Corporate ladder or mud slide. How children change your life

By Alexandra Handwerk, April 2017

What happens when children get mixed up in your career, when your carefully planned life gives way to a life full of surprises, when travelling by plane and taxi slowly gives way to walking, when mistakes become something out of which you can profit, and mud and rain become something to savour?

Photo: © MPower -

By the time I hit thirty I knew what path my life was on. I was well educated, confident, knew my value in the labour market and was married to the perfect man. The world was my oyster. Until this point I had always been the youngest in every single aspect of my life. The youngest of five children, then later in my working life the youngest one on the corporate ladder. My eye had always firmly been trained forwards until this point in my life and it had almost exclusively met the eyes of people either my age or older.

Then I got pregnant. A little bit of a surprise. And only at second glance not an unpleasant surprise. Me with a baby? Unimaginable. Until that point in my life I had only twice held a baby in my arms, and even then only for a short amount of time. That was all the experience of children that I had. Then in the ninth month came a move to an unfamiliar town, and I certainly didn’t have any time for things like courses to prepare me for the birth, just a couple of meetings with the midwife.

At thirty I was programmed for success. I knew exactly what I was doing in each and every aspect of my life. I knew how to portray my skills in a manner that would enable me to move up to the next rung of the corporate ladder. I knew how to butter up influential people to get them on my side. I knew how to spread an idea of mine in a way that people would think of it as their own, so that when I needed to influence people over the next weeks it would be just that little bit easier. I knew how to lie, how to get a sense of somebody’s character, how to plan out a strategy and take advantage of work-place politics.

I didn’t know that a newly born child would stare right into my heart, trust me unconditionally, recognize me as his beloved role model. I had absolutely no idea that this child would take me so seriously in every single thing I did, and in a way that I had never even taken myself. I couldn’t anticipate that he would expect meaning and truth and genuineness from me – and unconditional love and commitment and selflessness.

At thirty I had already sorted all places on earth into good places and less good places. In the good column fell places that were air-conditioned, odour-free, tastefully decorated and that could be comfortably reached by taxi, plane or my own upscale mid-range car. In the less good column fell everywhere else.

I knew these places, I had worked my way up and away from them and I knew I never ever wanted to go back. After all, you have to have goals in life.

In good places there are things to discover, things that fill you with wonder. They should be just as good come rain or shine and should generally be reachable by foot, or at least with such wonderful inventions as the bus or tram. Less good places are those that make you feel unwelcome, or that you’re somehow a nuisance. Or those places that expect you to behave in a certain way. Sterile places where there is nothing to discover, where you aren’t allowed to discover anything.

But we like to linger, discover and be filled with wonder.

At thirty I had got used to a very clearly defined system of hierarchy: there were managers, bosses, important clients, office workers, front-line workers, competitors, VIPs, trainees, associates... Some I had to listen to, some had to listen to me. It all depended on their position. If there was a change in position, then it was only logical that the way in which I related to them would also change. You also had to treat those on the way down a little differently to those on the way up.

Five years later and I am being followed around by four little ones. It feels bad when there are two “bosses” standing in front of them and telling them off, and they find themselves being referred to as the big one, the little one, the bletherer, the aggressive one, the slow one, the stupid one, the loud one, the slob, the cry baby, or other such names.

It feels good when it is possible to be able to see through all of these layers, roles and descriptions, and discover and love the little person standing there in need. In need of being seen, being seen by me, his Mum. Because I am his assurance that he is allowed to be a person, with all that that entails. And what doesn’t that entail?

At thirty I had reached the point where I had learnt to avoid making mistakes. At a certain point in your career this becomes a necessity. Managers have to be able to rely on the fact that you won’t fall short, that you perform to the necessary standards, that you won’t endanger important deals due to each and every little difficulty in your private life.

My boys are doing their homework while at the same time amusing themselves royally. I hear them laughing so much that they are almost having difficulty breathing. One of them has to copy out a text, the other one finish drawing a picture. What’s so funny about that? I quietly make my way out of the kitchen and over to them. The text has been copied out impeccably and the picture has been finished. Now they’re sitting hunched over their work, turning the dot over each and every “i” into a smiley, each with a different facial expression. Meanwhile, the horse in the picture just so happens to have five legs. I quietly creep away. Should I? Shouldn’t I? And then I simply start to laugh along with them. Because the horse looks completely hilarious and I suddenly understand that there isn’t really anything all that challenging when the only thing that you may learn is that horses in pictures only have four legs.

