On Broken German Schools and Hellish PTA Meetings

As all of my Twitter followers know, Diva started school here last month and so that means I have had near-weekly parents’ nights since mid-August. I’m already a pro at these from being a part of a parents’-run kindergarten and for some reason I thought I’d get through elementary school without another wasted Wednesday night bickering about whose talented kid isn’t being given enough support. I was wrong. Because in Germany, middle-class parents seem to have nothing else better to do with their time and schools here don’t just run themselves. And based on my recent experiences at these meetings, those two sentiments are severe understatements.

Die Zeit took a frightening, in-depth look at the poor state of German schools and I gotta say, wow. Just wow. I chose to educate Diva in a public school because I believe in public school education. I chose to educate her here in Germany because although they are absolutely opposed to gifted & talented programs (a topic for another day), the students who go through university preparation in Germany are much better educated than most Americans in urban areas. I had never considered the state of the schools.

We pay a lot of taxes here in Germany, with billions of our Euros going to unfinished construction projects — like BER or the Cologne Opera House or the goddamned U-Bahn that was supposed to be open in time for the World Cup held in Germany in 2006 and which is maybe finally going to open in December(!). From the looks of these schools, though, not a penny of those taxes is going to school buildings. Diva’s school, though nice, hasn’t been painted since the 1970s and to get to the bathrooms, the kids have to run outside even in winter to an unheated addition. Talk about freezing your bottom. But she is lucky. At least her gym wasn’t condemned, as two in Cologne were this summer. And her school is too small to be housing refugees, as other gyms in Cologne are doing at the moment.

Because of the sorry state of the school system in Germany, Diva’s school now has a very very active PTA, committed to ensuring that the little school children have everything their little hearts desire. I scoffed at this at first, until I learned that without the PTA, there would be no toilet paper in the bathrooms, nor would a cleaning lady be there all day every day to make sure the kids feel safe enough to freeze their little bottoms off in the unheated outdoor toilets. I mean, it could be worse; she could be in one of the state-of-the-art schools that my former employers, an architecture company, built in Wisconsin with bulletproof doors and an alarm system that allowed teachers to lockdown their kids in the classroom in case a gunman walked in. Pick and choose, I guess.

Thing is, though, that for this cleaning lady to come every day, our PTA feels the need to send home a note every month reminding us that we are not good parents unless we contribute to the fund to pay her; we just got another passive-aggressive note reminding us that because some of us aren’t paying, all the kids may soon suffer the consequences of having no toilet paper in the bathrooms. Really people? Really? Where is the principal or the custodian? Why are we as parents having to handle this?

Well, funny I should ask: on Friday we got a note from the principal saying he’s leaving the school and due to a shortage of headmasters in the area, it’s unlikely he’ll be replaced and so we, as parents, have to step up. We have already had four parents’ nights meetings since mid-August and now we’ll be having more, to see who can pick up what slack while the city thinks about whether or not it can hire a new headmaster. Anybody who has been following the Cologne election fiasco knows just how laughable this idea is. Cologne’s bureaucrats can’t even print a stupid election ballot correctly and have to keep pushing the election date for our mayor back; why would this headmaster of a teeny-tiny school be of any importance to these incompetent beamter?

I could very easily slide into the role of PTA coordinator/headmaster if I wanted to and I could get shit done. Organization and leadership skills are not my competencies. People skills are not my competency. And yet, I could do this.

Except as I am learning from these PTA meetings, my way of doing things is not the preferred way of doing things. Instead of asking a translator to come to speak with the parents of the refugee boy in class who’s having difficulties, the preferred method of the PTA is to shout at the refugee parents in a mix of German and English and hope they get they hint that their kid needs to stop borrowing the other kids’ school supplies without asking (they don’t understand a word).  Instead of asking for the toilet paper fund to be paid in advance for the entire school year, we’d rather have the teachers collect 1.50 Euro from each student once a month and waste everybody’s time by sending obnoxious letters home.

