Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Different Perspective

There was a really interesting article in the New York Times earlier this week about being a mother in Germany. While it appears (based on numerous readers' comments) that there are some minor factual errors, I found the article as a whole to be quite thought provoking in that it offered insight into a system the complete opposite end of the spectrum from that of the U.S. Initially, I found myself somewhat envious of these women - they are "allowed" to stay at home with their children, even if they are highly educated and have had successful careers. In the U.S., we often judge women who choose this path.

Yet, as I continued to think about the German system and how it affects women, I realized that as much as I enjoy being home, I am grateful that I am not to be compelled to be home. Based on this article, it seems the German system essentially compels women to remain home while their children are small, and makes it very difficult for them to resume work even after the children are school aged. I can see how this might easily lead to women feeling trapped - trapped in their homes, trapped by their children, trapped by the expectations of society.

At times, I too feel the weight of society's expectations; in particular, the fact that I am not meeting them. I have a PhD, yet I am a stay at home mom. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I was supposed to be a professor, or at the very least, a researcher or analyst for the government or a non-profit. If the prestigious occupation didn't pan out, I could at least do noble, worthwhile work. Either way, the plan was never to be home full-time. While I know a number of other women in similar circumstances, that doesn't change the fact that many people judge you when you choose to remain home with your child. You are "wasting" your education and potential, putting too much pressure on your partner by “forcing” them to be sole income-earner, and of course, letting your brain turn to mush.

The U.S system of mothers returning to work anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks after giving birth contrasts sharply with the German system. In the U.S., mothers are seen as almost dispensable - we are told children will be fine even if they are in daycare upwards of 10 hours a day and only spending an hour or two each day with their parents during the workweek. In Germany, it seems the opposite holds true - mothers are seen as so indispensable that society must be structured around the model of the stay at home mother to the point of making it nearly impossible for the mother of small children to engage in work outside the home. In the U.S., we tend to believe that our children don’t really need us around very much, and so we are better off spending our time focusing on a career, whereas the German model appears to place such a high value on the presence of a mother that there is little opportunity for a mother to pursue anything outside of that role. Either way, we're losing something - the notion that women can be both mothers and individuals.

In Germany, I might very well be living the same exact kind of life I live here in the U.S., but I am happier living this life knowing that it was shaped by choice rather than circumstance. Still, I cannot help but wish that we could extend the recognition for mothers that appears to be so prevalent in Germany to mothers here in the U.S.

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