Four generations of opportunities
My grandmother passed away three weeks ago. My mother’s mother was 93 years old, had a sharp mind, but a body that would no longer go on. She was kind, sweet, charming, and modern. A proud mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, friend, neighbour. She surrounded herself with pictures of those dear to her, and there were many. In turn, she appears on photos in our house. Every day, I take a moment to look at one special picture: my grandmother, my mother and myself posing proudly with my daughter, a few days old at the time and my grandmother’s only great-granddaughter to date. Four strong, smart women, every single one of them.
Today, on International Women’s Day, I realise I am who I am, do what I do, and want what I want, thanks to the women (and men) of past generations. Looking back, it’s not surprising I ended up in education. I want to tell you the story of four generations of women, their ambitions in education, and the opportunities they did or didn’t get to realise those ambitions.
My grandmother, Dora, was born in 1928 in a small church village in North Limburg, near the German border. She was the oldest daughter in a family of five children. She was a bright, hard working girl. During the war, during which the family was evacuated, she obtained her dressmaking diploma at the age of 14. It was 1942 and she really wanted to be a teacher. Sadly, this wasn’t possible. She was needed to work on the land. To my knowledge, she never complained about it. Later on, she earned money as a dressmaker. During the Dutch carnival celebrations, she met my grandfather, eight years her senior. They got married shortly after they met and moved to an upstairs apartment in Eindhoven for my grandfather’s job at a wholesale grocer. At the time, this was a day’s journey from my grandmother’s hometown and a completely different world to what she knew. She later told us she had felt very lonely often in those early days of their marriage, until my mother was born in 1952, followed by three younger brothers.
My mother, Annelies, also wanted to become a teacher, a kindergarten teacher particularly. It wasn’t a real possibility. Her father, my grandfather, was only a warehouse clerk, so there were no options for my mother other than domestic school. Your father’s occupation and standing in society, determined your opportunities in education. But my grandmother intervened. She moved heaven and earth to allow my mother to attend a regular, secondary girls’ school. She succeeded. It was 1964 and my mother indeed became a kindergarten teacher. Shortly after she started working, she worked her way up to head of the local kindergarten and she attended a second degree teacher training in her free evenings. During a train journey she met my father, a long-haired student from Utrecht. They got engaged, married, and moved to the ‘Randstad’ for my father’s job.
When I came along, my mother stopped working. Working and motherhood didn’t fit into her traditional view of the world, she tells me now. It was 1981, and day care wasn’t an obvious choice for all families yet. I have a photo album containing pictures of my mother’s farewell at her school, heavily pregnant with me. And yet, even though she chose to stop working, her passion for education never ceased. Four years later, when my younger sister was two years old, she returned to the classroom. She was encouraged by a neighbour who offered to take care of us before and after school. “You’ve been a lot more fun since you’ve started working again,” she later told to my mother. At first, my mother started working part time as a substitute teacher, later as a permanent teacher in various grades, and eventually she ended up where she started: in kindergarten. All this time, in addition to her day job, she also performed almost all care and household duties. After my sister and I left home, there was more room for her to continue learning. My mother saw opportunities everywhere: working as an internship supervisor at the teacher training college, completing a course in philosophising with children, for example.
When it was my time, I never planned to go into education at all. I wanted to be a doctor. And that seemed to make sense. I was a diligent student, learning came easy to me. My parents and I had high expectations. I was always reading and it was no surprise to anyone that I wanted to attend grammar school. Somewhere along the way, my plans changed. Instead of pursuing a degree in medicine, I chose to study biology. This choice was fully intrinsically motivated: I wanted to know how life worked. During my last year in university, education entered my life. I decided to specialise with a master’s degree in science communication and education and arranged an internship in Eindhoven – where I researched the effect of technology promotion activities in schools. After graduation, I stayed and organised technological projects for schools. This was followed by a job as policy researcher in education and a teaching job (yes!) at a university of applied sciences where I’m currently a policy adviser on blended education. I also met someone (also a student, but without the long hair), fell in love, and continued to live in Brabant for that love. Coincidence or not, it’s a stone’s throw away from my grandmother’s.
When I married, my mother warned me: “Consider carefully whether you want to combine your career with a family. I found this very demanding.” However, being just as stubborn as the women before me, I didn’t want to choose. I wanted a balanced division of tasks between my husband and me, I didn’t want to have to work part time (but also not full time at all costs), and I wanted a family. I succeeded. I work almost full-time and have a great job I love. Combining professional and personal life is tough indeed (you were right, mom) – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The tasks at home are reasonably balanced. So, is everything now as it should be? Almost. Because why do I still get asked how I can combine a demanding job with a family at home, so much more often than my husband Jelle?
Jelle and I have two beautiful children. The youngest is the baby that my grandmother, my mother, and I pose so proudly with: our daughter Annika. Now almost five years old, terribly stubborn, and full of self-confidence. Her connection to education? Annika’ s first day at school was on 11 May 2020, a remarkable date. As a result of the threat of the pandemic, primary schools had been closed for eight weeks. For the first time in decades, physical access to education wasn’t self-evident. On 11 May, the schools partially opened their doors again, and in the middle of all those children who were happy to be able to go back to school, my proud four-year-old daughter was standing with her bright pink backpack.
Now she can go to school every day (having experienced a second period of school closure) and she enjoys it immensely. And – like many girls her age – she just might want to be a teacher when she grows up. Who knows… She can become anything she wants to be, as far as we are concerned.
In any case, she won’t have to leave school to work in the fields, chances are, she won’t have to travel a full day to see her family, her high school trajectory won’t be dictated by her father’s job, she won’t have to stop working while pregnant, and hopefully… no one questions her if she decides to combine a family with a busy job. Or when she decides she doesn’t want to.
Four generations of women. Four generations of education. Four generations of opportunities. In less than a century, all those grandmothers, mothers, aunts, girlfriends, and neighbours who preceded my daughter have brought about major changes in small steps. To all these women, and to all those men who have encouraged them, I would say on behalf of my daughter, thank you!