The German word for guilt and blame are the same: Schuld. If you want to blame someone for something, you give them guilt – die Schuld geben. And there aren’t many mothers living in Germany who’ll find this fact surprising. They just can’t seem to get it right: if they’re not around their kids 24/7, they’re branded Rabenmütter – raven mothers. But if they care for them too much, they’re helicopter mums. If they stay home to look after their children, they’re pampered latte macchiato mamas. Mothers who let their kids have sweeties get the blame if their teeth turn black – but if they give their babies too much organic food, they’re definitely responsible when those babies as teenagers get anorexia! Mothers who sign their six-month-olds up for Montessori Mandarin get shamed. Mothers who take their three-year-olds to see Frozen 2 get shamed. Mothers who leave their abusive exes, mothers who sleep around, mothers who get their kids to school late. Mothers get blamed, shamed and guilted into thinking they are doing everything wrong.
“There’s a reason the word Rabenmütter exists in German,” explains the Frankfurt-based feminist and author of Schwangerwerden-können, Antje Schrupp. Like many intellectual feminists who are in their fifties today, she decided not to have kids so that she could focus on her career. “It’s so that mothers will have guilty consciences about not being good enough – and do all the work themselves! That way, society as a whole can be absolved of any guilt for leaving mums so alone with the task of caregiving.”
Even with gender roles supposedly changing and with men in Germany able to take paternal leave since 2001, when something goes awry, it’s still the mothers having to answer for it. Take Linda, a high-achieving Prenzlauer Berg mum, the kind of woman who seems to have it all. When she found out she was pregnant, she and her partner made an agreement: “After my maternity leave was over, when our kiddo, Eric, was about 11 months old, my partner would handle household duties and kita pick-up,” she explains. With her being a full-time acquisitions manager at a large Berlin company, working under high pressure, travelling lots and having a corresponding pay-check, the arrangement made sense. Unfortunately, Linda’s partner turned out not to be very reliable: “He was late quite a few times or, for example, he’d forget that kita pick-up on one particular weekday is an hour early, so Eric was stuck in kita up to an hour past closing time.” And whenever something went wrong, the kita called Linda. “They called me out of meetings and conferences which affected my performance negatively. And of course my colleagues kept talking about the mother being unreliable.” But Linda also had to put up with a lot of critical comments from the staff, too. “There were comments made by the teachers – stuff like ‘Maybe it is a bit early to work full-time again?’, ‘Maybe find a job with less travel?’, ‘Fathers usually can’t handle these things as well as mothers.’” In the end, the guilt got to Linda and after only six months she gave up her job for a less demanding one: “I was so stressed out. I accepted a 30 percent pay cut because the new job offered 32 hours instead of 40!” She ended up splitting up with her partner, returning to full-time work, and forcing him to take full responsibility on his days. She says the only way for working mothers to deal with the shame and blame they receive is to set clear boundaries, teach the kita staff to see the fathers as equal parents, and to refuse to feel any guilt whatsoever. She says it can be done – but you have to set your mind to it.
In my eldest boy’s class, I was the only stay-at-home mum – and the other mothers looked at me as if I were a freak of nature.
School and kita staff are a lot happier with Sophie, a mother of three and “a proud Vollzeit-mummy” as she calls herself. She’s on the board of her boys’ school bodies, gets elected as parent representative every year and attends every fundraiser and school activity. “When my husband and I got married we had a plan: three kids. He’d work on his career and bring the money home and I’d dedicate myself to the children.” But after she moved from Bavaria to Berlin-Mitte, Sophie suddenly felt judged and shamed for her choice – by other mums! “I was among a tiny minority! In my eldest boy’s class, I was the only stay-at-home mum – and the other mothers looked at me as if I were a freak of nature, my life a waste of time – I felt like a total outsider,” she says. “I often hear comments on how I’m ‘Little Mrs. Perfect Mum’ in that condescending way. Or stuff like ‘Aren’t you bored?’ as if I wasn’t busy from morning to evening!” Sophie likes to describe herself as “boss of a small family company” because, as she puts it: “It’s a full-time business!” She was proud of it and it angered her that she was supposed to feel guilty for it. “I started feeling really out of place and unhappy.”