Ok, fine.  I didn’t want to run for PTA President anyway. But when these meetings are not optional, do we really need to waste a half hour of my life getting lectured on how bloody important the Carneval culture is to our school and how we have to positively absolutely immediately get started on our kids’ Carneval costume planning right now?

Man, it’s going to be a long four years. Please tell me the private schools aren’t any better or I might just ship Diva off to one…. at least so I can enjoy my one kid-free evening a week by not thinking about kid things.

Advertisements

How to Parent Like a German, According to Time

1. Hang your children off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit.

2. Huddle with all the German parents drinking coffee and don’t pay attention to your kids.

3. Ignore Amis screaming “Achtung, Nein!” like the lunatics they are.

4. Do not be stereotypically strict (whatever that means) but instead “place a high value on independence and responsibility.”

5. Do not join the free range parenting movement because you’re already free range (tell that to the local news media here, which has just discovered the free range trend).

6. “Don’t push reading.” Or, in other words, let your kid’s teachers teach them how to read at school.

7. Don’t freak out when your kid gets two (two!) breaks to play outside during 4.5 hours of instruction (well aware of all the studies saying kids’ concentration levels dip after 45 minutes and are at a bottom after 90.)

8. Let your kid light off  fireworks on New Year’s.

9. Let your kid walk to school without you. Worry about traffic and not kidnappings.

10. Celebrate the kid’s first day of school.

11. Go outside everyday (see 1).

How’s your ranking on this list (condensed from and based entirely on this truthful bullshit in Time Magazine)? I failed miserably. Those Ami lunatics screaming Achtung get me every time.

Alleinerziehend: Today’s #dailydeutsch

I am exhausted. Again.

A couple of years ago, at an outing with all of the parents at the Kita, one of the dads turned to me and said, “Gosh, raising your kid all alone must be tough.” To this dad, who had never met my ex, I was doing everything by myself, hence his word choice: alleinerziehend. There’s not really another word for a single mom (which is why the English phrase single mom has, to my chagrin, been adopted here in Germany).

On my other side sat another dad, one who also didn’t know my ex but who’d had a kid and then separated from his baby mamma and then continued to raise his kid with her, co-parenting so that both of them had the kid 3-1/2 days each week. And so this dad, based on his own experience, answered for me. “It’s not tough. She’s not alleinerziehend. She’s not doing it all on her own.”

Oh. Um.

Compared to my friend, whose baby daddy lives in LA and doesn’t ever visit or pay child support, he’s right: I am not completely alone. Diva’s dad every so often has picked her up to go have fun in his garden and he pays his laughable minimum according to the Duesseldorfer Tabelle (doesn’t get any more frugal than that, with a maximum per kid payment of 334 Euros if you’re an upper bracket earner). I guess I really haven’t been doing all the work myself.

However.

A kid is around 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And I’m having a hard time believing that I’m not in it alone, as I am currently doing all the housework and getting the finances in order and working and looking for new work and making sure Diva gets all the love and attention she needs while also getting her ready for her future school days, not to mention making sure she is cleaned and bathed and fed and well-slept each night while her dad has, once again, gone off the radar. Since January, he has seen her five times. Five. My lawyer tells me this is not enough. She tells me Diva needs to see her dad more.

You see, Germany has adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and as a result, one of the firm beliefs in German custody laws is that the child needs to have both parents in his or her life. So technically, on a legal level, there should never ever be an alleinerziehend situation. At least not on paper. And if, then only because the kid was placed in severe danger by one of the parents or paternity was absolutely unknown. And so, even when Diva is living with me and spending 24/7 with me, we are technically legally splitting custody 50/50. There is no way around this.

However.

Erziehen is translated as the process of raising a child. Custody is not erziehen; it has nothing to do with instilling morals and values nor on where and how a kid is brought up. So although legal custody is limited to who can decide which school a kid goes to and who can sign her passport application — if there are two names on a birth certificate, both of those signatures have to be present on all official documents — erziehen falls under the everyday nonsense that comes with bringing up a kid and that is not necessarily decided on by a court but by the parents. And unless the parents get along and are willing to do the so-called “Prenzlauer Berg” model in which a kid shifts homes every Sunday, spending one week with mom, the following with dad, the erziehen really is done by the person with whom the kid stays the most.

