There is a picture from April 2020 that illustrates the exhaustion that overcame me after the birth of my son. My husband shot it, he just got home from work. My son, five months old at the time, is lying on the living room carpet, his bare legs drawn up, his eyes wide open at the camera. I'm lying next to it, on my side, my eyes are closed.
I just wanted to go outside into the fresh air, after a whole night and a whole day with the baby, but I didn't make it. I was way too exhausted. I stayed on the carpet. Just close your eyes for a moment, hand over responsibility, my husband was finally there and took care of the child. I fell asleep there, in my coat, with a scarf around my neck.
When I went back to work six months after my son was born, it was like banging my head through the surface of the water and finally getting my breath back. On the nights before my working days, my husband would take care of the child, getting up every two hours and giving him the bottle of expressed breast milk. When I sat down at my laptop at eight in the morning, more or less rested, a feeling of lightness flooded through me.
Eight relaxed hours lay ahead of me. I could schedule interviews to fit my schedule, I could eat, drink, and even walk around the block in between—on the spur of the moment, without spending two hours preparing. Sometimes I went on research, then I was gone overnight. During this time I gradually weaned: our son ate porridge, the freezer was full of pumped breast milk. He was no longer so dependent on me and my body. That’s how strength came back into my life – strength for my family, but also strength for my job.
After a few hours of work, I was still able to snuggle up on the couch with my baby in the evening and fool around with him. I didn't even have to choose a world. Wow, I thought at the time. So that's how it feels for most dads.
I thought it was only fair that we shared the physical and psychological exhaustion that life with a baby brings with it between me and my husband. Especially since I had already taken on the lion's share with pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum, I felt, and felt like I was recovering from a long, debilitating illness.
My husband confirmed to me: A working day is like a vacation if you compare it to a baby's day. But baby day is still nicer. We both wanted both.
We set the course during this time: Because my husband was alone with the baby from an early age, he knew all the processes and he could get by without me. He knew the name of our pediatrician and knew our son's diaper size. We both felt responsible for all the hurdles that followed: illnesses, daycare frenzy, closing times. It's different for many families I know.
Because mothers often stay at home with the baby for the first year and fathers are rarely alone with the child, the mothers will often continue to be primarily responsible in the future: if the child is put to bed in the evening, it is best to go to sleep with mom. If the childminder is absent, Mom can't work, sometimes for months. When the child falls ill and the day care center calls, mum of course, mum rushes home from work. Not dad.
Most of the people I know didn't choose this model entirely voluntarily. Because the Parental Allowance Act proposes families a kind of gold standard of family life: the second recipient of parental allowance must take two minimum months so that the family can enjoy full parental allowance.
Most couples therefore opt for the mother to receive parental allowance for twelve months and for the father to take the two “partner months”. There are also figures on this: 75 percent of fathers only claim parental allowance for a minimum period of two months, according to the current father report of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs.
The average parental benefit receipt period for fathers was 3.7 months in 2021. According to the Federal Statistical Office, it was 14.6 months for women. However, the number of fathers who use more than the two partner months has also risen steadily in recent years. The main reason for this is the ElterngeldPlus, which was introduced in 2015. We'll get to that later.
Because the woman has eight weeks of maternity leave anyway, which is offset against parental leave, and in many cases breastfeeds, it makes sense for many families that she should take on the larger share. Especially since she is often younger than her partner, so she has generally not progressed as far in her career and as a result usually earns less. It is therefore worthwhile if the man goes to work.
Only: This early determination means that the woman, as the main person responsible for the child, cannot develop professionally for an indefinite period of time. And that the income gap is cemented. This can also be proven with numbers: ten years after the birth of the first child, mothers in Germany earn an average of 61 percent less than in the year before the birth, researchers found in a study that was published in 2019. For fathers in Germany, the salary remained about the same. In no other country examined was the wage gap as large as in Germany.
Whoever has the money has the power. There are quite a few women who remain in an unhappy relationship because they are afraid of financial collapse. If the couple separates, many women who have given up further professional development because of their child find themselves in a precarious position.
In order to keep the wage gap for mothers from becoming so large, the course must be set early on for a partnership in the distribution of tasks. Because mothers can only develop if fathers are held accountable. It would therefore be fair if the full parental allowance were only paid out if the parents shared half of the parental leave. Seven months for the mother, seven months for the father. However, when I suggested this in a recent comment, I received a spate of indignant letters from the editor.
