At the weekly mothers’ meeting, the social worker who’s in charge of the children’s area, Agnieska, tells us how we should react when we catch our children masturbating.
We should not shout at them, swear at them, tell them they are going to hell, hit them, hit them with sticks or bind their hands behind their backs and make them sit in the corner for two hours. Instead, we should say, in a calm, neutral voice, “Oh, that feels nice, doesn’t it? But that’s something we do when we’re on our own, not in front of other people.”
The Turkish girls who can speak German, ie, the ones who’ve been born here, all bronzed and perfect, with stripy gold, gold hair, gold chains, gold earrings, and tight, tight, tight, sparkling white jeans, have to translate for the Turkish girls who can’t speak any German, ie, the import brides and old grannies in headscarves and pyjamas.
The room explodes.
There’s women laughing, screaming, thumping the table. Some of the girls are crying with hysterical laughter. Agnieska tries getting us all to concentrate, we have a lot to discuss today, but minutes pass before the table-thumping stops.
“Is that really what German people say to their children when they catch them doing that?” one Turkish girl asks, shaking her head in vague disbelief.
“That is the correct, healthy thing you should say to your children – if you want them to grow up normal,” Agnieska replies sternly.
At the word normal we all start giggling a bit and the Turkish girls start arguing amongst themselves in Turkish, and Agnieska gets all pissed off again.
“Once, I saw a man touch himself there,” says a Russian girl. “In the street, he showed me what he was doing.”
“The Germans are always touching themselves there,” answers another Russian girl, knowingly. “My man was always doing it.” Then she glares at Agnieska accusingly, only Agnieska doesn’t notice.
One of the old grannies in headscarves starts speaking in Turkish, bitter, angry, loud: it sounds like a prayer, or like she’s cursing us all. I don’t know what she’s saying but you can tell she doesn’t think much of Agnieska’s advice concerning masturbation.
“What’s she saying?” Agnieska asks Dilek.
“She says she would rather kill herself than tell her children to touch themselves there.” Dilek translates.
Agnieska looks a bit put out. I feel a bit sorry for her. She is, after all, only trying to be helpful.
“Of course,” she says, finally, when the old granny’s stopped speaking, “if you feel very strongly about it then it doesn’t really matter what the healthy, normal, correct thing to say is. Because, as parents, we always have to be honest to our own value systems. But, really, children who masturbate should not be threatened with physical violence. And, you know. You don’t come to a women’s refuge for no reason. All of you have got, let’s be honest here, fairly disturbed and mentally imbalanced children.”
Sometimes I think I actually hate Agnieska. And sometimes I think I actually love her. How can you not love somebody so perfect?
Agnieska has perfect skin, perfect nails, perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect nails. Perfect grammar, or almost. She ticks off the things we have to discuss today on a little green sheet of paper. I wonder what she would do if I suddenly got up and kissed her on the side of her neck.
Next up we discuss Lena, who has been allowing her children to stay up in the TV room past nine o’clock and not giving them any breakfast before school. All the women tell outrageous stories of horrific neglect, and Agnieska takes notes.
“I think she has some Nesquik and sterilized milk in her bedroom, though,” I say. “I think she gives them a cup of chocolate when they get up.”
Monika looks at me, raises her eyebrows and sighs, spiteful and exact. “A cup of chocolate,” she says, “is not breakfast.”
Next we discuss how we should explain to the kids that we ended up living in a women’s refuge at all. Agnieska says we should show them our wedding photos and tell them how happy and grateful we were to marry our husbands, but that it then, unfortunately, didn’t work out.
But Monika goes off on one about the burnt toys. “How do I explain to Lukas and Simone that their daddy burnt all their toys?” she demands, arms folded, eyeing us all viciously.
I knew this Palestinian boy once whose girlfriend made him go to the cinema to see Titanic fifteen times. “Jack dead, each time,” he used to say, and I knew what he meant. Jack always ended up dying. It’s like that at the mother’s meeting. Every fucking week, the toys always end up burnt.
And I’m sick of Monika, sick of hearing about her stupid burnt toys. I imagine old, plastic dolls, with the eyes poked out and their mouths full of ash. Brown and discoloured, black and empty.
“I think you should just not mention it,” I suggest.
But Monika doesn’t like my suggestion much.
After the mothers’ meeting is over I go into the kitchen and heat some water on the stove. Marina comes up to me. We call her Marin-nuh, because she says nuh at the end of every sentence. She says she’s going back to her husband, but doesn’t want to tell the other girls, nuh, because they’d despise her.
“You’re the only one I’ve told, nuh,” she says. “You can have my handbag, nuh, it’s Esprit, nuh. Because I owe you one cleaning Dienst, nuh?”
“But Marina,” I say. “I thought he wanted to kill you.”
It’s not like I care. I just think it’s kind of polite to mention it, in case she’s forgotten or something.
“You know how it is nuh,” she says. “Between a man and a woman. There’s conflict. There’s rows. There’s fighting. And then, afterwards, you go away. You’re hurt, you’re angry. And then maybe there’s a bit of exaggeration. Men exaggerate, women exaggerate. You’re hurt. But you know. There’s always love, nuh. There’s always love.”
Sometimes I know why the social workers hate us all so much. It’s because we’re so fucking stupid.
“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