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Traditional marriage challenged by new law

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11:59 CET+01:00
“Once a chief physician's wife, always chief physician's wife”; a German matrimonial maxim has been consigned to history after the Bundetag passed new alimony laws.

A year of negotiations between the centre-right CDU and the centre-left SPD has led to the abandonment of German marriage laws supporting the “housewife marriage,” in which the man earns the money and the woman focuses her attentions on house and home.

The new law states that “After the divorce, it is incumbent on each spouse to provide for their livelihood themselves.”

The law represents quite a change for a country where around 40 percent of mothers with young children do not work. Only 20 percent of all mothers have a full-time job. This means that most German mothers are dependent on some type of financial support.

Around 25 percent of divorcing couples end their marriage in bitter disputes, characterized by squabbles over money, family heirlooms and children, as well as acceptable living standards for the newly divorced ex-wives.

Children and men are the winners in the new alimony reforms. Children win, because young children will determine the flow of money - child support payments- between ex-partners. The new law provides for child support regardless of whether the parents were married when the child was born. Under the new law, a family exists wherever there is a child.

Fathers are also winners, as they will not have to pay alimony to their ex-wives when their children are older than three, healthy and have found day-care. Critics of this new law have said that it supports “serial monogamy” and that fathers are usually in a better position to provide for their children than mothers, but those behind reforms say the changes reflect developments in society.

Ministers say the new laws represent a more modern approach to family policy.

Under old alimony arrangements, mothers could stay home full-time for the first eight years of their child's life. Until the child turned 15, women only had to work part-time. For many women, especially those with several children, a return to the working world was almost impossible. Women thus lived off of their ex-husbands for their entire lives.

“The lawmakers have put the emphasis on personal responsibility, which is clearly more in accordance with the reality of our society,” Miriam Kummer-Sicks, a family lawyer in Frankfurt, told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Other lawyers are opposed to the changes, saying the law is badly drafted and will lead to more court action, which will ultimately harm children. Critics also say it is unfair to move the goalposts now, when many women have entered marriages with traditional expections.

The lack of day-care infrastructure in German towns is an obstacle to getting more women to work. In a society where the parenting responsibilities fall squarely on the mother, day-care has not been widely outsourced and schools run only half of the working day, women have difficulty making themselves available for a job.

The large-scale expansion of public day-care and paternity leave has been a hotly debated and contentious issue in Germany, where the traditional family – specifically the importance of full-time motherhood- is highly valued by significant segments of the population.

Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens and Youth, Ursula von der Leyen pushed controversial reforms, extending the amount of time families receive money for parental leave from 12 to 14 months if the father takes at least two months of paternity leave. She has been criticized by traditional members of her own CDU party, as well as high ranking officials in the Catholic Church, for her initiative to create 750,000 more public day care places by 2013.

"Von der Leyen's proposal is destructive for children and families", Catholic bishop Walter Mixa said in a public response to von der Leyen's reforms. He said that the reform is destructive to young women as well. "Those who entice women to give their children into state care shortly after birth degrade them to baby machines."

"We women have overburdened ourselves -- we allowed ourselves to be too easily seduced by career opportunities," wrote journalist-turned-housewife-author Eva Herman, who has been active in an anti-feminist revolution in Germany. Her writing has focused on criticism of feminism and glorification of the 1950's housewife marriage ideal. Although she is regarded as an extreme figure, her words found resonance with traditional members of society.

“My clients can hardly believe it when I have to explain to them that the basis for my entire argument in their case has changed within a few days,” Berlin family lawyer Ingeborg Rakete-Dombek told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Before, the alimony laws were made as if the marriage had never ended. Now people act as if it had never happened."

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