I’ve been living in Berlin for so long now that when I go home to the UK, I feel like a German tourist. Even when hanging out with old mates from high school or uni, their behaviours, their attitudes, their very souls seem so weird, so wild, so British to me.
I went back last December and hung out with a group of lads I’d known really well at uni – as a German tourist, I had my wallet stuffed full of pound notes, because I expected London to be expensive. But we didn’t end up spending much at all, because the boys had got cocaine on them – I don’t know if I should be admitting to this publicly; if I shouldn’t be admitting to this publicly, please tell the Staatsanwaltschaft that cocaine is a metaphor for swanky cocktails – and they wouldn’t let me pay for anything.
Please tell the Staatsanwaltschaft that cocaine is a metaphor for swanky cocktails
“JACINTA IS A SINGLE MOTHER!” they screamed at each other. “PUT YOUR HAND IN YOUR POCKET YOU STINGY SCUMBAG, WE’RE NOT TAKING MONEY OFF OF A SINGLE MUM FOR COCAINE AT CHRISTMAS!” “Jacinta, put your money away. Tony’s going to cough up for coke for once in his life.” “I’ve got loads of money,” I said happily. “Look at all this money!” I waved my pounds about. The boys looked at each other.
My friend Ralph said: “She’s a SINGLE MOTHER. Like, how are you going to wake up on Christmas Day, knowing there are kids out there, in like–” he waved vaguely at me. “East Berlin…” “I live in the West,” I said. “Actually, it’s perfectly in the middle, but it’s in Tempelhof, so it’s officially West Berlin.”
“…not getting like an X-Box or whatever, because you won’t put your hand in your fucking pocket? PUT YOUR MONEY AWAY JACINTA, YOU ARE A SINGLE MOTHER – SINGLE MUMS DON’T PAY FOR THEIR OWN COCAINE AT CHRISTMAS!” “Jesus wouldn’t approve,” Tony agreed.
A couple of weeks later, a few days before Christmas, I was out with my East German mate Heino in Prenzlauer Berg. East Germans, East Berliners in particular, tend to have a very chilled out attitude towards single parenthood and family planning. They aren’t affected by Christian moralising about marriage and stuff – most of my East German mates have never even read the Bible or set foot inside a church. Heino has three kids from three different women, and he definitely isn’t a deadbeat. He knows all his kids, and his oldest boy even moved in with him for a bit. I told Heino about Ralph and Tony’s fight and how much fun it was, not paying for stuff.
“Twenty-three years in this country,” I said, “and I don’t think any German man has ever, EVER, in the history of German men hanging out with me in December, offered to buy me anything because I’m a single mum and Christmas is coming up. Not even a glass of wine for €1.50. I wouldn’t even ask you to. I guess the men in Britain have a bit more solidarity with single mothers than the Berliners?”
“Well, we’re all single dads ourselves,” Heino said.
I looked at him a bit sceptically then. He’s not a deadbeat – he’s a good dad – but he isn’t a single dad. Not REALLY. He’s a part-time dad, a Teilzeitpapa, really.
The German word for single parent is Alleinerziehende. When I arrived in Germany, I was impressed by how modern and non-stigmatised it sounded. And I liked that it focused on the act of raising your kid, on the experience as a verb. I was born in 1980, and the 1980s were a dark time for single mothers in Britain. The tabloids – and society in general – used the word single mother as a literal insult. Alleinerziehende sounded much cooler than single mum, more like lone parent – more active, optimistic. A single mum sounded like someone stuck in a council flat, with no education, no prospects, no hope. Whereas Alleinerziehende could do anything they wanted.
I feel like single parenthood in general, and single motherhood in particular, is more stigmatised in Germany now than it was in the early 2000s. The CDU and AfD are popular, and the ideal of one man earning money and one mum looking after the kids is far more normalised now than when I arrived – maybe even glorified. However, I gotta say, back in “the day” it was EASIER to be a single mum and have a great life. My rent was €279, and I got to keep my Erziehungsgeld (single parent benefit) despite being on Hartz IV, and yeah, the food in Berlin was awful but it was also cheap as fuck. I sometimes wonder whether the stigma towards single parenthood is connected to a rise in conservative family values. A lot of it is to do with the cost of living, and the fact that it’s very hard – almost impossible – for one person to keep an entire family alive when people are paying €3,000 worth of rent nowadays. Maybe if it’s harder to survive, the decision to parent alone seems more reckless.
Having said all this, I do think those part-time weekend East German dads in the 90s and early noughties got off a bit lightly. They didn’t do 50% of the childcare, they didn’t pay any child maintenance or Unterhalt (child support) – and they never even dreamed of treating their single mum friends to a bit of coke.