Germans Love Babies, Part III
This is part three of a three-part series on German and U.S. baby culture, the implications for parents, and why we’re so similar, yet so different. Part one discussed reactions to Ella in Germany as compared to the USA, and proposed the question of whether Germany was baby-friendly, while America was kid-friendly. Part two talked about cultural practices, and suggested that Germany has integrated children into their adult society, while the USA has created an entirely separate world for kids. This week we will focus on public policy differences in the two countries, and the effects they have on parents.
What would you give up for a year off work to raise your children? What would you be like when you returned? German parents face this question with every trip to the maternity ward, and their answers are more complicated than you might think.
The USA and Germany have vastly different policies on parental leave. In Germany, parents are given 14 months paid time off, to be split by the parents however they see fit. In the U.S., governments have largely been laisse-faire on parental leave. There is a 1993 federal law, called the Family and Medical Leave Act, mandating that employers offer 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. A few states have stipulated that employers provide more, but mostly it’s up to individual companies to offer paid maternity and paternity leave as they see fit. To create their policies, these companies usually use a boilerplate taken from the Great Big Book of Generic, Inflexible, Poorly-Thought-Out, Homogenizing, Sometimes Embarrasing, Certainly Soul-Crushing, No-Room-for-Discussion HR Policies That Will Cover Your Company’s Ass If An Employee Tries to Sue:
26.K.iii.b Parental Leave
Mothers shall receive four (4) weeks time off, and may take up to an additional two (2) weeks of Vacation Time. Fathers will receive 2 weeks*, and may take up to an additional two (2) weeks of Vacation Time.
* West coast and technical companies only. If your company is on the East coast, or in a more traditional market, delete the sentence regarding Father’s time off.
In addition to stingy maternity policies, this book brings you non-compete agreements to keep your employees from getting jobs at better companies, and 15-page “Acceptable Internet Use” policies that should really just be one sheet with big bold letters saying “Don’t surf for Porn!”
But I digress. Fun as it is, I will not spend this entire essay ridiculing ridiculous HR policies. I will instead investigate the effect that vastly different parental leave standards in Germany and America have on parents. Does the American system, where work pulls you back before you even get good at changing the diapers, lead to an American schizophrenia, a struggle to be both super-parent and super-employee? And what does it mean to German parents to stare out from their stable life as a childless couple, into 14 solid months of child-raising? Do German policies mean Germans struggle to define themselves not as both parent and worker, but feel compelled to choose between them? Lets start with the USA.
American parental leave is indeed stingy by European standards, but perhaps the short time away from work makes it easier for us to have kids in the first place. Place yourself in the position of a typical American woman. If you get pregnant, you’ll work through the majority of your pregnancy, give birth, and then 6-8 short weeks later they’ll drag you back. You’ll still be Ms. Molly McKickAss, top-flight lawyer. When you get back to work your colleagues will be the same; they’ll be anxious to see your cute little baby; they’ll be anxious to get you back into the swing of things. You may not have missed much in the marketplace, and there won’t be a lot of new advances in your field that you need to catch up on. Your company won’t even have had time to think of essential projects that must wait, with the work piling up, until you get back. Becoming an American parent is a bit like bungee-jumping. You have to take the leap, but you won’t fall all the way. Before you lose yourself completely, you’ll be jerked upwards, back towards the platform, back towards the identity you’ve created for yourself through your experience and expertise, back towards Ms. Molly McKickAss, top-flight lawyer.
But having children changes you, and in your time away, whether your colleagues know it or not, you’ve added an identity. Work still expects you to be Ms. Molly McKickAss, top-flight lawyer, and your children (and you) expect you to be Molly McMommy, kick-ass parent. You’re pulled in two directions. You want to be both, and American culture tells you that you can be. We celebrate stories of the “super mom” who runs a company, takes the kids to soccer practice, and has dinner ready at home. They’re American heroes, and America loves heroes. There are certainly men and women who can pull off a trick like this, but I think more of us drive ourselves crazy believing that we can be all-in at work, and at home. We search frantically for time-savers, quick-fixes, and we look to experts–from Dr. Spock, to Dr. Sears, to Dr. Phil–to give us the prescription for making it work. We multi-task as parent and employee, and eventually become split people, schizophrenics, trying to be in two places at once, wishing while at work that we were home, and when things get rowdy at home, wishing we were back at work where at least we had some level of competence. This is American parenting.
