Photo by Veronica Jonsson
With over one in four women raising their kids ‘alone’, Berlin is Germany’s single mum capital. But it isn’t all stress, loneliness and destitution as the media would have it. We talked to a new generation of thriving independent Berlin Mütter.
West Berlin, right before the fall of the Wall. Gabi, an administrative assistant at an airline, found herself pregnant at age 32. She had previously thought herself infertile, and was shocked to find herself expecting after a brief love affair with an acquaintance from work. Even more surprising was when she found out that the father was married back in his home country of Israel – and had no intention of supporting the child. She was left with two options: become a single mother, or no mother at all.
Now 55, sitting in her lived-in Neukölln apartment and cradling a chubby cat on a worn couch, Gabi remembers the situation with surprisingly little bitterness. “I knew this was my chance. To be a mother, to take care of something.” At the time, abortion was legal but raising a child alone was frowned upon by employers, her religiously conservative family, and even by social services. “I went to these support offices and I was annoyed because they’d never give me advice about how to keep the baby. I said, ‘Listen, I’m not here to find out how to get rid of it, I’m here to find out what kind of support I get when I want to keep it!’”
A feminist? I’m rather an egoist...
Berlin was unique in the rest of Germany for allowing single mothers to get social welfare, rather than obligating the parents of the mother to support her and child. That didn’t mean, however, that being a single mother was socially accepted. Gabi almost immediately lost her job, and had trouble finding and keeping one for years after, with employers always inquiring about her marital status and child care options. Meanwhile, she was cut out of her friends’ activities and chided by strangers in restaurants and on the streets if the baby was crying. “To be in that small apartment, completely on my own – I thought I would go mad!”
Looking back now, she thinks the tough times were worth it. “Money is not everything. Being a single mother means you have to be prepared to give all of your time. And that has paid off. I still don’t have a lot of money, but I have a strong relationship with my child.”
Today, 34.6 percent of families in Berlin are headed by a single parent, more than anywhere else in the country. Many of them are in dire financial straits: a recent study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung found there are more than twice as many single-parent-headed families on Hartz-IV as two-parent households in Berlin. And changes to the law have steadily become more unfavourable to them. In 2003, an allowance granting single parents a tax benefit was eliminated. And as of 2008, single parents receive less support from their exes once the child is over the age of three and in daycare.
Yet many of these women are rejecting the image of the single mum as lonely, poor and unhappy. Instead, they’re revelling in single parenthood, finding new ways to balance their children, careers and social lives.
Sitting at her kitchen table, crowded with pistachio shells, books, plants and school papers, Mila* is calmly sipping a glass of Shiraz. Cheeks slightly flushed from the wine, she smiles conspiratorially as her roommate Ulrike* ducks in to grab some shot glasses from a top shelf.
Tonight, she’s on duty, which means she has to look after the two young children in her WG – Ulrike’s five-year-old son, and her own fouryear- old daughter. The 35-year-old young woman hardly looks like the stereotypical Übermutter.
“I didn’t want this small family-structured relationship, I was bored. I thought, if this is all of my life, I find it depressing.” After living together with her boyfriend and baby in Halle, she grew desperate for a change. They decided to move to Berlin – but to separate. Rather than live by herself, she decided to move into a WG with another mother-child duo.
The two roommates help one another with child care, cleaning and even laying down rules for their children. “Ulrike has a strong relationship with my daughter, and I have a strong relationship with her son.” Mila’s ex-boyfriend lives nearby and visits frequently, but over several years of living together, she and Ulrike seem to have effortlessly found a balance in their childcare tactics without any men involved. Is removing them from the equation the solution? No, Mila says, she has lived with men before and wouldn’t mind it in the future. Yet, she considers her ‘single mums’ co-parenting situation to be the best adapted solution to her goals and expectations in life. “I wanted to be more than a teacher with a half-time job. Now I am a teacher with a half-time job, but I’m also studying – this wouldn’t have been possible in the previous situation.”
She is reluctant to call it a family but at the same time, she says that if she and Ulrike were to lose this apartment they would look for another place together – only, perhaps, in an even larger constellation. When asked whether she considers herself a feminist, she laughs, “A feminist – no. I’m rather an egoist...”
Basking in the sun on a terrace next to her daughter’s Kita, petite actress/model Cordelia*, 27, insists she is not a single mother. “There are so many different influences. Even the gymnastics teacher whom I don’t even know raises my daughter.” Fouryear- old Anna* soon appears and jumps into her mother’s arms. Private jokes and laughter follow in a happy English chitchat – a pretty picture of motherdaughter bliss.
