When Your Germany Born and Raised Child Doesn’t Speak German–and Other Parent Fails.

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I think all parents have moments where they feel like complete and utter failures, and I’m experiencing that right now.  Here’s my issue: My daughter was born in Germany and yet, at 4.5 years old, she can’t speak a lick of German.

Now, here’s where I need to rush into a complete defense of how/why this is possible.  Laken went to a German Kita (daycare) when she was 1.5-3. She had the most wonderful experience there and picked up some of the language (though she often spoke a pigeon mix of English and German because she hadn’t quite separated the two, yet.) Our plan was to send her on to German Kindergarten (which is the equivalent of pre-school over here.) There, she would gain fluency.  Then, we would put her in an American kindergarten on the army base where my husband and I work, and she could continue on developing her German through community activities/lessons/etc.

We discussed our rationale for not sending her to German school, endlessly.  

First of all, German schools have a different schedule than ours, from the daily level to when their summer break is and how long it lasts. So, that would have been a hassle.  Then, we tried to imagine helping Laken out with her math homework a few short years from now. Seeing as my husband is a self-proclaimed math atheist and doesn’t speak German, and my own German does not cover the vocabulary of polynomials, etc, it just seemed like we’d be putting her at a disadvantage.  Finally–in the military, and even in the relatively sturdy position of DoDEA teachers–there’s always the chance that we’ll be flung into the world of a transfer, or base shutdown, and have to move back to the United States. I’m also firmly convinced the government will one day be alerted to the incredibly good deal teachers of military children get and cancel the whole operation.  

Perhaps our biggest reason for not wanting to send Laken to a German school was that we’ve simply heard better things about American schools.  I hate to say that, because I do think Germany is so amazing that I want to hold it up as an example in all sorts of ways but, in the case of education, it’s just the common denominator for what we’d been told.  

They also track students in this country.  In fourth grade the teachers sit down and decide whether a child seems destined to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or a prostitute and send them to one of three schools after fourth grade geared towards sending the child to the predetermined point B.

I just don’t like that.  It reeks of The Giver, if you’ve ever read that book.  So, we decided to take advantage of the superb German kindergarten system, allow our daughter to become fluent, and unleash her upon the German community in all sorts of playgroups and hip-hop Tanzkuerse, all the while moving through the good old American Common Core, which is a whole other type of hell, but at least one we speak the language and can help out in terms of homework.  Maybe.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.

We had Laken on no less than thirteen waiting lists for German kindergartens throughout Wiesbaden, and I emailed most of them in broken, beggy German to accept our child.  Eventually she was given a spot at a kindergarten run by the same company as the Kita she first went to.

We were beyond happy to be accepted, but in the end it didn’t work out.  The rooms on the first three floors of the center were your typical construction paper laden, sunflower and butterfly-heavy dream, with children’s artwork hung on the walls and wooden toys galore (as Germans don’t gravitate towards the plastic, flashing, noisy ones.) But, the room Laken was assigned to–the Dachgeschoss, aka attic room–was less than ideal.

They attempted to cram 25 children into a tiny, windowless, soulless, art project-less space.  The teachers blithely greeted the kids in the morning before gathering at their own table to eat an adult breakfast and let the kids fend for themselves for the better part of the morning.  Whereas the rooms on the bottom floors had bulletin boards with neat schedules framed with butterfly emojis, laying out the Thursday field trips and the English lessons and dance classes, there didn’t seem to be any plan at all for the room upstairs.  Something was written in brown crayon on a crumpled piece of paper and stuck to the wall.

I kept asking when they’d be taking the famed Thursday field trips, like the kids in all the other rooms were doing, and was told “soon.”

Whenever we picked Laken up, she was tucked away in a little galley where they stored the cots, playing something by herself.  I think she went there to hide, and it broke my heart.

