FRANKFURT — Maria-Louisa di Biagio still remembers the sting of disapproval from her German friends when she returned to work after the birth of her son.
"I felt like a terrible mom who gave up her children to strangers," says Ms. di Biagio, now a mother of two and executive assistant to the director of the European Central Bank.
For generations, Germany has largely taken it for granted that a mother's place is in the home. But the hausfrau model of marriage isn't yielding the expected results. Germany's birthrate has dropped ominously since the 1970s and is now among the lowest in the industrialized world, threatening the labor pool and the economy.
The picture is now so dire that two months from the national elections, promoting parenthood is a dominant campaign theme. Politicians of all stripes are offering better access to child care, monetary incentives, and other rewards, and they are voicing more openness toward various models of family.
Within Europe, Germany joins Spain and Italy, where fertility rates are the lowest in the world (1.2 per woman), in trying to encourage more children.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has launched a raft of measures to help young families and thus encourage the birth of more babies, such as opening more nurseries and subsidizing couples buying their first home. In a measure also aimed at getting more Spanish women into the workforce to reduce reliance on immigrants, the Spanish government is reforming its tax law to give working mothers with children under the age of 3 a tax rebate of $1,130 per child.
The European Union overall has a fertility rate of 1.5, well below the 2.14 needed to keep a population stable.
While the German government already pays one of Europe's most generous monthly cash allowances to every family the equivalent of $150 per child it lags far behind France, for example, in offering tax and other family incentives. In contrast to many other European countries, Germany has never developed a child care infrastructure or all-day schools. Mothers, it was thought, should be at home to cook lunch for their children.
Politicians are promising to open day-care centers, create all-day schools, and institute tax advantages for parents, whether they are married or not.
"In Germany, it is society that looks down on you if you don't stay at home, and therefore society doesn't delegate much," says Ms. di Biagio.
These attitudes explain why, in Germany, women often choose between career or family rather than juggle both, economists and social science experts say.
According to Juergen Dorbritz, a researcher on family issues with the German Institute for Population Studies in Wiesbaden, one-third of young German women remain unmarried and childless today compared with a fifth a decade ago.
As a senior vice president at Commerzbank in Frankfurt, Petra Eberlein-Kemper feels like a loner. She's the only manager at her level who is also a mother and says she longs for role models, women with whom she could discuss the "complexity of the entire situation." Three percent of the bank's top managers, below the board of directors, are women. None has children. Mrs. Eberlein-Kemper manages to work full time because her husband is self-employed and can pick up their two toddlers.
Although half the university graduates in Germany are women, they hold only a little over 6 percent of the most prestigious full professorships far below European standards according to a study of women in top positions in Germany by the international consulting firm Accenture. Twenty-seven percent of German working women hold managerial positions which gives Germany, along with Switzerland, the lowest share in Europe, according to figures cited by Accenture.
As Germany's skilled-labor shortage deepens, moving women up the corporate ladder is becoming an economic necessity.
"The economy can't afford anymore to overlook women," says Barbara David, who heads Commerzbank's diversity department.
Germany faces its greatest shortage of skilled workers in decades. Last year, the Schröder government instituted so-called "green card" programs to make it easier for engineers from countries like India to work in Germany. And opening the gates to more qualified workers is the central goal of a groundbreaking new immigration law. Although immigration can help, it isn't enough to solve the problems, in part because the bulk of immigration consists of low-skilled foreigners.
"Immigration isn't the cure," says Achim Dercks of the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Berlin. "It's only part of the solution."
"What is needed in Germany is a radically new way of thinking," says Eric Thode, a researcher at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a nonprofit organization based near Frankfurt that does research and analysis on German society. "We need to stop thinking women are meant for part-time jobs only and take it for granted that women should hold top positions."
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only 15.7 percent of German women with children under 6 work full time, but twice as many would like to. In France, for example, 40 percent of women with small children work full time, and the figure rises to more than half in Sweden. And, on the average, French and Swedish women have more children than do German women.
It is the absence of child care options that explains, in large part, the differences. According to a new study on the German labor market by the Bertelsmann Foundation, only 10 percent of German children under 3 have a spot in some form of day care, compared with 64 percent of Danish toddlers, 52 percent in the US and 29 percent of French toddlers.
Gerhard Schröder, the Social Democratic chancellor, who is running for reelection in September, has pledged, if elected, to spend $4 billion over four years to turn a quarter of the nation's schools into all-day institutions and open more day-care facilities. His coalition partners, the Greens, advocate making kindergarten free for all.
Edmund Stoiber, Schröder's conservative rival, pledges to provide more direct benefits to families. Even Stoiber's party, traditionally the stodgiest in its views toward a woman's role, is talking for the first time about the need to reconcile family life and work. Reflecting the country's new emphasis on childbearing, Stoiber has also voiced an open-mindedness toward less traditional models of family, saying that his choice for family minister would be an unmarried mother.
But how the new child-oriented initiatives would be paid for is unclear, especially since many child care and school issues fall under the jurisdiction of local municipalities.
Prompted by recent rulings by Germany's high court urging more child-friendly public policies, the government recently made several changes. Every child in Germany, regardless of origin and family income, is now entitled to a kindergarten spot. Families get tax breaks for child-related expenses. Federal judges ruled last year that, because families with children contribute more toward maintaining the number of taxpayers than do the childless, they should should pay less into the long-term nursing care program.
Some private German companies have tried to make it easier for women with children to work. Commerzbank, for example, has an emergency kindergarten in case parents need to bring their children to the office.