So, tell me…

Author: Verena Carl |
Photo: Tilman Franzen
It’s a spring day in Cologne. The room on the second floor of the street café is called “Beletage” and was once the salon of a bourgeois family. How appropriate, because that’s exactly our topic: what is family today, and what will become of it? In conversation: the businesswoman and psychologist Ines Imdahl, the activist and writer Sarah Diehl, and the historian and author Andreas Rödder. Another quick coffee order – and then we can start talking!

Same-sex marriages, patchwork families, rainbow couples – historically, family structures seem to become more and more colourful and diverse. Right, Mr Rödder?

[ANDREAS RÖDDER]: Yes and no. In particular for the old Federal Republic, we have a model in mind that we consider a kind of baseline standard: the 1950s and 1960s, with the classic family comprising father, mother and children, like in the Rama commercial. This is the historical exception, though. Family is a constant, but people have always shared their lives with each other. However, the form is constantly changing – for example, from the rural-agricultural extended family to the bourgeois nuclear family. There have always been widows, remarried people, single parents. What is new is the plurality of ways of life in the sense of freedom of choice.

[SARAH DIEHL]: When it comes to this topic, I always ask myself, Why are we so afraid to free ourselves from the classical concept of family?

A man and a woman fall in love and have children – what’s wrong with that?

[DIEHL]: Nothing! Everyone should do as she or he sees fit. What bothers me are these pseudo-biological arguments – what is supposedly “natural”, what is “female”? Is wanting to have a child an essential part of being a woman? I think that the mother ideal is intended to cement a gender division of labour so that women take on unpaid caregiving work. Our whole economy is based on that. Equal rights have not been achieved simply because women have made inroads into typically male areas, such as paid labour.

You decided against having biological children and you live in a shared flat with friends. Do you have to justify your choices?

[DIEHL]: Not in my immediate surroundings – I choose those for myself. But I still encounter the assumption that my biological clock must be ticking. More often from men than from women. I can only laugh at that.

[INES IMDAHL]: Your way of arranging your life, that’s the exception. The trend is in a different direction. We just surveyed 19-to-29-year-olds about their desire to have children and about family planning. Even if they are tolerant towards other lifestyles, 80 per cent of those surveyed want to have a traditional family. Women as well as men. On the scale of values, friendship and family rank above love for one’s partner. A real “game change”, one that I had, until now, never experienced in 25 years as a psychologist.

Sarah Diehl

“Equality can only work if men also do the work that women are expected to do.”

Sarah Diehl

Still, many of these young people certainly know, from experience, that families can break apart …

[IMDAHL]: And that’s what this is about! The longing for stability arises from loss of control. It’s not just the family of origin that can prove to be fragile – society also provides little or no support. In the last 15 years, children have learned to speak like this: Mom, Dad, crisis. Whether migration or financial markets, new uncertainties are always arising. Young people react to this by trying to regain control: they are extremely disciplined about their own bodies, they dress conservatively and do everything in their power to ensure that their families remain healthy.

Sounds like a lot of pressure.

[IMDAHL]: More freedom also means more pressure. Going to university, starting a family and looking good at the same time – at a certain point, these cease to be options and become obligations. Then come the questions: Why don’t you have a child? You don’t need a man to do it – you can do it differently these days. Or after a birth: it’s been three months – why isn’t your belly gone yet?

[RÖDDER]: This increase in maxims and imperatives is typical of modernity! The bourgeois family is modernity’s product, a reflection of modernity, and at the same time its alternative. After all, industrial society is characterised by the market, the world of work and mobility. The family – at least in its ideal form – is the place of emotion, security, belonging. And the question is always what you evaluate, and how. Until the 1950s, it was a privilege if your mum no longer had to work to earn money. That meant the working-class family had made it. Today we perceive this in connection with patriarchal gender relations.

[DIEHL]: I have the impression that motherhood has become part of the meritocracy. Women compete with each other because they still get more recognition in their private lives than in their professional lives. Who sacrifices the most to raise her children? Who’s making it in the modern working world?

[IMDAHL]: … And men have kept out of it, quite skilfully. The new norm for young families is that he works 40 hours a week, she earns additional income. Housework and childcare are largely dependent on her.

