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The mighty hausfrau

Susanne Mayer calculates the lost potential that the German housewife represents

My father had one. The German president has one. The neighbour has one, the father-in-law, the school director, Mr Schröder, Professor Norbert Bolz, even Beckmann Reinhold. That bosses always have one goes without saying. Let's say most people do. A colleague of mine said to me, "How can you talk about housewives like that? You're talking about our women here."

But what's the good in keeping quiet about it? The teenage boy on the phone to his friend jeers "Imagine that, mothers spend their whole day being housewives!" I say, "How dare you talk about housewives like that, our best friends are housewives!" The kid wants to know what they do all day, home alone.

It's lucky that this kid is not consulting Google, because if you type in "housewife", up come the pop-ups: "Fancy a bit on the side?" or "Looking for sexual adventure?"

Millions of women in their professional prime, staying home. Ten million, according to Dresdner Bank estimates. Or more? Less? No one knows exactly, nor do they know what they do. Housework, of course, but don't we all do this that even if we're not housewives? Well, the German housewife certainly does more. She holds the nation together. Without the German housewife, Germany would be less German. That would be difficult. Things would start to get uncomfortable.

I know a man who would turn up naked for work if it wasn't for his housewife. When you ask him where he got that nice shirt he says. "In our household Petra always buys the clothes." My little friend Line would never make it to the painting course because her Mum drives her there every Wednesday. Through the rush-hour traffic! Yoga for babies, the circus workshop, extra-curricular woodwork – none of this would exist without the house-chauffeuse. My friend Ursel says "Germany should be grateful to me because I've sacrificed everything so that my children don't become drug addicts."

Yes, we should be grateful. Germany's children would die of thirst because no-one else would buy them milk for school. Children would be wailing in front of their parents' houses because they wouldn't have keys and the door only opens if Mutti opens it. They'd all get dismal marks in school because there'd be no one around to deliver little piles of folded undies into their bedrooms several times a day, to check if it's really possible to do homework with the music blasting. The vastly complex orgies of kids games and the ramified logistics of goody-bags with different components for all guests? Gone! Who would have time for such things?

Of course not all housewives look after children. Almost half of German housewives have no children in their homes. But they are pillars of society too! Electrical equipment would turn to rust because without the aid of the housewife, repair services ("Expect a visit between 10 am and 3 pm") would never get into the house. Dirty washing would moulder. Men would lie weakly at the foot of career ladders without the push of the housewife. Karstadt would have gone bankrupt long ago if, in the supposed peak buying times, no housewife were to put in an appearance. The German bureaucracy would be worked off their feet; who would fill out the forms for supplementary payments? Apartments would turn grey if no one had time to spend concentrating on the living room decor. Country house or Bauhaus, Italian tiles, mosaic perhaps - who would make these decisions? Easter decorations would hang around till autumn. Holidays would pass in silence if no-one took community college classes in Italian, two mornings a week, to prepare for the trip to Tuscany. Germany's dogs would perish because there'd be no-one to take walkies with them four times a day.

These of course are horror visions. But this unscientific, if naturalistic collection of housewifish cultural impressions proves once and for all: our lifestyle is a smug housewife lifestyle. A wonderful thing if you can afford it, as the German middle-classes can. Everyone else rolled up their sleeves long ago and set about earning.

Those who have housewives running around after them have it good. Which is why it was highly audacious of Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen to announce recently that working mothers should receive a parental benefit to substitute their salaries, for a maximum of one year, to get women back into the workplace quickly. Uh oh.

Uproar! Chivalrous husbands threw themselves protectively in front of their housewives. The inevitable happened and in the end, the German housewife-and-mother got her consolation prize of 300 euros a month, which, on top of the tax benefits for married couples, amounts in the best case to 1000 euros a month in state subsidies for the person staying at home. No mean sum in comparison with other unemployed people and their miserable 245 Hartz euros. You could feel the smile stretching across German housewife households.

