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Germany

Opinion: Mother's Day Isn't What it Used to Be

To the delight of florists and chocolate shops around the country, Germany is celebrating Mother's Day, but behind the scenes of maternal joy, a brutal debate on who does what within the family is still taking place.

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The question isn't how to choose between kids and a career, but why anyone has to

The discussion started camouflaged as a political debate on family policy and child friendliness, but in reality the core of the question still comes down to what men and women expect of themselves and each other.

The sides are taking to the press to draw the battle lines on the front pages of newspapers and magazines. One side uses expressions like "everyday female heroes," while the others calls for women to "return to their essence" and points to a well-known news anchor who, shortly after reaching the high-point of her career, lamented how much better it would have been with "five kids and a husband who earns the money."

But all the conservative gentlemen aren't ready to make an example of her yet. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most men would turn and run from the duties of being made the sole provider for a wife and five children.

A particularly German phenomenon

Glückliche Eltern beim Picknicken auf einer Wiese

Each one of these three knows exactly what's expected

The era when Mother's Day was a way of showing thanks for the often thankless daily work mothers perform while men deposit a weekly paycheck is over, and the conventional separation of roles in the family no longer applies -- with drastic consequences that are clearer in Germany than anywhere else.

German women have an average of 1.36 children, the lowest rate in Europe. Academics in particular have been charged with refusing to bear children.

Only in Germany, where the traditional role of the mother was perverted by the Nazis to promote their racist ideology, was the women's movement starting in the late 1960s so depreciative of traditional mothers and so excessively positive toward working women.

Kids or career is the difficult and personal choice German women have faced for decades, and it has become the focus of the ideological confrontation. For years the problem centralized on what women chose, not that they were forced to make a decision at all. The trenches were dug between the "repressed familial" and the "careerist" archetypes and no one was willing to bring the level of debate back above ground.

Hard to argue with mother of seven

Not until statisticians pointed out that declining birth rates would endanger Germany's entire socio-political texture did a slow change in awareness begin. The first answer to the problem, in true German fashion, was to throw money at it. More money for social services would push up birth rates. The efforts were in vain.

Familienministerin Ursula von der Leyen

Von der Leyen wanted men home to raise kids for two months

Germany's new family affairs minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has finally been successful in directing the debate in a different direction -- a mother of seven with a doctorate and a cabinet post is hard to contradict when it comes to coordinating a family and a career. Her plan to turn money given to parents from a social benefit to a partial salary replacement during the first year if both parents play a role in actively raising a child moved in the right direction.

But it was accusations from conservatives -- from throughout the political spectrum -- of her getting too involved in parents' personal decisions and attacking traditional family values that discredited the minister's untried ideas.

The ad-hoc coalition of von der Leyen's opponents got their way, and what resulted can only be called a miscarriage. The same basic benefits are strewn among all parents like a child-bearing bonus, only a portion of which is determined by income, and an extra special check dropped in the mail when dads decide to take a role in raising their kids.

Nothing could be worse for Germany

Vater betreut Kind

Some Germans may ask when Mom is coming back

There's nothing that could be worse for the state of Germany's social consciousness than this compromise, for two reasons.

First of all, the focus on how much to give parents in the first year is keeping politicians from improving the situation for kids two and up. Twelve months of even the most generous support aren't much good if parents can't go back to work because of a lack of daycare places for their 13-month-old.

Secondly, those defending the conventional family succeeded in thwarting a new, stereotype-free definition of the father's role in the family. Even if excellent daycare existed, it wouldn't convince couples to have kids if raising them remains only women's domain, with the men who choose to take part regarded as exotic exceptions to the rule.

Germany, in contrast to other European countries, is clearly still facing a long discussion about how to turn raising a child into an actual partnership that doesn't require women to choose between kids and a career.

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