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Ursula von der Leye, Germany's Minister of Family Affairs, joins the fun at a Berlin Kindergarten. (Franka Bruns/AP2008)
Ursula von der Leye, Germany's Minister of Family Affairs, joins the fun at a Berlin Kindergarten. (Franka Bruns/AP2008)

Reckoning

Germany's working mothers get some respect Add to ...

A child seemed a welcome addition to the life of Jutta Hoffritz, who had expected her pregnancy to lead to a predictable chain of events: For a year, she would stay home and care for her baby. Then she would place him in a decent child-care centre and return to work - difficult, but surely not beyond reach. After all, she had a well-established career as a business journalist for a national magazine, and she lived in Dusseldorf, a prosperous and liberal city in a major welfare state, so it seemed like a natural progression.

But this is Germany, where the working mother is still considered bizarre and somehow unacceptable. When she sought child care, she discovered there was none. The two spots available for children under 3 at one of her city's few nurseries were reserved for single mothers. She had to hire a full-time kinderfrau (child-minder) at a cost that consumed her entire salary.

And even when her child turns 3, the hassle and expense won't end: Germany has only half-day schooling, in most cases right through high school, and parents are expected to cover the other half out of their own pockets - or, more often, out of their own time.

"In Germany," she told me, "we have an ideology of motherhood. I thought I would be back in my office soon, no problem, but then I learned that I was being forced to forget everything I knew, and take up the career of being a full-time babysitter, and talk about nothing but children all day. It was terrible."

Unbeknownst to most outsiders, Germany is the most difficult place in Western Europe to be a working mother, with a deeply ingrained culture of machismo that expects women to give up their lives once they have children.

The ideology itself was Ms. Hoffritz's biggest barrier. When she talked about her frustrations, her friends and relatives openly denounced her as a rabenmutter - literally "raven mother," a woman who abandons her children, like the mythic ravens throwing their chicks from the nest. It is a term routinely applied to working mothers in Germany.

"When I got pregnant, even though I'd had a career for 20 years, everyone expected me to drop my job forever, to take care of my son and not do anything else all day for the rest of my life, and they got angry when I said otherwise," she says. "Friends just thought I should be a full-time mom."

Until very recently, this anachronistic approach to family life, and its attendant waste of the lives of educated and creative women, was a studied non-topic in German public and political life. Even during the eight years when Germany was governed by an otherwise progressive coalition of Social Democrats and Greens under Gerhard Schroeder, family policy barely moved.

In 2005, when Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor, a survey by the World Economic Forum found that Germany ranked 20th among 58 developed nations in women's presence in the work force, 28th in job opportunities for women and 34th in educational attainment - poor for a country that is close to the top in most other business categories.

Now, things are beginning to change - paradoxically, under Ms. Merkel, a conservative Christian Democrat seeking re-election on Sept. 27 on a platform that includes a dramatic expansion of family policy.

Part of the change involved people like Ms. Hoffritz, who recently published a widely discussed book, Revolt of the Rabenmutter. She is particularly incensed by the obsessive nature of German motherhood, including the assumption in many circles that it is mandatory to start Baby Yoga and English For Babies (to say nothing of German for Babies) at eight weeks of age.

But the most dramatic motor of change is Ursula von der Leyen, the rather extraordinary woman who is Ms. Merkel's Minister of Family Affairs. In 2007, she introduced the Elterngeld - "parent money" - Germany's first substantial maternity-leave policy, offering up to $2,800 a month for a year (or for 14 months if the father takes time as well), familiar elsewhere in Europe but a vast change from the few weeks Germany had offered before.

And she is in the midst of introducing hundreds of thousands of state-subsidized child-care spaces, something left-wing governments had been unable to do - or simply hadn't occurred to them.

It is impossible to understand Ms. von der Leyen's dramatic transformation of her party's view, or to understand the bizarre German attitude to working mothers, without understanding her father.

Ernst Albrecht was a key figure in German conservatism during the postwar decades, a committed Cold Warrior who governed the state of Lower Saxony, which had the longest border with East Germany, for 14 years. Like many, he saw all politics as an ideological struggle with communism, including family policy.

Under Hitler, German women had been commanded to create armies of racially pure offspring to expand the Reich. After the war, there was a rebellion: As in most states that have experienced totalitarianism, the fertility rate here dropped, becoming one of the lowest in Europe. But this did not make the working woman a fixture of society. Ernst Albrecht's election posters featured a warning: rows of babies perched on potties, which voters recognized as a feature of daycare centres in communist East Germany, where children were expected to speak, learn and defecate in unison.

"Starting in the 1950s and right up to the present, you could not talk about working mothers or child care without sounding like you were talking about communism," says Birgit Wintermann, a policy analyst with the Bertelsmann Foundation in Berlin.

"This created a real barrier to women entering the work force, because you had no possibility for child care."

After the war, 49 per cent of women in West Germany and 52 per cent in the East were employed. By 1989, the gap had widened to 55.5 per cent versus 78.1 per cent - the latter number closer to that in Canada and elsewhere in Europe. With unification, 66.8 per cent of women are in the work force, still far below other countries.

At first, Mr. Albrecht's daughter followed a path that would have made him proud. She earned a number of university degrees, became a gynecologist, married and had seven children, quitting work to raise them.

Then she decided to return to work. She had studied and worked in the United States and seen how women can combine work and parenthood. The cost of nannies outraged her (even if she could afford them), so she entered politics in a unique position: a conservative with impeccable credentials who was also an icon of motherhood insisting on the right to pursue a career.

This combination turned her into Angela Merkel's secret weapon. The Chancellor has no children and isn't known as a feminist, but she recognized the power of policies that would attract young urban women, who had been core voters of the opposition.

"Under Merkel, they have successfully stolen family thinking from the left," says Tissy Bruns, senior political reporter with Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel. "… It wasn't ideology, but pragmatism."

It was also economic necessity. Germany has the lowest fertility rate in Europe: an average of 1.3 children per family. This means there is now one pension-consuming retiree for each taxpaying worker, a ratio that makes government almost unaffordable. One of the solutions is to get women into the work force.

This is expensive - and jarring to many. But for people like Jutta Hoffritz, it is a gift. "Finally, I don't look like the crazy one …," she says. "It's actually becoming impolite to call people rabenmutter ."

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

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