Follow the German news for long enough and you are sure to stumble upon a discussion about motherhood. “The population is shrinking!” some cry. “We have to do something to encourage women to have more children or the social security coffers will run dry!” Or perhaps you will see articles discussing the recent 20-euro hike in Kindergeld or Kristina Schröder’s (Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth) pregnancy and how her plans for dealing with the work-child balance reflect her public policies. Who’s having children, why they’re having them, and whether they’re going back to work directly afterwards are topics of national interest.
Historically, governmental support for families has roots in National Socialist policy. For example Kindergeld-the payments that families receive from the federal government to make having children less financially burdensome-was one of these policies, first implemented in 1935 to help “Aryan” German families. That initial policy’s racism and exclusivity has remained in the past, but federal support for families continues-today every German citizen is entitled to receive Kindergeld payments, as are many expatriates with residence permits or work visas. After all, it is in the government’s interest to support families with children-a shrinking population means a shrinking number of taxpayers and potential strain on other federal social support systems such as social security and health insurance.
Despite the economic support available to parents in Germany, the birth rate has remained low-between one and two children per woman-a fact that has been slowly shrinking the population since the last baby boom. Whether this is due to the level of education among German women, the average age at which one is finished with higher education (studies often lasting into the late 20s/early 30s), the amount of women more interested in career than family, a lack of financial stability, or plain disinterest is unclear. Whatever the cause, the numbers have encouraged the government to implement a lot of mother-and family-friendly legislation, which you can read more about in the
Do you know the terms Mutterpass, Hebamme, or Geburtshaus? Perhaps not yet, but if you find yourself expecting in Germany, they are words that will very quickly become a part of your vocabulary and which provide keys to understanding the shape of a pregnancy experience here.
The Mutterpass is a passport-sized blue booklet issued to all expecting mothers and that serves as a portable record of all pregnancy-relevant medical information. During each doctor’s visit, the baby's progress and test results are recorded in the booklet, a practice that makes visiting other doctors easy and efficient. Women are expected to carry the Mutterpass with them at all times throughout their pregnancy so as to have this information easily accessible in the case of a medical emergency.
While in countries such as the United States, gynecologists and doctors guide women through pregnancy and deliver children, in Germany it is a Hebamme-or midwife-who takes care of these tasks. “One thing you should know is that midwives run the show in the labor and delivery section of a German hospital,” explained one American expat of her birth experience in Hamburg on expatexchange.com. “The doctor will come when the baby is ‘caught’ and watch-but that is the extent of it. Also, the OBGYN that I saw didn't deliver me. Basically you go to the hospital and are treated by the midwives and OBGYNs that are there.”
A midwife’s role is generally to offer advice and guidance, though she is generally also equipped to handle medical exams throughout the pregnancy, should the expecting mother not wish to see a gynecologist. Barring complications, doctors and OBGYNs have little to no involvement in delivery.
German doctors are known for their dedication to holistic and homeopathic medicine, which can be-depending on your cultural background and expectations—a blessing or an obstacle. Among expatriate patients, German doctors also have a reputation for being thorough and people-oriented, a trait often highly appreciated by expecting mothers. "I had ultrasounds every time,” said another expat mother of her pregnancy experience in Germany, “had a copy of my medical records, and the doctor shared information with me instead of acting like I had no business knowing what was going on with the body I live in (in contrast to my U.S. experiences)."
A woman’s options for the location of her delivery also differ from those in many English-speaking countries and include the Krankenhaus (hospital), Geburtshaus (birthing house), or home birth. Though the majority of women in Germany choose to have their children in hospitals, home births and birthing houses are also socially accepted options for those searching for a more "homey" atmosphere. Hospitals generally ask that new mothers stay for up to seven days following the birth (though an outpatient birth can be requested), while birthing houses generally release mothers immediately after the birth.
Yet another American women said of her German hospital experience: "As it turned out, I had an emergency cesarean and was in the hospital for seven days. Seven days, even for a cesarean, is not at all common in the U.S. It was great to be there as long as I was and I could have stayed longer had I not felt as well as I did. Overall it was a great experience. I was treated extremely well by the entire staff, and felt very safe and well taken care of."
Once the baby has been delivered and the family has returned home, their Hebamme will, if desired, make weekly home calls to answer questions and offer support for up to four weeks following the birth. These visits, as well as a fitness course to help new mothers get back into shape, are both covered by German health insurance companies.
"After Kaan was born,“ said another excited mother of her birth experience in Germany, "I told my husband that I wanted all of our children to be born in Germany. After having given birth here, I couldn't imagine doing it in the U.S.!"