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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

Kids, sure - but how?

Kathleen Schuster
September 10, 2016

Studies have a lot to say about how women balance work and family, but what do women have to say about it? DW's Kathleen Schuster spoke to several German women about their expectations and experiences of "having it all."


Are you planning on having children? That is possibly the most sensitive - not to mention most personal - question you can ask a woman.

Possibly even more sensitive still is asking: "Do you regret having children?" The Israeli sociologist Orna Donath sparked this debate with the release of her 2015 book, "Regretting Motherhood."

A study released this week found that some German women might not regret motherhood per se, but they are at least hesitant to advise the next generation to choose children over a career.

In interviews with DW, several women suggest that their perspectives on finding a balance are influenced strongly both by their career paths and their personal beliefs about family.

The numbers

For the study - conducted by the Berlin Social Science Center, infas Institute for Applied Social Sciences and weekly publication Die Zeit - the research team surveyed more than 3,000 people about their opinions on parenthood.

The overwhelming majority of mothers and fathers (95 percent and 93 percent, respectively) responded that their children were "very important" to them.

Studies show better health outcomes for children of mothers with higher educationImage: Colourbox

But, when asked whether they would stress the importance of having children to the next generation of parents, only 82 percent of mothers agreed, compared with 88 percent of fathers. The higher the education level, the more likely they were hesitant, the study found.

The opposite was recorded from well-educated respondents without children. Both men and women expressed a strong wish for children and regretted putting their work first.

A harmonious career

German women have 1.5 children on average, a rate that has stabilized in recent years, following a sharp drop to nearly 1.2 in the early 1990s from the 2.5 average recorded during the economic boom of the 1960s.

As the traditional family paradigm has shifted in Germany, so have maternity leave laws, which currently entitle mothers to six compensated weeks leave before giving birth and eight afterward.

Ursula Gneiting, a cellist with one of Germany's top orchestras, benefited from maternity leave when she had her first child at age 41. She wished she had been able to have children earlier, but a series of miscarriages prevented her from doing so.

Like athletes, classical musicians have prime years, and Gneiting and her peers must spend that time striving for their orchestra seats. Once their spots are secured, Gneiting said, many of these women have flexible hours and the financial stability to support several children. This largely shielded her from the negative experiences of balancing work and home life, she said.


'What we want'

About 71 percent of women are active in the workforce, according to 2011 numbers from Germany's Federal Statistical Office, Destatis, up from 62 percent in 2001. In 2011, according to Destatis, woman aged 30-34 overtook men in the same age group in education level, with 35 percent having earned a higher degree, compared with 31 percent of men.

"We're emancipated, we know what we want, we live in a rich country, we're not going to fail," said 22-year-old Martyna, who didn't want to disclose her last name. "Women who say they regret having children have some other problem going on."

Of course, many of Martyna's friends are still searching for the loves of their lives and focusing on succeeding during their time at university before planning pregnancy. "Thirty would be a good age, maybe a bit later," she says. "From what I've seen, it's good to finish school, work a bit and then get pregnant."

Deutschland Manuela Schwesig Bundesfamilienministerin
Family Minister Manuela Schwesig has endorsed maternity leave for university students and leave for students with childrenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Rising motherhood age

Thirty has become roughly the average age - it's officially 29.5 - for having a first child in Germany, up five years since 1980. But, as one lawyer who wanted to remain anonymous told DW, setting an age to have children isn't always realistic.

There remains an expectation that women will have children, and relatives and colleagues can bring this up when it is least expected. The lawyer, who is 34, said her boss, for one, had implied - "not in a mean way" - that she would at some point take maternal leave. Older female colleagues also remind her often about their own experiences. They don't regret having children, she told DW, "but they do mention often that taking time out caused a slump in their careers that took at least 10 years to get out of."

She is considering children, but is well-aware of the support system's inefficiencies. Parents can claim benefits, but that doesn't alleviate the child care situation. The law protects her from losing her job during maternity leave, but, as a 30-something woman, she fears trying to switch jobs because a future employer will assume she'll be planning a pregnancy.

One piece of advice that resonates with her now came from a fellow student while she was in law school: "The younger we are when we have children, the less fear we have of all these concerns that we understand better later."

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