She held onto her Minnie Mouse lunch box like a comfort object. I dissolved inwardly when I led her up the eight flights of stairs to her classroom and saw her chubby little hand gripping the pink handle with no intention of letting go.  Her teachers couldn’t get her to leave it inside during lunchtime. She took it outside with her when all hundred something kids at the center were released to the playground, and carried it close when she ran smack into the middle of a game of soccer played by kids at the neighboring Grundschule. 

They yelled at her in German to get out of the way, and she stopped to suck her thumb and stare at them, uncomprehending. No teacher stepped in to help her.

I tried to convince myself Laken would do fine there until one day when I was leaving the kindergarten side by side with the mother of the smallest child in the room.  She cried all eight flights down the stairs about how awful it made her feel to leave her child there, and how she was looking for somewhere (anywhere) else for her daughter, and that was my definitive breaking point, too.  If even the Germans parents weren’t stoic about the situation, I most certainly couldn’t be.

That moment, coupled with the conversation I had with another teacher who worked at the center (who was attending a birthday party we were at) who let me know that we should try to get Laken in another room because these teachers were notably mean to the kids–so much so that this teacher confronted them over a scene she witnessed in the cafeteria.

Yeah, no.

So, we put Laken in the Child Development Center on base and it has been more or less a great experience.  We are on the same vacation schedule. She’s learning site words. She’s made friends. I know she’s in an environment where the teachers take profound measures to ensure her physical safety, whereas at German kindergarten kids are a bit more on the trial and error system. In other words, go ahead and try out climbing that tree–but when you faceplant on the concrete, you’ll have learned your error and the stitches are an unfortunate bonus.

But.

Even though I know we made the best decision for our child at the time, I can’t help but feel like I’ve set up our daughter for failure. It’s so easy, so easy, in the military community, to live an isolationist life.  The military base can be like a giant, beige-colored bubble of at-home perks to include everything from Kellogg’s cereals to English movies.

I know many people–I’d venture to say most of the military families here–who have settled in Germany and restricted themselves entirely to that bubble.  It’s a tempting, cozy little existence and very easy to fall back on.

I realize that this problem might seem highly solve-able.  Why not sign your daughter up for activities now, anyway? That’s where she’ll learn German! Get a German tutor! Have her watch German cartoons! Make German friends!

All of these things are falling flat in my attempts to make up for the fact that, in our decision to send Laken to American school, we are potentially cutting her off from the society she was born into on the macro level.

I’ve looked up all child-centered activities in the Rheingau area–from table tennis to programs at the local Feuerwehr (fire station.) Everything starts at a time too early in the day for us. Because German schools let out earlier, activities start earlier and there simply isn’t anything we could be around for.  We had a German babysitter, but she just had a baby and tackling my child’s linguistic deficiencies has taken a lower rung on the priority ladder. We do watch German cartoons on a daily basis and, while Laken stares at them while happily eating her mermaid shaped Fruit Loops, I don’t think the take-aways are significant.

As for making neighborhood friends…the house we just bought is on a quiet street where I’d say the average resident is 97.  

Twice we were at a local playground, though, and I convinced my child–my brave, present, eager baby–to approach a group of kids and say, “Hallo! Mein Name ist Laken!” with hopes that would lead to all sorts of things, presumably inclusion on the teeter totter and then a lifetime of neighborhood friendship and language aptitude.

Sadly, in both cases the children stared at my daughter like she was some kind of walking virus, and then they stared over at me as I gamely explained in German that, “This is Laken and she’s four and she wanted to introduce herself because she’d just love to play with you?!” only to be told in no uncertain, gutteral terms that they weren’t interested.

Ugh.

I think the point of this whole rant is that at certain points, as a parent or as an adult, we’re more aware than ever of the Butterfly Effect our choices might have.  And, the fear that this Butterfly Effect might take a horrific trajectory for the people we love the most, who aren’t yet capable of making their own major life decisions, is terrifying.  

My greatest fear is that Laken will one day look at me and ask why I didn’t do more to make sure she didn’t feel isolated from the country she was born in.  Just writing those words makes me want to cry.

