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Where are the real househusbands?

Whether because of paternity leave, freelance work or a wife who brings home the bacon, more and more Berlin dads are choosing to stay home with the kids. But does that mean a reversal of the old, stereotypical roles? Maybe not.

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One of Berlin’s rare genuine househusbands, Florian Goldmann-Hartl looks after his four children and does most of the housework while his wife Ulrike works full-time. Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

Whether because of paternity leave, freelance work or a wife who brings home the bacon, more and more Berlin dads are choosing to stay home with the kids. But does that mean a reversal of the old, stereotypical roles? Maybe not.

The stereotype of the perfect housewife is familiar to most of us: a dutiful mother who changes every diaper, cooks every meal, wipes every snotty nose, and makes every doctor and plumber appointment. Her husband, the breadwinner, is all but absent from the kids’ day-to-day lives – except when she has to invoke his name in the last-resort threat: “Just wait till your father gets home.”

But it’s 2016. According to a recent study by the Allensbach Institute for Opinion Research (IfD), just 17 percent of couples in Germany still follow that model. The rest of the country seems to be changing. In fact, things are beginning to swing the other way: some men have even chosen to become “househusbands”.

But who are they? And are they real househusbands, doing all the housework and childcare while their wives earn the family keep?

All for one, for a while

We begin our quest for answers with a visit to the PapaLaden in Prenzlauer Berg, one of only two cafés in Germany specifically for fathers (mothers are welcome to join on “family days”). There Michael Bauer, a geo-IT specialist, is watching his seven-month-old play while he chats to other dads about sports. He is the most common kind of househusband – a father on Elternzeit (parental leave). His partner, Nadine Herrmann, oversees educational programmes, renovations and visitor services at Museum Island. Nadine spent four months at home after their child was born; then, they switched and Michael stepped in full-time.

Elternzeit househusbands like Michael have only been around in Germany since 2007. Before then, parents were only given state child support amounting to about €300 at the birth of their child – and only if they were deemed to be a “low-income family”. Very few fathers took paternity leave back then because of the knock in income that it entailed. But since 2007, parents have been entitled to Elterngeld, 67 percent of their net income for up to 14 months. In order to get the maximum amount of time off, each partner in a couple has to take at least two months off. As a result, the federal statistics office currently reports that around one-third of fathers in Germany take advantage of what’s called Vaterzeit, but nearly 80 percent of these do it for just two months, the bare minimum. In Berlin, the average is 3.9 months, the second highest of any Bundesland (behind Bremen)… but fathers like Michael are still an anomaly.

The biggest challenge Michael and Nadine face is breastfeeding. She needs to find time in her busy schedule, between her many meetings with curators and contractors, to pump milk twice a day. “It’s difficult because sometimes when I’m stressed my body produces less milk,” Nadine says. Michael has had to come by the office once or twice to get a fresh batch in the middle of the day after his frozen supply ran out. “Things got easier once the baby started eating solids,” Michael says, relieved.

Michael is glad to have given Nadine the opportunity to go back to work – and he’s happy to take over childcare for a while. Yet he won’t call himself a feminist. “I’m all for equality, but sometimes I get the feeling people want to push things over to the extreme.” And his lifestyle cannot really be compared to that of a stereotypical housewife. “We share chores, about…” Michael thinks for a second, “50/50.” Nadine does all the laundry, cleans the bathroom and takes out the trash. Michael does the ironing and handles the kitchen. On the weekend, they do a big clean together.

Can 50/50 really be considered fair when working mothers have their stressful jobs to worry about in addition to housework? “That’s a good question,” Almut Peukert, sociologist at Humboldt University, says. “Housework still seems to be associated with femininity.” The IfD study mentioned earlier found that 62 percent of women still do all the housework in the family after the birth of their first child, even if they’re working full-time.

In the modern conception of equality, women can do everything. In fact, they are expected to do everything.

Peukert argues that both men and women still hold deep-seated beliefs that housework is female work. “In the modern conception of equality, women can do everything. In fact, they are expected to do everything.”

The best of both worlds?

Kristian Rother is the second kind of househusband in Germany, a stay-at-home dad who writes books on programming and runs a training business from his living room. His wife, Lena, works nearly full-time as a programmer for a company that manages servers for a hospitality industry app. He works from home until around 3pm, at which point he picks up his three- and four-year-olds from kindergarten and takes them to the playground or entertains them in the apartment until Lena comes home.

The couple’s decision, made five years ago, was not motivated by lofty feminist ideals. Rather, Kristian wanted to quit his university office job and start his own business, and Lena’s stable income made it possible for him to take that risk.

When Lena comes home between 6pm and 7pm, they have dinner as a family. After that, Lena likes to read to the kids in bed. Sometimes, she is so exhausted that she falls asleep with them. “That can be weird,” Kristian says. After spending the entire day either alone or with the kids, all he wants to do is speak to an adult. “At that late hour I don’t feel like calling my buddies, so I go over to my neighbour’s and we play board games.”

