Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Working and Raising a Family

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by by Anne-Marie Slaughter might just be the best article on the topic of working and raising a family that I have ever read. Read it! (It’s long.)

Here’s one of many quotable quotes:

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

Hat tip to Rachel Happe, whose own post is not shabby.

ETA: Slater’s article seems to be going viral. I’m seeing links to it everywhere, which means it has touched a nerve. Here are a couple of posts from my blogroll:

Why women can’t have it all, why they’re not to blame and how we can make it better by lovely Aussie feminist blogger Bluemilk

Where in the world can women have it all? by Expat Writer Chantal

The ever-fabulous Twisty goes for the jugular.

My good friend Courtney is very thoughtful about That Article.

The lovely Belgian Waffle, now of Ireland.


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The Marcus Aurelius Meme

One of the tacit themes of Balthasar’s Gift is that everyone we meet, whether we like them or not, has something to teach us. It’s an adage I strongly believe in and try to remember, though not always with success. In novels, we like to see protagonists learning and achieving something with that knowledge – it’s called character arc, and if it doesn’t happen, we feel that characters are flat, wooden or too self-satisfied.

Litlove’s Marcus Aurelius Meme made me think of this, and so I am shamelessly plundering her ideas bank on this Tuesday morning to give you Gifts I Have Received from Other People:

From my mother, the Gift of Relentless Optimism: Her glass is not just half-full, it is overflowing. She believes in a benevolent and provident universe, and although she doesn’t have much in the way of material things, she leads a life that is surprisingly full of good luck and serendipity and Things Landing in her Lap. It’s been the experience of a lifetime being the child of a person who lives like this – guileless and believing in the good.

From my father, the Gift of Willingness to see the Funny Side. He is one of the funniest people I know and in another world, would have been a stand-up comedian instead of a lawyer. I love his take on the world and, when I remember to see the humour in a situation instead of freaking out and railing at unfairness (which he is also known to do – call it the Gift I’d Prefer Not to Mention), problems do diminish.

From my children, the Gift of Living in the Moment. There’s nothing like a baby to make the best-laid plans transmute into a spaghetti of terrible chaos. Though I have, and often still do, fight to plan ahead and organize, the moments when I allow myself to to sniff a child’s head, feel their warm limbs wrap around mine and melt into the joy of right now, this very second, are the best in the world.

From my husband, the Gift of the Oblique View. He has never been one to follow the pack, even when I first met him as a 17-year-old teenager. He holds the surprise factor of having viewpoints, ideas and ways to explain the world that knock me off my perch. My office (what my bedroom is known as during daylight hours) is next to his and I get a kick listening to him explain software to his clients on the phone. When a sentence starts ‘It’s like broccoli …’  I lose track of my protagonist’s problems and tune into the vagaries of global human resources management, because I have to know why software is like broccoli.

From my friends, I receive the Gift of Being Vastly Entertained. I love people to be amusing, witty, intelligent, provocative, a bit off-the-wall without injuring others and I have a treasure trove of people who do all of the above.

What gifts have you received from others?


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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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What Are You Going to Give Up?

I love it when a Times Online columnist espouses one of my views loudly and publically on a long weekend so as to get the attention of all the reading masses on my behalf.  It means I get the feeling of being validated without having to get out of my pyjamas.

My opinion: Women can have it all, just not all at the same time.

Minette Marrin’s opinion:  Don’t even bother trying.

The esteemed Ms Marrin says the only way to ‘ do a demanding job, pay attention to family and friends, preserve a competitively toned body, maintain an elaborate beauty programme, including trips to dermatologists, depilators and assorted beauty bandits, keep up with tweets, emails, telephoning and aggressive networking, dress stylishly, shop for food, cook elaborately, entertain regularly, attend school functions, keep up with reading, listen to music and remember jokes’ is to be really rich and pay people to back you up. Nigella’s Team Cupcake, par example.

On the one hand, Marrin says the pressure on working mothers is unavoidable (until, Otter says, their husbands and partners wake up to the revolution and start doing their 50%). On the other hand, she says women can decide to ignore the aggressive consumerism that underpins much of the last paragraph and – now here’s the revolutionary part – just let things slide. (After all, Otter says, most of their husbands and partners have been doing the same and getting away with it for generations.)

Marrin doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t stop working, stop having babies or doing things that they love. She means they should stop competing with other women, stop trying so hard, drop their standards, do less.

And – here’s the rub – she says ‘fortunately, doing a lot less is quite easy when you try — or, rather, stop trying.’

She says we should think of each thing we give up as an opportunity gain. Giving up two hours at the salon means two hours extra to keep up with friends. Giving up cooking elaborate meals means more time with the family. Giving up fashion magazines means less lusting after and trying to afford inaffordable items.

Living in a land that still expects good mothers to be home by 12.30pm ready to cook the family a hot lunch, I’ve had to give up a whole lot of things in order to make time for what matters to me: writing, working, exercising and spending time with the people I love. Here’s my list of things that have gone out of the window:

1. Keeping up with the laundry. Why do it? So that some housewife in the sky will give me a good report? I address the piles, with the dubious but enthusiastic help of certain members of my family, on a need-to-wear basis.

2. Ironing. We embrace the crumpled look.

3. Sorting socks. Puh-leeze. I put all socks in a large container and then bring them out when my South African friends and family visit for them to sort. It makes them feel useful and they can go home and tell stories about how hard it is living in Europe. 

