by Rose-Anne Clermont
- Germany -
My sister doesn’t have any children. Neither does my female cousin, nor my sister-in-law. A close female friend of mine from college wants kids but her relationship woes and her career haven’t allowed for an ideal child-rearing situation. Here in Germany, I’m a statistical rarity, as a university-educated woman with three children. Exercising the right to intellectually choose motherhood, or not, has marked my generation of women.
I recently Googled “reasons not to have kids” and got 26,700 hits. Many of the results linked to Corinne Maier’s bestseller from last summer, No Kid: 40 Reasons for Not Having Children. (Maier, by the way, is a mother of two.) Then there is childfreebychoice.com, which declares the resources of its website are “designed to be a haven for those who prefer to be childfree throughout their lives.” There are also countless parenting and women’s blogs where 30 – 40 something aged women (and men) explain their reasons against procreating.
Barbara and Renée never really questioned having children. They both assumed it was a role they would take on and neither regrets having made the choice to do so. Listening to them, I wished I would have asked these questions before having had my own kids. I don’t know if it would have changed my mind about having children, but, as with any life-transforming decision, it’s best to get honest and wise advice beforehand.
In part VI of A Current between Shores, Barbara and Renée share their joys and trials in raising their children.
Part VI: On Children (Roots and Wings)
Had you and your husband discussed or planned on having children?
Barbara: “We’d been dating for a few years when I told Johannes that I was pregnant. I insisted that I didn’t want to get married just because of the baby. But he thought getting married was the proper thing to do. I loved him and he loved me too, but I still made it very clear to him that I didn’t want to get married just because I was pregnant. We both wrote letters to our parents and my mother supported me, even if I chose not to marry. His father, however, told him he had been stupid and warned him that I was trying to trap him with the pregnancy.”“All of our [four] kids were ‘love children.’ I always became pregnant at a time in my cycle when I didn’t think I could.”
Renée: “In Haiti, when you get married, everyone expects you to have a child right away -- within the first year. If you don’t, they start asking questions. When you plan, you don’t have children right away. But looking back, we should have planned. We shouldn’t have had a child so soon because we were trying to leave the country.
“I’d always wanted to have kids. To me, a marriage without children is not complete.”
What was the hardest and the best part about having your first child?
Renée: “The anticipation is exciting -- the preparation, buying things for the baby. But childbirth was very painful. In Haiti back then there were no such things as epidurals and they didn’t give you any medication to speed up the process.
“Being a nurse, I knew how to take care of small babies, so I wasn’t worried about that. But then, after six weeks, I had to go back to work. My husband was a medical resident and he didn’t earn a lot. We needed money because we knew we wanted to leave.”
Barbara: “I didn’t find it hard at all. I was used to children from my family and my first child was an easy child to take care of. What was so difficult was that we had such little money. We thought we would hire a babysitter while I went to work as a nurse, but we couldn’t find the right person. I tried to do those work-from-home projects, but that also wasn’t for me.
“Things got harder [from there]. My first son cried non-stop. He always had stomach problems, couldn’t digest anything, had diarrhea or was constipated. And he always had diaper rash. I was sleep deprived and at the end of my nerves. My second son screamed all the time as well and never wanted to be left with a babysitter. There are some children who really overwhelm their mothers and their pediatricians.”
How did having a child change your relationship with your husband?
Barbara: “I didn’t have very much support from Johannes but we never fought because of or about the children.
“He often disappointed me. On our first child’s birthday, he went to a singing lesson. And when I was pregnant with our third child, the other children and I were terribly sick. I had an awful sinus infection and felt miserable. He traveled to his grandfather’s funeral and left me there with the sick children and my son who wouldn’t stop crying. I almost lost it.”Renée: “I was so busy with the child that I had little time for my husband. But he didn’t complain like some men do, even though we couldn’t spend the same amount of time together the way we had before the baby.”
Who did most of the child rearing? How important is the mother's caregiving role in a child's upbringing? Are there too many societal expectations placed on mothers or not enough?
Renée: “The daily caregiving was mostly from me. The discipline, when the kids were older, was both of us.
“When I got home from work, I spent all my time with the kids. When he came home, he spent a few minutes with the kids and then went into his office.
“Society places a lot of expectations on the mother. In my culture, if the kids are rowdy or not well behaved, people always look at the mother.”
Barbara: “He was often never around. He came home in the evenings and worked on Saturdays. He would sometimes change a baby or play with the children for a time. On Sundays I saw other fathers take their kids on walks so that the mothers could cook Sunday dinner. But not Johannes. He never gave me a consistent break. He always had something else to do. And he always made it seem so important that I didn’t trust myself to insist.
“How much of a mother’s caregiving is needed has become a political question [in Germany]. It really depends on the kind of children one has. Kids definitely need their mothers; they don’t have to play with their children the entire time, but they do need to be around. We had a babysitter who we called Aunt Miller. She was very uncomplicated and sometimes she handled the kids better than I could. I don’t think I was always an ideal mother.”
How did you manage to separate your roles as mother and wife?
Barbara: “When the kids were in bed, we had dinner together and listened to the radio. But apart from sex, there was very little that we did together as a pair.”
Renée: “Sometimes it was difficult to be both. Kids require so much time. It seemed like he was being neglected. Once in a while he would say, ‘It’s all about the kids,’ but he really was a family man. When we lived in an apartment, he took the kids out so they could run around outside. He loved doing thing with his kids, like taking them to museums and plays. He always wanted us to be together as a family, not just him with the kids or just me with the kids.
“We got babysitters and went out together. We even got his mother to stay with the kids and went on vacation together (when the kids were older).”
What have you learned from motherhood? What have you learned from your children?
Barbara: “I’d always thought it was important to have a neat and orderly house. But when I saw how sweet my children were when they smiled and were happy, I thought, ‘Cleaning up, housework, this can wait. Go spend time with your kids, enjoy them.’ They grow up so fast.”Renée: “You have to put yourself on the back burner, especially when the kids are small. At one point I didn’t work so I could take care of the kids. I learned that you have to make sacrifices. Some women don’t agree, but most mothers know that you have to put your kids ahead of you, especially when they’re little. At one point we didn’t want a 13 year old watching our three kids, so we stayed home if we couldn’t take the kids with us.
“I also learned that you have to set limits. The more you give, the more they want. You can’t give a child everything he wants.”
“I learned how to let kids express themselves. In Haiti, I always felt suppressed as a child. I’m glad I raised the kids in the US so they could speak up.”
What do you observe when you watch your children in their roles as parents?
Barbara: “It’s wonderful to see how good my son is with the kids and how much he does with them. His father had never been that helpful with the children.
“I think today, for many women, getting pregnant is more important than actually having children. When the child arrives, they realize it’s really something quite different.”
Renée: “I think you are smarter. I love how the mother and father roles are interchangeable. We were conditioned that this was his role and that was her role. My son-in-law does everything and anything for the kids that you would. It’s a very smart way to do things.”
- In Part VII of this series, Renée and Barbara discuss their spirituality. Previously in Part I, they described growing up in dictatorships and their impressions of democracy, in Part II, both women explored their struggles with poverty, in Part III, they shared how important education was in their lives, in Part IV they relive the difficult decision to leave home and in Part V they share their thoughts on womanhood and marriage. - Ed.
About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany on a Fulbright grant from 1998-1999. She holds a Liberal Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.
A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as "parallel histories from different worlds." In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, "They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget."