“I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint” that’s what Meredith Brooks sings in one of her songs. For me, it describes perfectly the contradictory roles women need to fulfill.
As I grew up as a girl in Germany I experienced those expectations, too. I am female so I should have children one day, I should have a career, I should be sexy but never too sexy, I should be smart but only interested in literature and languages, I should be caring and kind but strong enough to deal with everyday sexism. But do we want to fulfill those expectations and is it possible at all to fulfill them?
There are so many expectations about how a woman should behave. Therefore, I will only focus on one question: Is it possible to have a career and a family?
In a conservative welfare state like Germany, the political incentive structure (e.g. through the tax law or through child benefits in cash instead of free child care) pushes women to stay at home and take care of their children – at least for a few years. Not participating in the labor market comes along with a devaluation of human capital as well as a lack of social insurance contribution. That is a system that drives especially single mothers into poverty and we all know about the high divorce rates in western societies. We know that we might raise our children alone. That implies that German women must choose between financial security and having a family while men can have both.
However, I had to move to Denmark to feel how it is to be a woman in a social democratic welfare state which is committed to universalism. Social security is not based on prior social insurance contributions and social services like child care (no parent pays more than 25% of the costs) allow mothers to work and increase their human capital. Nearly all women in Denmark go back to work after having children and most men take about three months paternity leave. In Denmark, the negative impact of being a mother on the financial security is not nearly as high as in Germany. It is a country where a single mother won’t be an impoverished grandmother.
Moreover, I had the feeling that a state that makes having children easier affects parents to be more relaxed about raising their children. In Denmark, I have seen children climbing on a container, jumping into the harbor basin and sitting on the bow of a driving motor boat. The parents have been somewhere around all the time but nobody told the children that what they are doing might be too dangerous. There is simply no need to be a “perfect” over-caring mother.
I never wanted to have children but in Denmark, I lived in a society where having children is not the project of your life where no one supports you and you are not allowed to make any mistakes. For the first time in my life, I thought “If I can use my cargo bike (which I initially bought for transporting beer) to carry my child with me (like every Dane is doing it) even I might be a mother one day.”