Sunday afternoon and hunched over my PC (voluntarily this time having just delivered on a deadline) I can’t help but ponder over what on Earth I’m doing. Looking around at the detritus which is my apartment and musing that I should be using the time to clear up and start afresh for the new week, I’m thinking it shouldn’t be this hard to tear myself away from the screen and give my myself a break. I’m wrecked, my back is screaming and I haven’t been out for a walk in weeks, yet all I can think about is the lure of the machine. Looking back over the last 2 years I have to ask myself, again, if what I’m doing is really the right thing.
Having made the most difficult decision of my life, in 2007, to leave the father of our then, 9-month old son, I was faced with a 3rd house-move in 18 months, no family in the country, a whole new set of legislation and going it pretty much alone. The concept of single parent-hood is sadly, as we know, not unusual these days and despite the emotional turmoil playing out a mix of overwhelming sadness, guilt and pros and cons of a better-or-not future in my head, I never doubted that I could pick myself up and move on; I’m stubborn by nature and it takes a lot to pull the rug out completely from under my feet, but this time, I have to confess, I grossly, grossly underestimated just how tough things were going to be. I often wonder, if I had the last two years over, would I make the same decisions again.
Typical me-timing, I had accepted redundancy from my employer of 6 yrs just 3 months prior to discovering I was pregnant, which, as I was to learn, placed me in a complex Exceptions-Bucket, here in Germany, of single mothers not entitled to very much help at all thank you.
From a bureaucratic perspective, I had been ‘given’ a bundle of money and would therefore qualify only for minimal unemployment benefit. Fair-enough perhaps, in principle, but the payout was far from being a bottomless pit and, as any lady will tell you who has ever tried to apply for a job whilst pregnant, it is near-on impossible; it is just not in the interest of a company to take on an expecting mother long-term and even if they did, they would almost certainly not agree to pay her maternity. So, due to a grim irony of timing and circumstances, I had to kit out a new baby with all that that entails, contribute to rent and food, (the father was in a worse financial situation than myself and we were not married), then later, pay agency fees for a new place and survive month by month on what was left of the settlement. Just over a year later, despite doing bits of translation work here and there to subsidize us, the money was gone, my child was still only 12 months old and the unemployment office was no longer playing ball.
My rights were read and my options became clear: put the baby in daycare and go back to work full-time, or sign on to Hartz IV, the social welfare benefit available to those who find themselves well and truly on the breadline. The former option for me was a no-brainer – my baby was too young to go into full time daycare; the latter, however, aside of hammering my pride to a pulp, would condemn me to releasing all savings and assets I had worked so hard for, plus conceding my books and bank accounts to the finance office for rigorous and continuous audit; it would tie me to the country – potentially meaning no non-approved visits to family and friends back home – and to a system which demanded that I report my status and my whereabouts at all times. Far from being of an opinion that I was ‘owed’ the right to full state support, (my dignity in itself would never have allowed for that) I had hoped that the state might help me get off the ground by contributing to a few hours’ child-care per week, or by subsidizing the part-time work I was already doing. The red-tape here, however, was so ridiculous and so restrictive that it rendered my efforts to do what I could for myself an absolute joke. All of the above was so galling to me it drew the bile to my throat; I had worked my socks off here for over 6 years and had contributed a LARGE amount to the country’s tax system. Somehow I just got the feeling they had written me off.
Finding myself totally cornered, I gulped and made a snap decision: anything (I thought) would be better than condemning myself and my boy to being ‘pimped’ by a bunch of bureaucrats. I had been given one last, crazy option by the UO and, almost on a whim, I grabbed it and took the decision to set myself up as a one-man translation & English-coaching company; the theory: running an E-Business from home would mean I could work flexible hours – enabling me to work and be there for my baby, whilst hopefully generating enough income to keep us. Being a project-manager by trade and an ideas person, the whole thing became an exciting venture overnight and I threw myself in to the planning like a child with a new toy. The reality of my situation only hit home when I commissioned a tax advisor to help me with the initial proposal and I realised I needed to come back down with a bump from wherever it was I was floating.
