Progressive policy, regressive society: Germany’s parent trap


Post originally appeared here

I was having lunch with a friend the other day. Both in our third trimester of pregnancy, our talk turned to parental leave.

“How are you and your husband doing it?” she asked.

I told her that we were taking the first three months off together, that I would then take a further six, and he the final two.

In case you haven’t been counting, that adds up to fourteen months, the length of time the German government will pay up to 65 % of your salary — or a maximum of €1,800 ($2,100) monthly — for you to look after your child.

Her situation was somewhat different. Her husband, an employee of a major German multinational, had recently been told — by a female boss, incidentally — to forget about a promotion if he took parental leave. His previous superior, himself a father of four, had been similarly obstructive when he chose to take three nonconsecutive months off after the birth of their first child.

I would have spat my baba ghanoush out in indignation had I not become so used to regressive attitudes throughout my pregnancy. They are pervasive around the world of course, but all the more notable within a system that is designed to be progressive.

When I recently called my insurance company to inquire about my contributions during parental leave, the man on the phone took it for granted that I would be taking a year out and inquired politely whether my partner was opting to take the final two months, a requirement by law if you want to avail of all fourteen.

Last weekend, my husband and I went to a cobbler who, after taking a long look at my belly, informed me that I was having a boy. I replied cheerfully that while none of my scans had suggested as much, I would return to let him know if his intuition proved correct. In response, he winked conspiratorially at my husband.

“Don’t be too disappointed,” he said. “Girls are an insurance policy! They’ll look after you when you’re old!” He leaned over the counter and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Boys are different. All they care about is money! In my family, all the boys leave to work and the girls stay to look after their parents.”

Having told us to come back for our wares in half an hour, I explained we would need a little longer because we were on our way to a birth preparation class.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Are you going as well?” he asked my husband.

“For sure!” he replied.

The cobbler smiled broadly and gave me a glance that seemed to suggest that I had nabbed myself a particularly indulgent man.

I took a deep breath, the kind I have been advised to practise in preparation for labor. My daughter kicked in solidarity.

Exhaling slowly, I considered the principles underlying these small but not insignificant instances of patriarchal nonsense.

The first is that a progressive system is no guarantee of a progressive society. Last year, German mothers applied for an average of 14.5 months parental leave and fathers just 3.7. (If you’re confused about the math, there are additional options to take more than fourteen months off, albeit at a significantly lower rate).

While this inarguably works out far better for both parents than it does in most other countries, the difference between the sexes is remarkable when you consider that the system allows mothers and fathers to decide freely about how much time each of them takes. The faux celebratory press release put out by Germany’s Federal Statistics Office in response to the figures was also remarkably cringeworthy. It reads, in translation:

“Changing nappies instead of having a job — at least for a temporary period? What was unthinkable for earlier generations, was actively chosen in 2020 by 462,300 fathers, who applied for parental benefits.”

Apart from the fact that it’s both ludicrous and offensive to reduce the profound and complex task of child care to changing nappies, the tone of the statement reinforces the idea that a man showing more than a passing interest in the birth of his child is a rather amusing novelty.

So what’s behind it all? Why — when faced with an equitable system — are German parents choosing to stick to traditional models of child care?

Let’s get biology out of the way first. One thing a few girlfriends have mentioned, and which has also come up on the dad podcasts my husband listens to, is that many fathers feel useless in the first few months of their babies’ lives. Too often, this is because for the first time they are forced to encounter the reality of their own breastlessness. Intimidated by their partners’ newfound and superhuman ability to produce a highly coveted baby beverage on demand, they conclude that their presence is surplus to requirements and that they might as well return to their office desk as nature intended.

I am being only partly facetious. Apart from the fact that many women can’t or choose not to breastfeed, the reality is that men are simply not conditioned to see themselves in a nurturing role. As we say about women ascending the heights of corporate management: You can’t be what you can’t see.

This brings us to another important point: the fact that our collective value system continues to privilege economic achievement over all other forms of fulfilment.

This bias is so pervasive we don’t even notice it. Consider how obsessively occupied we are with the gender pay gap compared to the gender child care gap. We are rightly outraged when we hear that women continue to earn less than men but not at all inflamed by the idea that fathers spend significantly less time with their children than mothers do.

When we hear of a full-time stay-at-home dad, we offer up praise, as if the choice represents a noble sacrifice rather than a genuine desire to privilege family over fortune. When a woman does the same, we may privately pity her for her lack of enlightenment.

I myself have been robustly shaped by this idea. Like many women of my age, I spent years in a spiral of anxiety wondering about how to balance motherhood with a career. It was only when my fear of leaving it too late became even greater than my fear of not having it all, that it became clear that the time was right. Or, at least, as right as it would ever be.

My husband, who works for a large e-commerce enterprise, is less prone to obsessive rumination. When I bring up the issue of how our identities are about to forever shift and the possibility that our professional lives may never return to their previous glories, he regards me with a benign and patient expression that I hope he will one day direct towards our daughter too.

“I sell furniture,” he says gently. “And you make reports about shipping containers. It’s not exactly life-or-death stuff.”

Not like, say, having a baby is. But you wouldn’t know it, based on how we talk about it.

At this point, you might be wondering why, given my distrust of the patriarchy, we’re not dividing our parental leave up exactly equitably: seven months each. The honest answer is that it’s the boobs, not the economy, stupid.

I am hoping to breastfeed for at least nine months and I really don’t fancy the whirr of a breast pump accompanying my return to the office. Firm in the belief that those reports on shipping containers warrant my full attention, I have negotiated an additional two months of leave away from my husband.

“Not fair,” he says, moodily contemplating his return to writing headlines about sofa sets.

“It never has been,” I reply.

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