Should Germany triple the number of early child-care spots? Along with financial questions, the proposal has stirred up an emotional debate over the roles of women and families in German society.
Too young for daycare? A proposal straddling left and right has Germans talking
The notion of a traditional nuclear family -- where dad goes out to work and mom stays home with the kids -- is under increasing pressure in Germany.
A recent push by German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen to triple the number of government-subsidized childcare spots for young children has met with a particularly loud -- and emotional -- chorus of differing opinions.
Von der Leyen proposes that Germany boost the number of daycare spots for children under the age of three, from 250,000 currently, to 750,000 by 2013. The fact that the suggestion came from a conservative politician, rather than the ranks of left-leaning feminists, has lent the debate an unusual twist.
Members of the conservative Christian parties seem especially uncomfortable wearing both liberal and conservative hats. The catch is that von der Leyen, herself a working mother of seven, speaks for the party of traditional conservative values. Yet she is making suggestions that differ little from those of her Social Democratic predecessor, Renate Schmidt.
High emotional stakes
Would more daycare spots mean a higher birthrate?
In general, it seems nearly impossible to find anyone involved in the debate who doesn't have an emotional stake, set agenda, or both. In a first, highly emotional roundtable discussion on the issue, representatives from right and left traded accusations of presenting a politically tainted image of "family."
Also high on the discussion roster: how to finance 500,000 new childcare spots.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the issues should not be allowed to get lost in financing discussions.
"I don't think we should get lost in the little financial details," she said. "Our approach should be, 'Where there's a will, there's a way.'"
Currently 3 percent of German gross national product, 184 billion euros ($240 billion), goes to childcare and benefits for children, equal to 0.5 percent more than the EU average.
Yet Germany continues to see an alarming decline in its birthrate: the country has only 1.3 children per family, compared to 2.1 in France.
The elderly outnumber newborns in Germany
Early childcare boosters say Germany's low birth rate is the result of poor childcare options for children under age three. The result will be expensive for Germany, experts warn. They fear a severe shortage of people to pay into the retirement system, coupled with an increasingly long-lived populace.
But more than the financial aspects, the current debate centers on the value of women to society.
Peter Müller, Saarland's state premier, has appeared as a moderate voice within the right wing party, a go-between for those who seek to remain true to "conservative" values versus those who want to "modernize."
He warned people not to belittle stay-at-home mothers, and said he wants everyone to be able to choose the best way to raise their children.
"Choice means that the state doesn't make any judgment about a life-decision or lifestyle, be it a decision to be a two-income family or a single-income family," he said. "Of course, no one should be discredited or discriminated against who decides to live within a family model where one person earns the money and the other -- often the woman -- typically takes care of the children.
"It is a respectable decision, worthy of recognition. It isn't only working women who are valuable in society," he said.
Yet von der Leyen's proposal had been hardly made public before the opponents of publicly financed early childcare made themselves heard.
The Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, openly and controversially criticized the von der Leyen proposal, saying such a move degrades women and makes them "into birthing machines." The whole idea is "blinded by ideology and hostile to children," the bishop said.
A Bishop said daycare makes women into birthing machines
A storm of protest greeted his remarks. For her part, Schmidt called the comment "an unbelievable insult." And Merkel backed her current family minister saying, "freedom of choice requires that there in fact be a choice."
Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne was one of the few voices that came to Mixa's support, however, saying daycare should only be used in cases of real need.
"If one turns them into a permanent facility, as an alternative to the family, then this is a bad development," Meisner said.
Saying yes to other lifestyles
On the contrary, the president of the Lutheran Church in Germany, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, defended the minister's plan.
"If we say 'yes' to children, then we also have to say 'yes' to the different lifestyles of their parents," he said. "There is only a fraction of the population that actually has the possibility to let the mother -- or much less frequently the father -- actually leave their job for three years and be there for children.
"You can't tell all the other mothers that they are bad mothers, if they choose, or are forced to choose, another lifestyle," he said.
According to sociologists, the current debate is a very late recognition that the concept of the family in Germany is being newly defined. A nuclear family with father, mother and children living under one roof is no longer the only norm -- every third child lives in what is called a "patchwork family."