LETTERS FROM BERLIN

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THE TWO SIDES OF FAMILY

By Annie Mark-Westfall

This month I joined a professional network of English-speaking working moms in Berlin.  We have accountability partners, online seminars, and a Facebook group where we share our biggest wins and worst struggles.  It is the type of group that I once scoffed at, but today it is my lifeline to my sense of Self.  It is the group that will help Annie get her groove back.

During our seminar last week, our coach led us through six steps to finding work-life balance.  We answered several questions along the way to define our values and priorities, and establish a vision of what balance looks like.

As someone who invests probably, definitely too much time in self-reflection and self-development, I breezed through the questions.  What are your top values? “That’s easy,” I thought to myself. “Family.”  What drains your energy the most?  “Also easy.  Family.”

Our coach then moved along to Step 5: identifying ways to spend more time on your values, and less time on the things in life that drain your energy.  I stared at my paper and the word “family” in both columns.  Uh oh.

When the coach asked who wanted to share, I raised my hand to describe my confusion.  But the more I spoke, the more I felt exposed as a whiner.  A privileged whiner.  When I mentioned that my husband shares household duties and daycare pick-up/drop-off, people murmured how lucky I am. So I rushed to finish, and retreat to my silence again.

On paper, I have the perfect set up. I work from home, flexible hours, and my husband and boss are both incredibly supportive and understanding.  I love my job, my children love their daycare, and my husband and I have carefully, mindfully crafted our dream life here in Berlin.  Our children are healthy, happy, and my marriage is strong.  Nothing about our life is perfect, sometimes by a long shot; but on paper, it is pretty damn close.  So why is this all so hard? 

We immigrated to Germany precisely to find balance.  To build a life around our family.  We bask in the public policies that make this possible for us—the free daycare, the socialist subsidies, the plethora of playgrounds, classes, and children’s museums.  I spend as many hours with my children each day as their daycare teachers do. I am genuinely living the dream, and to pretend otherwise would be tone deaf and offensive.

A good friend called me last week just to chat.  When she asked me how I am doing, as I cheerfully responded, “Good!” my voice cracked.  Gasping through my tears, I described how my 15-month-old daughter still wakes up every hour at night; how she is exhausted and cranky after daycare; and she communicates with me in screams and shrieks.  When I pick my daughter up from daycare, her teachers rave about how calm, relaxed, and easygoing she is; how she loves to cuddle; how lucky I am to have the perfect child. I gape at them, and check behind me to see who they could be speaking to.

I love the little spitfire that is my karma incarnate. The way she eats with one foot up, resting on her high chair tray.  The way she makes sure to look me in the eye while flinging her unwanted food across the room. The certitude of her opinions, her hyper-focus on stairs and climbing her brother’s stool to grab the kitchen knives. Her giggles are the driver of man-made climate change, melting hearts and icebergs across the globe. She (and her brother) are my world, my everything.  She is like a walking “the future is female” meme, and I have no doubt that she will change the world for the better, one day. But “easygoing” and “relaxed” are not the words I would use to describe her.

I know this is all typical.  I know that children act worse around their mothers; that we are their safe space. I know that all children eventually learn to sleep, that these years will not last forever, and I need to enjoy every minute of this period, because one day I will be well-rested and retired, and will miss this phase.

But when we remind women to enjoy this phase, we also shame them into silence about the truths on the other side of this coin.  This beautiful phase in life when business contacts greet me with a kiss on each cheek, and a “You look tired, Annie.” These blessed moments that my mind goes blank mid-sentence during an important meeting. I try to remember to savor the humiliation as my brain goes black, and I wonder whether to apologize (no, too feminine) or to explain my sleep deprivation (no, oversharing about motherhood is definitely not respectable).

Of course, this is fundamental to what it means to be a parent.  I know that, and I embrace it.  But I cannot help but feel (and resent) that, once again, women are expected to suffer in silence.  Perhaps this is why so many articles on motherhood contain the refrain, “Why didn’t anyone tell me…?”  And if you are paying attention to the comments section (which you really should never do), you will see the answer is always, “Because society doesn’t give a shit about your struggles, lady. SHUT UP AND SAVOR IT!!”

As the work-life balance seminar came to a close, my working moms group set goals for the week.  I silently vowed not to cry when people ask how I am doing. Then I immediately cursed my weakness. How dare I feel this way, when I have so much?! “Look at the world, Annie.  Have some self-awareness. Send your column to Goop rather than The Wild Word. This is so Gwyneth Paltrow of you, to complain about your life.”

I was still screaming inside my own head, when I heard the cute French mom with the great haircut say, “My goal is not to be there at bedtime, not do the evening routine, one or two nights this week.”

My brain does that record scratching noise, bringing the party to a halt. That’s an option?!

“Thank you for saying that out loud,” I type to her in the chat box.

“Of course! We must always say it out loud,” she writes back.

My life is beautiful and privileged; and it is hard. And I am breaking under the weight of the guilt I feel, when I say that last part out loud. My next goal should be to let go of the guilt that comes from admitting that I struggle. Perhaps I will mention this to my accountability partner.

Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.

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1 Comment

  1. tim

    You know, I’ve spent most of my life looking at people and thinking how easy their life must be. Normally it was people who invested a lot more effort in getting ahead, establishing a career, but it held true for others, in similar situations as I have. As I’ve aged and learned, and things are more focused, it has become clear that everybody has battles, struggles, and empathy is the greatest kindness. I need to print this column and keep it handy for the days when I need a reminder. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “somethings lost and somethings gained in living everyday.”

    Reply

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