When things seem too crazy at home, Americans look to Europe for a new model. When the English crown seemed too oppressive, we took a Greek idea (incubated in France) and made it our model government. American parents look at their schizophrenic lives and look to Europe, and its luxurious parental leave times, and see their salvation. But these European policies create their own issues for parents.
Germany gives parents 14 months of parental leave, guaranteed by the federal government, to be split between the parents. Both can take seven months, one could take all 14; it’s up to them. The leave time is paid, but not very well. You are paid 67% of your salary up to €1,800/month, about $2,455/month (just under $30,000/year). For all families, it’s at least a 1/3 pay cut; if you’re solidly middle class, it’s much more. This may sound a lot better than the $0 the American government gives its citizens, but it forces German parents into a difficult economic decision. What ends up happening most often is that German mothers take off a full year, and dads take two months. This creates the least disruption to their lifestyle and still gives a full year of parent-child bonding time, at least for one parent.
But what does it mean to a first-time German mother to suddenly face a year off of work? Frau Katarina KickAss must come to terms with a full year of diapers, drool, and crying; a year of isolation at home, struggling to learn-as-she-goes, without formal training, without prior experience (the first time, anyway). She has to stare out the open door of a perfectly good airplane, seeing life pass her by below, and decide to jump. It’s 9.8 straight down, with no bungee cord in sight. She has to drop freely for a while, trust that her parachute will open and carry her safely down, but to where, exactly, she’s not sure.
Where will Frau Katarina land after a year of floating in the air? What would it be like to be gone from work for a year? How many colleagues turn over in your company in a year? Will your friends be gone? Will you have to re-establish your relationship with your boss? Will you have a new boss? Will there be projects that have been stagnant for a year that now you have to dig out of the rubble of back-work? Will you have any concept of what’s happening in the market? How many competitors will have been bought, or gone bankrupt? How sharp will you be? Will you remember the million tiny-little details that you keep in your head every day that make you good at your job, or will you have to re-learn everything? If you’re a programmer, your skills have a shelf-life, and when you get back they may be obsolete. You’ll be a year behind your colleagues in experience, in seniority. How likely will you be to get that next promotion? Does our fair Frau really want to do this? Would she do it more than once?
Perhaps a German mother, looking at a year away from work, and all it entails, will take the leap for one child, and work hard to re-establish herself. But if she wants than one child? If she has a visions of sisters brushing each other’s hair after a bath, Christmases with brothers in matching reindeer jumpers, if she feel like she needs another shot at this parenting thing now that she has some experience, then what? Perhaps the cost to her career is too great to have more than one. Perhaps a German mother is forced, not to be a split-personality like her American counterpart, but to choose to be wholly one or the other, to reinvent herself. To jump from the plane and leave Frau Katarina KickAss behind; to become Mütter Katarina. To float down into a new life.
Does she look west while she’s up there, just as Americans look east? Does she long for the security of the bungee cord, tugging her back to work, keeping her tied to her former life, however crazy it may make her, just as Americans struggling to be all things to all people long for the freedom to do one or the other? Do we both, Americans and Germans, look across the Atlantic and see the greener grass of a better way? Perhaps we do, and perhaps the fantasy is a useful one. Being a parent makes you crazy whether you go back to work right away or not. Perhaps looking out, seeing another way, lets you dream of some other place for a while, where people are civilized, where they have this stuff figured out. It gives you hope when the laundry is piled up, the dinner dishes are still on the counter, you’ve got a big presentation tomorrow, and finger painting on the table has just turned into finger painting the table. Somebody must have all this figured out; somebody must have a system; somebody, somewhere has it right. It’s a wonderful fantasy.