Carolin Siebert, 25
Lives in: Berlin
Nominated by: Emma Hamilton
Carolin Siebert is only 25 years old but she speaks five languages fluently, is learning her sixth, has two kids, a degree in multi-lingual communications and a burgeoning business in kids clothes called Madamelinae Designs.
Quite incredible, we know, though none of this was really planned. A series of unexpected twists and turns brought Carolin to this point and now, as she bravely tells us, she has it all…but, she notes, with room for growth and improvement, both professionally and personally.
How fantastic it was to hear such a young woman own that contentious statement and simplify it in that way. The idea that at any stage we can have it all though always, importantly, with room for growth is stunningly obvious and wonderfully liberating!
As well as sharing her philosophies, Carolin opened up to us about her story, the losses and loves acquired along the way and how a person’s definitions of family, home and happiness can be a fluid thing. Carolin made us happy and hopefully she does the same for you this Friday.
How did you get to be where you are?
Well, I grew up in a small town in Germany called Meissen. I went to the only high school in the city and while I was there I did an exchange with a high school in Utah, which really opened my eyes up to the rest of the world. I ended up taking a year off after graduating to find out what I wanted to do and I decided that I wanted to complete my whole undergraduate degree in multi-lingual communications abroad. I applied to a university in South Tyrol in Italy, left for a seven week language course and the entrance exam and got accepted. During my second year I ended up studying a further semester abroad in Ecuador.
Being in Ecuador made me rethink all of the values I had about family because in Latin America it is a whole different story from Germany. Actually the funniest thing is that the semester when I was furthest away from my mum (in Ecuador) was also the semester I was closest to her and the rest of my family.
How old were you were you were away?
I was probably nineteen / twenty in Italy and then I think I turned 21 in Ecuador. So it was then that I realised I can do hard things, I can make it work, I can find my own little life even though it might be challenging at first.
I met Julian, my partner, in Italy just a few weeks before I went to Ecuador and he went back to the U.S. Horrible timing but I’d say it was no coincidence our paths crossed again a year later when I was back in Italy. Things got pretty serious and I got pregnant with Olive. It was quite the surprise in a way. Add to that the challenges of globalised love—where should we move?
I always felt like I was doing exactly what I was expected to do without knowing what I was doing at all.
We ended up moving to Berlin two years ago, trying to build a life here. We made it through crazy ups and downs—admittedly many more downs along the way—but here we are with two tiny kids and a lot more mutual respect and commitment than ever before.
Ten years ago I probably would’ve laughed at people telling me at the age of 25 you will have two kids but right now I feel like it just worked out perfectly.
What was it like growing up in a small town?
Well I am the youngest child, I have two older siblings so, of course, all the teachers knew me before I knew them. All of my family lives there or in the close surroundings of Meissen…and I’d say in a way I always felt like I was doing exactly what I was expected to do without knowing what I was doing at all.
I was always kind of considered the dreamer because I always said I want to learn all these languages and everyone was just like, ‘Yeah, you will probably stay here or go to the next biggest city for university but then you’ll eventually come back.’ But I don’t think I ever will. Of course my family is still there so I visit from time to time but there really is nothing there for me to make a living out of.
So you don’t think of it as home?
I used to think of it as home as long as my mum was still there but then when she passed away in 2011 and we had to get everything out of her apartment it changed… so right now I would consider Berlin my home.
In German we differentiate between ‘zuhause’ and ‘Heimat’—the first being your residency and the second more of an intangible and spiritual state. So in a way Meissen will always be the latter and home in that way…kind of like that quote from Garden State, ‘It’s like feeling homesick for a place that doesn’t exist anymore,’ which is quite accurately how I feel about Meissen without my mother.
I started to try to figure out between those two more or less extremes what it is that I want to do.
What was your mum like?
My mother was a very caring person. She got diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was just a toddler. Between the struggles of strict diets, intense medication and surgeries she made sure to teach us to focus on the positive, on the things we do have control over and to be proactive about what drives us. She was far from flawless and sometimes it drove me nuts that she pretended to be. But one thing I always knew and learned to appreciate, even more now that I have kids, is the sacrifice she made for us.
We were quite poor actually but my mom made sure we had all the possibilities in the world to learn and discover. She had my back for absolutely everything. I thought I was so grown up and mature—but I really was a mommy’s girl. The fact that she never got to meet any grandkids is one of the saddest things for me, but in a way she is with me in all of this because without her I’d have even less of a clue about motherhood. Olive carries her first name, Carmen, as a middle name because it was the only thing that made sense.