The state supports the housewife with up to 1000 euros a month

Perhaps they smiled too soon. Already the next day someone dared to question the married-couple tax benefit which allocates 22 billion euros of the federal annual budget to non-working spouses. This, in a country where a once-time investment of four billion euros to get all-day schools (where pupils stay until 4pm instead of the usual 1pm - ed) off the ground seems to be unpayable. Who dared to suggest such a thing? Some CDU politician. Men! You get the feeling we'll be hearing more of this.

The time is ripe. It was only yesterday that the papers were asking if it was a good thing that a woman perfectly capable of working should be sitting at home with the remains of her husband's pension, for decades on end. And who was actually earning this money, month after month? Today we read that the full state health insurance for children had been cut; tomorrow someone will no doubt ask why housewives don't pay into this?

There is a sense of crisis. Men on talk shows make self-important roaring confessions like "I thank my wife that she has done such and such at home..." On the women's side you see nervous gestures of self-assurance. These are condensed into reference book titles like "Darling, how about a day on the sofa?" published by Kösel Verlag, confessional literature, fresh off the press. Surrendering one's profession is presented in this book as a path out of sin, the entry into homeliness like joining a sect, decorating the house as a sacred space, spouse pampering like a spiritual retreat. Too stupid, this "total lack of recognition." And cleaning. Dirt everywhere! "You can motivate yourself by thinking of dust as the visual manifestation of congealed time," it says, "So mop and vacuum to consciously stay in the present!" Hidden accusations everywhere: "I stay at home," says someone called Heike, "because I want my children to have security, quiet, peace and warmth."

Threats, enticements, judicial sophistries, and a healthy dollop of propaganda. This is how the housewife is manufactured in this country. She is the product of high-precision planning. She combines the incentives of monetary privilege with the consistent restriction of alternative living models, such as the refusal of adequate child care. At the same time there is a ritual evocation of article 6 paragraph 1 of the constitutional law, which codifies the promotion of marriage and the family. Of course there is no mention of tax policy. Or of housewives. It just says "family", perhaps politicians don't read to the end of sentences. In a research project for the Centre for Science in Berlin, political scientist Sabine Berghahn analysed how the principle of spouse subsidiarity maintains the gender split and produces a normative effect. In other words: housewifery is made to seem so natural. A mother going for a walk with her child looks idyllic, as if kids wouldn't much rather play with other kids. And suddenly 63 percent of young women think they should spend at least eight years at home. The economic burden of the family shifts unilaterally onto the shoulders of the man, argues Berghahn. What is formally alleged to be equal rights is in fact a circumnavigation of the constitutional law which also codifies equal rights but is unable to enforce them, as one look at the unfair distribution of wages, wealth and poverty shows.

Such a sobering view is rare. Which is why it has remained under wraps for so long that the German housewife is not only a pillar of German society but also Germany's most dire investment catastrophe. For over half a century, women in Germany have received superior education. In the sixties, only 8 percent of women left secondary school with any qualifications, and at the start of the 21 century it is 29 percent. In the early fifties, university degrees among women were around the zero mark, 25 years it was 40,000 and today, 100,000. And what is the result? Let's look around. The wife of a lawyer whose name I will not disclose is actually a teacher, the wife of his colleague a trained doctor, the mother of a friend of my son's is a business economist, a friend of mine a graphic designer whose friend has a PhD in German studies. In spite of their diverse qualifications, all these women do the same job: housewife. Properly employed: very few. Able to finance themselves independently: the minority. The majority of them make only a partial contribution to the household income. Seen this way, instead of studying business studies or medicine, slogging away at doctorates, and forking out for expensive semesters abroad, they might as well have done a diploma in home economics.

The German woman with children under three years old works an average of 5.3 hours a week. If the kids are older than three, the mother works professionally for 12 hours. Statistically the German mother does not work more than 22 hours a week, which according to the 7th family report, is the lowest labour market presence of all European mothers. What do they do with themselves? German mothers do one minute more housework than their working sisters. They spend 20 minutes more a day with their children than parents in neighbouring countries. The time gained by giving up their jobs is not invested in housework but in personal leisure time, according to the 7th family report. An expensive pleasure.

