Nanny in NYC

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Friday, May 05, 2006

The Rabenmutter and the Consequences of Choice

The rise to power of Angela Merkel, the woman at the head of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Party who recently ousted Gerhard Schröder to become Germany's Chancellor, has highlighted the little discussed but very real hostility the Germans have for working mothers. Ms. Merkel is not a mother herself, but she has appointed Ursula von der Leyen, a physician and mother of seven (the whole family is pictured above in all their blonde glory), as minister for family affairs.
To her critics, many of whom belong to her own conservative Christian Democratic Party, Dr. von der Leyen is Germany's latest incarnation of the Rabenmutter--a driven creature determined to impose her own superhuman lifestyle on women who can neither deal with it nor afford it.
(Despite the fact that birders will tell you ravens are excellent mothers, the imagery of the phrase is pretty potent, I feel.)

These critics argue that German women understand the importance of motherhood and shouldn't want to leave their children for personal fulfillment outside the home. It is Dr. von der Leyen's viewpoint, however that seems to be supported by the facts. She is quoted in a recent NY Times article as having said:
The question is not whether women will work . . . They will work. The question is whether they will have kids.
And the answer German women have been giving to that question for the past few decades is a decided "NO".
[Germany] now has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. The number of children born here in 2005 was the lowest in a single year since 1945. If the trend holds, the population will decline 17 percent by 2050--hobbling the economy and an already-strained social system.
Those numbers speak to a new trend in feminism, it's not the militancy of our mothers that drives women of the twenty first century, but rather a practicality that says to the patriarchy "If choices must be made, we will make them. Just don't expect them to be the choices you'd like us to make."

Recently Anna Quindlen, in her back page column in Newsweek, eulogized the way things were in a world before there were so many choices for the women of the western world. She did so through a review of the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler. Of these girls who went away, Quindlen says
I knew instantly who they were: the girls who disappeared, allegedly to visit distant relatives or take summer jobs in faraway beach towns, when they were actually in homes for unwed mothers giving birth and then giving up their children. They came back with dead eyes and bad reputations . . . And they came back riddled with pain and rage and an unspeakable sense of loss.
She contrasts this with the choices that face girls who find themselves in the same situation today
A pregnant 16-year-old might . . . have the abortion. Or she might have the baby and raise it with her family's help, or give it up for adoption after handpicking the adoptive parents and drawing up a contract allowing her to visit the child from time to time. It's a whole new world, in which female sexual behavior is no longer a moral felony.
As a child of the eighties and nineties, I can hardly wrap my mind around the ways women must have lived their lives in the pre-Betty Friedan, pre-Roe v. Wade, pre-bra burning era. The overwhelming emotion seems to have been resignation. Beyond choosing a husband, what decisions did these women take responsibility for? I'm sure there were a myriad of daily responsibilities, but overall there must have been such a feeling of helplessness and anxiety.

Ok--here's the quantum leap in my argument, ready?

That's what I observe in my friends today, that overaching anxiety about a world where they have little responsibility, little choice, little role. Which friends, you ask? Those would be my male friends. Maybe it sounds like a crazy observation, maybe I just have very anxious male friends, but honestly I feel that what I once took to be character flaws in an isolated few, is actually an epidemic among the men of my age group.

Here's an anecdote, by way of example: I have a good friend who works freelance and really enjoys the freedom it allows him to have over his schedule and his life. Recently he began working on a 2 month project at a company he'd worked for when he was right out of college. At dinner last week, when I asked how things were going, he slumped his shoulders and sighed. Then he began to relate how all of his colleagues who had worked with him there before had been coming by his cubicle to tell him how glad they were that he was back and how they'd all rallied for him to get this project. "I'm afraid they are trying to get me to come back permanently," he said finally, with real paranoia in his voice. When I informed him that he was the only one in control of where he works or doesn't work he smirked and shrugged, like, "Of course I know that." But at my words the fear had dropped from his voice, and I knew that before he didn't know.

I know that is pretty much an extreme example, but it wasn't in any way an isolated incident. My male friends operate in continual states of assumed lack of free will. They don't steer their own courses through career, relationship or recreation. They are constant critics of other people's choices, but when it comes down to making their own the eyes glaze over and they're ten times more likely to go with what they feel people want them to choose rather than what they want themselves. So they end up in jobs they don't want, doing favors they wish they weren't, going on trips when they'd rather stay home, staying home when they'd rather go on trips, getting a dog they hate, staying in a relationship with a girl they've long stopped caring for, living where they wish they didn't, and not understanding why no one respects the decisions they're not making.

And how did they turn out this way? I'm not sure I have the complete answer just yet, but I really believe it comes down to the politics of choice. In my generation choice was given to the girls and the boys were left out in the cold. It was hammered into the heads of girls that they could do anything, be anything while the boys were taught idiotic phrases such as "No means No" which were meant to give them protection and moral guidance. But those phrases were predicated on lies and halftruths and I don't think it took teenage boys very long to find that out for themselves.

I know I just have to live with the generation of men I've been given, but what about the generation I'm helping to grow up? Maybe I've just frightened myself into seeing it, but I swear that I already feel a sense of angry uselessness from Sam, and he's only 8 now. It's hard to teach things like discipline and control to a child who believes his actions have no consequences.

But I refuse to believe that one of the genders must be sacrificed. There is no reason why we can't have strong women and men grow up together, right? Equality is not a goal that I'm interested in giving up anytime soon.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think it's a bit of a stretch to tie reproductive choice to a general malaise in male twenty-somethings, but you do have some kind of point.

I worry about my 12 & 9 year old sons who sit all day in a classroom & then come home to sit and do homework. In a way they're physically little savages who should be sent out to hunt & hike & chop wood or some such taxing activities. It is true that we're not necessarily serving boys needs as best we could.

I'm just hoping karate twice a week is a step in the right direction

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a true phenomenon and not your is why we are seeing male midlife crisis at 30-something now and not "mid-life." They are pushed into a mold our society has created, and although still have many more perceived opportunities for career advancement than women, they feel trapped. In raising our children, we should encourage freedom of choice no matter the gender.

7:31 PM  

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