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Confidence tricks

There are two things I’m not very good at that are pretty much essential for daily life. One is speaking German. The other is driving. Look, I’m not terrible at either of them; I get by. I can hold a conversation. I can get where I’m going without causing accidents. But they both stress me out, and I’m painfully aware of how far I am from effortless proficiency.

My mother never learnt to drive, which in public transport-challenged South Africa was a pretty telling choice. It was just one of the ways in which she took for granted that the other people in her life would have to look after her. She had a number of friends who did drive, but with qualifications: they wouldn’t drive at night, or on the motorway, or in city traffic… I never wanted to be one of those women, women who allowed their independence to be limited by their own choices. But I was late in learning to drive, and then for 11 years in London I didn’t drive at all, so on moving to Switzerland I had to learn all over again – on the wrong side of the road, in a huge 7-seater car, with small children in the back seat, and handicapped by pretty severe sleep deprivation. It wasn’t fun. It took ages before I felt ready to go on the motorway (and I still prefer not to). I can drive any time and anywhere I have to; it doesn’t interfere with my life. But it does interfere with my confidence. Driving (in some situations) stresses me out, and that pisses me off. Traffic jams aside, driving shouldn’t be stressful. It should be just a thing you do.

Like talking. That also shouldn’t be stressful. It shouldn’t be something that I avoid because I just don’t have the energy today, or I just don’t trust myself to keep up with the group. My German has of course improved a lot over the past four years – I’m even able to express my humour and personality, a little, which is a huge step forward. But my sentences are still clumsy and halting, and like my poor driving, it stresses me out. (Incidentally, driving while holding a conversation auf Deutsch? Very. Bad. Indeed.)

The past few years have taken some pretty big bites out of my self-image. Ten years ago I had an impressive job and a tiny but much admired business. Now… well, now I’m a hausfrau, and not a very good one. When I see myself through the eyes of the people I meet, I see a dumpy Ausländerin with a confused look in her eyes (because I’m struggling not to lose the conversational thread) and nothing much to say. That’s partly because of the language thing, of course, but also because the things I care about are not typically of interest to whoever I’m with. I mean. Knitting. Seriously?

I never understood just how much of my self-esteem came from work. I’d be the first to say that’s a ridiculous thing on which to build your confidence. And yet. Having a job provides constant low-level validation: not just because people rely on you, but because you have specific tasks to accomplish and there’s a general sense of getting shit done. Parenting is… not like that. (I did try to express this to A recently and of course he objected that he wasn’t exactly being showered with praise – at which point his phone beeped with an effusive text from a colleague calling him “grandios” and “bombastisch”. I swear this is true.) So my confidence is already low, and problems with basic everyday functions just make it worse.

I’m not looking for a pat on the back here. I know I’m basically fine, and everything will be fine, and all manner of thing will be fine. Things are already so much easier than they were when we arrived here. But, oy. It would be so great not to feel like the kid who’s always two steps behind.

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