Every conversation with Robin is always sparkling, funny, fast and incredibly smart – even if you meet her after an exhausting week picking up a sick child from kindergarten. On a deep December evening we met in Berlin for a glass of wine and listened to what the mother of two boys has experienced as a working-mom…
Robin (42), Assistant Professor for Architectural History
Mother of two boys (age 5 and 3)
Part I: What happend before …
What was your profession before you became a mother?
Assistant Professor (Juniorprofessor) of Architectural History with a specialization in Design History.
How many hours did you work a week?
Even though I only taught six hours a week, a professor’s work is never “done.” Every week was different, but it’s about 40-50 hours a week, which also counts correspondence, writing conference papers, writing letters of recommendation for students, preparing for courses, etc.
How happy were you with your job (1 not at all and 10 very much)?
Did you have any further ambition concerning your career?
My first professor position was in a good city (Chicago) but only an ok university that was experiencing state funding problems, so it was not as stable as it should have been. I was interested in a better university but only if it was in a good place to live.
Part II: When the baby was born …
How was the reception of the news that you were about to become a mother in your professional environment?
Not thrilled for me, even though my institute’s director had two children of his own. Other fellow faculty were supportive, even though the majority didn’t have children (as is common among university professors). They all gave me lovely presents for the baby, some of them handmade.
What did they plan for the time you would not be able to work?
I told my director very early on, so that he could plan with a lot of advanced notice and find a good replacement to teach my courses. He in fact waited until the last moment and then I ended up finding my own replacement, which worked out well as we were able to coordinate the hand-off and work well together.
How did you feel about work during the months before the baby’s arrival?
Since I was in the US, everyone works or teaches until two weeks before the birth, or waits until the birth to stop teaching. Since Americans generally only get 3 months total off for the baby, no one wants to waste time off before the baby comes. In my case, I used the Easter holidays plus some vacation leave, so I was able to stop at 8 months, but that was rare. So I felt lucky, plus we have the summer off. But still the last weeks of teaching were hard, especially as my line of work is thinking and the final weeks of pregnancy I didn’t feel my most intelligent.
Part III: The return of the mother …
When did you start working again?
In between having the baby and returning to work, I started a new university position in Berlin. My husband and I made a complete international household move with a 3 month old baby. Excited to start the new position and not wanting to inconvenience my new colleagues or institute, I began with the new semester in October as my son was 5 months old. The institute did not give me any additional responsibilities beyond teaching my courses and settling in. With my Berlin position came the additional help of a student assistant, who was incredibly helpful in settling me into my new position and new university world, where not only was everything organized differently, but in another language.
That must have been challenging…
I had planned my first edited book to be sent to the publisher just before my baby was due so that the publication could be worked on while I was with my newborn (and, as it turned out, moving countries), and then I would arrive back into my work just as the book was coming out. This was good timing in appearing productive to the outside world while I was in fact enjoying the first months of my baby.
It worked so well that I did the same with my second edited book, sending it to the publisher just before my second son arrived. An impending birth is a good way to keep to a deadline.
It certainly is, especially if you are expecting your second child and know how what is going to happen…
How was work for you during that time?
I spent as much time as possible working from home and was only physically at the university when I absolutely had to be, for teaching and meetings. Otherwise, everything could be organized via telephone or email. This is a practice I continue to this day. Even the 10 minute bicycle ride was 10 minutes lost from either my work or my child (later: children).
How did you feel about returning to work after becoming a mother?
Good. It took some time for my head to clear, especially due to the usual lack of sleep, or long nights battling fevers, but it seemed important to me to move forwards and not backwards and also not just tread water.
Who took care of your child while you were working?
The first year, from age 4 months to 15 months, my husband and I found an absolutely wonderful nanny. Although I had imagined a good nanny would be an experienced, middle-aged women woman who had “seen it all” as far as babies were concerned, we found Berlin to be full of responsible young people engaged in creative pursuits who had really good childcare experience. Our nanny truly loved our son, and took lovely care of him. She only worked 9-13.00, at which point my husband and I traded the afternoons. This allowed us both to get some good work done in the morning, and our son to have a nice outing, a morning nap and a good play with someone else. Being on a clock, in which one is paying by the hour, was also good practice for my time management and I did my most important work in that block. Unimportant work, such as returning emails, I did when I was tired, in the afternoon during my son’s nap, or after his bed time. Then my son began in the Kindergarten Krippe at age 15 months.
