An insider’s look at the way that American pop culture has turned children against their mothers — and how Europe has managed to keep mothers at the center of their children’s universe.
By Tatiana von Tauber / Frankfurt, Germany
Photographed by Michael Troop / Rothenburg and Frankfurt, Germany
Monday, September 5, 2005
A nicely dressed German family enjoys their day outside instead of in a shopping mall.
The children of women who fought for equality during a time of discrimination are now mothers themselves. And while these feminist activists struggled to get more opportunities and freedoms, it seems to me that their fight has brought more complications for us. According to Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, 70 percent of mothers surveyed in 2000 said they found motherhood “incredibly stressful.”
It’s no wonder why, when women struggle to balance family and a career and in order to keep up with their grueling schedules, today’s career moms end up placing their children in the hands of the electronic nanny.
While the feminist movement offered women visions of prosperity and independence it also took moms out of their homes and away from their kids. As a child, I walked into an empty house every day after school and was expected to take care of my sibling, do my homework, and wash the dishes before my mother came home. I lived in a household run by parental rules, without the parent present.
My generation grew up during the boom of commercialism. However, the media still had a sugarcoated veneer: MTV played decent videos; cartoons included Mighty Mouse and Speed Racer — characters who displayed schoolboy visions of aggression unlike today’s cartoons and Hollywood blockbusters full of Triple-X heroism. We were influenced by something still essentially wholesome.
As a result of today’s hyper-sexualized images of feminine perfection, Madonna’s stuffed torpedo bra was replaced by silicone, plastic surgery, Botox injections, and Schwarzenegger strength. Commercialism spread. Inflated and superficial heroes like the sports stars and superstars of today, who flaunt money, fame, and power, send messages to children that “this” is the way to gain happiness. But in reality, happiness is a state of mind cultured through positive reinforcement rooted in the family unit.
The times they are a changin’
At age four, my daughter was very capable of giving the “f--- me” look. I say this because it should frighten you as it did me. Her heroes were Britney Spears, Shakira, and Christina Aguilera. She copied their sexual dances and suggestive lyrics, yet she had no clue what these dances meant. They represented what my daughter wanted to be: a singer and dancer. But when did singing and dancing require pelvic thrusts in skimpy clothing?
At 30, I left America in search of a better life for my daughter after my divorce. Though she was innocent, she unknowingly displayed a sexual resonance and teen-like attitude, unlike her German classmates. I broke her of this by eliminating all American teen idols, music, and programming. As a result, her sexual looks have receded.
American culture has lost its innocence to teenage girls trying to look 20-something and pre-teens piercing their belly buttons to show off their bellies. To young boys, this only signifies sexuality, something they don’t understand. And young girls try to look grown up with Mary Kate and Ashley cosmetic lines and cool, yet grown up clothing. Violence, the other dominant theme, appears in cartoons like the Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and over-hyped Disney movies that allow characters to say words like “stupid head” and “shut up.”
Children in Germany seem different to me. Their culture demands intergenerational respect and people still believe that intimacy is fundamental to community, unlike America where most people don’t even talk to their neighbors. Three generations often live together in one house. Because of this, there is active involvement and interaction between family members, which helps build respect and character in children. And unlike my childhood, most children are surrounded by at least one family member for the majority of their day.
In Europe the ideas of family and simple living overpower consumption. Restaurants do not concentrate on table turnovers but allow guests to linger with each other as stimuli rather than television. Christmas markets celebrate the season with community instead of commercialism. People congregate in countless town squares and drink Gluwein (a spiced wine), while talking and enjoying each other’s company. Shopping is secondary.
A mother is the backbone of the family and yet I have witnessed American culture steal this respectable image away from them. As an American mother, I felt I overextended myself and never found quality personal time to recharge so I could be the best for my daughter. I was an unbalanced woman and mother and therefore was unable to guide her, so the media got to her first.
Two German children enjoy the wonders of nature from behind their cameras.
Recovering the age of innocence
Germany encourages children to enjoy childhood and preserve this time for discovery, play, and innocence. These things disappear as we age and succumb to society’s conventions. America is hypocritical because it preaches morality and wholesomeness yet it delivers the opposite. Instead American media endorse anything that sells, neglecting the negative effects of the images they market. As a result, the country is dealing with heightened violence and sexual activity among children and a complete loss of respect for elder generations.
I lived the American dream yet all I felt was stress and unhappiness. Like many mothers, my feminist role models came from women in fashion magazines and television sitcoms who were powerful women with babies who maintained a perfect marriage and sexy body. I became depressed because I could not achieve this image. But while a doctor in the United States would offer me a nice choice of antidepressants, a German doctor would suggest a walk with a friend or a passionate night with my husband. If the mother in the home is not balanced, the entire family falls apart.
Germany endorses the family institution. Women get two years maternity leave with guaranteed work upon return. Families receive kinder gelt (kid money), usually $2,000 per child every year. Stores close on Sundays; most shops close at lunchtime for family meals and close for the day by 6 pm. And an average employee receives five to six weeks vacation time per year.
Feminism and the American dream fuel mass media’s profit by offering fairy tale visions of life. However, these visions need to include accepting the responsibility of motherhood despite personal sacrifice. Part of this sacrifice is understanding that wrinkles will come, breasts will sag, and age equals wisdom.
Recently the White House enlisted several organizations to conduct a survey to find out why youth crime has dramatically increased this year. The answer is simple: Our children are confused and angry because moms can’t provide the family structure necessary for a society to prosper. Financially stable mothers are not home by choice and poor mothers are not home because of need. The American Dream no longer entails a strong family unit with a mother at the head of the table, but rather a nice house, a white picket fence, and a plasma screen television to baby-sit the kids.
Women of past generations paved the way for our freedom but through the initial excitement of freedom, we have lost the most important meaning of life: the ability to make personal, self-defined choices, that make us feel content and so we can positively influence our family. Spending time with a child is not about giving them all they desire. It is about offering children the best of a mother’s self. Until the United States redefines laws and attitudes that re-shape the way a mother and a family are viewed, it has little to offer those who walk on greener pastures. The oasis does exist but if society loses respect for the mother, it will slowly crumble.