“Mommy, mommy. The other mothers are all unemployed,” were the first words out of my son’s mouth as he darted toward our car. Not exactly the kind of statement someone might expect from a 6-year-old during his first week of school. Beaming from ear to ear, I immediately cleared up the little misunderstanding, but I realized that for him it was completely normal to have a working mother. Normal. His words were music to my ears and played over and over in my head. I imagined what a good husband, colleague, and boss he might become knowing that simple truth. However, being a full-time working mother has not always been normal, not even in the 21st century.
At that moment, time seemed to stand still as a number of memories from my own life came flooding back. I remembered my surprise when I learned that I was ‘late’ in applying for a spot in a German kindergarten for children from ages three to six. The year was 2001; my son was two. Apparently, most German parents, I was told, registered their babies with their local kindergarten shortly after their child’s birth. At that time, it all seemed surreal like an episode out of Bewitched. Only I had no magical powers like Samantha to twinkle a daycare spot into existence. Why didn’t anyone tell me about how the process works? This can’t be happening, I thought. I began to panic. And, unfortunately, the news went from bad to worse. Later, I found out that there were no full-time kindergartens in my community and that I would have to subject my child to two half-day kindergarten spots. The children came and went and came and went. My son and a few other children were left behind, “Mommy, why can’t I go home, too?”
I also remembered the shocked stare of a well-meaning university colleague who noticed that I was pregnant for the second time. “Oh, Ms. Völz,” he blurted out, “How will you manage?” These words have haunted me ever since. Shocked, I had no answer. And to be honest, I don’t remember how I got myself out of there, but I was gone in a flash. OUT OF THERE. Imagine the nerve. No congratulations, only a concerned look of pity and an ‘innocent’ question that plunged me temporarily into mild depression. Was he right? Could I really manage both a family and a career? I was the first in my family to earn a Ph.D. Was it all for nothing? The reality of being a single parent during the work week as well as a full-time academic with two children two years apart set in. I looked around and did not find many female academics with full-time positions in similar situations: one child maybe, but not two. No grandparents or family on either side to take the children for a weekend or fall break. Ever. Yet, I was and still am determined to have my cake and eat it, too.
I’ve read the books. I know the arguments, but deep down I am still not convinced. We are not living in a post-feminist world as far as I am concerned. Not in Germany, not in the U.S., and certainly not in a number of other countries where female genital mutilation is a reality, in regions where girls cannot go to and stay in school, or in places where women are raped in plain sight of many who refuse to act. I truly hope that all women all over the world will someday have access to equal pay, equal rights, and an equal chance to succeed in their careers whatever they may be.
But until that time, let us not forget those who have gone the extra mile for us or motivated us to stay the course. I remember my children’s day care mother who lovingly took my dear Thing 1 and Thing 2 into her home until they were old enough to go to kindergarten, and I remember my former boss whose support over the years kept me sane. And finally, I honor Mother Pollard whose words became the battle cry of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and later the Civil Rights Movement: “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” These iconic words have withstood the test of time and continue to inspire new generations. They certainly have inspired me.
Today is International Women’s Day, whose slogan this year is “Make it Happen.” Let us do just that.