You said that when you were studying in Ecuador you learnt a lot about yourself and about family, can you talk about that a little more?
Well the family I stayed with really viewed me as their own daughter and they kept asking me whether I had a boyfriend and when I was getting married. That’s just something that had never really come up in my hometown…it was expected that I would go to university, that I would have a career and, and then, yes, at some point, have children.
I started to try to figure out between those two more or less extremes what it is that I want to do. I always knew I could never be just a stay at a home mum. I respect people who do that and I don’t think they’re worth any less but I know for myself I need more challenges. I think I would get bored depending on the kids. So I always knew I would need something else too but then I didn’t think just a career would have made me happy either. So it was in Ecuador when I decided I wanted to be a youngish mother and still kind of…have it all…
And so where do you think you are now, you’ve got a family and you’ve finished university and you’re on the verge of setting up a new business…do you think you have it all?
I think I have it all…including room for growth, personally and academically and job wise and maybe even family wise…but that is a project for later! [Laughs]
I don’t think everything happens for a reason but whatever happens, if it is something we can tackle, something we can deal with, something we can turn into something better, something meaningful for us, it is okay.
I think now is my turn. I still want to get a masters in either linguistics or romance studies. That’s another thing, I always said that I didn’t want to study languages, I just wanted to know them. But it is one thing that I do exceptionally well without having to work hard and I realised while I was away that it would be stupid not to take advantage of that.
I always thought of it more idealistically, I wanted to speak lots of languages but I didn’t ever want to make money with it because I felt like that would be betraying the language! But now I am a little more realistic. Using that talent gives me more options to do other things that probably would only be a hobby otherwise.
Can we talk a little bit about motherhood? You’ve got two young children? How has that whole experience been for you? Is it everything you expected it to be?
I want to say it’s entirely different from what I imagined. One thing I’ve been struggling with is the fact that I am a young mother so it happens quite often that people feel the need to pass down advice or judgement unasked. I think and I’m pretty certain that I’m doing a good job and I know people would feel less entitled to make comments if I weren’t as young—especially when I’m not wearing make up I look like I’m sixteen!
So that is something I struggled with, especially after my first baby was born, my daughter Olive. I felt like whenever I was out with her everybody was watching me and judging me but now I am a lot more relaxed about it. I guess I’ve seen it from both sides now. I know mothers who are significantly older than me but don’t know what they’re doing. That’s one thing motherhood comes with: you don’t know what you’re doing. People who claim they know exactly what they’re doing scare me.
These people who were passing down advice or making judgements, were they men and women?
Typically women. That is also one thing I did not really understand because I was always thinking Hey, we’re kind of sitting in the same boat here, you have a child, I have a child, we both struggle. But it was more about everything that babies come with. I mean you could spend all the money you have and all the money you are ever going to make on baby gear but that just isn’t me. I like functionality and it has to work for the time the kids need it but other than that I don’t need the nicest stroller just to show that I can afford it.
I get a little bit overwhelmed by the whole being-a-mum-is-the-best-job-in-the-world kinds of mothers because, while I wouldn’t change it for anything, I also respect that it is not for everyone. And as for the whole, ‘It’s the best job in the world’ thing, it is a job you actively chose so I don’t ever want to be somebody who puts what I do over what others do.
I still can go where I want, it’s just the path to get there is a different one now.
When we were chatting before the interview you mentioned confidence. Would you describe yourself as a confident person?
Yes. I’d say so. It is something that has kind of grown on me. I was raised in a way that I always knew what I could do and what I’m capable of but I never fully understood it until I actually had to do things. Living in a small town where everything just works the ordinary way, everything goes pretty much as planned, there are no surprises, no real hardships, I always knew I could probably live abroad but it’s a whole different story when you actually do it. I think the confidence I used to have back in high school has now finally been filled with evidence or something like that.
Looking back then at your whole 25 years what has been the absolute best experience? If you could pull out just one thing and say that is something that surprised me and amazed me…
It would be easy to pick the kids. But that would not have happened had I not had the courage to just move to Italy without speaking the language and without having any family or support system there. Had I not gone to Italy I wouldn’t have gone to Ecuador and I wouldn’t have come back to Italy with a whole different perspective and I probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with Julian and started a family. So I think the thing that led to the most incredible things in my life is certainly taking the courage to move to Italy.
Do you think everything happens for a reason? Sounds a little bit like you might.
