Why you should care
Because Germany has a mother lode of parenting angst — and its birth rate could use a boost.
Get them dressed; rain pants and boots at the ready. Don’t forget their snacks and lunches. Every morning was a bit of a rush, getting my two young children out the door to kindergarten a half-mile up the road. Delivering them between 7:30 and 8 a.m. each morning by foot — in Germany, few drive for such short treks — was a triumph, only to be matched by carving out a few hours for errands and running back to fetch them by 1 p.m. Such is the plight of a German toddler mom — and that’s just if she’s lucky enough to secure a place in a local school.
When my eldest reached school age, I figured I’d have a little more one-on-one time with the youngest, but German elementary schools also let out just past midday, leaving working moms on waiting lists for after-school child-care spots. “Mothers are expected to be at home,” I was told by friends and acquaintances — a tip that didn’t come with as many eye rolls as you might think. Which may explain why nearly
1 in 5 German mothers say they regret parenthood.
YouGov undertook what’s believed to be the first quantitative “parenthood regret” survey earlier this year, quizzing 1,228 parents — 671 women and 557 men. It found that a whopping 19 percent of mothers and 20 percent of fathers regret having children. They love their offspring but, if given the choice, would steer clear of parenthood a second time around.
The numbers startled Holger Geissler, head of YouGov research. “It also surprised me that the percentages were very similar between men and women,” he says, noting how he expected it to be higher among women. His study followed a 2015 Israeli report called “Regretting Motherhood” by sociologist Orna Donath, in which she interviewed 23 moms who said they would not choose motherhood again. Many cited a lack of satisfaction from parenthood.
Many Germans see having children as a career killer, according to the YouGov poll. A third of the parents surveyed said parenthood has a negative impact on their professional careers. But it’s here where the gender breakdown varies: Nearly half — 44 percent — of German moms see parenthood as bad for their career, compared to just 20 percent of fathers.
Young German women often struggle to find permanent employment following their studies, says Geissler, and the country’s generous maternity leave — three years with one’s post reserved — is available only to those who have such job stability. There also are limited options for working part-time as a professional. Nele Dagefoerde, a business-degree-toting mother of four in Esslingen, just outside Stuttgart, says that as long as companies and society fail to provide convincing models for moms to return to work part-time, and make it easier for men to do the same, it will always be difficult to have both a career and a family. “As long as women still have to make a choice whether to go for a career or to become a mother, there will be moms who regret motherhood,” she says.
Lack of child-care facilities doesn’t help. Children in Germany tend to not enter child care until age 3, but more places are beginning to take children as young as 2 and even 1 year old, says Geissler. “But 3 is still the traditional age,” he says, noting how this is a major difference between Germany and other countries, like France and the U.K., where you have many more possibilities for child care and can more easily find a kindergarten. “In Germany, in some areas, it’s still quite difficult to find a place for your kid.” (Ironic, perhaps, since kindergarten is a German word.)
Societal pressure also doesn’t help. Professional women are faced with expectations that they will not return to work for at least a year after first giving birth. Geissler believes this is because Germany remains a bit more traditional when it comes to child-rearing compared to neighboring countries. “There’s still a good portion of the German society who are traditional about child care.”
Such attitudes won’t help raise Germany’s birth rate — already pegged at the lowest in the world, according to a 2015 study by auditing firm BDO, in partnership with the Hamburg Institute of International Economics. It says the country has had 8.2 children born per 1,000 inhabitants over the past five years. Niger was at the other end of the spectrum, by comparison, with 50 children per 1,000 inhabitants.
Half of the parents surveyed by YouGov, 52 percent, said parenthood sometimes seems to restrict their personal development. But what remains unclear, says Geissler, is why men regret parenthood even more than women. To gain a better understanding, he and his team are now working with the men involved.