Lena is grateful for the arrangement. “It’s not perfect, but we are working on it,” she says. She worries about her tendency to dive into her work when she gets stressed, saying it precipitates bouts of guilt from time to time. “Yes, sometimes I feel like a bad mother and a bad wife. But I feel like we’re building a balance.”

Do they consider themselves feminists? “Yes,” says Kristian. He thinks that women are underrated and underrepresented in the programming world, and he’s happy that Lena can do her part. “I’m not very happy with that question,” says Lena. She feels uncomfortable with the term “feminist” because she says it creates pressure on women to do everything perfectly: manage a career, balance a family and have a strong relationship with their husbands. “On one hand, I do all these things, but I don’t want to create pressure on anyone else to do them,” she says.

Kristian and Michael represent the vast majority of househusbands in Germany right now. The IfD reports that 90 percent of men in Germany work full-time after the birth of their children, as opposed to less than 50 percent of women.

So why are real househusbands, fathers who are 100 percent financially reliant on their wives and who do all the housework and all the child care, so hard to find?

Michael would never become a full-time househusband: “It’s too risky.” He hopes he and Nadine will stay together, but if they were to break up, he would not want to be in situation in which he has spent 10-15 years at home. He fears that gaping hole on his CV would disqualify him from the job market.

The truth is, the decision about who is going to be the primary caregiver is not a trivial one. That decision, depending on how much time individuals take off work, could end up leaving one partner unemployable if the couple should ever break up. Sure, that is the risk millions of women have taken for most of human history, but it is one that very few men are willing to take today.

The holy grail

Florian Goldmann-Hartl is one of those rare specimens. He has four sons who are 12, eight, five and two years old (as well as one 19-year-old stepson), and stays home full-time while his wife, Ulrike Goldmann, works as a pathologist for the Helios private clinic.

When you walk into their house in the leafy suburb of Lichterfeld-Ost, the first thing you see is dozens and dozens of medals. The kids won them playing judo. Their 12-year-old, Leonard, was the Berlin champion last year in his age group. Now, all of the kids do judo very seriously, including the two-year-old – some of his first words were judo phrases. They go to training almost every night of the week and compete in tournaments 25 weekends a year. “The kids call them selves Team Brüder,” Florian says proudly. Not only is he a househusband, he’s a judo dad.

Florian’s busy time begins at around 2pm, when his eight-year-old comes home from school. On most days he cooks a warm lunch for the kids, but today it’s slipped his mind, so he goes to plan B. He and his son grab some sandwiches at Alnatura and nibble on their improvised lunch on their way to picking up the other kids in the family station wagon. At 3:15, Florian parks the car at the S-bahn station and they all take the train to Tegel, where the judo training centre is.

Berlin is still not used to seeing big families like these, let alone a dad with four little boys, one of whom is still being pushed in a buggy, all laden with backpacks stuffed with judo outfits. They turn a few heads as they scramble through the compartments to find an empty four seater. Once settled, Florian hands the three younger kids books to read. Then he unpacks some flash cards for Leonard and they practice Latin vocabulary together. Florian reads out a word for his son to conjugate.

Captivus, captiva, captivum – means to be taken prisoner.”

Correct. Next card.

Florian is two years younger than his wife, and by the time they had their first child Ulrike was more estab lished in her career. “I’m an engineer,” Florian says, “But I could never come close to earning what my wife earns.” But her high earnings aren’t the only reason why Ulrike is the family breadwinner. “I need my work!” she says. Florian does the lion’s share of the housework: he cooks, cleans the bathrooms and does most of the vacuuming and mopping. He and Ulrike do laundry and clean the kitchen and communal rooms together, and she cleans the dishes that can’t fit into the dishwasher. Both say they don’t subscribe to the “50/50” belief.

Although Florian doesn’t particularly like the term “househusband”, he says he is satisfied with his situation. Ulrike doesn’t quite believe him: she can’t imagine anyone being happy at home full-time. Is she a feminist? Ulrike is aware that her career has been made possible by feminist activism over the decades, and thinks individual women need to be more aggressive in getting what they want now. “Two weeks ago I went to my boss and told him I need more money,” she says. “He said okay, and agreed to give me a bonus.”

Looking at Florian with his organic bread rolls and his Latin flash cards, it is clear that the entire idea of “househusbands” is influenced as much by class as it is by gender. The reality is that most couples cannot afford to let one partner be either a househusband or housewife.

Although Leonard likes having his dad around, he doesn’t think he would want to be a househusband himself. “First of all, I think the kids would probably annoy me after a while,” he says. “And besides, my mom seems to enjoy working. I think I would too.”