By Lila Sax dos Santos Gomes
In the 1960s, West Germany was the epicenter of an economic boom. Immediately after the end of the war and bolstered by the social free market, the German economy grew at a much faster rate than its European counterparts. This had an effect on the ways families were reconstituted in the rising economy. Financial security didn’t depend on a two wage household. Instead, women were encouraged to stay home and take care of the children and the household. Encouraged is not really the right word here, women were actually forced to stay at home. In West Germany, until 1977, a married woman was not allowed to work unless her husband granted her permission. Permission meant he, the husband, signing a legal document confirming that employment would not negatively affect her household duties. This system of the “one main breadwinner’ was supported by tax breaks, which until today financially benefit households that have one main earner – in most cases this is the man – and a second person – usually the woman – who earns “a little on the side”. Since women were encouraged to stay at home, deviant females were accused of abandoning their children, choosing their “career” over the welfare of their young ones. This created the idea of the Rabenmutter or “raven mother” in Germany; a successful career woman, taking flight like a raven while her children are left on their own, which continues to have negative connotations throughout Germany.
During a recent interview I was drilled on the question as to whether I was a raven mother. It was an interview for an upcoming documentary that looks at alternative family arrangements and how they have been affected by lock-downs resulting from the corona pandemic. Since I earn (slightly) more than my husband – still a rarity in western Germany – we were cast to represent one of the more seldom family forms. As a “working mother” there was an underlying assumption that I was deserting my children, neglecting them through abandoning them to the world (and my husband’s cooking) and into the hands of others to care for them.
The fact is, I have never felt like a neglectful mother (the insinuation at the core of the term raven mother) simply because I enjoy working. I have continuously been employed through different phases of my life, with short breaks for my two pregnancies and the early months of my children’s lives. I am always open for opportunities and applied for a new job while on maternity leave with my first son, finally founding Yarrow Global Consulting in the maternity leave of my second son. I defined and redefined myself through my successive employers, my employment status, the societal value given to the place and type of “work”.
When COVID-19 came along and childcare and schools all over the world were closed I continued working from home, sharing the load of home office and childcare and housework with my husband – as we have done since the birth of our first child. I observed how the topic of care suddenly dominated headlines all over the world. In Germany the prominent topic was a fear of “retraditionalization” – the worry that women forced to stay at home to take care of their children would “suddenly” be impeded from entering the (paid) workforce. In addition, the immense number of so called essential workers – from caregivers and nurses to truck drivers and supermarket workers – came into focus. Badly paid, working in terrible work conditions, and mostly female, these jobs turned out to be the safety net that prevented most systems from completely breaking down.
2020 has torn open the fabric of our societies, revealing the deep underlying discrimination towards women, especially women of color and migrants. Women who have managed to continue in the workforce despite the economic crisis have had to battle with working from home while managing the bulk of child-care and housework. The general assumption here is that they can “juggle” home office and the growing mental load. Selected statistics show, of course, that some husbands have contributed more to care-work at home, however this is only the case in families in which the general load of unpaid work was equally divided before the pandemic. In family constellations in which the mother was seen as responsible for the bulk of unpaid work in the household before lockdown, this unequal share was augmented. The lockdown and continued unreliability of external childcare led to an increased workload for mothers at home. In many cases, women have felt forced to quit their jobs in order to keep up with the increased burden of childcare at home. The long-term effects of this are yet to be examined.
Of course, not all people have been able to maintain employment. Covid-19 has primarily affected jobs in the service sector. In the United States alone for example approximately 32,000 airline attendants were furloughed on the first of October, the majority of which were women. In their case, losing their job meant not only losing their salary but also no longer having access to health insurance. Single mothers, dependent on a steady paycheck at the end of the month, have been hardest hit by the pandemic, many of them unable to pay rent and having to move in with relatives or even becoming homeless. And there the situation worsens. Due to severely underfunded social welfare systems in many countries the chance at getting a place in a shelter or entering into a reintegration program is increasingly scarce. An example is Great Britain, where the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of practitioners has called for a repeat of the “everyone in” policy that was implemented in the UK in March and April in which homeless people were put up in hostels and hotels. Especially with the cold winter months coming up these experts insist that it is either that, or let them die – this is especially true for women. The term being referred to in some places is of a “shesession”- a recession in which females have been hit hardest and will have the most difficulties recovering from with long term effects on their mental and physical health, as well as increasing their risk of being impoverished in old age.
Finally, Covid-19 has drawn our attention to the dangers of century long neglect of our healthcare systems. In almost every European country the pressure on healthcare systems has grown due to an aging population, the rise in non-communicable-diseases and the increase in mental health issues. However, the expenditure in most European countries has remained virtually the same since 2013, when a number of countries cut back on spending due to the financial crisis. Healthcare workers – especially caregivers, nurses, first response units and other healthcare assistants – are some of the most overworked and underpaid employees in our society. Instead of applauding them for their services it should become the goal of governments and health care providers everywhere to reconsider their wages and work structures in order to provide these essential workers with the respect and remuneration they deserve. The issue at heart is this: just as mothers are seen as being inherently the better carers, employees in care related professions are seen as being inherently good of heart. Heroes that sacrifice themselves for the good of mankind. As long as this continues to be the narrative, a skill-based payroll will be extremely difficult to implement.
The foundations of today’s welfare states are still based on the assumption that care is largely provided in private, and by women. Current state support systems are built on the idea of a heterosexual nuclear family unit, in which the male brings in the bulk of the earnings, and women’e participation in the economic market is an “added extra”. This means that there is an inherent contradiction in our economic model. On the one hand, growth capitalism is dependent on large numbers of people, mostly women, to provide low-cost of free care services upon which paid employment is built. On the other hand, those providing the free or low-cost services are supposed to immerse fully into a wage economy, upon which their quality of life, access to health care, education possibilities and old age security is dependent. Care regimes based on unpaid women’s work, when those same women are expected to participate in the labor force, produces a care gap. An economy based on commodification and growth will never be able to account for a system of care. These two logics are irreconcilable.
As we go into 2021 I can only hope that we can come out of the pandemic with a stronger vision of what it means to be human in so many ways. For my mother, my sister and I it has helped us shape our vision of being a company situated at the forefront of emerging themes in gender equality. It is not surprising that the care economy has found a place among the five themes that we will focus on for the coming year (or years, perhaps?). Time seems irrelevant in the face of a global pandemic. Women and the environment, Global Health and well-being, reproductive justice, the care economy and transformative models of leadership are the five themes that will accompany our activities in the coming year. We hope to take you along with us.