Women who are trying to balance work and motherhood get criticised for it, and the ones who don’t, have it hard too. And when shame and blame does not come from kita staff for being neglectful, count on your own family to guilt-trip you! Take Jenni, for instance, a 26-year-old mother from Mahlsdorf. She’s shamed by her own family – for breastfeeding. Her baby is just five months old. “I don’t think my mum means to be critical when she gives me advice. It just comes out wrong. She thinks it’s too much of a hassle for me and that bottle-feeding would be easier,” she explains. “But she doesn’t get the emotional layer to it at all. My mum actually said to me ‘Don’t be silly, Jenni, nobody breastfeeds for a year!’” Has the criticism ever made Jenni toy with the idea of giving up breastfeeding early? “Oh no,” she says, laughing. “I do things my own way, regardless of what my family says. But it definitely bothers me, because it feels like they don’t respect my parenting decisions. I feel like they belittle my parenting style. Sometimes I feel like shouting: I’m not a kid, I have a kid, for fuck’s sake!”
Belittling women’s parenting choices and infantilising them is an important component of mum shaming. And sometimes, it’s even psychologists who partake in this. Anja, a successful acting coach in her late forties, lives in Prenzlauer Berg with her 10-year-old son. Her crime? Loving him too much. She explains that the father of her child never lived with them as a family, even before they got divorced. “He never really found the time for us,” she says, candidly. “Not even for the birth, to be honest. It was always just the two of us. I’ve had to be everything for our son – mother and father, the strict one and the fun one.” Her ex-husband lived in Paris and her son would go to visit him for a few days or weeks at a time. “My son is ever so clingy. And I can understand it. I have been the only constant thing in his life. We have a really good relationship, I think. He likes to sleep in my bed and spend time with me. He says, ‘I am happiest when I am with Mama.’ But I need to work, sometimes to go away on trips and it gets very difficult.” One day, Anja’s son suddenly announced that he did not want to visit his dad anymore. At that point, she decided to seek professional psychological support to help them through this difficult situation. She was surprised by the psychologist’s response: “I thought a psychologist would help me set boundaries – boundaries for me, boundaries for our relationship. That was the support I was looking for. Instead, he blamed me for my child’s clinginess! In very strong words, too.” Anja’s family psychologist told her that she was likely to cause her son severe and irreversible psychological problems if she didn’t immediately stop letting him sleep in her bed. “After I met him, I felt so guilt-tripped, I was totally devastated.” Anja pauses to think, and then she says something which really gets to the crux of our mother-shaming culture: “I just think it is really unfair that the parent who stays is to blame for everything, and the parent who goes away never has to deal with anything.”
In a sense, Anja is lucky that the psychologist didn’t go as far as making her responsible for her son’s reticence to visit his dad. Because another thing to blame women for in Germany is Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). The term describes the phenomenon of unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility a child displays towards a parent. The estrangement is typically attributed to the other parent’s anger and negative portrayal of their ex-partner. It’s mostly mothers who get accused of this syndrome, and in Germany it often plays a role in custody battles. Wolfgang Hammer, sociologist and youth welfare expert from Hamburg, is very vocal on the subject and warns that “in Germany there is a relatively high risk that single mothers and their children will be separated from each other after a divorce or a separation.” For this, he blames “questionable psychological definitions and dubious diagnoses”, including PAS.
Anne, a Frenchwoman who had three children with an Austrian here in Berlin, and had to fight a two-year custody battle to be able to bring her three children back to France, was surprised to be warned against this by her lawyer. “She told me I had to be very careful. If the court ended up deciding I was guilty of PAS, I would end up losing custody completely,” Anne remembers. “I felt, for a long time, that I couldn’t be myself with my children. That any moves of mine might be wrongly interpreted. It was a very stressful time, very unhappy.”
It seems that mothers can’t win. As far as Antje Schrupp is concerned, the rampant mum shaming has a function: “Society in general doesn’t feel responsible for care work in general or childcare in particular. And because of this, it’s very important that mothers should be made to feel responsible for everything. And if they don’t manage, they’re failures.” Because what would a world in which mothers don’t feel guilty look like? Perhaps it’s time to accept that it does, in fact, take a village to raise a child, and that nobody is perfect.