There is much heated discussion about the childlessness of academic women, perhaps to avoid thinking about what female academics who have children are costing us. The bill looks like this: society invests up to 200,000 euros in an academic education. In return it could expect 30,000 euros a year in taxes and social insurance contributions.

So, the woman who takes ten years off creates a 300,000 euro hole in public finances. And in the worst case scenario, she marries a high-earning academic, resulting in a marriage tax subsidy of up to 7,914 euros annually, which over ten years amounts to about 80,000 euros in lost taxes. Ten years of career avoidance results in a loss of 380,000 euros. Privately of course this feels like a profit. And is defended as a "freedom of choice." And those who never return to their jobs can run up a deficit of a million euros. Which is why Scandinavian politicians never tire of asking their counterparts in Berlin why they pay housewife subsidies when billions of euros are lacking for day nurseries, day-care centres for kids, as we know.

But the German housewife doesn't think in euros. Love is her currency. "I love my children so much that I was only too glad to give up my job," she likes to say. How can one reply to this without sounding heartless? She would sacrifice anything for her children's happiness, she says.

Love, happiness. Followed by silence. Silently the housewife irons happiness into our souls. Without happiness our souls would look very crumpled. Without the warmth she radiates, the emotional climate in Germany would be 4.5 degrees lower, in spite of all the World Championship elation.

Funny though, that the housewife still ends up looking like the victim. Perhaps because she has given everything up, perhaps because it didn't seem completely voluntary. The victim, one of life's paradoxes, seems to be a heroine at the same time – the way she copes. She likes to complain that her work is undervalued, she doesn't like to do her sums too precisely. She is a symbol of the wealth of the Bundesrepublik, a housewife is something one should be able to afford. As this wealth disappears, perhaps she too will pass. Or will she?

We are now approaching the final secret of the German housewife, which is that through all the globalisation, the collapse of the budget funds, and cost cutting – she keeps a low profile. She goes unnoticed when the cost-cutting pencil glides down the long lists making ticks, crossing things out - money for school books; there is even a brief moment of hesitation when it gets to civil servant cars and chauffeurs. But housewife? Married couple tax benefits? They stay off the list. Why not?

The housewife has friends in high places. They are heads of divisions, state secretaries, ministers. Most of them have a housewife. One mustn't think of conspiracy immediately. After all, it is one of the duties of the housewife to provide her husband with advice. And the housewife has a well-networked power base, we are all obligatory members. The talk is of bad conscience, bitter longing and wild drives.

A collective guilt surfaces when the housewife topic is raised. This is the person to whom one delegates all those things one doesn't want to do oneself! Constantly buying milk. The stupid washing. O Mummy, you are the best, no one can do that like you, certainly not me. He he.

Our collective longing recognises in the housewife a woman who can do whatever she wants! After buying milk, a little chin-wag. No boss, hardly any duties. The housewife embodies a dream of a life that is not controlled, one that is not clocked into labour agreements. "Sit down," says the housewife-friend, "I'll make you something to eat. I'm not pushed for time." Is this what used to be known as leisure? When this reserve is ground down, then the same modern wind will blow throughout the world, and even the children will get short-changed on quality time.

The drives circulate in all cells and whisper: invest where the young have the best chances. If necessary, in housewives. That's genetics. And reason makes her right. Raising theyoung without the housewife – that's almost impossible in Germany. In large part because there are not enough competent women in leadership positions to change it.

To sum up: without housewives, the German school system would have to swear an oath of disclosure. We would need all-day schooling. Traffic would have to be calmed down so that children could cross streets on their own. Men would have to do their own laundry. And milk runs would become a family affair. The sexes would have to re-define themselves. The German tax and social systems would have to be re-balanced. Women would be forced to re-conceive themselves financially, as tax subjects. Even Bosch repair services would be forced to re-organise their service. Of course, that wouldn't be, on closer consideration, such a bad idea.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit on July 13, 2006.

Susanne Mayer, born 1952, is a journalist at Die Zeit. She is author of "Deutschland Armes Kinderland" (Germany, poor children's land), a radical plea for the re-integration of children into contemporary society.

Translation: lp and nb - let's talk european