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German powerhouse leaves working mothers behind

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French women rely on state-provided childcare – all-day schooling for children age 3 and older and day care for those under 3 – to combine work and family, but Germans tend to see educating their children as a private, not public, responsibility. In western Germany, only 3 of every 100 children attend daycare. In former East Germany, where both genders typically worked and the government provided childcare, 27 percent of children now attend daycare – compared with 29 percent in France and 64 percent in Finland.

Leaving children in the care of others while a mother works is still perceived by many Germans as “abandoning” them. When Sabine Jeiter’s first child reached primary school age 10 years ago, the anesthesiologist turned down a place for the girl in an after-school program, known as a “hort.” Instead, she had her mother care for her daughter. 

Why? She still remembered her own childhood, when only children coming from “problem families” were sent to a hort instead of going home for lunch. “‘Hort-kids’ had a stamp sticking to their skin,” Dr. Jeiter says. “It meant something was wrong with the family – maybe the parents had divorced, or they weren’t married.” She didn’t want her daughter to have the same label. 

East vs. West Germany

The Third Reich gave mothers a starring role in Nazi ideology, giving medals of honor to those who had four or more babies and carried on the Aryan race. 

There was a backlash against the emphasis on larger families after the war, but the conservative government of Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war leader of West Germany, still enshrined marriage as the cement of society with its policies – just with fewer children. His patriarchal family policies are still in place: cash allowances for families with children, half-day schooling, and a tax code that favors married couples where only one partner works, among others.

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