It stems from two words, Ehre meaning honor and Geiz meaning stinginess or miserliness. Honor stinginess.

Directly translated into English it means ambition.

Although you want your child to HAVE Ehrgeiz or ambition, you do not want him or her to BE ehrgeizig or ambitious. Maybe it's the same in English, I don't know anymore. Frankly, I've never had to worry about it, having only heard the terms bandied about, mostly in a derogatory fashion, by mothers complaining about other mothers.

Neither Ryan nor Andrew have ever been accused of being ambitious.

I much prefer the terms friendly, courteous and just plain nice. Happy maybe? All of which DO have German equivalents which aren't worth translating because they don't hold the same amount of weight in general German society as they do with me. (Which isn't to say that NO Germans rate them highly, any friend of mine does, but only to say that the society as a whole doesn't emphasize their value to the degree that I would like.)

In the interests of offending noone, I seem to have lost everyone. Let me start over.

Watching Ryan and her friend Caroline riding on Saturday, I had a chance to talk to their teacher and comment on how well I thought they both were doing. I was very careful in my phrasing, carefully riding the line between proud mother (okay in moderation) and ambitious mother. I went so far as to mention - and give credit to - the program and instruction and not just to the children themselves. It really is incredible; I was not riding this well after two years of instruction. I mean, these two girls were RIDING the horses, in a canter, doing figure eights around the ring, not merely sitting in the saddle and wishing the horse might just do what they were hoping it would. (That was - and sometimes still is - my method of riding.)

"Well those two girls are really talented." the teacher replied. "It's a pleasure to teach them because they are able to take my instructions and apply them immediately." "YAY!" my inner voice cried out. "My daughter is TALENTED." Peace descended upon me, validation and fulfillment. But I had seen it too, in both of them, the previous week. At the ages of 9 and 10 they are able to take instructions and further their riding skills. I know from experience that you can HEAR the instructions, WANT to follow the instructions, believe you ARE following the instructions, and still just not get it. It's not that easy in any sport, but especially in a sport where you are dealing with the will of the horse in addition to your own.

The riding teacher continued. "Ryan has a lot of self-confidence and determination. The most amazing thing is her ambition to succeed." Hold up a moment? Rewind. Ehrgeiz? Did I hear that right? MY CHILD has Ehrgeiz? To hell with third grade math, she should be spending more time at the barn.

I've been learning how to rein in my own ambitions for Ryan recently. Since the German education system is so competitive at an early age, many parents with dreams of college for an academically challenged child choose to have the child repeat third grade. The decision on whether the child enters the university or trade school track is made in fourth grade. Just after Ryan turns 10.

Although none of Ryan's teachers recommended having her repeat the third grade - they all feel she is unfocused rather than unable - the system still allows me to decide if I would like to have her repeat it. And I'd toyed with the idea of giving her more time to absorb and understand the information. Had the system of teaching been different, had Ryan been given a chance to properly absorb and better understand the information I would have considered it. The problem is the system here presents the material quickly, with very little review. It's just too quick, with not enough repetition, for Ryan. I saw no sense in repeating the same speedy merry-go-round twice only because I want Ryan to go to college.

So there it was. Should Ryan repeat third grade? For her benefit or for my Ehrgeiz?

We've made a deal, Ryan and I. If she does well in the fourth grade - and by well I mean maintaining a C average - she will be allowed to ride two times a week as a Christmas present. (Let's face it, the kid doesn't need any more plastic horse figurines.) I haven't given up on the academics; I've just changed the focus from achievement to learning. And I'm not pushing the riding; I'm just helping her develop the strengths she does have. Self-confidence and determination. If she can't find them in the classroom then she'll find them in the ring.

Growing awareness. Changing expectations. Acceptance. I've always loved Ryan; maybe I'm finally beginning to know her too.

And although I still have moments when I'm fairly certain the fairies sent her, I know that I'm her mother; I just want her to be happy.