The XX Factor

Germany, Set Free the Rabenmutter!

A mother in Berlin watches her son on a summer afternoon. Only 14 percent of German mothers with one child work full-time.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Parents complain about sleep, about the end of sex, and about parental leave, populating the web with a sea of exegesis on the displeasing demands of raising children. These complaints are so common that they gave rise to a sub-category of complaints, in which parents complain about parents who complain too much. I occasionally share this impulse, but my loyalty is ultimately with the complainers. We’ve got centuries of maternal grievances to air and we’ve really only just begun.

An articulated complaint, whether to a friend, Twitter, or the audience of a parenting blog, is a well-deserved act of catharsis for a weary parent. It’s also a potent political tool, one that allows us to see that the problems encountered by mothers tend to be the product of culturally and legally-conditioned expectations rather than personal ineptitude. Complaining is not without its risks; it can make a problem seem worse than it is, or it can inadvertently reinforce the expectations it’s attempting to discredit. Still, the sum total all this kvetching has emboldened moms, and now German women—inheritors of one of the most stubborn “good mother” myths around—are starting to catch on.

Earlier this year, Orna Donath, an Israeli sociologist, published a book in Germany entitled Regretting Motherhood, based on her Israel-based 2015 research on women who say they love their children, but, knowing what they know now, would have never had them. The women of Germany, where simply going to work is enough to be called a bad mother, have had a lot to say about this. Novelist Sarah Fischer published Die Mutterglück-Lüge (The Mother-bliss Lie), writers Alina Bronsky and Denise Wilk contemplated the contradictory expectations placed on German women in a book called The Abolishment of the Mother, and the hashtag #Regretting Motherhood has gone viral. Not everyone participating in the conversation regrets having children or plans on avoiding them, but many have feelings of ambivalence or frustration that have long gone unacknowledged in Germany.

Barbara Vinken, a scholar who wrote a book about the myth of the German mother in 2007, told the AFP that Donath’s study “radically questions the joy of having children in a society that expects everything from mothers, and where the mothers demand everything of themselves.” German women live under the shadow of the rabenmutter (raven’s mother), a defamatory label given to moms who are seen as putting their own needs above their children’s. (It’s based on the idea that ravens fail at properly nurturing their nestlings.) Women can be branded a rabenmutter for committing the grave sin of only taking maternity leave for ten months or putting their toddlers in daycare. One mom reported being derided by local parents for signing up her nine-year-old boy for an after-school program.

Germans have a long tradition of idealizing motherhood and expecting women to sacrifice everything for it. The German government only recently began to reform the half-day school system, one that came about during a pre-feudal era when children worked; the half-day schedule survived into recent times because of the widespread belief that children should be home with their mothers. Romanticized notions about motherhood were a big part of Hitler’s pronatalist politics. He initiated a program to train 18-year-old girls in the art of caretaking and awarded medals to the most fecund women in the nation. Such attitudes survived the fall of the Third Reich, and the mantra of “kinder, küche, kirche” (children, kitchen, church) took on a second life in West Germany after World War II. There, women could be divorced for being a “bad housewife” up until the 1960s, and needed their husband’s’ permission to work until 1977.

Even as German women have held back on a widespread protest against the bananas expectations placed on moms, they have made their views clear in other ways. Germany has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, a trend that hasn’t budged in spite of generous parental leave policies. (There is some evidence that overly long leaves can backfire.) I imagine that many German women without children are well aware of the fact that only about 14 percent of German mothers with one child, and only 6 percent of those with two children, go back to work full-time. Overall, participation of German mothers in the workforce is much smaller than that of mothers in other nations.

If Germany wants to boost the number of babies born, they’d be much smarter to make like France and encourage mothers to enter the workforce, in part by providing reliable—and stigma-free—daycare. Doing so has made their Gallic neighbors the “best baby-makers in Europe.” In order for this to happen, the Germans are going to have set free their rabenmutter and allow her to make the long journey back to the 21st century where she belongs.