Dad′s the word in Berlin | Scene in Berlin | DW | 19.04.2013
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Scene in Berlin

Dad's the word in Berlin

Berlin's party image is as legendary as its infamous concrete wall. But, as DW's Julian Tompkin discovers, there's a new and slightly more salubrious cliché on the rise in the city: the full-time dad.

It's early Thursday morning and the gas-powered street lamps are still burning in this indefatigable city. A street-sweeper is leaning against his broomstick and drawing on a Belomor cigarette, contemplating the usual mosaic of broken glass and bottle tops. Nearby, someone with unfinished business negotiates a stubborn cork from a bottle of Rotkäppchen sparkling wine and sprawls back upon the open-air ping-pong table. The group of men surrounding me sigh in chorus.

It's here I find myself yet again, amidst a constellation of bloodshot eyes and stubbled faces. Just another ordinary Thursday morning in the city of sin, you'd assume?

But something's awry with this emblematic portrait of Europe's capital of hedonistic pleasures: and that 'something' would be the battalion of little people laying siege to the suburban Spielplatz. Indeed, a plague of toddlers is running rabid and there's scant a mother in sight. Welcome to Berlin's new 'ordinary' - the city of bloodshot and bedraggled full-time fathers.

Life's ultimate boot camp

My 40-something Berliner friend Markus once quipped, somewhat sardonically, "everything begins in Berlin - especially the clichés." At the time I merely brushed him off as a cranky cynic, bitter that his territory (the once subversive Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood) had been usurped by soy-slurping, quinoa-munching interlopers.

However, when my Berliner wife and I decided to relocate to her home city from Australia with our six-month-old son, I suddenly began to fathom what Markus had actually meant.

My decision to become a full-time father in Berlin had brought about some curious reactions in my hometown of Perth, with the default line running something like, "Oh, that's adorable. So, what, is your mum moving over with you?" No sir-ee, this reformed libertine was signing up to life's ultimate boot camp: full-time parenthood…in a foreign city.

But any righteousness was thoroughly doused on my first visit to the local playground. There were dads everywhere! And it was a Tuesday. And then it hit with the shock-and-awe of a set of second molars: I'd tumbled headfirst into Berlin's newest cliché.

Children's cup and beer glass in the foreground, child playing in the sand in the background

As a full-time parent, multi-tasking is crucial

Meet the impossibly trendy, multi-tasking, savant superman - aka the stay-at-home Berlin papa. These are awe-inspiring humans who can negotiate a nappy change, roll a cigarette, write a text message, and pop a beer cap with their eye socket - all at the same time. I felt like a second-rate understudy compared to these blokes. For a minute I considered calling my mother.

But after picking myself up from the sandpit and dusting off my pride, I quickly realized that, despite appearances, these were my brethren. Fellow bearded warriors, wearing the sacks beneath our eyes like battle honors. From now on, if I was ever in a funk over yet another irremovable Penaten stain on my skinny jeans or just wanted to shoot the breeze over the virtues of organic Californian walnuts, I knew where I had to be.

A numbers game

Nearly 30 percent of German men take some form of paternity leave, with a modest but increasing number deciding to buck the national trend and stay on as the primary carer. Recognizing this increase in fathers taking on greater parental duties, and a complete lack of supporting infrastructure dedicated to them, Eberhard Schäfer founded the Väterzentrum (Fathers' Center) in Prenzlauer Berg in 2007 - the same year Germany boosted its system of paying monthly family benefits to those who bravely do their part to expand the country's dwindling population.

As well as coordinating a range of father-child specific activities, the Väterzentrum acts as general drop-in centers for dads in need of some empathetic company with initiatives such as the weekly Papa-Café.

"To some extent the pressures are different," Schäfer explained, referring to the difficulties faced by new fathers, as opposed to mothers. "The role of 'primary caregiver' for fathers is a fairly new role, whereas mothers have been caring for centuries - so this needs to be communicated and shared. What does it mean to be a father? This is what we're interested in."

Fathers with their children at a playground in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg

Dads are sticking together for mutual support

Food for thought

Often cited as both the baby boom and gentrification capital of Germany, Prenzlauer Berg lies on the very fault-line of Germany's familial evolution. Nadja Kriependorf runs the Räuberhöhle daycare center (Kita, as it's known in Germany) in the once all-grit, now all-chic suburb in former East Berlin, and has witnessed the emergence of the new father figure firsthand.

"In my opinion, over the last four of five years, looking after children is not so much a 'mother's thing' anymore," she said. "Fathers play an increasingly important role in the care of their child, and the responsibilities in the day-to-day dealings with the childcare center."

But where new clichés are born others refuse to die. At a recent parental evening at my son's Kita, one father proposed an increase in each parents' monthly financial commitment so as to provide the children with bio-dynamic meals. Then suddenly, above the harmonious murmur of consensus, another father rose to his feet, raised his fist and proclaimed with the brusque defiance of the Prenzlauer Berg of old: "Over my dead body!" Markus would be proud.

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