Treatment of Motherhood Illustrates Divides in European Union
When a Conservative member of Parliament suggested this month that Prime Minister David Cameron should not return from euro crisis talks in Brussels like Neville Chamberlain, the man who sought to appease Hitler, it reminded me of my first meeting with my husband’s grandmother.
An officer’s widow who had spent half her life in various outposts of the British empire, she began the lunch conversation by disclosing that her late husband had been a prisoner of war near my German hometown. “I probably shouldn’t mention the war,” she said amicably, offering another cup of tea.
As a German living in Britain, one gets used to the conversation sooner or later turning to war. Tabloid-driven and often quite funny (remember John Cleese goose-stepping in “Fawlty Towers”?), this fixation with 1945 has long been easy to dismiss as island mentality, empire nostalgia or perhaps compensation for repeated defeats by Germany on the soccer field.
But in the context of an economic crisis that has threatened for months to explode not just Europe’s single currency (of which Britain is not a member) but, some say, the European Union itself, the current degree of euroskepticism at the highest political levels is striking.
As the past three years of financial and economic strife have made plain, Europe does not have a common narrative for the 21st century. There is no European Union of welfare states, no common philosophy on how to run one’s economy or manage public finances, let alone European public opinion. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to make all Europeans more German have borne some fruit, but also rankled those who felt lectured and stymied.
Partly as a result, nationalism is increasingly prevalent across the 27-country bloc. A familiar fault line has emerged: “The euro crisis has sharpened the focus on old divisions over the role of the state in the economy and in people’s lives,” said Ute Frevert, director of the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
This fault line runs across society. Just how differently the state treats one of the most basic experiences — motherhood — has been plain in my recent experience of pregnancy and birth in Europe’s three biggest economies.
In London, where I just had my second daughter in a public hospital by Caesarean section, I was sent home after three nights. Midwives who were supposed to check up on me and my baby at home in the days after never showed up.
In early 2009, when I had a first Caesarean section in Germany, I was in the hospital for more than a week. Pediatric nurses gave me one-on-one lessons on how to pick up my baby, bathe and even massage her. A specialized physiotherapist exercised with newborns every morning.
Meanwhile in France, where I spent most of my two pregnancies and the time between, I was offered months of physiotherapy to get abdominal muscles back into shape after giving birth.
The differences do not stop at the degree of pampering.
In Britain, more than one midwife evangelized about the benefits of giving birth at home, breast-feeding and drug-free “natural” birth. In France, when I inquired about waiting on an epidural, the doctor brushed me off by saying that 97 percent of French women have epidurals — “and for a good reason.” The same doctor informed me about hormones to stop the milk flow if I preferred not to nurse.
Mothers are nudged into different directions and choices in neighboring European countries. Most friends in France, where mothers get four months paid maternity leave and child care is heavily subsidized, went back to work full time soon after. In Britain, maternity pay is modest but child care so expensive that many mothers end up taking long periods off work, and returning part time. In Germany, where most kindergartens and schools still end at lunchtime, women with career ambitions often forgo children.
Indeed, as Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, chief executive of 20-first, a gender management consultancy, points out: “You can tell the different approaches to motherhood in Europe by looking at birthrates.” The higher the birthrate, the higher the proportion of women in work — and the degree of state support for working mothers.