The World

Germany in Angst Over Low Birthrate

Monday, April 11, 2005

With the German birth rate at an all-time low, politicians and demographers are wondering how to encourage women to have babies. Some say more child care is the key. Second story on the European Union, women and work.

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Kerstin Klopp-Koch

BERLIN (WOMENSENEWS)--In Germany, there is a word for a woman who has both a child and a full-time job.

It's "rabenmutter" and it means uncaring mother. The term flourished in the 1930s through the heyday of the Nazi party and is now still used in "umgangssprache" or informal talk, especially in rural areas of Germany.

Then there's the word for housewife, "hausmutterchen," often used to slight women who choose to stay home with the kids. "It implies being a little bit stupid," says Kerstin Klopp-Koch, a working mother in Berlin. "Leaving all decisions to your husband."

While neither word is exactly on the tip of everyone's tongue in Germany, both words are common enough to bother young women who are making decisions about work and motherhood.

"I wish we didn't have this kind of moral judgment," says Maja Hampe who lives in Gottingen, Niedersachsen in northwest Germany.

Hampe, an English teacher, is staying home to raise her 2-year-old son. "I wish every woman could really decide on her own without being seen as a 'rabenmutter' on the one hand or a 'hausmutterchen' on the other."


Cultural, Political Debate

As women with children either work for pay or stay home with their children, the choices they make are being closely studied amid growing national dismay over a declining birth rate.

At 1.3 babies per woman of child-bearing age, the birth rate is far less than the 2.1 rate that researchers say is needed to maintain a stable population. The not-so-funny joke among demographers here is that unless women start having more babies, Germany could be extinct by 2020.

With federal elections approaching in 2006, the country's family minister, Renate Schmidt, has made more child care--as a way of reversing the population decline--into a high-profile issue.

"When it comes to child care, compared with the rest of the European Union, Germany is a third-world country," Schmidt said at a press conference last year where she announced the passage of a bill to allocate $1.5 billion from 2005 to 2010 for full-day kindergartens that would include children under the age of 3.

Currently, child care is available for children between 3 and 6 and operates only four hours a day, which is inadequate for parents who work full time.


Clinging to Traditions

Critics of the current child care system say it reflects a nation that has been clinging to traditions that prescribe the man as breadwinner, woman as procreator. The discomfort of being compelled to chose between the two extremes apparently is influencing women to remain childless.

"The new Germany runs on a very old-fashioned model in which the mainstream ideology dictates women as housewives," says Gisela Erler, founder of a Berlin-based private company that acts as a go-between consultant for women and their employers. "There is no way out except to provide more child care."

The persistence of the "kindergeld"--a federal income tax break that began in 1955 in West Germany--is another symptom of what critics see as the country's adherence to traditional gender roles. The break goes to married couples in which one of the couple--in practice it's usually the mother--earns no salary.

"The tradition is that the woman stays at home and the husband gets a tax break," says Kerstin Klopp-Koch, who organizes academic seminars for the German-American Fulbright Commission in Berlin.


Different Choices

Hampe and Klopp-Koch are women who have made different choices about work and motherhood.

While Hampe has chosen to suspend her career to be at home with her children, Klopp-Koch is the married mother of an 18-month-old son who works for pay full time.

The two women's choices echo differences that used to divide the country between a capitalist West and a communist East.

In Berlin, Klopp-Koch inhabits a pocket of diversity and opportunity in an otherwise highly traditional country. Women here have inherited some of the conditions of the former communist East, where all citizens--male and female--were required to work equal hours and child care was provided accordingly.

In Berlin today, women have more access to child care and undergo less social scrutiny than women such as Hampe, who lives in the rural, university town of Gottingen.

"Being a mother in Berlin is certainly different from being a mother in a town in West Germany," says Klopp-Koch.

One difference is that women in the more traditional areas of the West--particularly those in the highly Catholic, southwestern regions where the stay-at-home mother is the norm--are having more babies.

The town of Cloppenburg in West Lower Saxony, for instance, boasts a birth rate of 1.92, higher than urban rates but still below what is needed to maintain a stable population, according to recent figures released by the Institute for Population and Development in Berlin.

"It is in the places where women accept these traditional rules that they are having more children," says Steffen Kroehnert, researcher for the institute.

By contrast, says Kroehnert, women outside of such traditional places appear even more reluctant about motherhood.

"In other areas, there is this contradiction between modern women and relatively traditional society," says Kroehnert. "Women who decide they want a modern life, with financial independence and their own professional career are very often deciding to have no children at all. The lack of child care makes women dependent on their husbands. And most women don't like this."

"We are a nation that is shrinking," says Erler, the Berlin business consultant for family practices. "Perhaps some people will be happy about this, but it is true that the German people will become extinct if we don't deal with this problem of how a woman can have a child and continue working."

Emma Pearse has written about women and pop culture for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and Bitch magazine. She is currently living in Berlin.

For more information:

European Union--Gender Equality:
http://europa.eu.int/comm/employment_social/equ_opp/index_en.htm

Familienservice
(in German and English):
http://www.familienservice.com


 
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