Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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On Women and Work

Still loving work, so that’s a good thing. My kids are on summer break and I have imported my lovely mother from South Africa to be au pair. She is doing a stirling job: they get up around 9am, lurk in their pyjamas until lunch, eat and then head out at a leisurely pace to – depending on the weather – the library, the pool or the water playground on the banks of the Neckar. It is entirely stress-free.

It’s also stress-free for me. I waltz out of the door in the morning, knowing that all is well. If someone falls and hurts themselves (or like yesterday, get a thousand tiny splinters in their elbow), their grandmother will kiss them better and offer comfort. If someone is hungry, an appropriate snack will be found. If clothes are dirty, clean ones will be provided. If a new entertainment is required, it will be found.

But more than just providing an efficient baby-sitting service, their grandmother loves them. And what privilege it is for me to go to work knowing they are in the care of someone who loves them as much as I do.

This is the privilege women have been providing men for generations, and nowhere more than here in west Germany where an idealised form of motherhood has dominated the culture. Women stay home with their small children, punkt.

Getting back into the workplace in a meaningful way in Germany is hard. In an article in The New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold says that only about 14% of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6% of those with two.

Many things stop mothers going back to work fulltime: the lack of proper fulltime affordable childcare, school that close their doors at lunchtime, a tax system that subsidizes income inequality. Most of the women I know work, but it’s almost always part-time.

So if we can’t get women back into full time work, how do we get them into management?  Despite a “decade of earnest vows from the corporate sector” (including Deutsche Telekom’s very laudable voluntary goal of 30% female managers by 2015), Deutschland AG remains male-dominated: women make up 2% of corporate boards, all 30 DAX companies are run by men and there was only one woman on a supervisory board, but she recently “resigned”.

There is furious national debate about quotas. Politicians moot it, Deutschland AG pays lip services to equality but resists and the few women in high-profile positions swear that the only way to get there is merit.

Bennhold quotes German anthropologist Julia Allmendinger, author of several studies on women in the former East and West, who says that state intervention appears to be most effective in battling stereotypes. Women in east Germany – where the former Communist system established full time daycare and encouraged women the work – are more mobile, more likely to have babies and reach management positions than women in the west.

Allmendinger calls for strong legislative signals.

I do too. After all, it worked for Norway.

And now, I really must go to work.


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Damning Statements from Children #1

Daughter: Mummy, why, when there are so many books in the world, is it so hard to write one?

Mummy: *gasping* Well, darling, I don’t have much time to write because I have to look after all of you. Some writers are lucky enough to have 10 hours a day to write. Also, I want my book to be good, so I keep going over it to improve it. And the market is tough nowadays, and I can’t send out something half-written. It has to be as polished and good and well-written as possible.

Daughter: Hmm. Think I’ll play the piano now.


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H is for Harry

I don’t usually go for  alternate realities in my own reading, but my imagination has been captured over the years by the triumverate of The Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake’s superb Gormenghast trilogy and the Harry Potter books. I so much loved the latter that I was quite keen to call my third child Harry, but my husband pointed out that Harry Otter is a rough name to live with. So he now has another, rather lovely, name which suits him perfectly, but there is a small part of me that mourns Harry.

I think part of Harry Potter’s universal appeal is that he is an orphan going it alone. Children respond to his ability to cope in an adult world and defeat a great evil. Personally, I just want to mother Harry. I really want to get him home, cook him a nice meal and talk about his day. I’d like to remind him to stop ignoring Ginny Weasley since she clearly is the girl for him and encourage him to listen to that nice Hermione and get on with his homework. I want him to open his eyes and see the good in Snape.

But I think it is more than that with Harry and me. You see, Harry Potter was my birth partner. Long-term blog readers may remember this, but for those who are new here, I’ll retell the story. One of my presents for my 32nd birthday, which is a week before Christmas, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wasn’t overly interested in the book, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Two days later, when I woke with birth pains and was directed by my doula to get straight into the bath and wait for her to arrive, I started to read it. Several cups of tea and some acute contractions later, I was hooked on Harry. The doula and my husband would pop their heads around the door now and then to check on me or bring me tea, and I’d wave them away, saying I was fine. I dived into Rowling’s world, subsumed myself in her detail, and came up occasionally to do some shallow panting. While I was going it alone in the bath with Harry, the doula gave everyone in the house foot massages.

When the pains finally grew more demanding than Hogwarts, I climbed out of the bath. By then – though we didn’t know it yet – it was far late to leave for hospital. My doula gave me a back massage, and I went to the loo. While I was there, baby coming down the birth canal, though I didn’t know that either, she sent my husband downstairs to put the suitcases in the boot and de-ice the windscreen. She knocked on the bathroom door and told me it was time to leave, and summoning the strength of Harry, I got off the loo, staggered to the door and croaked, “I can’t make it to the bloody DOOR, let alone the hospital!”

