Confessions from the gyno’s chair: What it’s really like to start maternity leave in Germany…2 weeks
Whoever said maternity leave was easy obviously did not start their 36th week of pregnancy in soupy 5° C, surrounded by Stollen, ‘evenings’ that commence at 3:45pm, the heady scent of Bratwurst and Gebrannte Mandel wafting through the air at the Christmas markets and itchy wool stockings.
And so it begins. Mutterschutz. This is the official period 6 weeks before actually popping out your little tot that the German government deems to be the point at which Mutti needs to be resting and not ‘working’ (in an office at least).
This is a snapshot of you see when you google ‘maternity leave’ in English.
At the end of last week I finished up my university lecturing commitments and some of my other editorial jobs. I don’t work full time in the post-Industrial-age sense of 40 hours per week. Far from it.But 3-4 days is what I managed throughout this pregnancy with an active 3 year old. And I was happy with that. Every day I said my prayers to the pre-school government gods, while placing gratitude objects at my make-shift altar (a ring binder full of admin forms with a smiley stuck onto it) for making pre-school costs for my son and every other 3 year old in Berlin a grand total of 23€ per month. I also feel like when you are pregnant and working, and have a toddler, you are basically working 24 hours a day anyway (except for the time you sleep,and even then, it is broken), at a great discount to society and the government in general.No one is paying you for the hours you spend waiting at a doctor’s surgery, picking up medication at a pharmacy or individually wrapping 24 presents for the Advent calendar.
Having received copious containers of self-baked Zimtsterne (cinnamony, star-shaped christmas cookies) and a few lovely cards from my students, on Monday I embarked upon a self-inflicted S and M type activity (without the hot wax of course). Armed with a confidence I’ll probably never have at any other point in my life, and the excitement of Christmas, this is where I create list upon list, upon list, of tasks to finish. These lists, as anyone who is on maternity leave knows, enter the realm of unattainable fantasy, a kind of ET-meets-Inception type distended hyper reality, full of unrealistic goals to achieve in the 3rd dimension that is planet earth. Like sifting through 21,357 photos on iPhoto from the last 6 years to create a best-of series for online photo albums, ordering new bathroom bins, bidding on numerous winter ski suits for my son when it is actually the mildest winter thus far, and trying to research the merits of organic, cotton-based nappies (I failed during the first pregnancy and succumbed to Pampers. Peer pressure).
If you are an employee at a company or work for the government, you receive your full salary from this point until you pop. Alas, I do not tap into this ridiculous benefit, being self-employed, so need to rely on savings. This is probably a good thing. I know if I had 6 weeks to lay around at someone else’s expense during Christmas, I’d probably be spending that money on shopping or eating out every day instead of being on bed rest or folding onesies. If you are a doctor or work in a pre-school, or undertake some kind of employment whereby you are exposed to ill people, little people or scary people (say, a prison warden), you can actually start your Mutterschutz as early as you like. This is on the proviso that your gynaecologist writes you a medical certificate saying you are unfit for work. You will be on full pay until your baby is born.
Once the little one arrives, the German maternity/paternity leave scheme (affectionately known as Elternzeit or ‘parents’ time’) kicks in. You are paid up to 1800€ per month capped or 67% of your pre-maternity leave salary. Or if you are self-employed like me, it is dependent on your prior 12 months of income. The mum can take up to 12 months and the dad two months or they can each take a mix, but to a combined total of 14 months.
Due to the generous mullah situation (1800€! per month! per parent! I will write it again), every day there’s new B2B (blog-to-book) careers being carved out by German parents who write weekly dispatches documenting their 3 month long Elternzeit holidays with a 7 month old which they lug around in fair-trade baby carriers from far-flung destinations like Madagscar or Suriname (more on that in another post). The majority of German parents would never dream of using that money for upgrading their home cinemas, a new BMW or a deposit for private-school fees, for example. But on travel.
Pregnancy in Germany also comes with a few other,unexpected little surprises, things that no one told me the first time around. Things that,armed with my then-30-month-old-knowledge of the German language, I was forced to learn:
* the key things is whether you are privately health insured or publicly insured (there is no Medicare, NHS or public health scheme á la Scandinavia but another hybrid-system) If you are privately insured, pregnancy is almost treated like a sickness. Your gyno (Frauenarzt or Frauenärtzin = lady doctor) knows your health insurance status and will tell you that you need to have an ultrasound at least every fortnight, do the gestational diabetes test even when you are under 35 and all other parameters point to all-round good health, that you need to do a Streptoccus B test and that it is essential you need to have a vaginal check up at each consultation. I fell for all this in my first pregnancy. I had no one to tell me I had choices. This time around, I was wiser and had rotating consultations between the midwives at the birthing centre where I plan to give birth and my gyno. And I actually refused to do any of the tests I was told were ‘necessary’ the first time around. As of now (w36) all remaining consultations take place with the midwives.
*Unlike in my home country of Australia, where you deliver at the hospital where your gyno/obstretician is a resident doctor, or if you ‘go public’ and are in midwife care,you take a punt on whoever has duty the day/night you go into labour, the German system is rather different. You visit a gyno for pre-natal checkups but you also can book to have checkups with the in-house midwives at the birthing centre or the private midwife (Beleghebamme) at hospital where you plan to give birth. Your pre-natal gyno is not your obstetrician, and for the reasons mentioned below, you may actually never encounter an obstetrician if you have a complication-free labour and delivery. Is that all clear as mud?
* the German maternity system is still predominantly run by Midwives (Hebamme). In fact there is a law that states that there must be a midwife who attends the birth and actually delivers the baby and a obstetrician does not legally need to be in the room, nor even pop in afterwards if everything went fine. The obstetrician on duty only intervenes to deliver the baby in the event of a complication or c-section.
* Kräuter. Germans do love their herbs during any stage of life or for any ailment. It goes without saying that there is a tea for every stage of pregnancy. A tea for the first trimester, a tea for the second trimester, Geburtstee (as of week 37) then Stilltee (to aid breastfeeding).
This is about as much as I can punch out today. Stay tuned.