Last Thursday I took part in a self-portrait workshop run by Grace at the 'Trailing Spouses' Art Group. I had brought along my own props: a medium format camera and my son’s schoolbag, as I had an idea about how I wanted to portray myself. The camera represented my college days, and the dreams aspired to since that time towards some sort of career in photography. The school bag sums up my life as a mum, especially as I now carry it everyday for my son. Called a “Tornister”, nearly all German school kids have one. They are squarish, large and robust enough to sit on and you can choose from various themed designs. The thing is, it is so heavy, I end up carrying it for him. I always feel slightly preposterous walking down the road sporting a magenta striped rucksack emblazoned with footballers in mid-action, the straps squeezing my shoulders.
I merged the two portraits, to show that I find it hard to draw the line between these two images that reflect myself. Also, this lack of separation often leaves me feeling that I fall short in both respects, firstly as a mother and secondly as a creative and /or professional person.
I read on the ‘used to be somebody’ by the journalist, Gaby Hinsliff, that she felt a kind of lifting of guilt associated with being a working mum when her child started primary school. She says “…. it is the first time the choice - that terrible, double-edged choice - about whether to be home or not has been completely taken away from me.” In Germany, or at least where I live, there is still very much a choice about how long you leave your child in school. In the school where my son goes to, for example, the lessons start at 8:05 and sometimes finish as early as 11.50am. Then, some of the children are picked up for the day before lunch by their mums(or Dads perhaps), whilst others stay on in the after school care centre, which was founded just seven years ago, until 4.30pm at the latest. So that feeling of guilt is still in the air, when there are still two systems for the stay at home and working mums. This school system is changing in Germany, but there still isn’t one school here in Bielefeld offering the same school hours to all children, starting and finishing at the same time.
On occasion, I have picked up Eric before lunch and we have both really enjoyed the extra time together with my younger son Henry for the rest of the day. I am not actually supposed to pick him up before 2pm. Most of the time I pick him up between 3:00 and 4:00pm, like in the British system. Being self-employed, my workload is fragmented and I need to be able to work through to the afternoon on some days.
I do feel though it is strange, that in Germany you have to book a minimum of 45 hours a week of childcare for the under 3s in a kindergarten (9hrs a day!), which seems a lot, whereas when they go to school at the age of six, you may find the same child only being entitled to attend school for 4 hours a day. After school care is not free. It costs me 130 Euros a month including lunch, although if you have two or more children in a nursery or school, you just pay for the one child with the highest fees, which is good.
Nevertheless, I do think it would be nice for the atmosphere of the school and the children if they could all be at school at the same time, and all enjoy the Karate, football or cooking clubs etc that are on offer in the after school care centre. Socially, the school is also divided, for the parents and the children. Children who finish school before lunch are not allowed to use the playground in the afternoon because of insurance reasons. I obviously have more contact with parents whose children are in the after school care because I see them when I pick up my son.
My experience is that many parents here don’t like the idea of comprehensive education, where lessons take place in the afternoon, because they believe it would be too inflexible and strenuous for the children. They prefer the model of lessons in the morning and an option of after school care in the afternoon, perhaps because of their own educational experience. My husband, for example, was at school from Mondays to Saturdays in the morning, but then he could run around unsupervised with siblings and friends for the rest of the day. I can’t imagine that happening these days.
So I suppose I will have to get used to that portrait of myself for a while, and the choices associated with it. In the meantime, here is a picture of the "Tonni" in its full glory.