In our case, me. And so when her dad isn’t around, as has been the case for over a month now, I don’t understand how this cannot be called alleinerziehend. I’m alone. I’m raising her. Five out of 120 days doesn’t feel like 50/50. So how is this not alleinerziehend? Is this a semantic issue or what am I missing (besides sleep)?

Latte Macciato Mums

A couple months back, I was walking down the street with a friend of mine who’s been trying unsuccessfully for years to have a kid. It always sucks a little bit to talk to her because our conversation always has something to do with kids and seriously, what do you say to someone who’s dealing with infertility issues? “Oh hey, I see you’re not pregnant yet. Still trying? Let me just bitch a little bit about my little darling so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.”

On this occasion, it was especially awkward because my friend was taking me to a partners’ massage at the Thai Massage studio which meant that in T-5 Minutes, we were going to be seeing each other naked, which I am still a bit shy about. So anyway, just as we were about to walk into the massage parlor, I realize another Mom from the Kindergarten is standing right by the door locking her bike. What’s the proper protocol for this greeting? Acknowledge the mom with a nod and a smile? Say hello and continue walking? Attempt small talk (which I despise) despite our rush? We never saw each other outside of the kindergarten but since it’s a tiny parents’ run Kita, we see each other there every month at parents’ night.

I decided to say hello and keep walking, noting that if she seemed offended, I could explain later how uncomfortable I was and how we were running late. So I said hi. And she did nothing. Not a nod. Not a smile. Not a word. She just looked right through me. And since we were like two feet away from each other and I am totally unique, it’s not like she didn’t recognize me.

“That was weird,” my friend said. “Who was that?”

“A mom from the kindergarten.”

“Oh man,” she said. “That’s why if I do ever get knocked up, I’m not raising the kid in this neighborhood. These moms are bitches.”

For like half a second, I defended the mom. It’s a habit I’m trying to create — to not talk shit about people or get offended by what I consider impoliteness. After all, this woman was probably feeling just as awkward as I was, right? I let it drop but made a note to try to play nice with this mom at the next parents’ night. Because one of the things I’m learning beyond the it’s not just me philosophy is that these moms who are bitches are probably going to be in my life for a while. If Diva wants to play their kids, I gotta be nice to them. If Diva doesn’t want to hang with their kids but we still have to keep seeing each other at playgrounds and soccer games, I gotta be nice to them. Cologne is small like that. My neighborhood even smaller.

And I have spent most of the last year in a selfish haze of bad fucking moods that I am sure has made a few people wonder what bug crawled up my ass so I have to start trying to make good with the mummies here again. The sun is shining and I have to hit the playgrounds with Diva again. Imagine my difficulty, then, when I overheard one of the new moms at the kindergarten talking about our kindergarten at the playground and the phrase “Latte Macciato Mamas” was used. Clearly this woman did not know that I was one of the Moms in question — we hadn’t yet attended a parents’ night together because I have been avoiding those like the plague this year — and the statement made me take a step back. It’s bad enough that people who know me don’t like me but at least I get that. I’m not always fun to be around. I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. But a pauschal hatred based on the Kindergarten I chose to send my kid to? A judgment about me because of the neighborhood I live in or the clothes that I wear?

I have a sense of humor. I can make fun of myself. Self-hatred is not a uniquely German trait. But how do you address this without sounding like a complete asshole? Hu-hu, heard you call me a yummy yuppy and just wanted to let you know, I’m just as broke as you! Whatever. It’s not important what this new mom thinks. We’re out of the insanity of the kindergarten next year and into the strangeness that is the German school system, complete with its own PTA problems so I don’t really need to prove I’m too lactose intolerant to be a latte drinker or that the Armani sunglasses I hide behind were an appeasement gift given years ago by a woman who felt guilty for flirting with my husband.

