In the room next to mine there used to be a Turkish woman with two kids, eleven and four, who’d wake up in the middle of the night to scream and wail. They were nice and all but it was a bit depressing, listening to them. But they’ve moved out and now a German woman’s moved in, Monika. She’s got a girl and a boy, five and eight, with black stumps where their teeth are meant to be.
The thing with Monika is, she really wants to give my baby Rico food: yoghurt, banana, mashed potato, mashed potato from the packet, bread, fromage frais, scrambled eggs, lollipops, peanut-flavoured crisps, goat’s cheese. I spend the whole day reciting: oh, no, the midwife told me not to…oh, no, the midwife said you’re not meant to….oh, actually the midwife said not to…
“Jacinta. Look at my two beautiful children. Do you think I got where I am today by listening to anything a midwife ever said?”
I don’t mention the black stumps. I’m too polite.
The boy is called Lukas, his claim to fame is that he knows the whole entire duties timetable off by heart.
“Chazinza!” He bounds into my room.
“Ssh,” I say. “Rico’s asleep.”
“Chazinza, you’ve got sixteen hours’ office duties this week.”
“I do,” I say. “Really?”
“Night duty on Tuesday and three-to-six on Wednesday afternoon.”
“Ok,” I say.
“And you’re cleaning on Saturday and Sunday.”
“Ok,” I say.
“Yeah,” I say. “Which floor?”
“Our floor,” he says. “And you’ve got the washing machine on Tuesday.”
“Looks like another great week!” I say.
“And Heike still needs someone for a Special Clean-up Session on Friday.”
I nod. “I don’t care about the Special Clean-up,” I say. “The most important thing is, I don’t ever want to have to do the children’s area again. Ever.”
“Chazinza, do you know Nora, the health-food-freak? She got a warning.”
“How many warnings do you and Rico have?”
“None.” I know he knows the answer but I still tell him.
“Do you know how many warnings we’ve got?”
“Daniela has got three warnings. If she gets another one – she’s out. And the black Julia got four. But they’re gonna let her stay.”
“Good,” I say.
The stuff this kid can remember, they could use him in the office and save on a computer.
“Chazinza,” he says. “A new woman came. Last night. In Room 18. She’s got four kids, and one in her tummy, a little baby. They filled the whole room up, just them.”
He turns to go, having told me everything I need to know for today.
“Hey, Lukas,” I call him back. “Is it a German or a foreigner? The new woman.”
“A Turk,” he says.
His mum waddles efficiently round the corner.
“She’s not a Turk, Lukas,” she says scornfully, leaning into my doorway, looking at me as if her son is the greatest arsehole on Earth. “She’s an Arab.”
“An Arab. And pregnant. She’ll be gone tomorrow,” I say, spiteful. I think of all the pregnant Arab women across Germany, washed out, empty, useless, shuffling through the women’s refuges, in saggy pyjama bottoms and their headscarves off, waiting four days before going to phone their sister-in-law to come and collect them. It makes me feel sick.
“Mama,” Lukas says, excited. “Chazinza has sixteen hours of office duties next week, and she’s cleaning the bathrooms twice and she has the washing machine on – ”
“Lukas, if I have to tell you twice I swear I’ll make you regret it, get downstairs to the children’s area and play with the other children and stay away from me, ok.”
She shakes her head at me, lighting a cigarette.
“He does my head in,” she says. “It’s yelp, yelp, yelp, blah, blah, blah, from morning till evening, he never shuts up, I swear he doesn’t.”
Lukas shrugs his shoulders and skips away but he’s back the next minute to show us a sticker someone gave him out of a packet of cereal.
“Do you want me to throw you down them stairs?” Monika says, and he runs away, squealing.
As soon as he’s gone, Monika says, “I don’t regret having had him for a second. Those poor single women, how I pity them! They’ll never know our joy.”
A few weeks ago I told Monika I sometimes kind of wished I’d never had Rico. But I don’t think I should ever tell her anything ever again, because all she’s told me ever since, every time she’s seen me, is how much she loves being a mum and how much she loves her kids.
“Those sad, sad single women!” she says. “Sitting in bars and restaurants and discos. What do they know of true happiness? Oh, they might have nice handbags – they might have really nice handbags – and they might go to all these bars and restaurants and discos – they might have careers – but what do they know, Jacinta, what do they know of true happiness? A cockroach knows more about true happiness than they do. I don’t envy them! I don’t envy them for one second!”
She only says this when Lukas and Simone aren’t there, of course, because if they’re there she’s too busy shouting at them to go to the children’s area.
“God, I love being a mum,” she sighs.
“Yeah,” I agree, half-heartedly. “He’s a clever kid, Lukas.”
Monika looks like I’ve slapped her. “He’s not that clever,” she snaps.
“Oh,” I say.
We stand in silence.
“I just had my chat with the social worker,” she says.
We have to have chats with the social worker once a week, too. Lukas can’t memorize that because it’s not up on the chart. They take us into a nicely decorated room, all beige and cream, with carpet and comfortable chairs in it and they say, “Wow. Look at you now! You are making such progress! We are all so proud of you!”
Then the next week they shake their head all mournfully and say, “Well. You’re not reeeeeally making much progress, are you? It’s all a bit much for you, isn’t it? Well. I don’t know. We’re all reeeeeeally worried about you, to be honest,” and then the next week they go wow again, like that, in a cycle, it’s like a special social worker trick.
“She says I’m not making any progress, my hair is rubbish, I’m not taking care of myself, I’m letting myself go, she doesn’t know how I’ll cope outside.”
It seems to be that’s what the social workers are most worried about, what our hair looks like.
“Who’s your social worker? Beate? Don’t listen to her,” I say. “Her hair is the most rubbish hair in this place. She looks like a boy. Like a boy with really bad hair.”
“I just didn’t get time to wash it this morning, I had to clean the children’s area and then get the kids some food and then have our meeting. I just didn’t have time. She does my head in, that woman.”
“She doesn’t have a clue,” I say.
“She said, ‘if you can’t manage it in here, with the children’s area and all the other women to help, how are you gonna manage outside?’ I said to her, ‘I managed for eight years, didn’t I? I managed alright. I did everything on my own, my husband never did a thing for me. I managed alright. Just look at my kids!’”
She glares at me.
“They’re great kids,” I say.
She laughs. “They’re not great,” she says. “They’re a lot of things, but they’re not great.”
Rico wakes up and Monika goes downstairs. Lukas comes back in, with Simone, his little sister.
“The new lady with the four kids has got a bandage on her hand,” he says.
“And she’s got a warning already. She didn’t go to her introductory interview. She can’t speak German and no one told her in her own language.”
“Arabic,” he adds. I nod again.
We play with Rico on the floor till I make them go away so I can breastfeed.
I wonder if Lukas’ll remember this place when he grows up. I guess he will, he’s eight years old, you can remember all sorts of stuff from when you were eight. I can remember the old swing in our back garden, and the curtains in my bedroom. But I wonder what Lukas will remember, what he’ll make of it all. I wonder if he’ll remember the women arriving with their bandages and their suitcases and how we’d give them a tin of soup to eat, really disgusting soup. I wonder if he’ll still remember the duties timetable, taped up on the wall. I wonder if he’ll realise how empty we all were: a house full of empty, used-up women, all used-up and fucked-up, empty and torn, our hearts broken. Women cleaning and women smoking and women answering the phone, women screaming at their kids to be quiet and women telling their kids to go away. Women telling their social workers they’ve made progress, really, only they’ve run out of shampoo. Women fighting over the stove. Women fighting over the kettle. Women on auto-pilot.
Women trying to survive.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem