German Baby Bust

Not Even a Generous Array of Government Subsidies has Inspired Young German Families to Have More Children; Between Motherhood and Work, Women See ‘Either-Or’

News | Jan Karnath | November 2006

In Germany, there is a word for women who have both a child and a full-time job. It’s "Rabenmutter," and it means uncaring mother. The term flourished in the 1930s through the heyday of the Nazi party and is now still used in Umgangssprache, or informal speech, especially in rural areas of Germany.

Then there’s the word for housewife, "Hausmutterchen," often used to slight women who choose to stay home with the kids. It implies being a little bit stupid and leaving all decisions to the  husband.  While neither word is exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue in Germany, both words are common enough to affect young women who are making decisions about work and motherhood.

As women with children either work for pay or stay home with their children, the choices they make are being closely studied amid growing national dismay over a declining birth rate.

At 1.3 babies per woman of child-bearing age, the birth rate is far less than the 2.1 rate that researchers say is needed to maintain a stable population. The not-so-funny joke among demographers here is that unless women start having more babies, Germany could be extinct by 2020.

Efforts to shore up the birth rate have been mainly unsuccessful so far. Germany’s family minister Ursula von der Leyen introduced tax breaks last year to help couples that wanted children.

Increased nursery places and a new state-funded welfare scheme requiring men to take two months off work for families to qualify were also introduced, but none of the changes have had a significant impact on the rate of birth.

The fact that 30% of German women have chosen not to have children at all,  according to a 2005 European Union Census, with the figure rising among female graduates to 40%, shows that the decision for a lot of women in Germany is either career or children, but not both.

A lot of women think that they can only compete with their male colleagues if they don’t have a "career hole," or that the challenge to combine both roles is simply too big a disadvantage.

Another reason for the low birth rate is the image presented by the media to the people. In films, newspapers, billboards and politics the picture of the independent, smart and successful women is present everywhere and creates a benchmark for young women.

A hidden attribute of this picture is the fact that a lot of women who fulfil these values are childless, for example Angela Merkel, Condoleezza Rice or Hewlett Packard’s Carly Fiorina. The media is drawing a picture, which implies that it is necessary to be childless to reach your goals.

All these factors lead to the problem of a low birth rate, and there is no perfect answer, just suggestions for what might change the attitude of a whole society.  A key factor may be giving respect to paternal leave breaks, and the behaviours that make up the raising of a child "together" needs to become more common and more rewarded.

If these changes don’t come quickly; if Germany cannot figure out how to get its citizens to reproduce, there is a significant risk that the governments of the EU will be unable to evolve into a unified economic community, and will be left instead to fight over a dwindling number of people.

Other articles from this issue