4. Baking. I’ve taught my children how to do it. One kid made biscuits this weekend, another made carrot cake muffins. Team Cupcake’s got nothing on us.

5. Complex depilation. None in winter; bikini, leg and armpit on a need-to-display basis.

6. Beauty salons. Expensive time wasters.

7. Highlighting my hair. Ditto, plus I get to be cutting-edge grey.

8. Posh creams. Ditto. Nivea is the way forward.

9. Long make-up routines. Nivea’s tinted moisturiser rocks.

10. Soaking pulses. Tins and cans are just as good.

10. Buying fashion magazines. Blogs are better written and more interesting and they never make me lust after a Prada handbag.

I love Marrin’s mantra of Just Do Less. If it speaks to you, then what are things you’ve given or are giving up? I need more time for reading and writing and will gladly accept tips.


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D is for David Cooper

There are many people whose names begin with “D” whom I know far better than I know David Cooper, but I have decided to leave the living alone. David Cooper is a mystery man. He is unknown. I apparently met him once at the age of three and have no recall of that encounter, apart from eating boiled eggs in a strange kitchen. I was celebrating my tenth birthday when the news came from Port Elizabeth that David Cooper had died and I felt, oddly, given that he was my grandfather, nothing.

I have studied my mother’s wedding photos, trying to imagine who he was and what he was thinking, giving away a daughter he had last seen five years before. Apparently, he dutifully paid for the wedding, appeared to be proud of her, talked pleasantly to the in-laws, looked dapper, and danced so wonderfully with my grandmother that she began to entertain hopes.

David Cooper was a charmer. Appearances were important to him. He was always nattily dressed, and had beautifully tailored clothes. Though untrained, he was a talented pianist and could play any tune. He sang well, loved amateur dramatics and was an accomplished painter. His talents he apparently inherited from his mother who, according to family legend, once sang in the Royal Albert Hall. He loved a party and a drink, and told a good story. David followed his brother and sister to South Africa from London when he was in his twenties, all running from a cold, possibly cruel, father. When he breezed into Kingwilliamstown, handsome, accomplished, funny and charming, Elsie Hinds fell for him. They shared a love of painting and the arts, and for her, he represented a way out – from a dominating, stifling mother and her somewhat dull small-town life.

War came shortly afterwards. David enlisted and Elsie camp-followed while he was training in Pretoria. She had her first child, a son, and then he went off to become one of South Africa’s Desert Rats. During the war, their daughter was born, and afterwards they settled in Johannesburg where David looked for work. He was not happy – the charming, gregarious man she had married was gone. Everyone said the war had changed him.

He decided to sell everything and move to Scotland, where his beloved younger brother Anthony lived. The family docked on one of the Union Castle liners at Port Elizabeth and spent three weeks on the boat. They were met at Southampton by David’s father, meeting his son’s family for the first time. He had a white Father Christmas beard and, in my mother’s words, “the coldest blue eyes I’d ever seen”. After a couple of months in Devon, the family joined Anthony and his wife Ursula in Scotland, but the time there was unsuccessful and the brothers fell out, over money or an inheritance. After a year’s experiment, David once again packed up his family, bought boat tickets and they headed back for South Africa, sad and disillusioned. It was the end of the marriage.

After the divorce, my mother and her brother saw David Cooper every couple of years. He diligently sent Elsie a monthly allowance, one that was not enough for the family to live on, but he never forgot Christmas or birthdays. My mother says he sent wonderful presents, always of the best quality. “If he sent a writing-set, it was leather; if he sent a train-set, the trains would actually work.”

In his fifties, David Cooper developed cataracts. He was working in shipping insurance, and he had married his secretary, who also functioned as his guide. They were sitting on a bench on the Robberg in Plettenburg Bay, when he slid off and died. He was sixty-four. The last time he had seen my mother was seven years before. She, like me, felt almost nothing when she received the news of his death.

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This is what I know about my grandfather. There is a blankness in his story, an emptiness at the heart of it, a big zero. I think the reason is that he was hiding from himself. What if he had left London as a young man because of a secret? What if he was running? He found himself in South Africa, met the lovely Elsie and married her as an attempt to escape from that secret self. War came and he was able to run from his marriage, to a world of soldiers, and camaraderie and suffering. On his return, he found himself part of a family that he couldn’t love. He ran, again, to Scotland and when that didn’t work, ran back to South Africa, where the marriage was over.

I have heard the rumours about David Cooper. One cousin, who was spiteful and untrustworthy, told me rather gleefully over her third glass of wine. When I asked her sister, she said, “I’m afraid that she was right.” I took the information and buried it, just as David Cooper tried to bury his true self, because I didn’t want to hurt my mother by asking. Then yesterday, when talking to my mother about her father she confirmed that she knew the rumours. Out of respect for her, I am not going to say what his secret was, but you can probably piece it together.

So there are secrets and lies, as in every family. How sad for David Cooper that he could never be his true self, how sad for my grandmother that to him she never came first; how sad for my mother and her brother that their charming father remained forever distant. My mother told me a story yesterday. She said, “My parents were going out for the evening and came to say goodnight to us. I was in my cot and my brother was in his little bed. My mother came into the room and talked to us a little, then hugged us and kissed us goodnight. My father stood in the doorway, and all I could see was his shadow. I realise now that that was what he always was to me: a shadow.”

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I’m working through the alphabet in a series of short, memoir-like pieces. My compadres are: Jadepark, Courtney, City Wendy and Life is Just One Big Adventure.


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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