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The Modern "Housewife" Has Another Job — And As Raw A Deal As Ever

Women play a vital role in the workplace, so the German government is introducing policies that reward families with two working parents. However, the strain of raising a family still falls unfairly on mothers, making them victims of capitalism.

A hand in a yellow glove cleans the surface near a sink

Cleaning surfaces is one of many household tasks that may fall to housewives.

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — In the early 2000s, there was an advert for vacuum cleaners. A stylish woman at a party was asked in a somewhat disparaging tone what she did for work. The woman smiled briefly and flipped her immaculately blow-dried hair. Then she said, “I manage a successful family business.” So there. The other person, a high-powered career woman, hadn’t reckoned with that comeback.

The joke was that the family business was in fact not a business, but a family, and of course the punchline hinged on a recognition of what is now called “care work,” but could just as easily be called “women’s work,” because that is precisely what it is.

Today, like then, the share of housework done by men and women in Germany is ridiculously unequal. Although it is true that modern men do more around the house than previous generations, the German Institute for Economic Research estimates that, on average, women spend around 10 hours a day caring for their families, while men spend three.

German mothers therefore often work part-time because there are only 24 hours in a day, and they can’t fit in full-time employment alongside caring for their families. This means that, overall, women don’t work any less than men, but a large proportion of their work is unpaid. paid.

Germany’s Minister for Family Affairs Lisa Paus recently waded into the middle of this heated issue by announcing a cap on the parental allowance (paid to parents in the first year of their child’s life), which sparked outrage. Women! Equality! Feminists were dismayed to see hard-won advances rolled back.

It took a day before the Ministry for Family Affairs calmed fears by explaining that the cap would only affect a small proportion of those families who are entitled to the parental allowance: only those with a taxable annual income of €150,000 or more.

However, the debate raged on. This is about more than just whether a few well-off families should continue to receive a state benefit. The introduction of the parental allowance was part of a wider story about emancipation: liberating women through paid work. This announcement cuts to the heart of views about mothers, children, fathers and equality, and above all, how the state rewards families with two working parents.

Women still doing more

The hidden message in this story is that women’s approach to raising children should change and they should behave more like men. To a certain extent, that has already happened: today, after having children, women return to work earlier than they used to before the parental allowance was introduced.

Changes in men’s behavior, however, have been negligible at best. Only around half of men who are entitled to parental leave take any at all, and only a small proportion take more than the standard two months allocated to fathers. On paper, this looks like emancipation in tiny, homeopathic doses.

If the woman in the vacuum cleaner advert had decided to have children in the early 2020s, she would probably not have come to the party with such immaculately blow-dried hair. She would have rushed home from the office to pick her children up from nursery earlier than planned, because its hours would have been reduced due to a lack of nursery school teachers.

She would have stopped off at the supermarket on the way home, then made dinner and put the children’s gym kit in the laundry, before remembering that the school was holding a bake sale tomorrow. The father would most likely have got home around 7pm, when the children had already had their baths and were tucked up in bed, ready for him to read them a bedtime story.

This household work needs to be acknowledged and valued on a policy level.

Despite all the achievements of the feminist movement, women are still the ones keeping their families ticking. Researchers at the Social Science Center Berlin regularly survey fathers and mothers about how household tasks are shared out.

On yellowing German leaftet for vacuum cleaner, a well dressed woman points at an upright Hoover

This German guide for a vintage Hoover vacuum cleaner features an impeccably coiffed woman in heels, 1963.


The mental load

The results of these studies show that tasks such as looking after children, cleaning and grocery shopping are performed exclusively or predominantly by women. The researchers also identified 21 tasks to do with running family life, hobbies and the home, which have to be thought about and planned: the so-called mental load.

Of these tasks, only three are usually or exclusively done by men: repairs, DIY and finances. There was also a problem of perception: the men surveyed were more likely to believe that the mental load was shared out fairly, whereas women said they took on a larger share.

This household work needs to be acknowledged and valued on a policy level. But that is very far from being the case. One major turning point was the reform of child support laws in 2008, when the coalition government made housewives into persona non grata. Since then, after a separation, men are only required to pay maintenance to their ex-partner until the youngest child is three years old.

For women who have spent a lot of time caring for their families while their children are young and therefore find it difficult to pick up where they left off in their careers, divorce can therefore mean their circumstances take a significant dive. The change was a warning to all women: carry on working because marriage is not a safety net.

It was meant well, as an acknowledgement of changes in society. Women today are more qualified than ever: more women than men stay in school until eighteen, they represent 52% of those graduating from high school. This was seen as a “huge well of untapped potential”. The argument was that working full-time would not only give women greater financial independence and better career prospects, but, given the worker shortage, it would also boost the country’s economy.

Care: what is that?

With a significant dose of goodwill, you could see this as an attempt to liberate women – or, as American feminist Nancy Fraser would put it, as the stooge of modern capitalism.

In the end, this model disregards all the caring responsibilities carried out by working mothers, requiring them to quietly accept their extra workload. Those mothers who don’t want to have this double responsibility and instead choose to spend their time looking after their families are not considered anymore.

Whatever people decide, government policy should not make it harder for them.

It is important not to pit different lifestyles against each other. However, that is exactly what is happening again and again, now in the debate over a new approach to taxation, which takes into account the total income of a married couple as a household, rather than taxing them individually. The income of both partners is grouped together and then halved. The tax rate is then applied to each partner’s half of the income.

The financial advantage is therefore greater for couples where the partners earn very different amounts, usually in households where the father earns a lot and the mother earns very little. The aim of this change, as explained by the Federal Constitutional Court, is to “recognize the work of wives as homemakers and mothers”.

Many people are calling that “outdated” because it privileges traditional gender roles. There is also talk of a reform in which the number of children – whether from that marriage or another relationship – is also taken into account. But whatever the approach, parents should be given the freedom to choose whichever family model works best for them.

A woman lies on the sofa, her hand dangling over the edge holding a cleaning cloth

A tired housewife rests on the sofa after housework

SHVETS production/Pexels

Who's to decide?

For many women, returning to work soon after the birth of their child is an important part of leading a fulfilled life, as their career prospects and economic security are major factors in their happiness. But there are also women who make an informed decision to spend more time with their children, as they don’t want to feel constantly split between caring responsibilities and full-time work.

Who can say which choice is better? At the end of the day, it is a question of how to use the limited time you have. Although in rare cases, individual circumstances may make it easier, the old adage still holds true: you can’t have it all – four children and a career – and that should also apply to men. But whatever people decide, government policy should not make it harder for them.

In the vacuum cleaner advert, the man stands smiling between the two women. However, equality also requires something from fathers. A smile is not enough.

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