But the experience does have me thinking a bit about these relationships we’re building with the people we encounter every day. What are we doing to each other by cutting each other down? What purpose does this mummy hate serve? What are we teaching our kids when we’re throwing around casual judgments and talking smack when they’re in earshot? I understand the harm this does and though I haven’t been at all perfect, I am going to try to be better. Kill ’em with kindness. Starting now.

My Kidneys Warm Themselves Just Fine, Thanks

A couple years ago, Diva came home from a visit to her dad, bragged to me that he’d let her eat Leberwurst for breakfast and then promptly puked all over the place. It’s a bad habit she has, this puking whenever she eats lunch meat or too many hot dogs and so I sent him a very unhappy text message asking him, a vegetarian, to get his girlfriend to refrain from feeding the kid Leberwurst unless she’d be around to clean the puke up. “She doesn’t need to be a vegetarian,” I told him. “But if she’s going to eat meat, at least make it something she can digest.”

His reply? “It’s not my fault she’s sick. You dress her too thinly. Her kidneys get cold.”

Her kidneys get cold?

Clearly, this was not my ex speaking, it was his girlfriend. A German. Because only Germans believe in the nonsensical notion that it is not viruses or bacteria or digestive issues that make people ill. Germans, an otherwise intelligent people (for the most part, anyway), believe that it is the kalte that makes people sick.

Kalte Fusse, kalte Kopf, Kalte Nieren. Cold feet, cold head, cold kidneys. The German trifecta of illness causes. Forget Ebola or flu or whatever. It’s the cold. That and the draft. The way many people here think, we should all be sick whenever it dips below 20 degrees Celsius and the wind blows. If we’re not, it must be all the precautions we take by dressing appropriately (you know the old saying, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing” is HUGE here).

And by appropriately, I mean that we are wearing socks at all times. Height of summer, you bet we’ve got black socks beneath the Birkenstocks, no peeptoes allowed. Even in houses with in-floor heating, socks must remain on at all times (except when doing yoga, for whatever reason). Your underwear do not have to be clean (Germans have several times taken the prize for dirtiest skivvies in the annual “Which European country’s people shower the least frequently?” survey with a record-breaking average underwear change coming only every 3 days… alarming stuff, I tell you), but your socks cannot have holes in them and they must go above your ankle bones.

Also required: undershirts. I always thought that those Hanes white ribbed tank tops sewn by 6-year-olds in The Honduras and sold 3 for $10 were only used by suit-wearing dudes to wick away sweat whilst tucked underneath an Oxford or for dudes hanging outside on the porch in the summertime who want to look tough and since I don’t dress like a prep nor a gangster, I have never owned shirtsleeves in my life. Tank tops, yes. Camisoles, yes. Things without sleeves that are loose and made to be seen and not covered up? Yes, yes, yes. But undershirts? I guess this is a thing that German kids and adults alike are required to wear in order to keep their kidneys from getting cold. There’s even a very very popular women’s clothing brand called Kidney Karen whose entire line of products is dedicated to keeping your kidneys warm in an attractive way (see photo):

kidneykarenNever mind that my kidneys are on the inside of my body, which, last I checked, was a balmy 98.6 degrees. And never mind that whenever I do get a cold, it’s my head that hurts and my nose that runs, not my kidneys. I guess here in Germany, bodies are different.

I mean, I get the old wives’ tale that going outside in winter without a hat might make you sick (it doesn’t, but I get it). I also see now the relationship between cold feet and feeling ill (thanks to circulation, cold feet are a symptom of a fever since they don’t feel as hot as soon as the rest of the body does once a fever sets in. So not a cause but co-relation). But when was the last time you were like, woops, there’s that old flu again, hitting me right in the kidneys? I once put on a mini-skirt before going out with a friend for the night and when I asked her what she thought, she said, “I think my kidneys would be too cold in a skirt like that.” Not my legs would’ve been cold (they would’ve been because we all know tights are not *that* warm). And I wasn’t wearing a bauch-frei shirt, either. What in the ever-loving fuck is this belief in cold kidneys?