Sounds well-organized. What helped you during that time?
Knowing that the person who was taking care of my son, my nanny, was really responsible but also the kind of person whom I wanted my son to be around—thoughtful and intelligent, gentle and kind—allowed me the free hours to work without feeling guilty. Also that my work was very flexible, I again, only needing to be physically present for 6 hours a week to teach, and only in the semester, was helpful. There were some periods in which I worked really hard, writing a conference paper until late into the night and bringing the baby to a conference with nanny along as well, but other times where I could be at an afternoon Kindergarten Christmas party without childless colleagues watching me leave the office early.
How many hours do you work a week?
This remains changeable from week to week, depending on what point in the semester it is, and what other projects I have going on. I still work 9-16.00 or 17.00, and then an hour or two after bedtime. Before a big conference I am usually editing on the airplane and up until 3am the night before. One day I hope to leave for a conference with everything written and edited in advance, but I don’t foresee that happening in the near term.
Did you have any other people near you helping you with your children like grandparents, friends or au pairs?
To be alone in Berlin with family far away was a challenge to my husband and me, especially once Kita started for our son. It seems he would only get sick just before I was due to take university students on a multi-day excursion or I was to leave for a major international conference, which I only attended rarely but which were planned a year in advance.
Yes, sometimes it seems almost as if children are waiting for it, just to fall sick…
While we still had a nanny for our first son, and then two years later, again for our second son, we had someone to help whether the children were healthy or sick. Many of our friends would be able to call in a parent to help out, but we never could. We would muddle through but it would be hard as one can’t call an occasional babysitter for a sick child—the child wants to be with mommy or daddy. Often they would be well again and full of energy, but not allowed back to Kita for the week. That was hard as it is usually easy to swap around work for a few days, but after several days, work starts to pile up.
That seems to be a real challenge for so many parents. To have healthy grandparents nearby is incredibly helpful… How did you deal with it, if you live far away from your family?
When I receive any invitation to speak at a conference or do anything that will take me away from home, I try to weigh the importance of it (how high profile is it, who else will be attending, where is it?) before saying “yes.” This means I did fly from Berlin to New York to participate in a one-day event at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) when my son was 5 months old. You can imagine that the logistics were complicated, generating enough milk before the event, flying in and leaving the same night as the event. I took the last flight out of Berlin, and took the last flight out from New York to get back to Berlin, so I was in NYC for no more than 9 hours or so. But this was an event of really key Bauhaus scholars and it was worth being there. Needless to say, I thoroughly check airplane and train schedules before agreeing to do anything.
That is tough and needs lots of organizational preparation in advance…
Still, things can go wrong. I organized an event in Glasgow and took my son, but didn’t want to pay for an extra night of hotel for my nanny, so flew her in the next day. But the volcano which erupted in 2010, spewing ash and halting all flights, meant that she couldn’t reach us. My husband was simultaneously stranded in Chicago. Alone with an actively crawling 10 month old baby and 10 speakers who’d come from near and far to attend my event meant I couldn’t cancel my role. I begged the university crèche to take him for the day and ran over to visit him at every tea break. Of course, amidst the other babies and new toys, he was happy as could be, while I was wracked with guilt. Our return to Berlin from Glasgow involved 20 hours of an overland journey by train and boat.
Even if you think of everything, if suddenly you have to deal with a volcano on top, there is really nothing you can do…
A year and a half ago, when both children simultaneously got chicken pox (Windpocken) just before I was to leave for another major conference, we knew something had to change. We had considered getting an au pair before, as a good friend had one and it really worked with her having three children, her husband traveled a lot and she had her own work on a dissertation. The chicken pox was the “turning point” when we realized we just needed more help, especially for unexpected events. My husband needed to finish his PhD dissertation and I had to move forward with commitments, especially as my position was a ticking clock, it was “befristet” for a total of 7 years. I had to have the right amount of academic work—published books and articles—to get to the next position. I was, of course, mainly competing with childless colleagues.
