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From Elternzeit to midwives: An American’s view on having a baby in Germany

A parent holds the hand of a baby.
A parent holds the hand of a baby. Rachel Stern has been thinking about the differences between giving birth in Germany and the US. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch
When The Local Germany Editor Rachel Stern had a baby, she found a new appreciation for the German healthcare system, especially compared to her home country of the US.

“Only a year?” a German friend replied with genuine surprise when I told her how long I was on parental leave.

As we both walked with our two-month old daughters through a sunlit Berlin park, brimming with pram-pushing mums on a Monday afternoon, I mused that I would already be returning to work if I was in the US right now. 

Comparing social policies in Germany and the US may be like comparing apples and oranges (or a fruit to a five course meal). But doing so as a new parent has made me appreciate calling this country home more than any other time in my near-decade here. 

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The lack of time off – and support structures – in the US too often turns new motherhood into an ordeal more stressful than it already is after the intense process of just giving birth followed by around the clock care of a new life. Yet Germany seems to treat this postpartum period as a sacred time, with insurance backed daily check-ins from midwives, free classes and resources galore, and (at least in my American perspective) ample time off. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about parental leave in Germany

In Germany it’s possible to take up to 14 months of paid parental leave (Elternzeit), divided among both mothers and fathers, and up to three years of job-protected leave.

The Local's Rachel Stern with baby Amelie 10 days after she was born.
The Local’s Rachel Stern with baby Amelie 10 days after she was born. Photo: Jess Haverkamp

As day care (Kita) is free – or nearly so – in all 16 states from the age of one, it’s common that parents step away from the job for at least this amount of time.

Meanwhile in the US, the only developed country with no paid parental leave, many workers don’t even have access to unpaid time off. That’s led to a shocking statistic that one in four women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, cited by the Biden administration in a call for better family leave policies.

This explains why I would frequently experience reverse culture shock when reading articles on American sites about how to stash away “maternity leave funds” – where friends and family chip in so that taking off even a few weeks is possible. 

Or how to bank up enough breast milk for returning to work full time, at the stage when most Germans would still be in Wochenbett – the six weeks following birth when women are entitled to free home care from a Hebamme (midwife).

Even after a complications-free birth my nurses urged me to stay in the hospital for as long as I needed and wanted – a sharp contrast to the US where many women try to check in just after midnight to maximise the two days insurance will (partially) pay for. Even with insurance, hospital birth bills in the US will come to between $5,000 and 14,500 depending on the type of delivery.

Birth and bureaucracy

But this being Germany, there can still be boisterous bureaucracy to claim all of the perks for parents. I grinned when reading American advice to ‘Interview paediatricians’ before choosing one, contrasting it with my own experience of contacting as many Kinderärzte nearby as possible in the hopes one wouldn’t say they’re already too full. 

This is not quite as intimidating, however, as the notorious search for a Kitaplatz, in which it’s typical to send out 50 or more applications as soon as you can fill in your child’s date of birth. Several parents around Germany have even sued for a spot, after the endless waiting lists never opened up.

READ ALSO: Kitas: Why are parents suing for a childcare spot in Germany?

To apply for these things in the first place you need a birth certificate, which depending on the local Standesamt (administrative office) can be a multi-week ordeal.

But there’s one piece of bureaucracy Germans don’t waste time on: at two weeks’ old, my daughter received her first official piece of post. Rather than sending congratulations, it was a tax ID number, listing her “move in date” to our Berlin address as her date of birth.

I’d still trade tedious paperwork over forking out a frivolous amount for childcare and medical expenses. And, above all, for living in a society that recognises time of work with a new baby – and healing from having one – isn’t a privatised luxury but a precious necessity in which even a year passes by quickly.


Member comments

  1. This is another perspective from someone from the US. I come from Louisiana which is a right to work state. I’ve worked in IT at a medical records company, a steel factory, insurance company and a small self owned business. None of them offered anything but the most basic unpaid maternity leave. When I saw here in Germany what the mothers and fathers have I couldn’t believe it.

    Watching what my friend had when she had her baby was unbelievable. She was off from 2 months before the baby was born until he was a year and a half old. A woman in her position would have never received that much paid time off at any of the companies I have been with.

  2. I’d like to point out that new parents in America have 12 weeks of protected “unpaid” leave FMLA, and many States offer 4-6 weeks of paid parental leave as well. Most companies provide paid parental leave as a benefit of employment and employees can combine it with vacation time to take home full paychecks while they are at home or stretch out leave. Many companies allow 1 year of leave (some of it paid) and many companies allow adjustable schedules when parents do come back to work. 1 in 4 women do indeed go back to work within 6-8 weeks, but 3 in 4 don’t and that should be focused on. There are pros and cons to each system. I’ve found it is harder to find really good paying full time work in say engineering in Germany or Austria if you are a female of child-bearing years. Why? They’d rather hire a man who won’t have a kid and be missing for what could be years. They can and do ask you if you are pregnant or planning on having children in interviews. This is not allowed in the US. I’ve found it easier to find employment equity in the US because of the non-government enforced parental leave system. It’s all in what you’re after I suppose.

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