I’m reading a lot in the press at the moment about the so-called ‘Mummy Wars’ – the debate about whether it’s best for women to go out to work or stay home with the kids. The debate ranges around what’s best for the children, what’s best for women and what’s best for society. And it’s a minefield, with experts and opinion-makers and others using the debate to justify their own choices or expiate their guilt.
I’m adding my voice …
Here in Germany, birthplace of paid maternity leave (thanks, Bismarck) the birthrate is alarmingly low. Despite comparably generous benefits (six weeks full pay before the birth of a child, eight weeks after, and three years unpaid after that), women here are struggling to manage both. Schools have very short hours (children are home by 12h30 at the latest). It’s expected that kids get a hot lunch – German society is predicated on a hot lunch, but that’s another post altogether – and that someone is around to supervise homework, before shuttling them off to their afternoon activities and play dates.
Millions of grandparents are doing this job, but not everyone can rely on having a willing opa or oma in the same town who’s prepared to do parenting a second time around. Millions of other families are employing au pairs, day mothers and babysitters to do the job, but not everyone can afford to pay for help. Another option is the hort, or after-school care, but competition for places is extreme and once again, it costs.
So women are having to choose – career and let someone else do the daily work of child-raising, career and no kids, kids and no career, or kids and part-time work. Many of my peers are managing this final option. One translator gives language courses while her children are in kindergarten, an anaesthetist doesn’t practise but is on the provincial board for women doctors, a soil expert teaches Spanish and this here journalist writes and edits at night while children sleep. Not perfect, but it’s something.
In Germany, there is also the finger-pointing that’s happening in the UK and the US. You’re either a rabenmutter (uncaring mother) who works or a hausmutterchen who stays home, looks after the kids and lets your husband make the decisions and earn the money. My working friends do feel the guilt of not being with their kids, and my non-working friends do feel the itch of being home and bored. To avoid being caught between these two nasty poles, women here are taking the radical step of just not having children. The birthrate is around 1.3 children per women, significantly less than the 2.1 necessary to sustain society. At this rate, demographers joke, Germany will be extinct by 2020.
When I lived in England, I found that at a dinner party if I mentioned being a stay-at-home mother, people’s eyes would glaze over. I could then decide to let that person think I was a boring little nobody, or I could let slip that I once had a career. I generally chose the latter option, because having a career is seen as more interesting than staying home and raising kids. I believe from American and South African friends that the same is true in those countries.
Somehow Germany is different. While it’s sexist that this society still expects men to be the breadwinners and women to be the procreators/housekeepers, there is some value placed on child-rearing. However, instead of feeling like I’m Miss Dullsville for staying at home, I get this weird sense that I’m doing what society expects and therefore I’m upholding the traditional roles. That irks me too. I guess if I was a working mum, my guilt at leaving my kids with someone else would be worse here in the land of the hausfrau.
I think the debate is valid, because it’s bringing these issues under the light of analysis, but I think to succumb to judgements (stay-at-home = good, working = bad, or stay-at-home = boring, working = interesting) is specious. I can’t justify my position by saying working women are harming their children, and I wouldn’t want a working mother to say I’m holding back the development of women by being at home.
We need to choose what we want, and then want what we choose. (I realise this speaks to women who have the luxury of choice, and that there are millions of mothers out there who don’t have any choice at all.) Some of us might have the energy to militate on a grand scale for more affordable childcare, others might just vote for the politicians who do.
In my own small way, I can’t see any way to completely change the sexist society in which I live. I plan to continue making my choice work for me, to continue wanting what I’ve chosen. I plan not to judge the women who do work, for whatever reason. As a small guerilla step, I also plan to ask all working fathers how they manage to combine child-rearing and having a career. Maybe they have some tips that haven’t dawned on me yet.