Anyway, to accommodate Diva’s dad’s girlfriend and her stupid belief in the perils of having cold kidneys, I bought Diva a couple of undershirts and asked her to start wearing them. She refused. She was only three at the time, but she has never been an idiot. “You don’t wear them,” she told me, after noting that her princess dresses didn’t look so pretty with shirt sleeves hanging out underneath. Now, however, two years on, she insists on wearing them every day. And not just wearing them. She has to tuck them into her tights, which she pulls up over her belly button because Papa’s girlfriend told her she’ll get sick otherwise.

So there go all of my efforts to raise a non-nerdy American little girl in the Vaterland. I now have a princess who wears ergonomically correct shoes instead of pink sparkly cowboy boots. A girl with undershirts to match every pair of underwear she owns (which she changes at least once a day because although she may be half-German, I will NOT let her be that Deutsch). But so help me she starts mumbling on about cold kidneys or wearing black socks with her Birkenstocks, I am sending her to the States for some style reformation. Some of these Germanisms I just cannot abide.

Fuck Parents’ Night.

When I signed Diva up for a parents’ run kindergarten, every other mother I knew warned me against it.

“It’s too much work.”

“The parents are demanding.”

“No, really, those parents are insane.”

But I wanted to be a part of the day care process. I wanted to stay involved in Diva’s life so I did it. I applied for a spot at a tiny parents’ run kindergarten and I put on the old song and dance at an interview and I got one of the much-coveted spots at a nearby Eltern Verein.

At first, it was great. It still is. But now I know what all those warnings were about. I’m not one of the people involved in the day-to-day operations and I’m not elected to a post so I don’t have to handle human resources or budgetary concerns, but it is exhausting. Not because of the work. The parents. Ugh, the parents.

As part of the official bureaucracy behind the parents’ run kindergarten, we have to have meetings every month. More often if there’s an issue. The people on the board meet even more frequently, so I know I dodged a bullet by not having to run the show. But these parents nights are the absolute worst. There are all sorts of jokes about them online. The writer Juli Zeh put together a bullshit bingo card for parents’ nights at her kids’ school and though kindergarten’s a bit different, it gives you some idea of what these discussions entail.

ElternabendbullshitbingoAt our kindergarten, thankfully, there are a few things written into the founding constitution that make some of these discussions obsolete. We can only serve vegetarian food. The kids can only wear slippers inside. They go outside every day.

I’ve had friends who’ve wasted hours of their time at these meetings because someone wants to serve only organic food and another person is against paying the extra 20 bucks a month it costs for only organics. I had another friend whose kindergarten completely imploded because the manager was incompetent and the employees were bullying each other but none of the parents could agree on which employees to fire when and how to do it according to German law. And while it was imploding, one of the parents embezzled a huge chunk of money, bankrupting the kindergarten. So I am definitely thanking my lucky stars to have found such a nice place for diva to spend her days.

But as it is, even when things are going well, people can still find stuff to bitch about. And that’s why these parents’ nights suck so royally. We spend hours every month debating the stupidest shit. Can we build a new bench on the playground? What can we plant in the garden? Are the kids getting outside enough? Shouldn’t we be teaching them English — or French — or Swahili?

The longer that I’ve been there, the more difficult it’s become to bear. It could be that my rose-colored glasses have come off or it could be that the mood at the kindergarten has changed but either way, what at first felt neat and quaint and cozy has devolved into a night I dread every month. It doesn’t help that my social anxiety prevents me from behaving in large groups. I do great one-on-one. I can give speeches to rooms filled with hundreds of people no problem. Put me in a room with a dozen people I have to see again and I will stick my foot in my mouth so hard and act like such a major bitch that even my friends pretend not to know me in the moment. I literally ask when we can all head to the bar and grab some whiskey even though I don’t drink and I deplore bars. That’s how bad my anxiety gets.