Reading my face for the first time, she said, “Put your hand in your pants and tell me what you feel.”

I followed instructions and replied, “I. can. feel. a. HEAD.”

Her surprise was not unlike that of Harry’s when Quirrell unwrapped his turban to reveal he was sharing head-space with Lord Voldemort. “Get on the bed!” she shrieked. Within seconds, my child was born. A few minutes later, my husband reappeared, ready to transport his pregnant wife to hospital, to be met with the news that he had a daughter.

Tucked up in bed with my gorgeous little baby, I finished Harry Potter and started the next one. My newborn’s nickname was Hufflepuff for her badger-like snuffling when she fed. After reading the series myself, I read it aloud to Hufflepuff’s big sister, and now that she is bigger I am reading it to her. Last night, we finished The Order of the Phoenix. Hufflepuff’s little brother sometimes listens in and he recently insulted his grandmother by telling her she was “as old as Neville Longbottom.” It wonderful to me that my kids love Harry as much as I do, since he is their literary uncle.

Maybe if we get a dog, we’ll call it Harry. As homage to our hero.


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The Single Mother’s Weekend

Saturday, dawn: Husband and father-in-law depart for a weekend of bonding and looking at history in Berlin.

Saturday, 9am: Arise, having read book and enjoyed coffee in bed while the children watch some morning TV and get themselves breakfast (I warmly recommend the over-fours).

Saturday, 10am: Raining, so we proceed to the usually hideously over-crowded indoor playground, where I bury myself in my book (Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos, which is so beautifully, poetically written that I cry into my coffee) while the children leap about on the trampolines. When not reading, I check out the fathers, ranging from hot to not but all of whom appear to be actually enjoying spending time with their children and think about how the father species has improved in my generation; drink the world’s most disgusting latte; and try out the trampolines.

(Note to self: trampolining after three natural births is dicing with public humiliation.)

Saturday, 3pm: Return from playground and have burning urge to bake peanut butter biscuits. Eat biscuits and lie on bed while finishing book.

Saturday, 7pm: Have marathon Harry Potter reading session (six chapters of the Prisoner of Azkaban) on my bed, which is declared the girls’ dormitory for the weekend, broken by philosophical discussions on why Snape is mean, why the Weasleys are so funny, and which further HP story includes the unlikeable and ratty Peter Pettigrew.

Saturday, 9pm: Tell the girls to sleep and start Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key.

Sunday, 7.30am: Smallest child wakes at record late hour. Oldest sister takes him down for breakfast and telly. Read more of the excellent Sarah’s Key, washed down by two cups of coffee and thank the universe for my coffee machine.

Sunday, 9am: Children return to the dorm for more HP.

Sunday, 11am: Persuade family to get dressed.

Sunday, 1pm: Eat lunch and head for the cinema to watch Up (Oben, auf Deutsch). Eat peanut M&Ms during movie. Suffer regret.

Sunday, 4pm: Visit ice-cream parlour. Drink the best Milchkaffee in the Burg while the kids have ice-cream.

Sunday, 4.30 to 6pm: Attend a formal Lego and puzzle session. “You will play with me, Mummy,” says smallest child firmly.

Sunday, 7pm: Bath and return to dorm for climactic finish to the P of A. Sirius Black is a goodie! And Harry’s godfather! Harry conjures his first Patronus! It is almost too much for us all to bear – even those of us who have read it all before.

Sunday, 9pm: Off to bath to finish Sarah’s Key. Husband and father-in-law due back shortly.

Round-up:

Number of books read: 3

Number of coffees drank: 7

Number of cute dads discreetly admired: 2

Number of peanut butter biscuits: 3

Number of peanut M&Ms: whole packet

Number of meals I actually consumed at a table: 1

Number of feelings of overwhelming love for children: too many to mention

How much I am looking forward to husband coming back: a lot


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It’s Staycation Time!

My family are right on-trend with our plan to stay home for the summer holidays. As we drove back from France yesterday – which is not as glamorous as it sounds since it’s less than a two-hour drive and the campsite was one kilometre over the border – German radio was full of top tips on how to enjoy holidays at home. Callers mooted things like having breakfast in your pyjamas, having coffee in bed and not worrying about hotel hygiene as reasons why they enjoy staying at home. Having never given hotel hygiene a moment’s thought, I loved the last one. It’s so German.

After two nights’ camping, I can report that I like staying at home because when you turn a tap, water comes out of it. I also like not having to walk through a damp forest to go to the loo in the middle of the night. And I like not meeting strange men coming out of the co-ed ablutions and wondering if I am going to get the toilet they just used. The campsite was budget-friendly though (€20 a night for a caravan that sleeps four, kitchen equipment, linen for one double bed, a barbeque, gas and a tent pitch) and pretty, and at some point in the holidays, when I get over the water/loo thing, we’ll go back.

