Babyeaucracy – paperwork for payouts

Giving birth while living abroad can be a daunting prospect. The seventh installment of The Local's series Motherhood in the Fatherland follows expectant mum Sabine Devins as she handles the cultural quirks of having a baby in Germany.

Babyeaucracy – paperwork for payouts
Photo: Josh Devins

Deutschland – famous for beer, sausage, fast motorways, faster cars and a glacier-sized (and paced) bureaucracy. Every expat has at least one nightmarish story to tell about the country’s disorienting official paperwork, complete with cranky civil servants and the infamous queues. But it’s a great place to live, so we deal with it.

Unfortunately the experience won’t be any different for our babies. Giving birth in Germany comes with advantages many other countries don’t have – but only if the paperwork is in order.

The big checklist

Within the first week of their infant’s life, parents will be able to check off “first government office visit” in the baby book. They have just seven days to register the baby’s birth with the Standesamt, or civil registry office. Most hospitals ease this process by having at least the paperwork on hand, and will sometimes also mail it to the Standesamt. Then all that’s left to do is pick up the Geburtsurkunde, or birth certificate, which is key to tackling the looming mountain of babyeaucracy to come.

Next on the list are the long halls of the Bürgeramt, where residents go to register address changes and get their income tax cards. It turns out babies must also be registered as residents. While they’re at it, parents can also pick up a new income tax card (Lohnsteuerkarte) if the arrival of the little one puts them in a new tax class. This is also the place to get the baby a German passport or permanent residency status if he or she is eligible. Citizenship is possible if one parent is German, while residency status depends on the mother’s.

Expats with spousal or work visas will also need to make the early morning trek to the beloved Ausländerbehörde, or foreigner’s registration office, to take care of their baby’s residency issues. As with permanent residency, the child’s status is based on the mother’s situation. A baby born to two foreign parents doesn’t necessarily have the right to stay, so parents need to make this a priority before their tot gets a deportation notice. Officially this must be completed within six months of the child’s birth, but it’s best to do it right away, particularly if parents plan on travelling with their new addition.

Foreigners living in Germany will also want to check with their embassy or consulate for a certificate of citizenship if their new baby qualifies back home. The embassies can help parents with yet more paperwork to insure their infant doesn’t wind up stateless.

Finally, depending on their family situation, parents may also want to visit the Jugendamt, which can also be done before the baby arrives. Unwed parents can go here for the Vaterschaftsanerkennung, or acknowledgement of paternity. If parents do this before the baby is born, the father can be put on the birth certificate right away. In the case of married couples, the husband is the assumed father – even if the baby is the product of extramarital activities. Paternity recognition can also be registered at the Standesamt or by a notary public.

Parental benefits

All these trips to drab government buildings pay off in the form of Germany’s parental benefits. It’s one of the first things our Canadian family and friends usually ask about. In the land of maple syrup, my friends can take as much as a year off and be compensated 55 percent of their salary. Our unfortunate American neighbours to the south live in the only industrialised nation which doesn’t legally mandate paid maternity leave. There, mothers can expect to get 12 weeks of unpaid leave, though most companies have a more generous policy.

In Germany, the government insures that employers provide Mutterschutz, which includes both a generous maternity leave and job protection. This means a mandated 14-week period of paid leave that starts six weeks before the estimated due date. In fact, as long as the mother is covered by the statutory health insurance, it is verboten for her to work for six weeks before the birth and eight weeks after. In the case of multiple births, that work prohibition is extended.

The financial benefits of Mutterschutz are called Mutterschaftsgeld. In addition to job protection, this provides 100 percent of a mother’s net income for the 14 weeks of leave. Statutory health insurance pays part of the salary as a sort of “extended sick leave” benefit, while the employer pays the rest.

As a freelance journalist, I unfortunately belong to one of the few job categories not entitled to this maternity leave, along with housewives and students. Cue the sad trombone.

Once the baby arrives, gainfully employed mothers will continue to be on the maternity leave pay benefit but the maternity leave time overlaps with parental leave. Yes, it’s different. Germany loves to make things complicated.

Parental leave, or Elternzeit, is 14 months, usually with one parent (the mother) taking 12 months off, and the other two months considered “partner months.” But really, those 14 months can be divided up anyway parents choose. Single parents are entitled to take the full 14 months for themselves. It’s up to parents to give notice to their employer as to when and how long they plan on taking leave seven weeks before their last day.

