Working Mothers

Some new support - but old ideas still need to change

A mother with her infant, nestled in her coat as she they journey home | Photo: David Reali

In a country where 66% of the mothers with school-age children work, the Austrian school system that sends pupils home at midday persists as a lumbering dinosaur, built around assumptions that no longer work for either children or parents.

The issue is that for some 1.2 million children in Austria (Kindergarten to Gymnasium), the school day ends at the latest by 14:00. After that they return home, some to an empty house, the lucky to a parent, usually a mother, waiting for them.

In Austria, the “good” mother should be home to greet the children with freshly cooked food and a listening ear ready to hear the tales and trials of the day. Even in 2010 this is still the paradigm. The working mother, on the other hand, gets an earful from nearly everyone around her, in a patriarchal society still struggling with the idea that women can, and should be financially independent.

This issue also plagues neighboring Germany, where the government only recently put through a long-awaited reform, making full-day schooling much more common. According to the New York Times, this change caused a surge of protest from traditionalist parents and caretakers, namely parish leaders who have been organizing after school programs and now are forced to give up that income as a result of the reformation.  The working mothers themselves, however, quickly signed their children into the programs, regardless of any taboo.

Austria might experience the same tensions if the system is reformed. In a citywide referendum on Feb. 11-13, a full 77% voted for an option for full-day schooling.

Close observers were not surprised at the vote: A nationwide survey sponsored by the Ministry of Education and carried out by the IFES – Institut fur empirisches Sozialforschung – concluded that Austrian parents would opt for more full-day schools, and certainly support a change in the current school day. “The demand for all-day schooling is very

strong,” reported Claudia Schmied, the Minister for Education, Art and Culture, on Jan. 25 according to the Austrian daily Die Presse – in fact, three times the 120,000 current places in full-day schools and after-school-care clubs.

However, sharp criticism prevails. Some claim this would run counter to children’s well-being; an illogical argument considering the children would still be cared for, and could conceivably learn more from an extra three hours of schooling. “Perhaps the longer schooling would also improve education in Austria,” said Nicolaus Pelinka, Schmied’s press secretary. Only five to ten thousand children out of 1.2 million attend full-day schools in Austria.

Supporters claim that a fuller school day is already effectively promised in law. The Austrian School Organization Act of 1962 stated: “It shall be the task of the Austrian school to foster the development of the talents and potential abilities of young persons in accordance with ethical, religious, and social values and the appreciation of that which is true, good, and beautiful, by giving them an education corresponding to their respective courses of studies.” The half-day school system may not be achieving this, they say, and definitely is not helping working mothers. Many also see a simple waste of resources and money that should not be tolerated.

In a second, EU wide survey by the Eurobarometer, 81% of those surveyed in Austria said that they supported increasing child care facilities that would lead to higher rates of employment and longer employment duration.

“The ministry has received 144,000 letters from parents about the issue,” Pelinka said. The contribution of both complaints and support was almost evenly divided – roughly, half for and half against a full-day system. Such a division is risky as it could foreshadow hesitancy for cooperation on the reform, and cause increasing tensions among Austrians, according to Pelinka. These variations in opinion over schooling hours in Austria have caused increasing tension among the public.

The main critiques the half-day school system stem from the perceived “unnecessary” expenses and other related issues. Such enduring problems certainly have to do with the quality of education itself. “The current method of schooling is ineffective,” said Pelinka. “It is costly, it worsens social conditions, and it makes no sense anymore.” Longer school hours, he suggested, would serve to increase the amount of material that could be covered in a day’s time.

Many consider this a badly needed change. In the recent PISA Study of education in Europe, Austria was ranked 13th in mathematics and 16th in reading. This, furthermore, led to an alarmed self-examination among Austrian educators, and an intense discussion of the merits regarding a full-day program as a way to improve the low-ranked results.

Another related issue is the labor market. Pelinka recognized that “the number of working women is increasing in Austria,” affected by the recession, as one income can no longer feed a typical family. With the split between traditional and modern mothers, social tensions escalate as a result of whether a woman works or not. According to OECD data, 66% of mothers currently hold employment – either full or part time.

Pelinka’s view is shared by many, including those mothers who report being criticized by other women usually harsh on the subject of working mothers.

Anna Ganovszky, an Australian expatriate with two children and an Austrian husband, said “women don’t support women,” explaining the way a young female colleague warned her to “be careful not to neglect her husband and children.” This she found infuriating.

“It is ridiculous,” she retorted.  “I only do work at home after the children are asleep; I want to spend as much time as possible with the kids. My husband also feels the burden I am under,” she said, “because he is also fed up with this discrimination.”

Ganovszky recalled the day a 60-year-old neighbor told her she was putting a lot of stress on her husband because she was not with the kids at all times. This, in fact, was an unspoken reference to her evening graduate classes when her husband stays at home with the kids.

“People say he is babysitting,” she said in frustration. “But that’s not true. He is also the primary caregiver,” after all, “they are his children,” Ganovszky concluded.

These pressures show up in the numbers, as research economist Gudrun Biffl knows all too well.

“The rate of part-time working women is heavily affected by difficulty to balance job and family care,” said Biffl, professor at the Donau-Universitat Krems and scholar at the Austrian Economics Research Institute (WIFO).  Eurostat figures, for example, show a clustering of women between the ages of 25 and 38 working part-time, the age span most women have children and are expected to give extra care.

Another mother working part-time, Jacqueline Koshy-Oppel, said that she had been criticized by female acquaintances for planning to use a Tagesmutter (day care giver). “I feel that pressure,” said Koshy-Oppel with an attitude that suggested “I won’t be as good of a mother if I go back to work and use a Tagesmutter.” She paused. “Why don’t men get scolded for not refusing a full-time job to stay home with the kids?”

Criticism of working mothers like Ganovszky and Koshy-Oppel contributes to the “worsened social conditions” Pelinka referred to, and animosity among ordinary citizens – in this case, mothers. The situation leaves nagging questions. Why is a husband not held responsible for picking up the children?  Why does being born a woman, even 40 years after the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, remain the principle reason for lower wages, and unpaid – still unacknowledged – labor in the home?

In 2010, women remain trapped in expectations that they must fulfill or risk being ostracized, and their husbands certainly don’t feel good about it. Half-day schooling is wasteful, according to Pelinka, and tough on mothers according to Ganovszky. In the end, we are left with a traditional society in which women cannot advance, parents are strained and children are left caught in the middle – families wonder why their life together just doesn’t feel like much fun.

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