I already find myself in situations where I have to defend Laken for this choice we made.  For example, her primary physician is fond of making comments like, “What a shame it would be if she grew up here and didn’t speak the language!” YES, I KNOW THAT, AND AM LOSING MY MIND OVER THIS FACT BUT BY ALL MEANS, MAKE A COMMENT.  Or, when we went back to the States for Christmas I got lots of questions like, “So, does she just know to switch from German to English whenever you come home?” And, there’s a part of me that wants to LIE and say yes, that’s exactly what happens. Just like I sometimes want to lie when people ask how long I’ve been living in Germany for and I want to cut the number of years I give them in half to make it sound like my language is more appropriately fluent than it is.

At the same time, I do believe that as parents we have to make carefully evaluated calls that feel like the very best ones for our families at the time.  A friend once pointed out to me, and this makes sense, that if things are easier on the parents and stress is kept to a minimum, the kids will benefit from that.

It’s just hard to know sometimes if the choices that seem like the best fit for us, are necessarily the best ones for our children. 

Sometimes, as in this case, I’m just not sure.

I guess the bottom line is that we have to make these calls using our best possible foresight at the time.  Yes, I want my child to speak German, but I don’t want her to hide in a classroom closet all day in order to (possibly) achieve that goal.  Yes, I want my child to be included in this culture, but not at the expense of being entirely alone in comprehending the demands of her school work as she gets older.

Parenting requires us to make life decisions for people who are not yet capable of doing that for themselves. It can be so hard  to do this, but the best we can do is go with our gut instincts, pick a path, and then be entirely in charge of padding any negativity in the Butterfly Effect that follows.

I suppose as long as we do that last thing, we’re doing well by our children.

But, man, it’s hard to feel like I’ve failed at providing my daughter with one skill that should be totally easy for her right now.

A Success Story for the Infertility Boards

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(This is a piece of creative nonfiction that I did this week.  I really felt like writing about the fertility treatments we went through, and once I started I couldn’t stop! A lot happened–it was an intense time in life.  Anyway, that’s why this is just a bit longer than anything that would qualify as a ‘blog post.’)

Recently I was out walking in the nearby fields and saw this chalkboard set up in front of a plant shop. Top left it says, “Mein groesster Wunsch ist” which means, “my biggest wish is.”

I read through the wishes and noticed that ‘Schnuffis’ appeared twice. I’d never heard of the word, but since two people on one board used it to describe their greatest wish, I figured it’s important. I could only find it on Germany’s Urban Dictionary and it means, “A combination of kissing, nuzzling, and sniffing all at the same time.” Which sounds interesting, I guess.

The sample sentence they offered is, “Every day I give my fat bunny a good schnuffing.” Um, okay.  Awkward.

Anyway, among the wishes for money, healthy grand parents, and a random thought about someone named Nils being an ‘ass face,’ I was especially touched by the one to the very left, just below what looks like a pointer finger tied over with string.

It says, “Ein Baby mit meiner Partnerin!”

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Tales from the Krippe

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The German word for daycare is ‘Krippe’ which sounds a lot like the English word ‘crypt.’ This seems fitting, somehow. Both places are stuffy, confining, and full of the ‘unknown.’

Oh, and can I also say that both are scary?

I’m obviously going to have a really hard time in August. I’ve been with this baby just about every waking moment of her life so far. The idea of dropping her off all day long at a daycare center where she doesn’t even speak the language is terrifying. I know, babies pick up languages fast. I’ve seen it happen. Back when I worked at a daycare center a little Russian twelve-month old came in and spoke fluent English approximately five hours later.

But—this is my baby. Until we’re months in the future and I see she’s doing fine, I’m going to dread this whole thing.

The other source of fear comes from the fact we, um, haven’t exactly found a Krippe, yet? Oops?

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My Wheel is Squeaky, Part 1

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It’s funny to think that exactly one year ago, today, I had an outie belly-button and constant Restless Leg Syndrome.