During Elternzeit, parents taking time off are entitled to Elterngeld, or parental benefits. For mothers, it starts when their eight weeks of Mutterschaftsgeld are over.

Unlike the maternity benefits, Elterngeld is a pay cut. For those 14 months, the parent taking leave will receive 67 percent of his or her net salary, but it’s capped at €1,800 per month. That means anyone with a monthly net income higher than €2,700 takes an even bigger financial hit. However, the Elterngeld benefit does allow for some flexibility. Parents receiving the family benefits can choose to work up to 30 hours a week, though their benefits will be adjusted.

While there is a cap on the parental leave pay, there is also a minimum. This means students, housewives and other low-income (or no-income) earners will see at least a €300 monthly benefit paid out to them for no more than 12 months. Freelancers are responsible for proving their last year’s income to determine how much Elterngeld they’re entitled to. Paperwork for the parental benefits gets filed away at the local Bürgeramt. Most of these have websites where you can download the paperwork to fill out before you arrive.

Child benefits

In addition to parental leave, new families also qualify for Kindergeld, or child benefits, which they have three months to register for at the Familienkasse der Argentur für Arbeit following the birth of their child.

Germany pays a monthly sum per child to assist families with the cost of having children. For the first two, parents will receive €184 per month, per child. Child number three will earn €190 per month, and any successive children qualify for a €215 monthly cheque.

Unlike Elternzeit, this money is not dependent on income. It’s paid out until the child is 18. If the child goes to university, Kindergeld is paid out until the age of 25, unless the studious offspring earns money exceeding €8,004 per year. Children with severe disabilities who require lifelong care can collect the benefit for life.

While none of these benefits cover the entire cost of having a baby or raising children, they certainly help. As a self-described freelancer/housewife, I’m entitled to €300 per month in Elterngeld. I can collect that for as many months as my husband doesn’t take off. He is planning on splitting up his Elternzeit. For the first six weeks, he’ll stay at home with me. He then plans to take several months off later – when Baby Devins is “more fun,” as he describes it – to help me keep up with a more active baby. That time will also allow us to take an extended trip back to Canada so the baby can spend some time with her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

So if he takes four months off, I can collect my benefits for 10 months, but still supplement that with my freelance work (up to 30 hours per week). It’s time together that we’re impatiently looking forward to.

But until then I’ll be far from bored as I fill out all that paperwork. The next time you hear from me I’ll be a mama, sharing my personal experience of entering the world of Motherhood here in the Fatherland. Don’t worry, not that personal.

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Immunisations and anal pharmacists

Motherhood in the Fatherland follows mum Sabine Devins as she navigates the cultural quirks of having a baby in Germany. In the latest instalment, she tackles immunisations and baby pharmaceuticals.

Immunisations and anal pharmacists
Photo: DPA

This month, my daughter reaches an important milestone: it’s her last round of immunizations until school age. It will be a relief for me to see her chubby little thighs bandage-free until she’s marching off to school with an overloaded Schultüte.

Luisa and her counterparts in North America and the UK are lucky to count going to the doctor as a fact of life. When a baby is born in Germany, he gets presented with a Babypass. Like my Mutterpass, the little book is a transportable medical file that mothers can take from doctor to doctor with her medical history. It also tracks baby’s development.

All of the check-ups, or Untersuchungen, are abbreviated to U1, U2, U3, etc. Luisa’s appointments are labelled on the front of her Kinderpass with what dates they should fall between, going all the way to April 2016. Each Untersuchung has a page for the doctor to fill out. It also leaves me with a handy little guide to how much Luisa has grown over the last year (it’s a lot!).

Most of the exams so far have been simple physicals. Making sure Luisa is growing properly and all her little parts with it. At the U3, there is an ultrasound to look for hip dysplasia — something that I find Germans to be disproportionately concerned with. As there is some hip joint issues in Luisa’s family medical history, she received an ultrasound at her U2, then again three weeks later, then with a specialist, and then again at the U3. The conclusion: “Her hips are just fine, we just like to be very careful when it comes to hip dysplasia,” said our doctor.

According to the International Hip Dysplasia Institute, hips that require treatment only occur in two to three children per 1,000.