At thirty I was cool. Not teenage cool. Not at all. I was successful cool. Saying just the right thing at just the right moment. Two or three jokes, all of which go down well. Saying everything simply by raising an eyebrow. Every single laugh planned out and with intent.

Elegant clothing, either in shades of grey or pure black. Pumps and winter boots. Of course also black. And never forgetting my telescopic umbrella.

Two, maybe three times, I’ve looked on helplessly as the shoes on the feet of my children have been immersed in a puddle. Then one giant leap! And that’s it, the trousers are also beyond saving...

A fierce, late summer downpour. Can we go outside, Mum? Are you coming with us? What to do? A new clothing regime: swimming trunks and cagoule, with a hood. And then outside, barefoot. Can you imagine how this feels? Along the street, up the hill, as the water flows downhill towards us. It flows down, over our ankles. A running jump into the first, big puddle. The hill is covered in vineyards. Loess flows downhill in dirty, yellow-brown streams. It collects in puddles of mud, impenetrable to the eye. Careful. You don’t know how deep it is, how slippery.

The mud is silky-smooth and turns quite wonderfully into a pair of tights. The rain washes it away again. Can we get up the hill through the grass? Much too slippery. So a slide then. Who can stay on their feet?

Mum, that was soooo cool. Thank you. Thank you? Thanks, that I have children.

At thirty I was well schooled in rhetoric. Addressing people correctly, using short sentences, informative and conversational, but not too personal. I knew my way around the standard formulations for business letters, invitations and letters of appreciation. I could act confidently and with self-assurance. Presentable.

There are such lovely children’s books. Sadly not enough. Some of them I know almost off by heart, I’ve had to read them so many times. What is childhood without stories? There’s hardly any point in life where a story isn’t warranted.

In the evening, of course, but also when driving, when travelling somewhere, when one of the little ones is ill, at parties, when they’re bored, when we’re on a walk, really at any time at all. Often the books are lying at home. And so at some point you have to take the first leap and just freely tell a story, leap into the middle of the story and somehow try to reach an ending.

The first story is short, logically unsound and has a bitter ending, or is substandard, ugly and boring. But that doesn’t matter at all! You have just told your first original story. And it will be immediately recognized as such. With practice this skill will increase. Soon they’ll be demanding sequels. The stories develop with the children. They become more exciting and personal.

In the stories there will be tears and arguments, solutions will be found and severe mistakes will be made, friendships will be betrayed and secrets will be exchanged. Just like in real life. Life is the most exciting story.

At thirty my life was divided into steps on the career ladder, which I would then work towards over the following thirty. Nothing left to chance, only exact planning would be rewarded.

Every year everything changes. Not just four school classes and four clothing sizes. Everything. And so unpredictably at that. You don’t have any choice but to become flexible to keep up with developments. Don’t lag behind, but don’t force things either. Life happens as it happens. These sudden breaks; at 13 suddenly offering opinions of which nobody knew yesterday that they would be here today. At the same time I have to acquiesce to the fact that, from that moment on, my child is like that and wants to be taken seriously as such. And maybe tomorrow he will be so completely different that he will hardly recognise himself.

Continuity is no longer something within us, but rather something between us, something that connects us together. Something that has been created through thirteen years of being together. I am so happy about the fact that we can trust each other, and can talk to each other, and can make time for each other, and can laugh with each other. That is our foundation. So much can grow from this, so much that I can’t even begin to comprehend. What will you some day be like, when you have become as old as me? Will you be able to love this foundation? Will it have aided you in truly becoming yourself?

At thirty my evenings were my own. We would often go for a drink after work, look back over the day’s events and gossip about things that happened. Sometimes I would also need some peace and quiet and would just stay at home and watch television with a glass of wine or a gin and tonic.

Time has become a precious resource, space too. I no longer have any idea what I used to do with all my time. Today everyone casts their nets into my time, into my space: nets filled with planning. School, music lessons and sport end up causing my free time to be taken up with homework, practice and tournaments. Recitals end up pilling up in the summer and at Christmas. Everything has to go according to plan. But what ends up being most precious are the times and the spaces which we create between us. Sometimes however, we don’t manage this.

Sometimes somebody has to become ill so that we can realise just what we’ve been missing. What rescues us are guests. Guests to whom we sincerely want to give our time and our space. Guests who cause all planning to be thrown to one side and with whom we can spend those few hours together celebrating. We’ve become good at recognising and celebrating these moments.

The best celebrations are with those who have also started to question things and are fumbling through a life that is starting to resemble a piece of art. Those who have become young, like they never were at thirty.

About the Author: Alexandra Handwerk is a freelance anthroposophist.