In my head, the proposal itself should have been finished in a matter of days. In reality, trying to juggle time even to calculate my book value and to project how much I could realistically earn over the next 5 years, with the time needed to cater for the little one, a home and an impossible tax advisor, was already a hurdle I was finding difficult to clear. A sign of things to come? – the whole thing took over two months and pushed me to yet another emotional limit but, clinging on for dear life, I stuck with it and finally won my legal stamp; the company was launched as of 1, August 2008.
That, I was to discover, was the easy part.
I was still committed to endless form-filling which, even in my own language, I find arduous and for the most part overkill, but here the legislation takes on a life of its own and comes free with a jargon even the experts often struggle with. Time, time, time – all this administration takes so much time … precisely the commodity which, particularly for a single, working parent, is the most scarce. All I wanted to do was to find customers, work to earn money and look after my child, but the bottomless pit of bureaucracy stipulated that the few hours a day I had to myself whilst the little one slept, would be used for filling out reports on all the work I hadn’t had time to do yet as I’d been filling out reports.
L was getting older and sleeping less and with that came a cumulative decrease in my already scant available work-hours. ‘Can’t you put him in a playgroup a couple of mornings’ was the helpful suggestion I heard at least 3 times a week from very sweet people who just couldn’t appreciate that ‘if there’s no money coming in, you can’t pay for child-care’. The endless battle to get on top of my finances, to gain a little capital to actually invest in daycare, was killing me, but was still proving far from fruitful. No child-care: no time to work. No time to work: no money. No money: no child-care…. and so it went on.
My bank manager was supportive and empathetic, but ultimately he was a bank manager and at some point in June 2009 he apologised … and froze all my accounts.
With that came one of the lowest points in the history of me, as I put my card in the slot at the local supermarket and the assistant called the supervisor. The trolley full of food was returned to the shelves and I wheeled out my son clutching a litre of milk and wondering how the hell we were going to make it through the week.
It took several months, but we did climb out of that period, of course, marking it up eventually as ‘a pretty bloody awful time’, but re-emerging with a very clear idea that things had to change and fast.
Oddly, I can’t really put my finger on what exactly did change. I know that it involved a lot of soul-searching, personal kicks in the pants, screaming at myself mentally to sort things out, and scraping around for opportunities however unlikely and however small. Eventually, something did, miraculously start to click into place and the machine began to roll.
So looking back, then, the whole thing has been a monster learning-curve in what it can be like if the tables turn and a reminder that one should perhaps never take a comfortable existence for granted. I have always worked hard and earned relatively well, but suddenly, from one day to the next I found myself in really big trouble – with threats of eviction, bills pouring in and absolutely no access to any money. For me, it was a test which required every ounce of strength I had, to hit the bottom and then claw a way back up. I am only too aware of the fact that I occasionally lost sight of my target and allowed myself to be dragged down by the interminable guilt that I had failed – as a mother and as a partner and then potentially also in my role as provider, but over time, I think I have learned to live with the fact that, much as I would like things to be different, my situation is the way it is now. The whole, extremely humbling experience has taught me, quite simply, to live for today, to take baby-steps and survive literally one day at a time. What I have come to acknowledge during that time, however, is that things do not have to stay this way – I do have the ability to change my life and that my future is what I alone will make of it. Is it tough? In the words of the wonderful Dolly Parton, “heyll Yeyss!” But change that I will.
Meanwhile, I seem to have developed an odd, rather a-social routine but which more or less works (at least for now). If I am super, super organised! and make lots of lists in my head if no-where else, I can enjoy some real quality time with my boy and can work when he sleeps. Juggling a 24hr cycle to incorporate my son, the business and general housekeeping chores is, however, far from easy and, as yet, denies me the possibility of an ‘external’ social-life; it involves some horrendously long days and even longer nights, but what I will say is this: now I have found a means of precariously balancing all three – on a knife-edge though we may currently be – I consider myself to be very lucky: not many single parents have the privilege of ‘time’ available for their young child as well as being the sole wage-earner, but for me that was my number one priority – non-negotiable.
So back to my original questions – am I doing the right thing? the last two and a half years have been the biggest test of my life and a constant emotional rollercoaster, but all things considered, I actually think I am; I’m sailing so close to the wind that my luck could change again at any moment, but I now do feel that the direction is right. Would I do the same again if I had my time over? …… well I guess, being relentless as I still am in my goal to do my best for us both, I’d have to take a long, deep breath and answer … with an unequivocal ‘absolutely, most definitely, Yes ! ‘