Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

What Women Want


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.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

17 thoughts on “What Women Want

  1. To want what you’ve chosen — that’s a terrific way to look at this. And what a nice tone your post has, so uninflammatory. Good for you.

    Maybe because we had twins first, and so I could not be the only person to parent, or maybe because my husband is just an inherently fair person, but the division of labor in our house is pretty good. I work, he works, we make almost exactly the same money. He drops off in the morning, I pick up after school. I work an 80% time schedule. He works more than that. We tend to do the thinks we like to do, and because we like to do different things, that works well also. He loves taking the boys places: rock climbing, skiing, windsurfing, hiking. I like hanging out, cooking, library-going. I am the stern and serious one. He is a pushover. We have help sometimes — our children’s nanny from when they were babies is often avialable. A lot of housecleaning is accomplished by the good offices of a woman we both like a lot who also sometimes watches the boys. I have never felt like having other men and women who know and like our children and do things with them diminishes my role as their parent one bit. Early on, when our wonderful nanny came into our life, it seemed to me to be a good thing for my children to learn to love more people than just my husband and me. The more trusted people available to your child, the more likely that, when they are in some kind of difficulty, they will seek and get help.

    The biggest problem in the work/life balance is not the approbation of our neighbors, friends, or strangers. It’s dealing with the inevitable consequence of juggling all these things: nothing we do feels like it’s quite good enough. And that, more than anything, is what I struggle with every single day as, I imagine, do all people who have children, male and female, stay at home, or to go the office.

  2. Thanks for your insights, bloglily. I deliberately wrote this post from the point of view of women, but you are right, there are loads of caring men out there who miss their kids while they have to be working. My husband always says he’s glad it’s me at home with our three, because I will remember to tell him all the silly little things they do and say, while a babysitter might forget. I’m on the lookout for a lovely nanny so that I can increase my workload, and I hope to find someone who can enhance my childrens’ lives – it doesn’t always have to be me or him doing the parenting and the loving.
    I hope to hear more from others on how they cope with 21st century parenting.

  3. The more I think about this, the more I know there isn’t a right way. I’m not a parent, but I do know that children need consistent love and available adults. If they always know that a familiar loving adult is available to them when they need one, then they are far less needy in the long run. Not a great insight, but one which helps when making decisions.

    I was incredibly fortunate, I was raised by an enormous number of adults who were around more or less all the time. The fact that my grandparents lived with my parents must have turned both sets of adults quietly murderous at times, but it was wonderful for us children.

    There is no easy answer, because none of us can have it all, and the priviledge and curse of our times is that we do have choices.

    An interesting piece. I enjoyed reading it.


  4. I wrote a PhD while my son was growing from 0-3 and it was hard, hard work that I wouldn’t wish on any other woman. It’s been difficult being an academic and bringing him up, and mostly it’s been on bits and pieces of childcare. What I think most of all is that no matter what society we’re in, we child carers should stick together. I also found a lot of anxiety and sometimes hostility in the two distinct work/stay-at-home camps. Let’s all help each other choose and help each other out. I found that when I went to mother and toddler groups with my son and told people I was doing a PhD, the women would look at me as if I were from Mars, and I would so have liked to make a few friends at that stage in order to compare child-rearing experiences. If only blogs had existed then, how much better my world would have been!!

  5. WARNING-Dad responding. . .or babbling. . .

    Another possible view on this might be: make the best of whatever time you have with your children – dad or mom. Let your children know that your love is unconditional and you will never remove it. Train them as well as you can. Together.

    It is such a short time that we have them – as all of us with children can see happen right before our eyes. I think it’s great when we can be with them as much as possible.

    If my spouse were passionate about pursuing a career, I’d want to work with her to make that happen. I’m happy one of us is able to be with our children as they form. And, we have made some hard choices to enable that.

    Like you, Charl, I don’t feel it’s my place to call one position right or wrong, but I cherish the fact that my spouse can be home with them.

    How do I manage child rearing? I “get into the game” when I’m around. I make sure we are a team – undivided. We support each other. I have my tasks. I think about the “shaping” of their little minds. . .and try my best do help at the things my wife really hates. . . 🙂

    You know what else? It’s hard for anyone to not be associated with “what you do” – I, too, hope I’m more than a job title!

  6. I so agree — there’s no right way to do this, and we should all stick together. Children can thrive in so many situations. Maybe some of the difficulty is the increasing pressure toward perfection in childrearing (at least where i live). Because that’s not possible, it makes people nervous around each other, eying other choices, thinking, “hmm, how come I’m not [doing competitive scottish dance, teaching my children to make puff pastry, coming home earlier…] I’m tone of the worst offenders, perfectionista that I am; but my fortunately my boys just won’t let me get away with it. Messy house, messy life, pretty happy most of the time.

  7. AB – you’re right, there’s no right way. As long as children get consistency and love, they are fine. I like the sound of your childhood. I grew up in the same town as all my grandparents and saw them weekly, and one of the sadnesses in my life is that my kids’ grandparents are a continent away.
    Litlove – that anxiety and hostility is what I’m picking up on in the ‘Mummy Wars’ literature. People are anxious about their choices, and then hostile to others as a result. I would like people to be proud of their choices and not judge others.
    Funkmeister, thanks for lending a father’s voice. It’s very welcome. Whether parents go out work or stay home, sacrifices get made, don’t they? My working friends feel they’re losing time with their kids, and my stay-at-home friends feel they’re sacrificing the rewards of a career.
    Litlove, that perfection thing is a killer. Luckily, I found as our family has grown that I’ve learnt to release my desire for perfection. Accepting some mess means I have some time free to draw with my kids, or take them to the pool – there’s just no choice is there?

  8. Charl I love your guerrilla step. I think I may become a sniper.. It makes me so cross when you hear that ‘combining family and career’ is a female thing. Here in good old Tschormany it gives the impression of being the latest daring step towards female emancipation. Goddamit, it’s not a female issue, it is just an issue.

  9. You have incited my first ever blog response!! (Very exciting – well, for me anyway.) Just wanted to add a small mention of men staying at home to look after the kids. I met my first stay-at-home dad the other day and I realised for the first time how shockingly sexist us women can be! The poor man takes his children to music lessons, tumble tots, playgroups, swimming lessons and it is very rare that any mother to speak to him. He excuses our behaviour, believing that most women think that he is just a temporary fixture – looking after the kids whilst mum is away somewhere – and so don’t make the effort to speak to him. Then, when they realise he’s a regular, they feel it’s a little late to make the effort. So, my little guerrilla step is to make sure I speak to every man (or woman come to that) looking after their brood because, with this job, we all need the support and company of others.

  10. Thanks for your comment! Feel free to make more … You’re right, the stay-at-home dads do get ignored. There aren’t many in my little town in Germany, but there is one dad I know who works part-time, collects his kids from the same kindergarten as mine and then does lunch and the afternoon activities. We bump into them often and he is unselfconsciously friendly and chatty.

  11. Pingback: Charlotte’s Web » Blog Archive » 10 Things I Love About Germany

  12. if your a big brother, your a continent of hope!

  13. Very interesting, On the ball hoho. Happy New year, take Care.

  14. Thank you for sharing this post Charlotte. There is a tendency among many of us in the US to idealize Western European policies, so it is interesting to learn that there are still problems. I had no idea about the hot lunch issue, as an example.

    I love your guerilla action plan. How has that played out in the months since you wrote this?

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