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Combining Parenthood and a Career in Germany--A Foreigner's (Survival) Guide


Editor's note: The situation in Germany may come as a surprise to many nonresidents. Although Federal law gives a mother the right to an extended maternity leave, in reality mothers of young children who wish to work full-time do not have an easy ride. Full-day child care facilities, particularly for children under the age of 3, are a rare commodity. On top of this there is a prevailing societal disapproval of working mothers. In this article Next Wave investigates these issues, collecting some personal perspectives and good advice from non-German researcher parents who came to the country to pursue their careers, as well as the views of a German working mum.

Congratulations, you've managed to get a decent position in a prestigious German university, institute, or company. What's more, the planets finally appear to have lined up on your side, because your partner has also obtained their job of choice. But if the two of you are already parents--or are planning to become parents in the foreseeable future--please read on. ...

The following statistics may come as a surprise many non-Germans: Only 9% of women from the so-called "Alte Länder" (the former West Germany) with children under the age of 3 works full-time. The situation is a little better in the "Neue Länder" (the states that used to comprise East Germany); here, 23% of mothers with young children work. *

Pardon me, but aren't we talking about one of the most progressive and highly industrialised countries in Europe?

Indeed, German law offers women extremely good maternity benefits. If they are in long-term employment--which most researchers are not--women are entitled to take up to 3 years maternity leave (which can be shared with the father) and on their return their employer is obliged to offer them the same or an equivalent position. The downside? All but 14 weeks of those 3 years are unpaid, although the government does provide some child-care allowances throughout the 3-year period. However, the prevailing impression is that these laws can actually work against women of childbearing age, particularly in relation to opportunities for advancement, because the potential 3-year absence of female employees tends to loom large in the minds of many employers.

What the foreign scientists that Next Wave Germany spoke to found even more astonishing is the current--and rather strong--societal view that a very young child should be looked after at home by a parent (invariably the mother) until age 3. At that point every child is officially entitled to a kindergarten place--although many such facilities are only open for half the day, making it even harder for stay-at-home mothers (or fathers) to resume their careers.

There's even an unfriendly term in German that, although rarely spoken openly, appears to define the societal perspective on working mothers and the stigma attached to leaving young children in child care: "Rabenmutter," which translates as "cruel mother."

Despite this atmosphere, some German women do manage to combine parenthood with a successful career. Karin Ackermann is the mother of two children (aged 4 years and 18 months) and is also a junior group leader at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. She took 6 weeks maternity leave following the births of both of her children and has encountered the "Rabenmutter" prejudice since returning to work. "Some acquaintances even said to me directly: "Aren't you neglecting your children?" she recalls. However, Ackermann went on to explain that she believes these people were actually trying to do her a favour, adding, "I don't think they were trying to upset me." Nevertheless, she has absolutely no doubt that her decision to work full-time is the right one for her family.

This psychological pressure to stay at home is something that many foreign scientists working in Germany don't envisage before moving here. Lianne Balemans, who works as a project manager for PPD Development, a clinical research company in Karlsruhe, returned to work full-time 11 months after her daughter was born. She sees the German situation in sharp contrast to that in her home country. "In the Netherlands, it is totally accepted--in fact almost expected--that a woman goes back to work," she remarks. "Additionally, it is more flexible, as there are many more opportunities to job share."

She has also come up against the Rabenmutter sentiment and felt that some people were trying to make her feel guilty. "Many of my female colleagues were more or less implying, 'what kind of [bad] mother are you?' " she explains. In fact, Balemans would have preferred to go back to work part-time--for example at 80% capacity. But, she says, in the case of her position her employer could only offer the opportunity to work 95% time.

Balemans's experiences are not unique. Ana Martin-Villalba, a neurobiologist at the German Cancer Research Center, was also extremely surprised by what she considers to be a conservative attitude towards combining parenthood with a full-time career, compared to her native Spain. When her first son was born just over 2 years ago, the most difficult facet of returning to work after a 3-month maternity leave was the frequent comments along the lines of: "Aren't you missing your baby?" She believes that although nobody was daring enough to say it to her directly, many German mothers she encountered disapproved of her decision to go back to work "so early."

Considering that at least the Dutch, Spanish, and Swedish share a similar philosophy, why is Germany in such a different place? Ackermann thinks that the lack of role models for young German working mothers is part of the problem and is pleased that her younger (female) colleagues seem encouraged by her example. Martin-Villalba acknowledges that she benefited from the role model played by her own mother--an associate professor of physics in Spain and mother of five.

"I never saw motherhood and my career as mutually exclusive, [but] in Germany there seems to be a cultural barrier" towards combining the two, she says. "I think German women would in principle like to see more child care available, but [they] don't seem willing to fight to change the situation," she adds. Balemans agrees, although she puts her perspective more bluntly: "In Germany, children are considered to be the woman's problem, no questions asked."

What appears to be extremely important--and the most pressing advice offered by those in the know--is to plan for the impending arrival of children as soon as possible. Marc Kenzelmann, a molecular biologist and spouse of Martin-Villalba, remarked that if you are looking for a crèche or kindergarten place for a child under 3 years of age, you should "ideally book them in 5 years ahead!" Although it may sound absurd, he is quite serious; in fact, Balemans also admitted she was shocked when she and her husband tried to place her daughter in a crèche facility. The managers "practically laughed at us: 'You should have come to book her in during the pregnancy,' they said."

Some German Child Care Terms and Practical Tips

Erziehungsurlaub: Maternity leave

Kinderkrippe: Crèche

Tagesmutter: Nanny

Jugendamt: Local youth welfare office

(This office will have information on child care options; contact details are available in the local phone directory.)

The Humboldt foundation offers general practical advice on how to get started in Germany, as does the Marie Curie Fellowship Association and Next Wave ( see "Studying and Living in ... Germany")

The reality is a severe lack of places for children under 3 years, although major institutions are slowly founding employee child care facilities in a move that is endorsed by the Government Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). Moreover, as is the case in many countries, there is a massive difference in cost between private child care (a full-time nanny costs up to ?1200 per month) and local government-supported initiatives (which run closer to ?150 to ?400 per child per month). The best thing to do is once you have obtained your position is to contact your institute's representative for equal opportunities or the city's "Jugendamt" (youth welfare office).

Interestingly, immunologist Elizabeth Suri-Payer, an Austrian national with two sons age 2 and 6, can compare her experiences of child care in the U.S., Sweden, and Germany. She finds that Sweden tops the mother/child friendly poles--the country's (paid) yearlong maternity leave is even built into the time frame of grants. Although Suri-Payer also finds the German attitude conservative, she feels that impact on working mothers was harshest in the U.S., in which women are typically offered a mere 6 weeks maternity leave.

Life is rarely ideal, but the good news is that all scientist-parents that Next Wave Germany spoke to were very happy with the quality of child care they eventually found on German soil. The take-home message is to do your homework as early as possible, try to get in contact with fellow parents, and make preparations to encounter and hopefully defy the Rabenmutter prejudice.

* Reports from the Institute for Job Market and Research on Career Opportunities (in German):

-- Wish or Reality?

-- How Can You Combine a Career with Children

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