[DIEHL]: But equality can only work if men also do the work that women are expected to do.

Video: What is family today, and what will become of it?

But haven’t family roles changed dramatically, with more and more young fathers today taking paternity leave and carrying babies around in chest slings?

[RÖDDER]: Obviously. Today, relations between partners, as well as between parents and children, are very different from those in the 1960s, when children were more likely to be underlings than to be equal family members. At the same time, the responsibilities for areas of life have remained very constant.

[IMDAHL]: I am in favour of women and men being free to decide how they want to live their lives. But if a mother voluntarily stays at home, this leads to negative consequences for maintenance claims, old-age pensions, and so on.

[RÖDDER]: There are often unintended consequences when you upgrade one particular concept – as the politics of the last 15 years has done with the concept of the working mother – and downgrade another. Do we unilaterally provide incentives for an equal distribution of tasks between fathers and mothers and thus ignore individual decisions? That is the balancing act that a liberal society requires.

Could this also be the reason for the emergence of the archconservative backlash embodied by groups such as the AfD or “Concerned Parents”?

[RÖDDER]: Yes, there is a polarisation of models. If the Federal Minister for Family Affairs no longer takes the side of full-time mothers, then they might be happy if a conservative publicist like Birgit Kelle does. Because otherwise their experience is scarcely reflected in the public perception.

Ines Imdahl

“Going to university, starting a family and looking good at the same time – at a certain point, these cease to be options and become obligations”

Ines Imdahl

Ms Diehl, when it comes to a voluntarily childless woman like you, I’m sure many people think, I guess her job and career were more important to her.

[DIEHL]: A prejudice. Women I interviewed for my book have said, “When I surrender to this maternal ideal, I always have to really work at it. I don’t want to.” Another prejudice is that childless people are selfish. But I can become much more socially involved if I am not part of a nuclear family. I am a passionate proponent of social parenthood; I’d like to define family not only in terms of biology, but also as a network of people who, of their own free will, are connected to each other and care for each other.

But how resilient is the social-family model, in times of crisis or under emergency conditions?

[DIEHL]: I’ll answer that question with a question of my own: how resilient are marriages? I think that in the typical constellation, many people tend to be overwhelmed. In Canada, a “social guardianship” law has been in force for four years, under which up to four people can care for a child, all with the same rights and responsibilities. For example, a single parent could include some childless friends in the responsibility of raising a child. I think that’s visionary.

Is it even necessary for the modern state to provide a legal framework for new types of relationships?

[RÖDDER]: Basically, one could say that it’s all a private matter. However, I consider state intervention justified for two reasons: firstly, the welfare of children, because children cannot protect themselves; secondly, the common good, in the sense of the willingness to stand up for one another. But this does not have to be based on marriage or biological parenthood.

[DIEHL]: That’s what I’m saying! That’s why I think it’s a dead end, being so attached to the idea of biological parenthood. Like when I think about what women do to themselves and to each other in order to be medically able to have children. I find it quite tragic when people believe that they can fulfil their need for love and community only through biological offspring, and thus establish rather oppressive structures. Surrogacy and egg donation have become a brutal, multi-million-euro business. In the Third World, economic hardship is being exploited; in Western countries, women are undergoing torturous hormone treatments and medical procedures …

… because they simply want nothing more than to have a child.

[DIEHL]: I don’t criticise that, not even the technology itself. I would simply put this question out there: Why does it have to be about the women’s own genes? Why is that so important?

[IMDAHL]: Medical progress means that we no longer have to accept how we were born – whether our noses are crooked or our fertility is impaired. As far as exploitation is concerned, Ms Diehl, I am in complete agreement with you. But the new technologies also create degrees of freedom. Young women say, “If Prince Charming doesn’t show up, I’ll freeze my eggs. Or I’ll go to Holland and get artificial insemination. And at the same time, I’ll look for a new sex partner online, every week.”

[RÖDDER]: Basically, we also see here how modern society is becoming more and more differentiated: sexuality and reproduction are decoupled from one another. In one sense, this decoupling has existed for a long time, in the form of reliable contraception. Conversely, reproduction being possible without sex – that is historically new.

