Flexibility, Thy Name Is Frau

Families, when they function well, are great, solid structures for raising children. The reliability of the presence of two parents and the security of the steady income of one or both of those allow children to grow up free of many of the stresses that can stunt intellectual and physical growth. Yet within these structures, there must be some flexibility; many unexpected things – surprising events one cannot plan for – will occur, and someone needs to handle these events so that the family can continue to function. That, I would argue, is where it is often (not exclusively, but often) the mother of the family who must shine, whether she wants to or not. 

I am one of those mothers, though I am not sure that I have managed to shine amid the changing situations and stages of life. It is possible that I have mostly closed my eyes and muddled my way through. Could we call my willingness to do so flexibility?

Middle-aged now (what?), I can look back at how I adapted to my own changing roles and…laugh? Cry? Cringe? Shake my head in wonder? Looking back at three of my own life’s stages, I feel the urge to assign each a suitable quotation from a song or poem.

Stage One: Moving to Zurich with a baby and a new-ish marriage.

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley,” or “The best laid plans of mice and men go often askew.”– Robert Burns,  “To a Mouse”

This is an oft-quoted line. It refers to how we make our plans and build our nests, only to have Life “plough” in to destroy our work and alter our priorities. Perhaps more precisely said, “we” finish our degree in library and information science, only to have Life barge in with a new relationship, pregnancy, and baby, plus international move: talk about your altered priorities.

At the end of 1996, I was working full-time at the Texas A&M University Libraries and studying for my master’s in library and information science, which would be finished in late 1997. By the end of 1997, I was pregnant, married, and looking at a move to Switzerland (and had completed the master’s). By the end of 1998, we had a baby and a temporary flat in Zurich (and my then-husband had an appointment to the ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich).

Was it flexible of me to go along with all of this? Oh, sure! But there was an element of blindness, too, which is possibly true for others out there. First of all, babies change a lot in their first year of life, and so do mothers, with the first child: science has shown that a mother’s brain changes as she adjusts to the reality of raising a child. These are wonderful, necessary changes, but we really become different versions of ourselves. This new version of myself lost daily contact with friends, left a mother and sisters who had lived in the same state, and plunged into an unfamiliar world in Europe. I think I might have been depressed, though 100% in denial of such a thing, because living in Switzerland was undeniably a great opportunity. 

Stage Two. Mother of schoolchildren in Swiss schools.

“You may find yourself / in another part of the world… Letting the days go by…” – David Byrne/The Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”

11 years ago, my kids were well established in Swiss local schools. Because my daughter was 10, we intended to stay in Zurich, so that the kids could finish their schooling and take their chances with the Swiss tertiary education system. My main goal was to support them at school and especially with German, so that they could be as successful as possible. There were certain reasons for this—their father had announced, for example, that he would not pay for university in the U.S., so any university education would have to be earned through the Swiss system.

Looking back, I cannot decide whether I see flexibility or denial. My ancient vision of myself as at least a part-time working mother (in libraries or schools) was certainly being neglected (by me), as time passed. At this stage, I got my CELTA qualification to teach English to non-native speakers, so I was slowly realizing that my “professional life,” whatever I could manage, was going to be different from what I had envisioned in my 20s.

Stage Three. Adult children: letting them fly.

Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

Before using the quotation “the best laid plans…”, I wanted to re-read Burns’ full poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785.” And the final stanza really jumped out at me. Here Burns, addressing a mouse, says that the mouse only concerns itself with the present, while he, as a human, also looks back to the past with what I will loosely interpret as regret, and forward to the future with fear! 

There is regret for what I missed and what I failed to do, and fear/anxiety for my children’s future in this changing world, as they continue to navigate the upper levels of the Swiss education system, not always with direct success. Yet I have learned that I must try to step away from these negative feelings—maybe here, at last, is my opportunity to practice true flexibility! My kids do not need my anxiety (quite the opposite), and it does me absolutely no good. I am flexibly trying to develop and maintain the mindset that my children will find their ways in the world. From me, they will receive whatever age-appropriate assistance I can manage.

And I have cobbled together a professional life, though it involves three different jobs (all of which I love: teaching and even a part-time library position) and does not earn me enough to support myself entirely, should I need to do so. I think that this is typical for many flexible “Frauen.” And I don’t regret my years as a stay-at-home mother, but paradoxically, I do. It can be tempting for women to bow to the family need for flexibility, because it usually results in reduced stress for all family members, not least the woman herself. But my wish for the future is that the world could become more flexible for women and their careers and family lives. And for men, too, of course, but that’s a different article.

By Carol McGinty (McDonald)

Carol has lived in Zurich for 21 years. She teaches English (language), integration topics, and works as a librarian for a Jungian institute. Her children are now 18 and 21.

Illustration by Laura Munteanu

Laura has studied journalism and advertising, and has worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charities and diverse campaigns. Laura also designs jewellery and has had her jewellery and art exhibited. She lives in Zurich with her husband and ten-year-old daughter.

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