So that is when the idea of getting an au pair came up…
We had a year and half of au pair help. This was an enormous help as au pairs work 30 hours a week; ours brought the children to Kita, picked them up, played with them for an hour and took them to a weekly sport class. She also helped around the house, with the wash, organizing the children’s room, and preparing some parts of our evening family meal. It was essential that we ate a warm meal together as a family, we could never get used to cooking and eating a warm meal at mid-day and then getting serious writing done afterwards; nor could we eat Abendbrot at night, as it wasn’t enough sustenance. In this period, my husband was able to finish his dissertation and fly to the US to defend it. From April until our move in September, I commuted to London from Berlin every few weeks, leaving my husband and the au pair at home with the children. I also took the children along with me to conferences, thanks to her help. She and the children evolved their own special relationship, too, and they learned Swedish songs and other things from her.
Many parents decide not to have an au pair, because they are afraid, that they might not have enough time as a family anymore and there is always someone around… But it seems like it worked out well for you.
Ironically enough, having an au pair actually allowed me to be with my children more, because of the support at home. Instead of being tied up at the stove or doing laundry, I had more time with them. I always played with the children in the evening, put the children to bed myself and was there for every breakfast and dinner, and weekends were entirely “family time.” What having an au pair allowed me to do was take off some of the pressure, to have a smoothly running household which I felt was important for the children, to have extra, flexible assistance where and when I needed it, and not say “no” to career-related events that would have put un-due pressure on my husband.
So how much support, at home and at work, did you have?
When I think of this period, I know I was incredibly fortunate to have a Kita place in an excellent Kita, 30 hours a week of an au pair, 3 hours a week of a cleaner, and 10 hours a week of my university assistant’s time. This was an enormous benefit to my career. Living with an 18 year old, of course, presented certain challenges, and organizing the au pair and the student assistant took time and energy. But I realized very early on that I couldn’t do everything myself, and so I have sought help where I have needed it. Now I have a permanent position but none of this back up support, so it will be interesting to see how we are able to juggle everything.
How happy are you now with your job (1 not at all and 10 very much)?
Cool! Hardly anyone I have interviewed so far says 10 after becoming a mother or father. Why is that?
I was able to keep up my university profile and find a permanent university position in London at what is considered one of the world’s best art history institutes, which is where I am now. It has meant that I have continued to have a flexible career that is very intellectually fulfilling. And I have been fortunate to so at the same time as having small children. Having children makes me work in a more focused manner, which I find rewarding, but at the same time, work isn’t my whole life, as it is for many of my colleagues.
What do you think, when you compare yourself with other working parents?
I am happy about the decisions I have made, but I also realize that I might have made very different decisions if my situation had been different. I think everyone has to make their own decisions in terms of what is best for them, their families, and their situations. In fact, I try specifically not to compare myself with other working—or for that matter, non-working—parents. However, what continues to be of interest to me is how other parents work out what is called, in English, the “work / life balance” (a misnomer, as every parent knows, there is, in fact, no “balance” when one works and has children). I like to talk to other parents about this, how they work it out, because it really is an evolving situation. I also read widely about it, both in my profession and follow it elsewhere. Women have been working for eons, but right now things are very different than when I was a child; neither I nor my friends, nor the friends of my husband, had working mothers, or if they did work, it wasn’t a full-time or a consequential position there were clear limits to how and how much. Today, viewing the parenthood / career track in three distinct cultures–US, Germany, and now England–I see different outcomes and results. In the US, childcare is very expensive and so middle class people may have fewer children or the wife may quit her job because otherwise she is only working to pay for childcare, but not seeing her children. Or the husband may take on care of the children, but this is still very rare. Beyond the cost of good-quality early childcare, in order to work one must pay for summer camps for the 2-3 month summer school holiday, and there is are also very expensive university fees in the US, which also impacts the number of children people are having. In Germany one has very generous family benefits and also good quality Kita, but the day, practically-speaking, ends at 16.00, and so there is the Kita-pick up to think about and also the possibility to work less than 100%, which is also rare in the US. Because one needs to work to get a Kita Schein, and Kita parents made up the bulk of my parent-contacts, I didn’t know any non-working mothers in Berlin. But Hort is very good, and also takes place in the school holidays. In England childcare is again private and expensive, and Hort nearly non-existent. The school day ends at 15.00, and there are many school holidays and 6 weeks in the summer. So I am encountering—for the first time–a lot of very well-educated but non-working mothers, which has its own dynamic. They spend a lot of time on the parent committees and run lots of events, and have a lot of social events, because they are not balancing work and parenting.
