A Mother’s Country
I wrote this as part of a chapter for the non-fiction project I am writing (and will probably finish in 2025). It was the second half of something and it didn’t work as what I intended it for – but it seems to work as a stand-alone piece of writing. I thought I’d publish it here.
My daughter was born at the end of a long, unseasonably hot summer. In the weeks leading up to her birth, north Germany baked beneath an uncharacteristically consistent sun, the Baltic bright blue day in, day out. I expanded with the help of lazy trips to cafes and bakeries with my Mum, as we waited and waited and waited. She arrived twenty-two hours after my waters broke – Frutchblase ist geplatzt – delivered by a midwife in starched white and Birkenstocks. She was the third midwife, my labour having outlasted the shifts of the first two, and she was the most terrifying, most capable, most utterly German of them all. As I had all but resigned myself and my weary body to an emergency c-section, Monika shook her head and barked, Los Frau Gambrett, and didn’t stop until she had placed a little peach on my chest.
A lot changes when you have a baby and much, really, stays the same. Time begins to morph, becomes something wickedly untameable. One’s body becomes a site upon which something extraordinary took place – and yet, to look at you, nobody knows – and it must now find its way back to the ordinary. One’s appreciation for silence deepens. Things that once seemed so big, so important, they shrink, gather dust, no longer frighten. And yet, the world in which you now carry an additional human, is still the same world through which you walked alone. The shift is so seismic you almost don’t feel it, like when a noise is so loud and so quick, you wonder if you heard anything at all until you look around and realise everything is left of centre. Still there, still familiar, just not quite as it was. The very loud noise was a door closing; the life you had before your child is one you will never know again. You must now move forward as best you can in a world you have deliberately tilted on its axis, aware that you have created the very thing that’s loss would destroy you.
As I settled into days with a newborn, ein Deutsches Kind (a German child) according to the foreigner’s office, I found myself constantly, more than ever before, negotiating my foreignness. I was, although I was too tired to think about it at the time, learning two things on the job; how to be a mother, and how to be an immigrant. A good immigrant. One who worked within the system and tried with the language and didn’t stick out. It helped that I was white, that my mother tongue was one they learnt for years at school. My child, my deliberate choice to tilt my world on its axis, was also a declaration to a country I had only just resolved to happily call home; I’m staying. She was an anchor.
Before, I was the Australian. Now I was the Australian mum. When I got it wrong, I got it wrong on two levels, as a first-time mother and as a woman parenting outside of her own culture. My German had to improve, and quickly, to handle the paediatrician appointments and Ruckbildungsgymnastikskurs (post-partum sports designed to strengthen the pelvic floor) and baby swim classes and Krabbelgruppe (baby playgroup) where I was gently chastised for sitting my baby up and not letting the baby lead the way. I fed my daughter different first foods and balked at the German staples of parsnip and mushed carrots. My mother-in-law gave me a jar of pureed meat – Fleisch – and several jars of Karotten Pur which my child steadfastly refused to eat (something I am sure my mother-in-law suspects me of influencing). Time after time, we had the great barefoot debate, as she would go clucking after socks to protect my baby from instant, cold-footed death. There was a bit of handwringing about how her German would suffer due to her early exposure to so much English. Through it all, the linguistic misunderstandings, the culture clashes, the moments my Australianness ran headfirst into the Germanness I lived in, I was repeatedly referred to as entspannt, or what us Aussies might call easy-going. I suppose some things are in our blood.
Just shy of two years later, in the very same room overlooking the fjord, on a warm day at the end of an unseasonably warm May, my son arrived. After a bit of a push from a homeopathic induction cocktail – the Germans prefer trying natural remedies first – followed by acupuncture and finally the real induction drugs, he came quickly, too quickly. I begged, in English, for the epidural, and as the anaesthetist stood in front of me, intoning, in German, the legalities of paralysing half my body, my Hebamme interrupted, ‘there is no time, this baby will be here in minutes’. And he was. He shot out, tiny and blue, the cord having got stuck around his neck. His eyes, like his sister’s, were wide open, taking it all in. I was a Mum, again, to another Deutsches Kind. Another anchor dropped in the flat, brackish Baltic.
He brought with him a calmness; I knew what to do as a mother, and I was more seasoned in my foreignness. I had made peace with living on the other side of the world and raising my children so far from all that I knew. I had made peace with being on the outside, a place of uncertainty and a strange liberation. A true second-born, he didn’t go to baby swim, or dance class, and his Krabbelgruppe was with the other baby siblings at his sister’s playdates. I didn’t even do a refresher of the Geburtsvorbereitungskurs and, don’t tell anyone, but I skipped the Rückbildungsgymnastikskurs.
More confident this time, I stopped assuming points of difference were a result of my being wrong, and instead chalked it up to a difference in upbringing, a difference between what I think is normal and what the Germans do. My mother-in-law’s relentless handwringing and worrying I knew, this time, was not because I was doing anything wildly different or stupid; it was merely her default setting of German Angst, dialled up as a result of her own upbringing by an emotionally distant mother, who herself was born as Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, and sent away as the bombs fell. The German telling me how to do something was not necessarily because what they were doing was right, but because Germans tend to think they are always right. Australians play the ‘aw I dunno, I might be right, but I don’t want to toot my own horn’ card as a matter of course; the Germans don’t have that card in their deck.
As the Germans became clearer, and my own position within their country with it, my own culture came into sharper relief. Culture can be this shimmering thing, like water – impossible to grab and hold, particularly by us people of the ‘new world’. But I saw it, and I felt it, my Australianness, as it left me and entered my children. I began to see, as my children developed their personalities and learnt to speak both languages, the little ways in which Germans became Germans, and Australians became Australians. Culture is imbued, breathed into the next generations and when you raise your children in your own culture, you unwittingly, unthinkingly, often accidentally pass it on. But as a parent raising a child outside of your own culture, you can only pass it on through a concerted effort. You must do it emphatically, perhaps more so, because you are its only source.
Psychologist Erik Erikson once said, ‘babies control and bring up their families as much as they are controlled by them; in fact, the family brings up baby by being brought up by him.’ I began to see, that when you are an immigrant parent, your child raises you as much as you raise your child. They correct your grammar, they drag you out of your shell because someone has to take them to the Spielplatz (playground) and make conversation with the other parents. They show you a country that belongs to them through birth and blood, a country that belongs to you through circumstance and choice. Blood and birth is a different relationship to circumstance and choice. Their love for their childhood land is different to your love for your adulthood land. Children force you to choose what you want to give them, they force you to expand your acceptance and understanding of your foreign life because they take for granted your roots in this soil are as deep as theirs.
My country once only resided in me, as I went about my daily life in a colder, rainier corner of the world. But it is now carried in my children. Whereas once my days were driven by my own curiosity about the world, now they are driving with me, pointing things out, asking questions, trying to make sense of how we all fit; they are in the second stage of building their identity. As we raise each other, my motherhood so often defined by my foreignness, I ask myself two things, every day; ‘what is the word for that again?’ and ‘what do I want my children to know of their mother’s country?’