“Bad” Mothers Are Working Mothers

Germans have a special word for bad mothers: “Rabenmutter” (literally, “raven mother”). For a developed country, especially a Western one, Germany is surprisingly backwards when it comes to how it views and treats working mothers. The long-held ideal is the mother in the home. Germany is so dedicated to this ideal that the majority of school days end at lunch time, because it is expected that mothers are home to take care of their children for the rest of the day. This makes it hard for German women to have children and work outside of the home.

Something has to give. Sometimes that something is child-bearing: Germany has one of the lowest fertility rates in the Western world: 1.38 children per woman (as compared to America’s 2.06). It also affects women’s participation in the workplace:  “Today, 66 percent of German women work. But for those with children under 3, that figure plunges to 32 percent. Only 14 percent of women with one child resume full-time work and only 6 percent of those with two.” In contrast, look at these figures for the U.S.:

“In 2003, 63 percent of mothers with preschool-aged children (younger than 6 years) were in the labor force (either employed or looking for work), and 58 percent were actually employed. Of those mothers, 70 percent worked full-time and 30 percent worked part-time. Of women with children ages 6-17, 78 percent were in the labor force in 2003 and nearly all of those were actually employed. Among these employed mothers, 77 percent worked full-time and 23 percent worked part-time.” [Source]

One thing that Germany does have that the U.S. doesn’t is paid parental leave. This, too, is a reflection of the stay-at-home-mother model. But it gives German women a break that American mothers don’t have. The U.S. just doesn’t accommodate working mothers, period, even though so many of them are in the work force. Americans don’t call working mothers Rabenmuetter, but they might as well. Conservatives are well-known for blaming all of society’s ills on the fact that mothers are out of the home working instead of staying home and taking care of their children. (And they blame feminism for this “trend.”)

In contrast, Lois Wladis Hoffman, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, writes in this excellent article on “The Effects of the Mother’s Employment on the Family and the Child” that:

“Twenty years ago, it would have seemed strange to give a talk on maternal employment and not focus on it as a social problem, but there is little in [the] data to suggest it is. The mother’s employment status does have effects on families and children, but few of these effects are negative ones. Indeed, most seem positive — the higher academic outcomes for children, benefits in their behavioral conduct and social adjustment, and the higher sense of competence and effectiveness in daughters.”

Whether we approve of working mothers or not, they’re here to stay. Most middle and working class families need two incomes to survive and that’s not even counting the number of women who are raising children alone. Rather than bemoan this state of affairs, we need to be doing more to help children thrive: more affordable, quality day care; after-school programs; more liberal postpartum leave policies; flexible work schedules and more at-home ways to make a living.

Even Germany is changing. Surely we can learn from its example.

Read this NewYork Times article about Germany’s attempts to accommodate working mothers through day care and longer school days. See and listen to this interactive excerpt about four very different German mothers.