Childcare in Germany leaves mothers with few options for working | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

Childcare in Germany is often presented abroad as an enviable model that is both affordable and friendly for working parents. But in fact, mothers who have had to balance their careers with parenthood face the much more difficult reality that the system seems to be designed to keep them out of the workforce altogether.

“Our village has at least 40 children who don’t have a place in kindergarten,” said Julia, a working mother in southeastern Germany, “despite the fact that the government is legally obliged to provide care for children over three Local governments do not advertise jobs or do anything to make them more attractive Children who get places are in too many groups, and if a member of staff is ill or resign, which is understandable given the low pay and working conditions, these families are simply unlucky.”

The 38-year-old high school teacher added that “if you can’t find a nanny or a daycare place, of course you are allowed to sue the local government, but most people can’t be bothered by this stress. “. when you can end up with a place 90 minutes away.”

Women are forced to work part-time

Susanne Kuger, childcare expert at the German Youth Institute (DJI), confirmed that “the number of families who take the case to court is extremely low” and chooses instead “to send the children to grandparents or to pay for expensive private childcare and nannies if they can, otherwise one of the parents, usually the mother, has to reduce their working hours or delay their return to work altogether.

She said “each nanny and daycare center can decide their own hours of operation”, whether it’s conducive to full-time work or not, and there’s often pressure to pick up children by 2pm.

Germany has well over a million jobs to fill in 2022. One idea being floated is to promote some of the country’s 11 million part-time workers – 80% of whom are women – into these full-time positions. But providing childcare services turns out to be the biggest hurdle.

According to a large study carried out by the DJI in 2020, 49% of parents with children under the age of three say they need childcare. Of these, only 24% are able to provide the number of hours they need to be covered by a nanny or in daycare. For children over three years old, 97% need care, and only 71% of parents say they have covered the necessary hours.

But for many who say they have all the childcare they need, the truth is that a parent has simply accepted that if they can return to work they will have to work part-time.

“Clearly, for heterosexual couples, that parent is the mother,” said Julia, who had to cut her working hours after the local government took six months to respond to her request for childcare. “It’s an extremely difficult situation if you don’t have a support system, like grandparents who live nearby and are able and willing to care for the children.”

High barriers for immigrant families

The problem is even more serious for immigrant families without this social support network, explained Alexandra Jähnert of DJI. “The system for registering children for care is complex, usually only available in a complicated bureaucratic German language, and there is often a lack of support for families who are not already familiar with the workings of the offices of the German government,” she said, adding that the web of different laws and opportunities in 16 different state governments and countless city governments has made the hurdles even higher for immigrants. It also leads to wildly varying prices, with care costing hundreds of dollars a month in some cities and completely free in others.

Jähnert said that, for both foreign women and ethnic Germans, there was also “the vicious circle whereby child care centers give preference to couples where both parents work. Well, if you can’t find a place for childcare, you can’t get a job or go back to your old job.”

Barriers that make it difficult for immigrant families to access childcare perpetuate education and income gaps later in life, says Alexandra Jähnert

German tax system rigged against women

A 2020 Bertelsmann Foundation study found that even before the pandemic forced more women to stay home, “having children costs mothers up to two-thirds of their lifetime earnings” due to reduced payments during maternity leave, being forced to work part-time work or stay at home, and a quirk of the German tax system known as “spouse splitting”, all three of which also reduce pension payments for later in life.

Spousal separation means that married couples can choose to be placed in different tax brackets where one spouse pays significantly more than the other (usually the wife). This means that the couple pays less tax overall, but one partner earns a much lower net income at the end of each month. For many, this is just another incentive to stay home with young children rather than spending every penny of their income on child care costs.

As the economist Marcel Fratzscher said Die Zeit journal, “scientific studies show that in no other [EU] With the exception of Belgium, does this tax effect have a greater negative impact on female employment? »

A labor market plagued by shortages

Similar studies show that in the context of the German labor market, mothers are much less likely than fathers to be invited for interviews and much less likely to work as many hours as they want. This impacts their pension payouts and pushes them into old-age poverty.

According to the German Economic Institute (IW), in 2021, 69% of mothers with children under 3 do not work at all, although only 27% want to stay at home full time. About 21% work less than 20 hours a week, the IW found, largely due to a lack of adequate childcare options.

“Over the past 20 years, the role of mothers in Germany has changed significantly,” wrote study author Wido Geis-Thöne, particularly in how women see themselves after having children. However, the German labor market still has a long way to go to allow women to realize their desire to return to full-time work.

And childcare options also need to be expanded to cover that full-time job. “Child care staff need to be paid better, have better opportunities for advancement, and the job itself needs to be changed to encourage higher staff education levels and increased prestige as a career path,” said Susanne Kuger.

“Germany needs 600,000 new employees to cover childcare needs in the coming years,” she added, and although there are many initiatives at local level to increase child care numbers and staff, a much bigger push from states and the national government is needed if Germany is to promote equity between working mothers and fathers.

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

While You’re Here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what’s happening in German politics and society. You can sign up for the weekly Berlin Briefing email newsletter here.

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