Juggling work and family, German minister drops the ball

18 April 2022

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The German Minister for the Family, Anne Spiegel, has resigned. She failed to perform her job as regional minister during the catastrophic flooding of the Ahr River last summer. Instead of attending to the needs of the victims, she went on vacation with her husband and children. She then falsely claimed to have taken part in a video conference during the crisis.

I don’t excuse this behavior by any means. It was certainly wrong. But I do relate to Spiegel’s struggle to balance job and family. I have seen comparisons of her behavior with that of Helmut Schmidt’s successful handling of the flooding in Hamburg when he was mayor. I just wonder if he was looking after the kids, too, and the household. I suspect not. My guess is that he was able to dedicate 100% of his energy to his job while his wife looked after not just the kids but pretty much everything else in his life.

There is a saying that says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” meaning that parents should not be the sole authority figures in a child’s life. A village consists of aunts, uncles, grandparents and even cousins who live nearby. Neighbors play an important role, too. Perhaps all of these people share in childcare.

Even local shopkeepers have a hand in raising children in such an environment. My mother was raised in a small town in rural Illinois where store owners would threaten to tell your parents if you misbehaved – a threat only possible if they indeed knew your parents. I was reminded of this by the recent movie Belfast, where kids are seen stealing in Mr. Singh’s shop. He promptly reports them to the police, who turn up at the family home and the kids get in trouble. The neighborhood portrayed in the movie is just the kind of village people imagine would be helpful in raising a child.

I used to wax nostalgic at this village idea, too. Who could argue with the sensible concept that translates “Many hands make light work” into a family context along the lines of “Many adults contribute to raising better children”?

But this misses the point. Not until I actually had children did I think to ask the crucial question: where is this village? Where did it go?

I have no desire to time travel back to the Middle Ages or any earlier date to live in a village. I quite like antibiotics and central heating, digital technology and all the rest. But one hardly hears of what we have lost by exploding our villages into cities and suburbs. It has been too insidious, too slow, too blanketed in world wars, pandemics and other more visible societal upheavals. The revolution in the home, by contrast, is unseen but all the more powerful.

The Industrial Revolution upended our society, putting an end to the family, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari. People left the countryside for the cities to work in factories, leaving their children with makeshift nannies who kept the kids inside all day in often dubious conditions. Just one of many side effects of this new societal order was the rise of rickets due to lack of exposure to the sun. This phenomenon is well known and documented, but what of the psychological impact on the children and their mothers? What replaced the web of family ties when mom started working in a textile mill six days a week, twelve hours a day?

In my life, this village has a name: Excel. Only with a detailed spreadsheet was I able to track the thousand and one details that made up daily family life. Which day grandpa was picking the kids up from school and which days the babysitter was doing it and when I was able to. Then came music lessons, sports, and as my children got older, tutoring for particularly tough subjects in school. All of these activities had to be chosen and scheduled and then the kids needed to be accompanied there. It was a logistical tightrope act.

And I was only working part time.

Now that my kids are in college, I can forget this nightmarish scenario, at least I could until the other day. Cleaning out boxes, I discovered a large sheet of brown paper, the kind you use for brainstorming sessions and brown paper mapping in the office. I cringed when I re-examined it, shuddering at the memories it rekindled. It was plastered with yellow post-its and covered with scribbling in thick black, green and red magic markers, the result of our very own family brainstorming session.

The sight of this attempt to comprehensively list up every single task with lines pointing to the designated responsible person brought back the desperation of those days. Drowning in childcare, running a household and working, I tried office tactics to improve my situation, including this brown paper mapping process used to identify, define and assign tasks.

What ideas did everyone else have about cleaning the kitchen, cooking dinner, doing the laundry, going grocery shopping? And this did not even include the less obvious, unseen tasks that nevertheless regularly crowd their way into the daily routine: a gift must be bought for Marina’s birthday party (which one and will it be delivered on time?); there is a Christmas gift exchange at school – what gifts would be appropriate? Now someone’s fallen ill and the whole schedule is out the window, including my work schedule. And mustn’t forget those appointments at the doctor, speech therapist and parent-teacher conferences.

Reviewing this brown paper again, I saw that next to many of the tasks that I typically performed were listed but there was no new substitute person responsible. These tasks stayed with me, right up until the time they disappeared, simply because my children grew up.

I can’t help wondering what Anne Spiegel’s brown paper mapping would have looked like. I bet she had some tasks that didn’t get reassigned and this contributed to her downfall. Our society is still stuck at a place where women try to do it all. A spreadsheet will only get you so far.

Brenda Arnold

Photo credit: ©Jorge RoyanCC BY-SA 3.0

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