And for some reason, two of the other mothers have recently taken the idea of the kindergarten being a democratically-run institution too far, insisting that every time they don’t get their way, we have to put it to a vote. “All in favor of singing Backe Backe Kuchen every morning at breakfast, say aye.” It drives me fucking insane. And of course, in full anxiety mode, I don’t even bother to hide my disdain at this bullshit. So instead of playing nice with the other mummies, I roll my eyes and say, “Das kann ja doch nicht dein ernst sein?” It’s my favorite German phrase because even if it’s not grammatically correct, it gets the point across: “You cannot be fucking serious?” I may be American and Amis may have invented democracy as we know it but sometimes, seriously, we need a dictatorship. Someone who will stand up and say, “We’re singing pattycake at breakfast from now on, Mamacitas, so deal with it.”

Last month, it got so bad that three of the dads just got up in the middle of the meeting and were like, yo this is over, let’s go watch the football game. Which, irksome though it may have been at the time, seems to have been genius. Because without a platform, some ideas just go unaired and maybe it’s better that way.

Out-Maneuvering the Mutter Mafia

I get it. I really do.

Your body has just done the most amazing thing — given birth to a real live human being — and yet, it looks so unlike your own body, so unlike you, it’s scary. Your belly is now empty, shriveled as a deflated balloon. Your tits are enormous, but instead of being Playboy Bunny material, they’re jiggling like a Jell-o mold every time you move. No clothes fit you properly so you’re still tooling around in the jeans with the elastic-waistband you can pull up over your granny panties to just below the terribly unsexy nursing bra that looks like it’s been made from your grandma’s lacy kitchen curtains.

Being sexy is the furthest thing from your mind, because really, between the feedings and the diaper changes and the nonstop blood, who the fuck has time to even think about sex?

But then a couple months go by and the feel-good hormones have disappeared and the blob that’s been sucking the life out of you suddenly doesn’t need your attention 24/7 and so you turn your attention back to your body. To all the things that are not right with it. How it looks and feels so alien. So unlike yours.

I get that you’re just not feeling it anymore, that you want your pre-baby body back stat.

I get that those “pelvic floor muscle-building” classes that your midwife recommended and your insurance company paid for are over and you still see no discernible difference in that blubbering belly of yours. I’ve been there. It sucks.

But you know what? It’s okay. It’s not a permanent state of affairs. Trust me.

There is no need to take to the park to speed walk while pumping a 1-pound weight in your left hand while pushing your Bugaboo with your right hand. There is no need to subscribe to Jilian Michaels’ YouTube channel so you can attempt to finish off 30 Days of Shred without milk leaking through your sports bra and dream of fitting back into that sleeveless dress that will never ever fit again because your tits have settled in a completely different place.

My midwife told me to not even think about running the first year after my daughter’s birth, not if I didn’t want to piss myself every time I sneezed. And you know what? She was right. The first time I tried to run for a tram while pushing Diva’s stroller I thought my uterus was going to fall out. Worse, weirder pain than anything I ever felt while pregnant. And I have no problems sneezing.

Because eventually, those stomach muscles stitched back into place. Five years on, they aren’t a six-pack, because abs are made in the kitchen and despite many many planks and hanging leg raises, I have a layer of chocolate between my muscles and skin. Still, they’re as flat as they’ve ever been. It happens if you want it to. So please, please, just enjoy your time with your newborn. Don’t waste your time and money doing boot camp in the park while bitching about sleepless nights and worrying your kid hasn’t eaten enough because half the jar is still full. Your tits are not going to magically get less bimbo-tastic because you’re pumping a 1-pound weight, at least not while you’re still breastfeeding.

Instead, go for a walk. Feed the ducks. Take a tumbling class with the kid.

For fucks’ sake, do not commandeer the running path while doing squats with your limousine strollers three abreast. It’s not only unbecoming, it only makes you feel bad about yourself. You’ve just had a kid. Give yourself a break.