Andreas Rödder

“One thing will not disappear: that people live together, in whatever form, and stand up for each other“

Andreas Rödder

Is that a benefit? Or a danger?

[RÖDDER]: There is no legitimate answer to that question. However, it often takes a long time before the consequences of developments become clear. Recall that in the 1980s, some members of the Green Party wanted to legalise sex with minors …

[IMDAHL]: Unfortunately, the Catholic Church did this secretly – for centuries!

[RÖDDER]: And that was bad enough. However, I wonder – 25 years from now, what current developments will have psychologists saying, “What have you done to the children?” I am particularly conservative when it comes to the welfare of the child. Even when it comes to same-sex marriages. As long as adult partners decide to do so, I have no objection. However, if children are involved, I would be much more careful.

Difficult psychological circumstances also exist in the classical nuclear family – up to and including violence and abuse. Meanwhile, available studies indicate that children can grow up safe and secure with same-sex parents.

[RÖDDER]: That’s all true. I never said that we have to keep everything just the way it is. I just wouldn’t force a legislative decision of this nature.

[DIEHL]: With that argument, you can nip any progressive idea in the bud. The most important thing is that children have stable caregivers. Why not two men, two women, or several adults? Once, at a reading, an elderly woman told me that she grew up on a farm and regarded her childhood as very beautiful because there were many different people taking care of her. She saw the isolation found within the nuclear family as a historical accident. Let’s look forward: What will families look like in 20 years? And what role will present-day topics play?

Let’s look ahead: what do families look like in 20 years? And what part do the topics of our present have?

[IMDAHL]: Digitalisation changes how people come together. People are already talking about Tinder babies and Tinder weddings, based on the name of the dating app. This is similar to the topic of medical interventions – it will progress so rapidly that legislation, societal rules and standards will hardly be able to keep up. New technologies are a powerful driver for societal change.

Another aspect: Will Germany change if migrants to Germany bring their own ideas of family and gender relations with them?

[IMDAHL]: Please don’t get me wrong: I am miles away from AfD positions, and I see the suffering of individual refugees. But I do think that the family concept that a few people have can set us back as a society. I do not want men here who get women drunk, who beat them, who prohibit women from cycling and driving, or who make their eight-year-old daughters wear headscarves.

[DIEHL]: I don’t want to discount these fears, Ms Imdahl. But aren’t such behaviours also due to the difficult situation that migrants are in? Perhaps the supposed honour of women is held in such high regard because it is the only way they can show social status? I find the AfD more threatening to my freedom as a woman.

[RÖDDER]: We are seeing two double standards: on the one hand, people suddenly present themselves as women’s rights activists, when really they are only using the issue of women’s rights to mask their own Islamophobia. On the other hand, there are those who deny an ethnic German full-time mother her life model, but who say of a fully veiled, unemployed Muslim woman, “That’s cultural diversity.” I agree with Ms Imdahl – I would not underestimate the difficulties. As a historian, one thing is important to me: openness with regard to the future. In terms of both risks and opportunities.

And what would those be?

[RÖDDER]: My forecast is this: (a) the future will be different from the present, and (b) it will be different from what we imagine. Because at any time, unforeseen events can change the course of history. But one thing will probably not disappear: that people live together, in whatever form, and stand up for each other. Family is constantly changing – and constantly with us.



Ines Imdahl, 51, certified psychologist and founder of the Rheingold Salon, a company focussing on cultural and women’s studies. She and her husband have four children and live in Cologne.

Sarah Diehl, 39, activist and writer. Together with the organisation Ciocia Basia, she supports unintentionally pregnant women in countries where abortion is prohibited by law; in 2015 she published the nonfiction book “Die Uhr, die nicht tickt – kinderlos glücklich“” (Ark). Sarah Diehl lives in a shared flat in Berlin.

Andreas Rödder, 51, professor for recent German history at the University of Mainz. His books (most recently “21.0 – eine kurze Geschichte der Gegenwart”, C. H. Beck) are aimed at a broad audience. He is a member of the CDU, married and father of three daughters.

Verena Carl (moderator), 48, freelance author, married, two children.