German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen has ruffled quite a few feathers with her plans for radical changes in family policy aimed at reversing the country's dismally low birth rate.
Germany needs more daycare centers -- and more kids
With an average of 1.3 children per woman, the fertility rate in Germany ranks among the lowest in Europe. One of the many consequences of the ageing population can already be felt today, as the overall cost of health care continues to rise sharply.
At the same time, the German government has been slow to adapt its family policies to the exigencies of the typical modern family. Working women in Germany have a particularly hard time getting back into the labor market once they have a child due to the lack of full-day schools, kindergartens and day-care centers, which in part explain the low birth rate in the country.
Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen: super-mom and party rebel
Now there's a ray of hope in the form of Ursula von der Leyen, minister for family affairs in Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet. A mother of seven, von der Leyen knows firsthand how tricky juggling work and children can be.
"I'm like most parents," the minister said recently. "I wish I had more time. But I've learned that if time with your family is so scarce, then you end up fighting anything that detracts from the little time you have."
Sending a clear signal
When she assumed office in 2005, hardly anyone thought the slender blonde with the ready smile and the soft voice would bring about radical change.
A member of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which rules in coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the conservative CDU is not exactly famous for its liberal policies towards women.
But the 48-year-old family minister had her own ideas about overhauling Germany's family policies. Flying in the face of opposition from within her own ranks, von der Leyen created a radical new financing scheme for parents.
Under the plan which came into effect on January 1, the federal government pays mothers or fathers two-thirds of their last net paycheck -- up to €1,800 ($2,360) -- for up to 12 months as long as they stay at home to take care of the baby. And if the other parent takes an additional two months off to care for the child, the government heaps two more months of pay on top.
"It should send a clear signal that our society wants to try to compensate for some of the financial loss young parents face," the family minister told German daily Der Tagesspiegel when the new measure took effect.
Von der Leyen hopes it will be an incentive for Germans to have more babies.
"We want to financially support parents with new babies," she says. "We want to prevent them from losing their incomes when they're doing the best thing that can happen to a nation: having kids."
She was right: The scheme is proving incredibly popular among German voters, and von der Leyen's approval ratings shot through the roof.
"Raven mother" tag
Working moms have a tough time in Germany
Von der Leyen is now taking her reforming zeal a step further and advocating sharply increasing the number of daycare centers for kids under three years old.
Von der Leyen wants to provide enough cash to triple the number of daycare places to 750,000 by 2013. That would provide enough places for one third of all eligible children, she told the German public broadcaster ARD.
"That would just barely put us on par with the European average," she said.
What seems like a simple idea is in fact a difficult proposal in a country where pre-schoolers tend to stay at home, and mothers who send their kids out into the world too soon are privately labeled "raven mothers." This is because the raven, a common bird, is known to push its young out of the nest at a very early age.
Family counselor, Jan-Uwe Rogge however dismissed the "raven mother" complex as "ideological nonsense." While it is important for young children to have a stable environment, they also need time for themselves," he said. The idea of the "raven mother" has more to do with old-fashioned social roles for women, Rogge said, than with pedagogical considerations.
Indeed, much of the opposition that von der Leyen faces is ideological as entrenched attitudes in Germany towards family and the role of women are proving hard to change. Many conservatives from von der Leyen's own party have criticized her proposals and questioned where she would get the money for it.
Walter Mixa, a Catholic bishop from Bavaria, found especially scathing words for the minister. "Von der Leyen's family policies are not meant to benefit children's well-being or strengthen family values but rather are mainly designed to recruit young women into industry," he said. The bishop said her policies are aimed at turning young women into "birthing machines."
Germany needs to do more to encourage women to have kids
Despite the rumblings in conservative quarters, many believe that the gravity of Germany's demographic problems will eventually melt down the resistance to von der Leyen's plans.
Angela Merkel has thrown her weight behind von der Leyen's proposals and even the Catholic Church has backed her.
Referring to the criticism of von der Leyen from some CDU members, Joachim Meyer, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics said: "With that kind of politics Germany does its families no justice, and dramatically endangers its own future."
"Apparently, those in the (Christian Democratic) Union have prevailed who still refuse to accept the reality of young families," Meyer added.