Interesting, how differently these three western countries are dealing with the same issues…
Part IV: What else there is to say …
It has been really interesting to be working, a parent, and also in a foreign culture at the same time. One sees the differences that are cultural (not to mention political, coming in the form of social benefits), but it also influences, in a good way I think, the way I view work and childhood. On the work front, for example, Americans (and the British) check and write an incredible amount of email. Newly in Berlin, I used to find it trying that my work-related emails would not be answered in a very time-efficient manner, or at all, but I got used to it, also from my end; there wasn’t pressure to reply quickly. After being in Germany for a while (and this may just be my university, or just Berlin) now I see that much of Anglophone email is entirely unnecessary, or hurried and thus a waste of everyone’s time because it requires follow-up email. Perhaps the Germans will change, but I hope not, because it was nice not to receive work-related emails at night and on the weekends and also at a more manageable volume. Now I receive unbelievable amounts of email, much of which must be read through and replied to. That’s just a small work example.
That is a great notice for us, Robin, thank you. Keeping calm and not having to email everything all the time, because it can be just a waste of time. A lot of things are really fluffed up via email and turn out to be complete nonsense in the end. What else is different?
In my Berlin Kita, parents would come in, slowly help their children get ready for the Kindergarten day, take off outerwear and put on Hausschuhe, before greeting the teacher and leaving their child. In England, no adult is allowed past the front door, presumably for security reasons. Gone is the slow morning and departure routine. My Kita-aged son has to now cross the Kindergarten front door threshold so much more quickly, making an instant transition from parent to Erzieherin. At my school-aged son’s school, parents can only stand on one side of the school yard, a painted line separating the children and parents. Parents are never to enter the school building and the gates are locked until 5 minutes before pick up time. I only got to see the inside of my son’s school recently because I went on a pre-view tour for the school place my second son will get there next autumn. It’s a very different relationship. Here in England children go to proper school at age 4 and they are really reading and writing at the end of that year. In America it’s closer to age 5, in Germany it appears closer to age 6.
But of course all children learn to read and write. What is also interesting is the culture-specific emphasis in reinforcing certain aspects in children that reflect desired cultural traits at large. In Germany, my children were complimented when they were “ganz schon schön ordentlich”…
Really? Nobody ever said that about my children…
… here in England that is not an important attribute in a child, but rather they are complimented for their “good behaviour.”
Wow. That sounds like 18th-century-style to me…
Our first few days here in England, as we got to know children, their good manners and polite way of responding was noticeable to us. My school aged son won a “good behaviour” badge and certificate in his third week of school. I didn’t think anything of it because, in my experience, schools always give out meaningless certificates. But another mother told me that some parents wait years for the “good behaviour” badge and that her much older child had reported it at dinner that my son had already received it, newsworthy event that it was. In America, variations on thinking independently and thinking “outside the box” (as opposed to harmonizing with a group), as well as “creativity,” are often emphasized in children, but good handwriting, which is important in England, is not important there at all.
Good handwriting? Interesting…
Through these small differences, one realizes, in just 5 years of being in Berlin, and newly in England, how accustomed one gets to how things are done in that culture. Famously, in France, babies go into childcare as infants, which seems unthinkable in Germany, while it is also the norm in the US; but I personally can hardly imagine it, even though my babies also spent time with a nanny. So clearly I am between several parenting cultures, several work cultures and several national cultures—without a real toe-hold into any one of them. As opposed to my situation, in which I’m American and married to an American, most of my international friends are married to a German or an Englishman, making the norms of that culture part of their parenting or work culture (or at least they’ve already heard it from their in-laws). I have been entirely outside of this, but when I go back to the US for visits, of course the norms there (plastic playgrounds without sand, plastic toys that blink and beep, full-time childcare where you aren’t even allowed to come for your child prior to 17.00 so that the other children aren’t sad) seem so different from where I am, from where I’ve been, and where I’m going. In the end, this, I think, makes me a more open parent as I have several cultures to fall back on, not only in terms of how to raise my children, but also my relationship to my work, as a parent.
Thank you very much, Robin! That really gives a new perspective and lots of insight!