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

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.

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

“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. 

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. 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.

  2. 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.

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Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).


What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October.