In Germany, expectant moms hope babies hold off til Jan. 1

In a bid to encourage German professionals to have more children, parental-leave pay will be much higher in 2007.

Nine months into their pregnancies, most expecting mothers probably don't want to wait one day longer to deliver.

But for Claudia Wilken, that extra day could mean an extra €11,900 ($15,000). This is the "parents' money" she and her husband would be entitled to over the next 14 months under a new German law, which goes into effect in 2007.

"It is going to make a huge difference to us, if our baby is born after Jan. 1," says the 27-year-old from Neu-Brandenburg in eastern Germany. For some parents, up to $33,000 is at stake, depending on their previous salaries, to which the new benefit is linked.

The provision is the latest in a series of measures the German government has recently put in place in a bid to encourage more professionals to have children. While it's too soon to gauge the effect of such legislation on the country's steadily declining birth rate – already Europe's lowest – critics say much remains to be done to help working parents.

"By international standards Germany spends just too little money in this area," says family and educational economics professor Katharina Spiess, referring specifically to the lack of day care places. In contrast, says Professor Spiess, who teaches at Berlin's Free University, France or the Scandinavian countries not only spend more, but also have a tax system and work patterns geared more toward accommodating working parents.

To address that dilemma, Germany's Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen – a medical doctor and mother of seven children – pushed through the Elterngeld legislation. The law mandates that a parent will receive two-thirds of her (or his) previous net salary for up to 14 months (capped at €1,800), if she temporarily gives up or reduces work to no more than 30 hours a week to stay at home with her newborn. This replaces the previous arrangement, which paid around €300 a month for two years to new parents, with some restrictions. By paying more, the new provision is designed to encourage fathers to take more paternity leave.

While it's too soon to gauge the effect of such legislation, critics say that societal prejudice against working mothers is the underlying problem that must be addressed.

"Working mothers are seen as irresponsible," says Brunhilde Raiser of the National Council of German Women's Organisations. This shows, she says, that the government and media "cannot promote the 'family' and hope to install gender equality on the way to achieving it. Gender equality really needs to come first."

Even professional women who decide to have children despite such attitudes run into logistical difficulties, such as a lack of day-care spaces.

"We can't afford a nanny and no nursery place is available, yet," says Julia Heilmann, a Berlin mother who used to work as a bookseller but stays at home now to look after her 2-year-old. Such issues seriously diminish the appeal of the new provision, she says. "The Elterngeld is not going to change this situation."

For others, however, it does make a difference. Heike Lequer, a journalist, is five months pregnant and will be eligible for the new parents' benefit. She says it would not have affected her original decision to have a child. But now that the arrangement is in place, "It's great and makes things easier for me and [my husband]," she admits.

Though the German birthrate hit a new low this year – on par with the world's lowest, such as Singapore – there are signs that change is afoot. Urban areas like Berlin's hip Prenzlauer Berg district are teeming with young parents pushing strollers and lots of babies, though that's largely due to the high concentration of young people attracted by cheap rents and integrated urban planning in this formerly communist part of Berlin.

This "creative elite" has broken with traditional patterns of work and family life, notes the Trend Report by the Zukunftsinstitut, a think tank exploring future trends in German society.

"Young mothers are taking their kids along for a coffee with friends, to the book shop or even into the office. It's an integrated lifestyle that marks a departure from the traditional male career structure," said the organization's head, Matthias Horx. This development could serve as an example for other parts of the country.

Until this happens the government hopes the Elterngeld and other initiatives will help boost the birth rate. Back in Neu-Brandenburg, Claudia Wilke and her husband may be among the first Germans to take advantage of the new benefits. They have now received an appointment with the midwife – for January 2.

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