I don’t think things necessarily happen for a reason but whatever happens, I believe you can turn it into a reason. I heard that saying a lot when my mum passed away and it made me really angry because I don’t see any sense in somebody passing away. It was a time when I really would’ve loved to have a religion to hold on to or something that explains what happens now but I didn’t. So I had to find all the strength and comfort more or less within myself. I don’t think everything happens for a reason but whatever happens, if it is something we can tackle, something we can deal with, something we can turn into something better, something meaningful for us, it is okay.
Success is not one solid thing and we should be more open to that.
So what advice would you give to yourself if you were sitting face to face with a ten years younger version of you, a fifteen year old Carolin?
I would probably tell her not to get too distracted by her own expectations.
When I got pregnant and then knew I could not finish my degree in the time I had envisioned at first I felt as if it was a defeat. Once things jumped off the normal path I just got insecure and I probably blocked myself from settling into it more smoothly. So I would definitely advise my younger self to take things as they come and never forget what I really want because I knew I wanted a family so whether it be now or in five years, it shouldn’t have distracted me or made me insecure. It was on my list. It happened sooner than I imagined but in the end I still can do everything I want. I still can go where I want, it’s just the path to get there is a different one now.
Why do you think women are so hard on themselves with things like that? With most of the women we’ve spoken to, none of their lives have followed the course that they imagined, no one has followed that blueprint that goes university, marriage, whatever—why do women struggle with that? Why is it such a big deal for us?
I can only speak for myself but I come from a family where my grandparents were chased away after WW2 so they had to give up everything and my grandma was the only girl among five siblings so it was clear for her that she could not go to university. She really wanted my mum to go to university but my mum got married at the age of nineteen in the German Democratic Republic and just said to the whole system, ‘Screw this, I want to get married, I want to have kids.’ She still had a career later on but my grandma never got over the disappointment, so of course the expectation was kind of passed down to our generation, to me and my sister.
I think it is also the fact that we can do all these things—of course sometime in the past women weren’t able to go to university at all like my grandmother—so people get overwhelmed thinking, Well if I can do all these things, I probably SHOULD do all of these things, and probably don’t listen to what they really want. I think it’s always a kind of a battle within yourself to follow the things that do inspire you, that you do excel at, versus what is expected of you.
Riffing off that a little bit, what do you think the best thing about being a female is?
Well, if I say what the best thing about being a woman is compared to being a man, I think it is that it’s a lot easier and more accepted for women to say they want a family and want to focus on these things. I think the other way around men have a harder time. In general I believe everyone should be able to do anything and everything they want—independent from gender and other classifications. I guess feminism got us to the point where we can say that we want a career and have it be accepted and even possible but we can also want a family and want to focus on raising our family. Men aren’t as able to choose between those two things in the same way.
I think that’s a good answer. It’s very easy and acceptable for us to say that we want to start a family and perhaps not so much for men, especially men who want to be stay at home dads. The kids clothes business that you’re setting up, Madamelinae Designs, can you tell us a bit about that?
Well it actually started with a sewing machine I got for Christmas ten or so years ago. It was in storage while I was in Italy but about a year ago my grandparents dropped it off. I just figured why not give it a try and since there is a youtube tutorial for everything, I was pretty sure I could figure it out.
I had a relatively small child and lots of time on my hands so I got into it more and started buying more fabric, which probably turned into a small addiction. [Laughs]
I am currently working on setting up my shop, sewing stuff for the shop and figuring out what my fall /winter line should look like. It’s one thing I never thought I would do but I love it so that is something that absolutely drives me. I love it especially now that my daughter has started to talk a little bit. It’s absolutely rewarding when you put something you made yourself on her and she can walk around and goes, ‘Oooh chic!’
That’s so cute! So the big question…what should we talk more about?
I would say we should talk more about redefining success. Usually when you talk about a successful woman, the next questions people ask are: What does she do? What is her job? Where did she go to university? But people are so different and success comes in so many shapes and forms and I don’t think we give it enough credit.
I think no matter if you work or if you stay at home, if you can go to bed at night and say, ‘I think I’ve had a good day, I feel like I’m doing the right thing for myself,’ then I think that’s a lot. Success is not one solid thing and we should be more open to that.
Things I Love
While I used to view language as a tool while studying it has become so much more now that I’ve lived abroad. Knowing languages has opened doors I never even knew existed.
Ever since I got into sewing, geometric patterns have been a reoccurring theme in things that inspire me. They are art through repetition, kind of what being a mother feels like to me.
I enjoy getting lost in fabric markets, running my hands through dozens of different materials and dreaming about what they could be turned into.