Even if a woman breaks up with the child’s father, it doesn’t mean that she’ll be alone for the rest of her life.
Cordelia was only 22 when she found out she was pregnant – her boyfriend immediately proposed and the two young parents embarked on a series of travels through Europe and the US, before finally deciding to settle in Berlin. But one and a half years ago, Cordelia left her husband, taking Anna with her. “At some point, I just fell out of love.” Since November 2012 mother and daughter have been living together in a Neukölln flat which they share with one of Cordelia’s friends, a single father who owns the bar in the building.
Anna’s dad, who lives a mere U-Bahn station away, is still part of the picture, although on a more improvised basis, mostly taking over whenever Cordelia – whose modelling career has taken off in the last two years – needs to travel to Milan, Kiev, or Paris for work. When he can’t, there are always the friends...
One of the most intriguing things about Cordelia is her serenity. How does she manage? “I plan to only get one thing done a day. If I have to take Anna to gymnastics class, then that’s what I’ll do.” And it works!
The pressures of managing her time as a single mother and frequent travels for work don’t seem to affect her much. In fact, she even says that it was only after having her daughter that she started investing herself fully in her career. She is in the minority. In a 2013 report, the German Institute for Employment Research report points out that although single mothers are highly “market oriented”, applying for and taking jobs, they are often prevented from exiting from the low-paid margins to positions that might not be “family compatible.”
One solution is to become your own boss and set your own work schedule. Tall and stylish, 42-year-old furniture designer Katja looks like she might have stepped out of the club a few hours ago. She loves to travel the world with her 11-year-old daughter Lou: “Miami, Israel, Costa Rica, Morocco... I try to do it as much as possible, as long as she still wants to travel with me.”
When it comes to parenting, Katja resents the expression “single mother” because “even if a woman breaks up with the child’s father, it doesn’t mean that she’ll be alone for the rest of her life”. Lou was five when her mum and dad broke up and doesn’t remember the separation. For the last six years, she’s lived with Katja, who’s been solely providing for her material wellbeing. “We’re a bit of a team,” says Katja.
But the two of them are not alone. Lou’s dad, a French photographer and musician, has remained a constant emotional presence in Lou’s life. He visits regularly, helps with babysitting and is present for family occasions, like Christmas or Lou’s birthday. “Lou loves her dad. I guess we all get along pretty well,” says Katja. more surprisingly, Katja also has a great relationship with Lou’s father’s previous wife and their 19-year-old son, Lou’s stepbrother, whom they often visit in the south of France; he also spends every summer in Berlin and is currently staying with Katja and Lou for the time of his Berlin internship. Katja calls them “the French side of the family”. But her family also claims a “Danish side”. Shortly after separating from Lou’s father, Katja met another single father with a half-Danish daughter, Lola, the same age as Lou. They all lived together for two and a half years and the two girls became ‘sisters’. “Lou was quickly adopted by the Danish family,” laughs Katja. Although their respective parents have now split up, the girls still spend a lot of time together, and many weekends are shared between Katja’s place and Lola’s mother’s (coincidentally only a few tram stops away, in the same street as Lou’s dad). Lola’s mother is “a friend”. as for her ex-partner, “he still bakes cakes for us on our birthdays,” sums up Katja.
“I feel like with each of these relationships our family has been growing,” says Katja. Does she ever envy long term couples? “In many cases I’m glad I’m not one of them; I think it’s a lot of work... which doesn’t mean it’s not worth the battle. As for me, I have this base with my daughter: we are grounded but free at the same time. When a new partner shows up, ideally he’ll plop into the setting and join the ride.”
Confident and open minded, Katja seems to be the culmination of progressive thought. Would she recommend this type of parenthood to other women? “I like this lifestyle but I wouldn’t idealise it either. If you want to do it, just make sure you have lots of people around you and don’t get overprotective. Give your child freedom, respect and love and it will all come back to you.”
* Names changed.
Single parents* by the numbers
Berlin has the highest percentage of single-parent families in Germany with 34.6 percent, nearly twice the country’s average of 19.9 percent. Rheinland-Pfalz has the lowest, with 11.5 percent in 2011.
- There are 149,300 single parents in Berlin. The largest number (15.5 percent) live in Pankow.
- Single parents in Berlin are more than twice as likely to be on welfare: 49.9 percent as compared to 20.8 percent for two-parent households.
- Single parents are less likely to be healthy – physically or mentally. A 2014 survey by AOK showed 48 percent of single parents claiming good health, as opposed to 70 percent of partnered parents.
*A parent is considered “single” when she/he is the person primarily living with the child.
Sources: Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth, 2012 - Federal Statistics Office, 2012 - Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2014
Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.