Bringing up baby in baby-scarce Germany

Germany reports its birthrate is at a historic low. To raise it, the country needs to make some practical changes, such as daycare that is more widely available. But it also needs to change attitudes.

Toddlers crawl around at a daycare center in Berlin as their mothers look on during a weekly session. Germany is working to increase the number of daycare centers, and thus increase its persistently low birthrate.

Germany reported last week that its birthrate has reached a historic low. That doesn’t bode well for Europe’s largest economy as it struggles to support a graying population.

The number of births dropped by 30,000 last year, part of a long-term challenge for Germany. It has the lowest birthrate in Europe (though Italy is not far behind). On a global scale of countries with populations over 40 million, only Japan is lower.

Many reasons discourage becoming a parent, including hard economic times like these. But some of the causes seem particularly challenging in Germany. I noticed them when I reported from there for the Monitor in the 1990s. They haven’t been solved in the intervening years.

I’d put the reasons into two categories. One has to do with the structure of German society. Many schools let out earlier than in other European countries. Mom or dad must be home to cook the main midday meal. Then follow the afternoon child activities. This set-up makes it very hard for a parent to work, forcing a choice between parenthood and a full-time job.

Another big structural hurdle: Daycare in Germany is limited. You should have heard the bitter complaints of the working women of East Germany when reunification caused many of their state-run daycare centers to close. At that time, daycare in West Germany was almost unheard of. This is another structural norm that forces a parent to choose between work and having a child.

But attitude also plays a role. The Germans themselves admit they could be more child-friendly. My best German friend tells of being shooed away as a child when she tried to play in the courtyard of her apartment building.

When the Monitor’s Paris correspondent came to visit with family in tow we all went to brunch at the American Club. German restaurants don’t cater to kids. Too noisy. Indeed, The New York Times reported last year on noise-related lawsuits and complaints that have shut down German daycare centers.

So, what can be done to motivate German women to have more babies? European countries that reproduce at close to their population replacement level (countries such as France and the Netherlands) have generous parental leave and parent stipends, infant-care systems, and high gender equality (measured by income and social position).

Germany’s first female head of state, Chancellor Angela Merkel, has worked to add to these underpinnings. She increased parental leave stipends (now 1 in 5 German dads are stay-at-home fathers). She’s also vowed to increase state-supported daycare so that it can serve one-in-three children under three by 2013.

But Germany has a long way to go to establish gender pay equality (German women earn 24 percent less than men), and on attitudes about children and mothers who choose to work. That’s not something Ms. Merkel can legislate.

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