What is it really like to experience maternity leave in Germany ? Do all German mums bake Apfelstrüdel all day ? Do all expat mums work crazy hours and leave their kids in the care of nannies ? A few myths and misconceptions about mat leave busted.
Eighteen months. Eighteen months. I will write it once more: Eighteen months.
This was my (self-chosen) maternity leave or Elternzeit (“parent time” is the lovely German translation) in Berlin. It is, on average, double what most of my Australian and British mum friends had taken and literally half of what most of my German Mama friends take, predominantly because, in Germany,your employee position is legally held for up to three years.Yes you read that right, you cannot be fired for deciding to take 3 years out of the workforce to raise your children.
Maternity leave, however, is paid only for fourteen months by the government, if the mother solely takes the leave, or a combination of first twelve months paid at 67% of her salary or capped at 1800€ per month with the overlap-option of two months when the father (or second mother in same-sex couples, not sure about the law applying to same-sex dads but will endeavour to find out) takes his/her parental leave simultaneously, payable at the same rate. There are many other options also available: some dads do the 6 months while the mother takes 8 months. In whatever form, the combined paid leave cannot exceed 14 months.
I,however, did not tap into this generous compensation, as I had not been “employed” in Germany long enough, which would have required a continuous 12 months employment status, prior to the baby’s birth. This meant I was in a borderline category and thus qualified for “mother’s money”. I had some modest savings from having started my freelance business in mid 2010 yet I felt miserable filling out this form- as though all those years of work in Australia had counted for nothing. I tried to make a claim for the Australian baby bonus, yet I abandoned these attempts, once the Centrelink website continuously froze on me and I could never reach anyone in Canberra due to the different time zones.
So I decided to bite the bullet and take it for what it was.
Then before I knew it, those eighteen months were up.Time blitzes past oh so quickly.Bam, my little one can already crawl. Bam, he can walk now. Bam, he doesn’t need my breast anymore. Bam, he is about to start at daycare. I loved every minute of maternity leave up until the 15th month knowing the daycare start/ Eingewöhnung was looming, because the uncertainty about what was coming silently crept up on me in a such an unanticipated way.
In my mostly-Anglo mother’s group, maternity leave and return-to-work debates were so commonplace that we should have recorded ourselves and done simultaneous podcasts as we ummed and ahhed about how long to care for our baby, how long til the money ran out, how long til we would have a nervous breakdown with litres of pumpkin puree all over our shirts . We looked at the economics of Berlin, a city with average living costs comparable to Bucharest or Tirana **. Well that may be a slight exaggeration, but definitely half of what it costs to live in London or Paris. There was no need to pressing economic reasons to return to work so soon. We all payed modest rent and B and me were about to enter the Berlin buyer’s market at that time,having put a deposit on a small unit. None of us had cars and used public transport and bikes, preschool would be government subsidised.
And besides, my son’s daycare spot was only available as of him turning eighteen months.
With my German mama friends, these debates went in almost the oppposite direction but were also, comically underpinned with economic rationale (yes we are all candidates for the Nobel Prize for economics) to come up with an alternative conclusion: that it was better to stay at home longer to benefit the child and wait till the child turned 3 when childcare all over Berlin was universally FREE for every child, regardless of the parents’ salaries. I took it upon myself to play the role of the English speaking expat who needed to get back into work otherwise I would lose my career momentum. “My mum left me in the care of my grandparents when I was three weeks old”, I’d tell them, “In Sydney most of my friends go back to work after 9 months”. They could not believe this.
The reality is that perhaps I and many other expat mums were living two half-truths: There were German friends who did put their kids in daycare as of 12 months or earlier and there were Sydney friends who took extended maternity leave or chose to be stay at home mothers (and fathers in some cases).It still didn’t help ease the guilt about putting my child into daycare without knowing what was coming next.
Anyways, it took me a while to digest this all. Or Verdauen as the Germans would say.
I think I found it hardest to share my choice for a long maternity leave to my parents and grandparents- this is the f***ed up situation you find yourself in as a first generation offspring of migrants: all women in my family have worked. My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother had no other alternative – being migrants, they had to work and raise their families simultaneously, and had no government assistance, no childcare. It was never an option for me NOT to work, just that since being in Berlin, I realized I had options and chose a new style of working that suited me.
Choosing to go back to work after maternity or paternity leave is never easy – everyone has their reasons and makes decisions for what works best for their family at that given point in time. It is not always economic either- some mothers (and to a lesser degree, fathers) choose to work part-time or on project-based work because they want to continue working on what they are passionate about.
No one needs to justify it.
No matter the reasons, it is a gut-wrenching roller coaster nonetheless because you have to really dig deep and look inside and ask yourself these questions. I realised though, that I do not have all the answers.
I don’t know how (and if) it does affect fathers in the same way. For expat parents, choosing childcare in a country that is not your own is an added emotional issue that I could not have anticipated, mostly because we thought we would be back in Sydney by the time we were ready to start a family.
Maternity or paternity leave, I realised, is not the time to try and sort out your own life or insecurities about your job or career. The ‘leave’ I realised is quite misleading, because it is not comparable to an actual holiday where you would have time to actually contemplate your life.
It is in its purest essence, a time to be a parent as in meaning of the German Elternzeit in the sense that you can unashamedly be there for your kid without any form of guilt because they need you. And that is the real reason.
We mums are notorious for feeling like we need to “have it all” and that self-induced guilt is so much wasted energy.
Since becoming a mum, I have probably taken this to another level- for no good reason. I’m slowly learning not to crucify myself using the longest, rustiest nails possible if something does not happen how I’d like it to.
If I can help but one new mum who is about to go back to work to not feel so tortured, then this post has been worth it.
I think being a working mum is in some way aiding this process.
We are fortunate to have many options in our generation. Many that my mother or grandmother never had. If we feel we don’t have an option, then it is up to us to create at least one that we know works or could work,at least for a temporary period of time, hell, not for ever.
I’m taking each day as it comes, some days are better than others. No matter what,I’m eternally grateful for being able to work flexibly on varied and interesting writing and communications projects and am really enjoying my lecturing work. New things are flowing, and I just learn to go with it.
Right now I can’t conceive of taking on an employed position after four years of being self-employed. I value my flexibility and professional autonomy too much.
We need to look at our young children and not just be fiercely proud of them, but proud of ourselves. Mothering is not a sprint but a marathon.
We are in it for the long haul.