The two main reasons mooted for people to holiday at home, or in Germany rather than in another country, are finances and the threat of swine flu. However, Thomas Cook’s new offer for Germans to reserve loungers in advance might be enough to get the population onto budget flights to Turkey. According to yesterday’s Independent, for the first time in a generation more Britons are holidaying in the UK this year than abroad (probably to avoid the Germans and their deckchairs). Marketers have leapt onto the Holiday At Home concept, and sales of picnic accessories and barbeques are soaring.

With my kids on holiday from Thursday this week until mid-September, I’m compiling a list of cool things to do at home. Here it is so far:

* Ride bikes

* Learn to cook something new

* Eat lunch at the river

* Eat lunch in the garden

* Keep diaries

* Go to the library

* Go to the pool

* Hire DVDs from the library or borrow from friends and have movie nights

* Cut up old magazines and make a collage

* Have friends for a sleep-over

* Go for a walk in the forest

* Read in the hammock

* Learn to ride the unicycle

* Bake cakes and invite friends round for a tea-party

* Collect and press leaves

* Go roller-blading

* Camping in the garden

* Pour Mummy a stiff gin and tonic and take it to her in the hammock

Any ideas warmly welcomed.


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The Joy of Being Older

I have been spending time with a friend who has an adorable nine-month-old baby. I love this baby for her cleverness and charm, and the sweetness of watching her discover the world. Being with them has brought home to me how my childrens’ baby time is over, and, while I loved it, how grateful I am to have moved on to the next stage. I am 40 and my youngest is four. I’ve just traveled with him to South Africa and Greece, and didn’t need to pack any special equipment – no prams, no special food, no nappies. He pulled his little roll-on suitcase and walked with his sisters the length and breadth of many airports.

I have spent the last ten years in dedicated service to small children. I adore my kids, and now I especially love their growing independence from me. I am no longer essential to their physical survival – any other kind adult could do my job. As they grow and shed their extreme neediness, I feel as if I have also emerged from a chrysalis. Their independence is perfectly matched to mine.

I spent all of last year in preparation for turning 40 in December, and then spent the next six months celebrating that birthday. It was a huge psychological turning point. I turned my mind to fitness, healthy eating and writing – doing things for me, my body and my psyche. At the risk of sounding smug, I feel as if I have arrived. I am not becoming, but being. And the best thing is, I have got at least 40 more years ahead of me to feel this way.

Today’s Observer has a brilliant focus on old age. The people they report on are extraordinary – a 98-year-old marathon runner, a 71-year-old yoga teacher, an 85-year-old sculptor – and what comes across is the fun they have in living. Of course, what  they share is the luck of good health, the fortune of living in the privileged West, but even so they have survived world wars, epidemics and economic disasters.

Here are some quotes:

For Mary, aspects of growing old are met with relief, even joy. “In a way, emotionally, you change back. I am freer now to feel intense excitement like I used to as an adolescent – being out of doors, for example, or listening to music. I somehow didn’t have time for that when I was bringing up my children and working full-time. I have been able to spend much more time with my youngest grandchild than with the older ones, and that’s been wonderful, too.” Jean Crossley, grandmother, 100

“Yoga can have a tremendous effect on you, whatever age you start,” she says, “but I find I don’t need to do much practice to keep supple, as my awareness of my body posture has become second nature over the years.” She reveals that yoga has a more meaningful message, too. “I’m aware of the fragility of health and that it can change without warning. So I always retain a sense of detachment – I’m not pleased with myself if I do a complicated yoga pose, I’m pleased for myself. You’ve never got life cracked. Yoga teaches you that.” Pam Horton, yoga teacher, 71

The key to a healthy old age, he says, is continuing to work and “doing something you like doing. You’re so much more likely to go on living if you’re happy, and making art makes us both happy.” London, where he has lived since he married Sheila 60 years ago, has been another important factor. “Old people are really a pain in the neck and one of the joys of living in London is that you see young people. You could isolate yourself and be less stressed, but one of the pleasures is seeing what’s going on.” Sir Anthony Caro, sculptor, 85

And for Fauja age isn’t even a consideration: “I do not consider myself to be old. From the moment I do that, I would lose everything, because age is a state of mind – as long as you’re positive you can do anything.” Fauja Singh, runner, 98

Apart from luck, the common denominator amongst these amazing people is joy. I’d risk saying that their wisdom, joy and pleasure in life has been partially responsible for their health and longevity. Their stories increase my belief that I have every chance of being a joyful 85-year-old yoga-practising writer.