The changing face of motherhood in Western Europe
Following on from the Changing Face of Motherhood in the UK report, SIRC was commissioned to examine aspects of contemporary motherhood in Western Europe. The research was conducted in 2012 for Procter & Gamble (P&G). The accompanying reports combine a review of existing literature with an analysis of original quantitative data derived from a poll of 9,582 mothers from 12 countries in Western Europe, making it one of the largest studies of this kind ever conducted. Individual country specific reports (Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) can be accessed from the links below as well as a cross-cultural analysis of the poll data, including those from the earlier survey conducted in the UK.
Country specific reports
Motherhood in Austria has for a long time been characterised by the belief that a mother’s domain is primarily the domestic one, and that it is the mother who is best placed to provide care for her children. While the use of extra-familial sources of childcare continues to be viewed with disapproval by some sections of Austrian society, there is evidence, however, of slow and steady change taking place. More women are entering the workforce, and a well established public childcare system allows women to exercise more choice in the way they structure their lives. Working part-time is a ‘choice’ made by many Austrian mothers in order to enable them to try to strike a balance between work and familial responsibilities.
Denmark is ranked 5th in the Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers Report 2011. As in the case of other Nordic countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, Denmark has a reputation for high levels of state involvement in the shaping of modern motherhood — and as a result, Denmark is considered one of the best places in the world to be a mother. Parental leave is substantial, childcare provision is comprehensive, gender equality is high on the political agenda, and women are encouraged to develop professional lives as part of their experience of motherhood. Women make up a large proportion of Denmark’s labour force, with most mothers taking advantage of the extensive system of childcare provision in order to return to work while their children are still very young
Finland has consistently been ranked as one of the top ten places in the world to be a mother. In 2011, the country ranked 7th on the Save the Children 2011 State of the World’s Mothers index just behind Norway, New Zealand, Australia and the other Nordic countries...The active participation of women in working life has helped to steer the development of legislation to focus on the care of small children and job protection for parents.
Data show France as a country where an increasing number of women are raising their families in ways that diverge from what could be considered a traditional family model. Many mothers are employed, more than half are unmarried and an increasing number are not cohabiting with the father of their children. Contemporaneously, the fertility rate in France has risen to be one of the highest in Western Europe.
Motherhood in Germany appears to be approached in a more traditional way than in many of its neighbouring European countries. Mothers are expected to focus on caring for their children rather than pursuing their own professional career. Women who do choose to take on busy work schedules are often under societal pressure to justify their decision to spend less time with their family. This conflict that exists between home and work life means that motherhood is seen as an increasingly unattractive option for many German women. The German government is making steps towards ensuring that ‘family-embedded’ motherhood is more financially attractive, while also giving women more options by supporting paid paternity leave initiatives.
As in other Mediterranean countries traditional, conservative family values are still strong forces in Greek culture. Divorce rates remain low, as do female employment rates. Greece also has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe. Lack of formal childcare and the often inflexible nature of the Greek working day have been cited as reasons for dwindling fertility levels as women are forced to make a choice between family and work. Furthermore, in recent times the debt crisis in Greece has magnified the existing challenges that Greek women face as well as creating a number of new ones.
Modern Italy is heavily influenced by its religious and cultural heritage. The traditional family model and the mother’s role within it remains the ideal. Matters concerning the family and the duties of motherhood are for the most part considered a private affair, with which the state should not interfere. Italy was recently judged to be the 21st best place in the world to be a mother. The ranking, which is relatively low compared to other western European countries, has been blamed on low levels of female participation in the workforce, lack of family services and the low prevalence of contraceptives.
Norway is ranked first in the Save the Children State of the World’s Mothers Report 2011, based on factors such as welfare support, maternity leave, childcare provision, and gender equality. This focus on improving conditions for mothers is not a particularly new development: in many ways Norway has led the drive for women’s rights and for state provision for the family among European countries since its inception as a nation-state in 1905. The experience of Norwegian motherhood is, therefore, held up as something of an ideal to which other countries should aspire if they are to improve their own provision for mothers and families.
In Portugal the concept of motherhood has undergone significant change since the beginning of the twentieth century. From the pro-natal, traditionalist image of motherhood promoted during the years of the Salazar regime, through the profound social and political reforms of the immediate post-revolution era of the 1970s and 80s, through to more recent economic and social change, the lives of mothers are quite different now from what they were fifty or sixty years ago. As in other Southern European countries, Portuguese mothers are now having children later, marrying later (or sometimes not at all) and having smaller families. Unlike other Southern European countries, however, Portuguese mothers are also leading the way in terms of participation in the workforce, with a majority of mothers returning to full-time work after their children are born.
Spain presents a particular vision of contemporary motherhood that is shared with other Southern European countries such as Italy and Greece. Motherhood in Spain is characterised by women having children later in life; marrying later in life; leaving the parental home later in life; and lower levels of women in employment compared with other developed countries. In short, for most Spanish women motherhood takes place when they are in their thirties, and is often seen as an alternative rather than a complimentary lifestyle choice to pursuing a career.
Government policies such as generous and flexible parental leave and public child care provision have served to encourage mothers to return to the workforce. In spite of the opportunity for parents to split the state sponsored leave, however, it is still mainly the mother who uses it and research has highlighted the detrimental impact that this can have on her career prospects . Despite the long history of equality between men and women in Sweden, there is evidence that traditional gender roles resurface when a couple begins a family. This, combined with lingering cultural notions of what being a ‘good’ mother entails, accounts for the prevalent attitude of ‘first work, then children’ and the fact that today’s mothers are increasingly reporting a lack of ability to balance work and home life.
Swiss motherhood is characterized by the ongoing presence of traditional family values, although there are groups and individuals who do not conform to such principles. Swiss women were late, by western European standards, to enter the world of politics and to gain equal legal rights with men. The traditional idea of women as homemakers still exists, especially amongst older generations. Switzerland’s federal political structure means that state interference in issues concerning mothers and the family is limited and a laissez-faire attitude towards the family prevails.
- The changing face of motherhood in Western Europe: Cross-cultural perspectives
National surveys of mothers were conducted in 12 Western European countries: Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Data were also available from an earlier survey conducted in the UK . In this brief report we bring together responses from all of the countries to provide cross-cultural perspectives on the various aspects of motherhood examined in the polls.
The Changing Face of Motherhood research was commissioned by Procter & Gamble (P&G)