Post-maternity leave in Germany (the second time round): The New Normal
“If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” sang Frank Sinatra about New York. So far, no musician has produced a similar song about those who cut their teeth in Berlin post-1989 (Winds of Change by the Scorpions in english perhaps comes close). But there is only one German song about Berlin, from rapper Peter Fox who sings not how difficult it is to make a go of it in the city but about how ugly the city can be.
After eight years in the Mutterstadt, the past 15 months consisted of my second Elternzeit (German parental leave). As of end March 2017, this leave was, according to the German government’s calculations, officially at an end*.
The remaining two months of Elternzeit had been spent in Sydney between December 2016 – end February 2017. Our family of four had escaped the depressing Berlin winter in exchange for salty sea air, daily coffee dates with my sisters and their kids, our baby’s first birthday and his christening, and bouts of RSI from constructing Disney-worthy sand castles along the coastline of Sydney.
Upon returning to Berlin in mid-March of 2017, trees were still anorexic and bare and the sky the same soupy grey as when we had left it in the week before Christmas. We had seriously entertained staying on in Sydney beyond the parental leave trip, but for the job situation and living arrangements (after almost three months back in my teenage bedroom and my faded posters of Madonna, it was an IV drip of parents dosed out slow enough to last until 2020).
A few days after the return and reeling from jet lag, I had received an email from a client: something about needing to pitch ASAP for a large MC role for a Chinese tech company at the Hannover Messe, the world’s largest industrial technology trade fair. I scrambled to put together a proposal… cobbling together my past moderator’s experience whilst preparing for an interview in German with a team of Chinese native speakers in Shanghai.
Friends who have known me a long time will not fail to see the irony in this: I had my first mobile phone (a Nokia 5160) and my first university email at age 19 and my own 8kg Dell laptop… at age 23. It was nonetheless an honour to be asked: through an uncanny combination of being found through the Internet, the other moderation experience and bless, my German speaking skills, I interviewed for the gig and got it.
I thought long and hard about taking on the project as it would require me to be away from my family for a full week. The past year I had a weekly lecturing commitment at Potsdam University Law Faculty (where my baby came with me each Friday proving to be a rather popular little distraction on campus) plus some editorial projects doable from home or Soho House and a couple of smaller event moderation gigs in the daytime.
Then I stopped myself in my tracks and asked my husband “Do you ever feel weird/sad about leaving us during business trips?” “Does your boss ever ask you how you feel about leaving your kids and wife?” The answer to question one was yes and to question two, a resounding NO.
With equality in mind and an encouraging SMS from my mum who must have typed while having a glass of wine saying “CONgrats on hannoVer“, that little voice inside me kept telling me: “We can do this, the baby is walking, he’s not being breastfed anymore and he’s about to start at preschool in a few months”. I had not yet had a work engagement in the last eight years of living in Berlin that had actually required me to be away from home.
It felt strange but inherently empowering to even entertain the idea.
So before breaking out into multiple nervous sweats and mini-panic attacks, with the aid of my elder son’s crayon, I started the countdown to my departure scribbling on the back of my electricity bill with two categories entitled :
“HELP /CARERS ?” and
“FOOD WHEN I’M NOT THERE”
On the first point, I marshalled support from all corners of Deutschland: my father in law arrived from Saarland, my brother in law who had just returned from Vienna was on hand, my mother-in-law who lives not far from us was on stand by. And I had scoured the internet,Craigslist and Facebook expat groups to find an incredibly loving and wonderful Australian nanny to spend the days with little J.
As to the second point, I simply bought the ingredients, and managed to pull together a chicken soup despite my better intentions to prepare a lasagne and bake a banana cake (yeah, right).
After five days of moderating panel discussions, product launches, Q + As, audience interaction with the daily entertainers and a gala dinner, I came home exhausted and wanting to curl up into a little ball. Those five days were like ECT therapy : my brain had woken up and shock-jerked itself back into action. I returned openly grateful our place hadn’t burnt down, and that the kids were still in one piece.
Things actually went fine without me.
It was that letting go that was the hard part in making the decision to go to Hannover, but one that I am happy I took. Sure, mama was missed (and all the frozen pizza boxes had been disposed of in the recycling bins outside prior to my return I am told), but I felt incredibly excited to come back home, rewarded at my challenging week and grateful that I was able to do my work and share the experiences with my kids.
I thought back to my countless discussions with female friends back home in Sydney and in Berlin, and doing some research on return to work rates:
In Australia, the return to work rate for women after being on parental leave is 59.5% and in Germany the data was slightly harder to find but one study puts the figure at 50%, noting that 80% of these return on a part-time basis.
Reflecting back on the past nine years in Germany, I realised it is rare that any one really knows where exactly they are going to end up, not only post-parental leave, but post-graduation, post-promotion.
A career and its subsequent trajectory (or lack thereof) is a sensitive, yet increasingly public topic for women, even for those who don’t have kids, whether by choice or circumstances. Men’s careers (and especially those men with children) and the way in which they are going to seemingly “juggle” the elusive work-life conundrum don’t seem to be subject to that much private and public speculation and discussion as much as those of women.
The truth is that both women AND men get dragged down into the worry and freak- out cesspit about returning to work (or not) after parental leave is over in whatever country they live, whatever the generous (or stingy) parental leave entitlements may entail. Part- time or full-time. Daycare. Nanny share.
After watching this documentary entitled 50-50 which highlights issues of equality and female trailblazers throughout history, and marking 10th May Gender Equality Day, I realised that balance in life is not just finding, but actively implementing, balance in parenting and relationships.
So when you find yourself coming to the end of your parental leave, try not to fear the change, embrace it.
Now I’d love to hear from you: How did you handle the end of your parental leave and return to work?
* Germany has a fairly generous Elterzneit programme in place since 2005 (whereby 14 months of leave can be split between the parents/primary carers and a maximum of a 2 month overlap with the monthly entitlement capped at 1800€ per parent or 67% of the parent’s salary or a minimum payment of 300€ for those who are self-employed or not-employed.) As part of the new 2015 changes to Elternzeit calculations, freelancers who work up to 30 hours per week during their maternity leave receive an adjusted payment. This was my case.