Why some single mums feel ‘invisible’ in Germany’s coronavirus crisis

Germany's huge coronavirus rescue packages have won praise at home and abroad. But for divorced caterer Lulu Pototschnik the financial aid remains tantalisingly out of reach -- and she's not the only single mum slipping through the cracks.

Why some single mums feel 'invisible' in Germany's coronavirus crisis
A single mom with her two children in Prötzel, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

“My daughter and I have always coped. But now it's as if my life is getting off track. I feel more invisible by the day,” Pototschnik told AFP.

For over a decade, the 51-year-old has run a small business doing backstage catering at concerts and festivals.

But when the pandemic swept through Germany in March, all her bookings for the rest of the year were cancelled.

Pototschnik applied for the government's “immediate assistance” and promptly received €9,000 in her bank account.

But it's been of little use.

Under the scheme's rules, the cash can only go towards fixed business expenses, which Pototschnik hardly has.

“What good is money you're not allowed to spend?” she asked.

With no partner to share the burden, Pototschnik has been burning through her savings to cover her monthly living costs of around €2,200, including private health insurance and rent on the house she shares with her 21-year-old daughter in the western city of Essen.

Pototschnik, who used to cater for the likes of Tote Hosen, holds up a catering book which hasn't gone to use in months. Photo: AFP/Ina Fassbender

In the northern town of Glueckstadt, single mum Patricia Schönfeld is also struggling.

Having just rejoined the workforce this year after separating from her husband, the 47-year-old was still on probation as a category manager in purchasing when the pandemic shut schools, keeping her seven-year-old daughter home.

Juggling conference calls with full-time childcare was “extremely challenging”, and Schönfeld was let go in April.

'Poverty trap'

Germany counts around 1.5 million single-parent households with children under 18, overwhelmingly headed by women.

A recent Forsa survey commissioned by the government found that single mothers have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Nine in ten single parents can't survive on German minimum wage alone

Thirty percent of single mums in salaried employment have had to take leave for lack of childcare, compared with 19 percent of other parents. They are also more likely to have stopped working altogether.

Of the single mums who are self-employed, just 15 percent have been able to continue working as normal.

The North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the VAMV, an association for single parents, said Chancellor Angela Merkel's government should offer more targeted and longer-term aid to prevent single mums from “falling into the poverty trap”.

Wary employers

Schönfeld still considers herself lucky, saying she and her child “are getting by” with her savings and the maintenance her ex has been ordered to pay until their divorce is finalised.

She is hunting for a job, “but it's slim pickings,” she said, believing that employers are wary of hiring single parents who may have childcare problems if a second wave of infections hits.

Pototschnik is also looking for work to tide her over until the event industry gets back on its feet.

She has so far unsuccessfully applied to be a postal worker, a driver and a petrol station attendant.

'Not right'

The German government has pledged over a trillion euros in aid to shield companies and citizens in Europe's top economy from the pandemic fallout, including through loans, grants and subsidised shorter-hours programmes.

It has also lowered the hurdles for receiving unemployment benefits and rent assistance.

Archive photo shows a mother and child on the Alster in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

But Schönfeld said she doesn't qualify because she is technically still married and her estranged husband earns a good salary.

Pototschnik hasn't ruled out claiming benefits, but worries the €600 her daughter earns each month in her apprenticeship will be taken into account.

“It's not right for me to live off my daughter. That money is for her future.”

The family ministry told AFP the government was aware of the plight of single parents and had introduced special measures to support them, such as greater tax relief, emergency daycare and partial wage compensation for those unable to work because of school closures.

All families in Germany will also receive a bonus of €300 per child this autumn.

Schönfeld, who asked her daughter's teacher if she could stop printing out assignments in colour to save money, described the bonus as “a joke”.


Pototschnik has recently started volunteering, handing out meals to homeless people.

“Sometimes I wonder: will it be me queueing for food next year?”

Schönfeld said more than anything, single parents needed a break from the relentless cycle of running the household, keeping the children happy and worrying about money and the virus.

“Single mums need to make more noise,” she said. “But we're exhausted.”

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

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‘Work I love and a rewarding family life’

Melanie Fieseler is a British business/career consultant and coach, and founder of Berlin-based WorkSmart. She is on a mission to help ambitious mums like herself successfully combine motherhood with building a fulfilling and rewarding career or business.

'Work I love and a rewarding family life'
Working mum photo: Shutterstock

How did you come up with this business idea?

For me, becoming a mother was a time of profound change. Despite the level of success I achieved in my corporate career before having children (which included Saatchi & Saatchi in London, and Head of Communication & Branding across North Asia for a major international corporation in Beijing), after a while of being a stay-at-home mum consumed by the gruelling everyday demands of motherhood, I began to question my skills and abilities.

Whilst work was still an important part of my identity after having children, my priorities changed and my ambitions and definition of success changed with it. Most of all I wanted the freedom and flexibility to fit my work around the needs of my family.

A few months after my first son was born, I set up Mr. Barnaby, a community for English-speaking parents with young children in Berlin. It was the opportunity for me to build a social network of like-minded people and have something of my own to focus on.

Over time as the community grew I slowly began to regain my sense of self and the value I bring and it was this, along with my desire to do the work I wanted to do on my own terms for the sake of me and my family, that led me to leaving the corporate world and following my dream to found my own business.

Through WorkSmart I hope to reach out to other women like me who are looking to do things differently. My aim is to give them the support and encouragement they need to reconnect to themselves and their potential after having children, to become bigger and bolder and unstoppable in their pursuit of finding a work role they love and successfully combine it with raising a family.

What were the initial challenges? How did you overcome them?

Having the stamina and self belief to constantly pick yourself up. There's no one patting you on the back or giving you bonuses when you are running your own show – it's just you.

Getting my brand out there on a limited budget has been tough. Social media has been my saviour – it’s inexpensive and a very effective way of reaching my target audience.

How has the journey been so far?

For me it’s been an amazing journey of growth. I have learnt more over the past year running my own business than the 15 years I spent in the corporate world. Hands on experience is priceless.

I’m excited about continuing my journey in 2015. I’ve just launched a new group called MumsLikeUs and in February I’m starting a six-week course called Ready, Steady, Launch. It’s a course for women who have a great business idea, but are not sure what to do next.

How has becoming an entrepreneur changed you, personally?

Helping mums like me realise their ambitions – to use their skills and experience to do work they love whilst creating the life they envision for themselves and their families – has given me an immense sense of reward and fulfilment.

I’ve been lucky enough to find the best of both worlds – work I love and a rewarding family life – and now I want to help other mums do the same, and together build a better future for working mothers.

Any other personal reflections or message to budding entrepreneurs?

All you need to do is begin, it doesn't have to be perfect. With one small step everyday, and lots of passion, persistence and determination, your dreams will turn into reality.

And once you’re on your way, remember you can’t do it alone. Ask for help, and advice. People love to give both and it can have immeasurable effects on your work and life.

I think women in particular tend to forget to do this while trying to do and have it all.

A new perspective or an extra set of hands does not make you less of an independent business person, it makes you a much better one.