What I do like about Germany’s scheduled medical care for babies is that they do immunizations a little later than in the English-speaking world. While Luisa’s friends in the US, the UK, and Canada all had their first round of shots at two months, Luisa didn’t get her first Impfungen until she was nearly four months. The first round is done in conjunction with the U4 check up, when Luisa is between two and four months old. Since her appointment was booked closer to the end of the fourth, that was simply when she got her first round.

As for the immunizations themselves, they are very much the same as what children in North America and the UK are given. Right now, Luisa has fighting power against tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis or whooping cough, polio, pneumococcus and hepatitis B. On the advice of my paediatrician, I skipped the Rotavirus immunisation and many German parents also leave out the Hepatitis B. After her last round, Luisa will also be armed against measles, mumps, and rubella.

Overall, there isn’t much difference between the care Luisa would get here versus there. But what is different in Germany is the at-home care and what Mamas keep in their at-home medical kit.

I’ve written before on the various uses of breast milk to cure these things, but that does come to an end and now those ailments lead me to the medicine cabinet.

For stuffed noses, we have saline solution. It’s hated by our little one and therefore seldom used. As Germany is the birthplace of homoeopathy, I can find all sorts of natural remedies. My favourite is called Osanit and they’re little pearls I use for teething pain. It’s main medicinal ingredient is chamomile. Whenever those gums start causing problems, babes are dosed with a few little pearls that they can roll around in their mouth and it seems to work. Life goes on. American mom Laurie has a similar product in her cabinet called Dentinox-Gel N, which also contains chamomile but in a gel format.

For those fevers, we use paracetamol, but its application is what makes our stash “very German”. The favoured method of dosing your child by the Mamas is Zäpfchen, or suppositories.

I wasn’t sure what to make the first time I realised what my doctor had prescribed after Luisa’s first round of immunizations in case of fever. But she was hot and miserable and so it happened and it was awful for everyone, but it did make her feel better. The next day I went to the pharmacy and asked for liquid paracetamol to give her instead.

The pharmacist was confused by my request. “But with the suppositories, you know she’s getting the right amount. You don’t have to worry about getting her to swallow it and once it’s done, it’s done,” she said, very pragmatically.

With the next fever, I took out a spoon and tried to get Luisa to swallow her medicine. It didn’t work. Her mouth clamped shut, she shook her head and sticky, orange-flavoured syrup got all over the floor. The practical German in me took over and we went back to the Zäpfchen. I’m now a convert.

I’m not the only one. British mum Tori told me she thinks they’re brilliant. “I would have never used them if I were raising Max [in England], but my husband, who is a doctor, was the one who stocked up the medicine shelf and at first I wasn’t so sure, but now they’re all I use.”

But others aren’t convinced.

When Laurie’s son has a fever, she uses liquid ibuprofen, which her pharmacist told her not to use until he was six months old. Before that, she had infant’s Advil and Triminic sent from the US. She also keeps American-bought Neosporin on hand. She also wishes that children’s acetaminophen were more available in the Fatherland.

English mum Susannah won’t touch the Zäpfchen. “Sticking things up a baby’s bum is not an idea I’d ever considered until I became a parent here. I would have no idea how to go about it, and would worry I was hurting her.”

Instead, she stocked up on the beloved English cure-all Calpol on her last trip home. “It’s poured liberally down English children’s throats from a very young age, whereas Germany seems less into plying babies with drugs,” she explained. “By extension, the German equivalents seemed less trustworthy in my mind: Irrational but true.”

She also has Calpol saline nose spray, as an assistant at her local pharmacy “raised her voice and eyebrows at my request for — what she called — a brutal product. She pretty much accused me of wanting to shoot drugs into my innocent child’s brain tissue.” But Susannah felt the German saline drops weren’t working and was delighted when she read “Suitable from birth” emblazoned on the English saline spray.

These days, we more readily turn to Google than our mothers to answer the million times we need to know: “Is this normal?” However, when it comes to comforts and cures, we turn back to what we know from childhood, whether it’s Laurie who goes for Neosporin to treat her son’s scrapes or Susannah who trusts one name to cure it all. Even if similar products are available in the German Apotheke, it’s just not the same as what we know.

And just because I use the Zäpfchen, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be grateful for your tips on getting your babes to swallow their medicine.