Germany is known the world over both for its beer and dark history, for its classical music and health care system, but one thing that's been a well-kept secret: health retreats for moms and kids.
It's sometimes hard to hang on to the important things
I was the immediate envy of my colleagues. Heading off to a so-called Mutter-Kind-Kur - or, mother-child health retreat - at Germany's North Sea, I had to admit that it did all resonate rather glamorously romantic: three weeks off work to spend with my kids on the island of Langeoog, primarily paid for by our friendly health insurance company.
I imagined my days filled with hurts-so-good massages and ocean-air-infused yoga classes on the beach.
"Is that the kind of thing I can do with my husband, too?" one colleague quipped. "Or with my dog?" I could only laugh - after all, I didn't quite know what to expect either from our mother-child-retreat.
Frankly, I found this whole German Kur-Kultur, as I like to call it, rather disconcerting - evoking, as it did, images from Thomas Mann's musings on health and sanatorium life in the Swiss Alps in his famous pre-war epic novel, "Der Zauberberg" ("The Magic Mountain"). The more I thought about it, the more I thought this whole retreat business sounded rather sickly and depressing.
The retreats cultivate connection
So, what awaited us on the island of Langeoog? A lot of hard work.
It started with our children participating in this health rehabilitation and illness prevention program that's part of a mother-child retreat. After intense bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia during the winter months, the pediatrician believed my kids' immune systems needed a boost.
Part of the medical treatment were special Kneipp foot baths to get the blood pumping. Perhaps a good idea in theory, but persuading twin toddlers - just tumbling from their warm beds - to get dressed, walk half a mile, and then have their feet and legs doused with freezing cold water was another matter.
Needless to say, shrieks in stereo ensued.
But after two days, the kids came to love it. And that, essentially, is what this whole program is about: You may have to work at restoring your health sometimes, but a little help goes a long way. Lifting top-of-the-growth-chart kids had taken its toll, so back and skeletal problems had taken me to the health retreat, among other things.
While the kids spent their mornings breathing in the ocean air with the other youngsters on the beach, I spent my time stretching muscles during physical therapy sessions and, after years of bone-pounding jogging, surrendering my arrogance and getting accustomed to gentler Nordic walking.
This mother chose hydrotherapy with her daughter
Other parts of the program included breathing treatments for kids with respiratory problems, and hydrotherapy for those with physical ailments. Mothers could attend seminars about positive parenting, and some chose to attend lectures about nutrition and improving eating habits.
Afternoons and evenings were spent playing on the playground with the kids, doing art projects, braving the fierce winds on the North Sea beach, and sailing with my Dutch bike across the island, kids in tow in a trailer in the back. On the car-free island, the surrounding air was pristine and the only sounds that of the wind and children at play. Sound like a dream, too? It was.
For the rich and spoiled?
Still, I was a bit skeptical. Doing all these things, while knowing someone was cleaning our room back at the inn, or had prepared our meals in the cafeteria. No shopping, cooking or cleaning for three whole weeks? How could that be, living such a coddled life?
As an American, familiar with the challenges and failings of the health care system in the States, this all seemed so decadent. An absolute luxury during hard times; an "extra" when so many people were doing without.
In fact, it's not. "Studies have shown that the number of doctor visits, both short and long-term, and for mothers as well as their children, go down after the mother-child-retreat program than prior to the treatments," said Monika Kujat-Spengler, an advisor at one of the 1,400 consultation offices of the Müttergenesungswerk, the institution that gave birth to the mother-child-retreat concept. "In the end, that saves money for state-run medical insurers."
Women rebuilt Germany
Feeling refreshed and spunky after returning home from the retreat, I swapped my sun hat for my detective cap and decided to learn more about the mother-child retreats that are part of that health care system.
Fearing they might have been a brain-child of the Nazis, what with their glorification of motherhood, I discovered that they're actually a post-war invention. It was Elly Heuss-Knapp, wife of West Germany's first president, Theodor Heuss, who initiated the retreats in 1950.
Trümmerfrauen helped rebuild Germany
"She saw that Germany's Trümmerfrauen had been working their knuckles raw and were absolutely exhausted," Kujat-Spengler said at her office in Cologne. Having fallen or become prisoners of war, some 15 million men were missing at the end of the war. It was the Trümmerfrauen, literally "rubble women," who picked up the pieces in war-torn Germany - clearing away the debris and rebuilding the country. All the while, they had children to tend to.
"Elly Heuss-Knapp realized that the women hadn't had time to mourn the loss of their husbands, much less go on vacation to recuperate from the hard work," Kujat-Spengler said.
In the 1950s, the women went on health retreats alone while their children stayed with family members. Kids began joining their mothers in the health rehabilitation measures in the 70s.
"That makes the mother-child-retreats unique to Germany. It's the only country in Europe, perhaps in the world, to offer them," said Brigitte Lipski-Spengler [unrelated to Kujat-Spengler], director of the St. Altfrid Mother-Child Clinic in the tiny village of Bestwig-Berlar in western-central Germany.
For moms constantly on the go
Now, more mothers than ever apply for them, said Kujat-Spengler, pointing to the increasing pressures of juggling motherhood and careers. The Müttergenesungswerk helps some 47,000 mothers and 68,000 children receive these retreats at over 80 clinics throughout the country each year.
"Mothers are the motors of families," Lipski-Spengler noted. "If the mothers aren't healthy, they have a hard time taking care of their kids. The retreats help the mothers recharge their batteries and change their lives for the better.
"They're so used to working at the office, cooking, cleaning, helping with homework and chauffeuring their kids around, they don't have time to catch their breath," she said. Single moms and those with handicapped children have double the burden, she pointed out.
Kid happy, mom is happy
Still, despite increasing numbers of mothers seeking the Mutter-Kind-Kuren, and Germany's state-supported medical insurers being required to pay for them if conditions for applicants are fulfilled, applying is an arduous process - not unlike applying for college. Medical records and reports are required from the general practitioner and pediatrician, and essays written by the mothers describing their reasons for wanting a health retreat are also recommended.
The retreats do not come cheaply for the medical insurers - at an average 2,000 euros ($2,800) per person for the three-week-program, while mothers have to pay 10 euros a day themselves.
"Anyone who is in medical need of a mother-child or father-child health rehabilitation program will be granted one," said Thorsten Jakob of the Barmer medical insurer. "Of the applications we receive, about 65 percent are given a green light."
The devil may be in that subjective detail - "in medical need." But applicants who are rejected can appeal the decision of the insurer.
A change of the times
Still, some of the retreat locations are feeling the pinch of health care reforms in Germany, and have had to close. Others have revamped their programs - like offering retreats specifically for mothers suffering from breast cancer - to be able to accommodate more moms with different needs.
Ultimately, a mother-child-retreat is not a vacation. But it is time off from the strains of everyday life. The aim lies in trying to recover from or prevent illness, but also in taking a step back to reevaluate and appreciate life. And how much more fun can it be than doing that with your own kids?
Author: Louisa Schaefer
Editor: Kate Bowen