By Ellie Walden
To fund the pâtisserie addiction I developed whilst studying in Paris a few years back, I found myself a part-time job as a nounou for two young girls living in a rather affluent suburb of la Capitale. Three times a week after my long and excruciatingly French lectures were done, I would trot off on the metro and pick up the elder girl from school, and, together, we would hit the park for an hour before it got dark. The population of the park was always the same: masses of screaming primary school-aged children, running in between gatherings of brightly-clad, Afro-Caribbean women who were loudly talking and laughing in a mixture of French and Creole. Every few minutes, one of the women would interrupt the conversation to go into the stampede of children and find one of the little white Jean-Pauls or Charlottes that they were responsible for that day. Interspersed between these groups of women was the odd foreign exchange student, sitting alone, like me, eyes glued to their smartphones. What I never saw at the park was anyone who remotely looked like the mothers of these children, and this realisation made me reflect on the different conceptions of motherhood we have across Europe.
France, for example, has one of the highest rates of mothers returning to the job market, representing 48% of the total workforce, just behind Scandinavia. Meanwhile, French primary schools generally close between 15.00 and 16.30, 11.30 on Wednesdays. On top of this, the French state gives direct financial assistance through tax rebates to couples who employ a nanny for more than 5 hours a week. This has led to the establishment of a strong nanny culture, as has long existed in cities like London and New York.
In Paris, like many other major European cities, couples often use the opportunity to employ foreign, for the most part Anglophone, childminders. From my experience, this norm of employing a babysitter has turned into a kind of social status game. Finding an authentic Anglophone nounou is the ultimate ambition of any well-to-do family, and there are numerous agencies and groups who offer assistance in this search. If that Anglophone babysitter is expensively educated and therefore will help their child ace their maths test, move up a level. If that expensively-educated Anglophone babysitter can also teach their child piano, or how to make origami swans, move up a level. And so on. A friend of mine currently living in Paris recently described to me the way the family she is babysitting for has become embroiled in such a competition. This explains how she found herself being asked one evening to prepare lobster for the family’s dinner guests…
However, the nanny culture is far from the norm across Europe. In France’s neighbour, Germany, for example, mothers are the main populous of children’s playgrounds. Historically, the culture of a strong mother figure was driven ideologically by the Nazis and has since been reinforced through post-war reluctance to give a centralised state large control over education and childcare. This has led to a, until very recently, severely underdeveloped childcare infrastructure, which goes some way to explaining why German mothers today take on a far greater proportion of the childcare responsibilities compared to their French counterparts. Only 14 percent of German mothers return to full-time work after having one child, and only 6 percent after Baby No. 2. This behaviour continues in the long-term, with the average Western German mother only working 25 hours a week 10 years after the birth of her last child.
We now move to Sweden and its famously progressive family policy, sitting in the north, looking down on the rest of us. In Sweden, like in Germany, there is a strong social norm surrounding the importance of parents spending time with their children, something which is backed up on a practical level with a generous 1.5 years of paid parental leave per child. However, similar to France, the ideal of ‘working mums’ is also strong, supported by the high quality, subsidised daycare available. This has led to a commonly shared view in Swedish society that children should either be looked after by professionals of the state, or the parents themselves. As a result, Sweden is one of the few countries where there is a prominent political debate about stretching the concept of daycare to include services for parents who work night shifts - a concept termed as ‘nattis’, (night)care. In light of all this, the nanny culture in Sweden is barely existent and the concept of relying on private nannies outside of crèche opening hours is itself frowned upon. As one Swedish friend put it to me, whilst it is definitely practically possible for mums to leave their child with a nanny after the crèche (as in France, this practice is also subsidised by the state), the act of doing so is seen as a somewhat foreign style of parenting, something tied to an old-school, upper class culture.
So, to take a step back, it is clear that the conception of motherhood and its role in society varies greatly across our unified-not-so-unified European Union.
In countries such as the UK and France, a strong nanny culture helps to facilitate a positive social image of the working mother (one which can only be fulfilled by those from higher social classes, but one which the lower classes often aspire to). For many in this kind of culture, the role model mothers are those who sit at their desks past 6pm, boosting their company’s profit sales, whilst leaving their children at home, fluently chatting away in a second language to their babysitter. Meanwhile in countries such as Germany and Sweden, whether because or in spite of, the childcare infrastructures in place, women would frequently be chastised for adopting such a parenting style. Proof of this can be found in the semi-derogatory term “latchkey kids” popularly known in both of these countries: denoting children who go home from school to an empty house, or where there is little parent supervision.
So where does this leave us when analysing the disparate norms surrounding motherhood with a critical feminist eye? Relating to female empowerment, there are clearly negative and positive aspects to each model, and your preferred flavour will depend to a large extent upon the brand of feminism you subscribe to. The essentialist feminist would perhaps be more inclined to see the duties which come with motherhood as part of all that is glorious about femininity. Fully embracing these roles can therefore be seen as an important part of female self-fulfilment. By contrast, feminists who see human nature as strictly androgynous, would probably be more likely to take the view that such norms are altogether archaic, and represent a retreat from genuine equality.
Whatever your own personal feminist conception of motherhood: whether you think that women can make an authentic choice to take on a purely domestic role, or whether you would yourself leave your child with a (probably very lovely) English babysitter so that you can stay late at the office, as feminists, we can all hopefully agree upon one thing – society should never dictate the choices that are available to women. Restrictive gender norms will never help us in the struggle towards genuine emancipation. In order to fight such norms, we need to have an open and honest discussion about the social pressures upon mothers in Europe today. It was true in the 1970s, and it is still true today – equality starts in the home.
Ellie Walden is a recent graduate from UCL with an (interestingly timed) degree in European Politics. Since graduating, she has exiled herself to Brussels and is currently coordinating a project tackling sexism in advertising at a European Communications Network. Her interests include femleft politics, vegetarian cooking, and obsessing over dogs and puppies.
(Photo source, http://://julieblair.com/forgiveness-and-the-working-mother/)