"Your comment upset me," one man wrote, asking for "crude patronizing." I didn't even ask for that. I only suggested that the partnership model should be better off financially than the non-partnership model. Another gentleman wrote to me: "If you make fathers more responsible, that's a professional disadvantage". Yes - nice that it rang! It is about distributing the "professional disadvantages" more fairly than before between mothers and fathers.
Another wrote me that he canceled his subscription because of my text. He himself took twelve months of parental leave, and all the other men in his circle of friends did the same. Congratulations on this decision!
On the other hand, the story of a father who told me that he had lost his job because he wanted to take parental leave was sad. After that he had time for his two children, but was unemployed.
Above all, these letters showed me that this country is more backward than I thought. It would be all the more important to reform the Parental Allowance Act. We need a law that promotes equality. Because it should be normal for fathers to take parental leave, and not just for two months.
However, dividing full-time parental leave in half is not a good solution for all couples. I understand mothers who do not want to work full-time with a baby that they often still breastfeed at night. It would be better if the Parental Allowance Act promoted part-time work during parental leave. And by both, mother and father.
At the moment, the Parental Allowance Act theoretically supports couples who want such a division. There are partnership months and parental allowance plus. In practice, however, things are different. My husband and I had to experience this painfully.
Because it all sounded so good, we opted for ElterngeldPlus. After the first six months (breastfeeding!), we wanted to share care for another year and both work part-time. We wanted to bridge a few months without parental allowance and only with a part-time salary, then our son should go to daycare at the age of 21 months. A perfect plan, we thought.
“ElterngeldPlus strengthens the compatibility of work and family and recognizes in particular the plans of those who want to work part-time again while receiving parental allowance. This gives mothers and fathers the opportunity to claim parental allowance for longer than before," says the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs.
And further: "Parents can each receive up to four additional parental allowance plus months as a partnership bonus if they work part-time between 24 and 32 hours a week during this period in order to have more time for their child (between 25 and 30 hours for children, born before September 1, 2021).”
That sounded pretty good. I understood it like this: We share the care as partners and in return receive parental allowance for longer and four months' money for free. Win-win-win.
The first disillusionment followed quickly: In theory, with ElterngeldPlus you get half of the base amount. In practice, however, that was not the case: instead of 989 euros in basic parental allowance, I only received 393 euros in the plus months, i.e. less than half. To this day I don't know why. And it was surprisingly complicated to comply with the requirements of the law. How should parents both work 25 hours a week and look after a child at the same time? That only works with overtime or weekend work - something that you don't need in the early days as a family.
Who came up with this law, I asked myself every Saturday as I booted up my laptop. Or in the evening after a long baby day, when my husband didn't come home until around 7 p.m. after nine hours of work.
I have the goodwill of my employer to thank for the fact that we were able to make use of the partnership months at all, as he let me work on Saturdays even though hardly anyone else was on duty.
We pulled it off anyway: We both worked three days a week for about a year and a half: I on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday. My husband on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Only Sunday was left for family time.
At the end of this time we got a bill: Our salary had increased during the maternity leave, the law didn't allow for that. This wage increase was deducted from our parental allowance. I was supposed to pay back 2916.84 euros, my husband 191.76 euros. Within a month. Kind regards.
I could hardly understand the complicated calculations of the parental allowance office and the many ifs and buts of the law. One thing was clear to me: if we had followed the classic model, i.e. if I had stayed at home for a year, we would have saved a lot of time, money and nerves. However, with all the known consequences for me as a woman and mother.
It would therefore be urgently necessary to reform the Parental Allowance Act, to make it simpler and more understandable - even for people without a high school diploma. If the government is serious about equality between men and women, then this should be reflected in the Parental Allowance Act. Because it is a crucial lever for the future of mothers in this society.
In theory, ElterngeldPlus is well-intentioned, but it should be a real part-time arrangement that doesn't drive families into burnout. If both work two days a week, i.e. at least 16 hours a week, and look after their child at the same time, that should be enough for them to be able to receive partnership months. And above all, parents who develop their careers during parental leave should not be penalized by having to pay back the parental allowance.
Not only would the mothers and their families benefit, but society as a whole. Children are not a private matter. They never were.
"Kick-off Politics" is WELT's daily news podcast. The most important topic analyzed by WELT editors and the dates of the day. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music or directly via RSS feed.