With "Floor-to-ceiling windows" she sets up a biting monument to mothers. Under the title "Care" she tells of the incestuous love between a dancer and her son, drawing connections to the abysses of ‘normal’ motherhood. Reasons enough to talk to writer Anke Stelling about the sinister sides of care work – and to ask about her vision of an ideal life together.
We talk about her writing and her life – of course! – in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, where Anke Stelling lives with her family. But our meeting point is her office in a friend’s apartment. A narrow guest room with a mini-desk, spartan but quiet. The family is far away. We talk a lot about care work, an area of life and activity that is still taken on today – almost always unpaid – primarily by women: to be there for others, to care for them, to look after them, to educate them, in their very practical as well as in their psychological dimensions.
Ms. Stelling, "Floor to ceiling windows" is about mothers and their failure. The first-person narrator ends up in burnout, all of them let their partners and children exploit them, none of them has a job that can be taken seriously. How do you manage to write successful novels with three children??
Yes, they are. But let’s just say novels, it doesn’t matter.
No it doesn’t matter, especially if you start with failure. Whether you succeed or fail, that has to do with the outside. And how I manage to write novels, I myself also find … strange? So how I manage to do it practically, I don’t really know myself. There are buzzwords for it … that’s right: the compatibility lie. I was extremely fond of that. This idea that you can do anything. Although I’ve also had a mother who tried to juggle family and career, and I’ve seen her fail. Now I see myself failing and women around me .
You see yourself failing? I would disagree.
The fact that it somehow works has a lot to do with the fact that I live in Berlin. Here my children were able to attend daycare from their first year. Besides, my husband is also an artist. So I didn’t even run the risk of quitting to live off his salary.
"I’d rather not have any more children?"
In your novels, you tell us that caring for children harbors abysses. In "Care Work," incest becomes radicalized.
Caring It was a commissioned work, the relationship between the two characters was predetermined. And then I had to ask myself, why is this relationship interesting?? What does it have to do with me? That’s how worry, care, "taking care of yourself" came into the story. I’m glad I got this assignment, because I don’t know if I would have been able to cross this taboo line without it, to come to the conclusion myself that this is a very illuminating constellation for the questions that are driving me: Not only the exhausting, but also the sinister sides of motherhood and care work: assaults, abuse of power, violence. I try in writing to grasp such phenomena somehow. At the same time I really don’t see myself called to find any social answers. What do we do with it now? Better no more children? Kibbutz? The children educate themselves? Everything in state hands? Privatize everything for good?
Do not have a vision of successful coexistence?
The setting in Floor to ceiling windows is actually already a possible answer: not the nuclear family, but larger contexts, a housing project. I tell about such a community utopia in the novel. And I live in an intergenerational housing project myself. I think it is good, but I am also disillusioned.
"I don’t think the nuclear family is a good system"
Is it really so terrible?
No, much worse! (laughs) But that’s what I mean – I don’t have an answer, I’m describing. I believe that the nuclear family is not a good system, but produces a lot of suffering. But then to think that a housing project is the solution, and then again not to let anything come of it … That’s not how it works. And actually everyone knows that too: that prescribed lack of criticism to protect an idea leads directly in the other direction. Into the torpor and destruction of the original good idea.
So no housing projects?
But. But not as an expectation of salvation. I remember an event by Sarah Diehl about her book The clock that does not tick. She said that the claim that only biological motherhood gives a woman a role as a mother is nonsense. And that lifestyles in which the raising of children is shared among several adults are the future, and then she sang the praises of the housing projects a bit. So of course I couldn’t stop myself from saying, "Be careful with the untested suggestions". By which I do not mean that housing projects do not also have good sides. My children certainly have more choice of adult caregivers. And so do we adults, unlike life in the nuclear family. The housing project gave us a lot of freedom, we were able to distribute the care work better, we didn’t have to pay a babysitter anymore.
"Who does the care work in the extended family??"
That sounds good!
Yes. But this privatization of care work that goes along with it also makes me suspicious again. It’s similar to the daycare center: First, the parents take turns to buy food, then the cook is fired, then the parents take turns to clean the daycare center … I’ve seen how East German daycare centers were converted to the West German standard with only one cleaning lady, no cook, no laundress and no seamstress. At some point it was necessary to wash the kitabet laundry myself, and then I was asked if I could not sew 30 new bibs. In a state-run daycare center, mind you, not in the parent initiative daycare center.
That’s why it makes me a little nervous when alternative housing projects virtually recreate the extended family. Because who does the care work in the extended family? The women, unpaid. The substitute grandpa in the house might play chess with the kids – if he feels like it. But can I ask him if I really need someone to take the children?? No, I’d rather ask my neighbor, who is in exactly the same situation as I am, namely at the edge of her powers. It doesn’t solve the problems in the way I would like to see them solved.
And the fathers?
I think the awareness is there, also the desire to take care work, to take care, to be with the children. But that also means a sacrifice, and fathers have no role models for sacrificing gainful employment for care work. Just as mothers lack the role models to follow through with their gainful employment at the expense of care work, that is, at the expense of those who depend on them.
"What does success mean in literature?"
How does it look in the literary world with the support?
There are successful female writers, but who are they again?? What kind of biographies do they have?? Do they have children? Where the money comes from? How do they write? What do they write about? Anyway, what does success mean in literature?? Commercially successful? Artistically successful? I had to search a long time for a publisher for Floor-to-ceiling windows looking, I was out, about to be retrained, so to speak. Then I made a kind of comeback as a mother. But it could just as well have gone the other way and no one would have gotten to read the book. I have a hard time seeing myself as an example. I don’t want to be the proof that it’s not a problem to write successful novels with three children. It is a huge problem. Item.
Anke Stelling, Born in Ulm in 1971 and raised in Stuttgart, attended the Literature Institute in Leipzig from 1997 to 2001. She writes novels, screenplays, plays and stories, has three children and lives with her family in Berlin.
Sabine Rohlf conducted the interview. She is a freelance journalist in Berlin.
Copyright: Text: Goethe-Institut, Sabine Rohlf. This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 3.0 Germany License.
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