(Just in case you’re not familiar with RLS, it’s related to the nervous system and causes this constant urge to move your legs. Mostly at night, sadly, when all you want to do is relax.)

I’ve tried to explain to Todd what it feels like and the best I can come up with is this: imagine high powered fizz from a pop/soda rushing up and down through the veins of your legs.

The only thing that temporarily alleviates the sensation is to move. But, the moment you stop–that fizz starts back up. Slowly at first, and then gradually to a more nuclear fizz the longer you try to keep your legs still.

Pop fizz in the veins for at least four months straight. It drove me completely insane.

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We’re All in the Zoo.

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20160317_134232In the past three weeks, Laken has had her first American and German zoo experiences. Honestly, it was fun for me, but I’m thinking she’ll get a lot more out of it when she’s older.  I spent a lot of the time trying to coax her to notice extremely large animals that were literally two feet away.  I’d say, “Laken, what is that? It’s a polar bear! Look honey!” And she followed my finger no farther than the fence or to the kids standing beside us us.

That baby can pick out crumbs from the carpet, but is oblivious to zebras.  Oh, ten month olds.

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Thirteen Flights: An Ode of Sorts

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I was going to write about my second visa “strike” this week, but that’s a very long story (with back stories, and back stories to the back stories, and back stories to the back stories to the back stories…) so honestly that might be a “Resettled in Germany” assignment.  Feeling as tired as I do, it’s hard to imagine finding the motivation.

Laken and I are entering the second half of a two-week visit to Buffalo, New York, where my family lives.   Since I’m on maternity leave for the year, it made sense for the two of us to take advantage of offseason prices.

Todd misses us, terribly, and looks a bit like Grumpy Cat when we see him on Face Time, but he gets why we’re here. And why we generally spend five to seven weeks here a year.  And why 99.9% of my salary goes directly in to the “Trips Home” pot.

See, when Todd and I first got married, one thing I gave him fair warning about is that I don’t just like to fly home a lot—I need to fly home a lot.  Truly, I’m that person who, if I didn’t live 4,000 miles away from my family, would probably own a house on the same block and stop over at all hours of the day to steal canned goods and, as my dad says, “shoot the baloney.” Living internationally is a very big stretch, even fifteen years in.  The only way I can hack it is with frequent trips home.

The need to make these trips home is a thousand times truer now that we have a baby.  It’s crucial to us both that she knows her cousins, her grandparents, and our close friends.

So, Laken—who is nine months old—is already a seasoned, passport-holding traveler with no less than thirteen flights under her baby belt.  (I’m counting the intermediate flights between Frankfurt and Buffalo, where my family lives, and on to Washington, where Todd’s family is. We also did a weekend trip to England over Thanksgiving.)

Since our baby has reached teenage status when it comes to traveling by plane, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share thirteen thoughts, experiences, or tips in honor of each flight we’ve survived thus far.

One: Plane Rides Are Just Zippy Marathons. Continue reading

Death, Sheets, and Sarah

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Quite a few people have asked where we came up with our eight month old daughter’s name—Laken.

I wish we had some super cool story with loads of meaning and an ancestor or two thrown in, but that isn’t the case (sadly!) To be very honest, I first heard the name when I was teaching in London. One of my colleagues was named Laken, and I fell in love with it the second I heard it.  Any time she was mentioned at faculty meetings or in the hallway, I found myself rolling the name over my tongue again and again.  It just had such a good sound to it—no matter whose voice said it.

Like all parents, Todd and I took our duty to name a human being very seriously.  We wanted something that was unique and yet not impossible to pronounce or spell.  Since that seemed a tad broad as a starting point, we added the requirement that it be Irish (for no other reason than just because Todd loves Ireland so much) and we both had to be 100% in support of it.  Period. No compromises.

Todd’s initial pick for a name was Ireland. I just couldn’t give that big a tribute to the country, so we kept thinking.

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