The nightmare of motherhood in Germany

Black and white photo of woman with her head in her hands in desperation

Listen to Brenda tell the story

Germany has the reputation of being a socialist state, or at least what is referred to as such in American media, which is just having social policies. English language media write about “cradle-to-grave” social programs, implying that no matter who you are, the state holds your hand and guides you gently along your path in life.

Anyone who has raised children in Germany knows this is bunk.

The school system dates for the most part from the late 19th century and is so complex that even the Germans are often at a loss when faced with its myriad possibilities and pitfalls. Working mothers bear the brunt of this complicated system and as a result, many who can, either quit or reduce to part-time work. The children of those who cannot afford to stop working suffer the consequences, since German schools depend on mothers’ ingenuity and self-sacrifice to function.

I got my first taste of things to come when I got pregnant with my second child. A woman asked me if I intended to return to work. Yes, I replied. “But you don’t have to, right?” she said. She looked at me in wonder. Strange, I thought.

Another mother commented that after she had a second child, she went from working part time to quitting entirely.

“With two kids, it’s just too stressful to work,” she said.

I didn’t use to think twice about comments on the stress of motherhood. Later I realized how well-founded they were.

But let’s start at the beginning. Daycare centers, which Germans call Kitas (short for Kindertagesstätten), are in short supply. As soon as a woman gets pregnant, she immediately launches a search for daycare to be sure to get on one of the long waiting lists. With a bit of luck, she can find one in her area.

Even when you do get a spot in daycare, many close their doors at 1:00 p.m. and it’s usually the mother who picks up the kids, since Germany conforms to the familiar women-earn-less-than-men pattern. Working part time to accommodate the daycare schedule can effectively quash a woman’s chances of career advancement.

But daycare centers are stellar service providers compared to the public schools.

Primary school runs from grades one to four. And while some after-school care centers – particularly the private ones – stay open as late as 6:00 p.m., primary schools have wildly varying schedules. On some weekdays, class lets out as early as 11:00 a.m., on others at 3:00 p.m., depending on the grade.

Oh yes, and when the weather is particularly hot, “hot” being defined as whatever the school principal deems it to be – usually around 90° F – the school declares Hitzefrei, a heat day: the school closes and everybody goes home.

A friend of mine in Munich who is originally from Singapore refused to pick her daughter up early, huffing that “These Germans don’t know what heat is!”

On a fine summer day in June, another friend didn’t realize that the weather had officially been declared too hot. She arrived at the school at the regular time, only to discover her son crying at the door after waiting for her for an hour.

She demanded to know from the teacher how she was supposed to know when it is Hitzefrei so she could come earlier.

“Frau Reuther, you just have to guess,” came the answer.

After this grueling half day at primary school, kids come home with 15-pound backpacks loaded with homework. After fixing lunch, mothers are expected to help them with this, unless they are lucky enough to have landed a spot in an after-school center called a Hort. If she’s really lucky, the people running the center will help the kids with their homework. Otherwise, it’s up to mom again.

Just when you think you’ve figured out the system, grade four arrives. If your child hasn’t been performing well in school, it’s time to panic.

At the end of this year, at the ripe old age of 10, the kids will be split into three schools based on their grades. The top tier goes to the elite Gymnasium, earmarked for university; the second tier goes to Realschule, which is on par with American high schools and can also lead to college; and the third group goes to Mittelschule, whose students usually wind up in the trades.

At the top-tier Gymnasium, which runs from 5th to 12th grade, the pressure is high from the start and intensifies with each passing year. Despite official teacher pronouncements like “Kids can do it on their own!” this is just wishful thinking. In reality, mothers are so involved in helping their children with homework and studying that you often hear them exclaim things like “We got an A on the test!” Parents are expected to serve as tutors, and most of them do.

Being the naïve American that I am, I accepted this assurance that there was no need for me to get closely involved in my kids’ schoolwork. I smiled to myself at the busybody mothers who monitored their children’s progress so meticulously.

Little did I know how necessary this was.

When my daughter began floundering in school, my serenity evaporated. I brought in a whole battery of tutors at different times in Math, German, French, Physics, Biology, and Chemistry. At least my kids spoke fluent English, which they aced, although they did have to endure the excruciating boredom of speaking better than their teachers for eight years of school.

But having one course as a shoo-in was not enough. As the number of subjects steadily grew to a total of 12 in 10th grade, my daughter’s mental health suffered to an increasing degree. After enduring what was probably the most traumatic year of her school career, we found a private school that specializes in helping kids who have been through the public school meat grinder.

The effectiveness of the German school system in producing well-rounded young adults is questionable. But it is extremely effective at holding women back by relying on mothers to micromanage their children’s schooling.

Over a quarter of mothers feel either “stressed” or “extremely stressed,” according to a study from the German Youth Institute. The number of women working has been increasing over the past decades, putting them almost on par with men: out of 100 people employed in 2021, 46.8 were women, as compared to their percentage in the population of 50.8 percent.

But the gender pay gap remains. In Germany, women earned 18% less than men in 2021. Women also tend to be overrepresented in poorly paid jobs, such as caregivers and daycare center workers. This topic was given more press coverage during the pandemic when it became apparent how heavily society depends on these caregivers to keep the economy afloat.

There are now more women in managerial positions than ever before, but there can be no question of parity: for every six men on management boards, there is one woman.

Only nine German companies have a female CEO.

If Germany wants to achieve true equality of opportunity for women, it must begin with the schools. As long as the system continues to rely on mothers to fill the gaps left by its outdated education system, women have no hope of ever catching up with men.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Simran Sood on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The nightmare of motherhood in Germany

  1. Abigail says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us!
    I moved to Germany from Oxford in 2012 and have taught English in schools, so I share a lot of your concerns and frustrations. I also wrote about what I’ve encountered in my book, “Swallow the Toad. From Britain to Germany”. Feel free to check it out.

    • Expat chatter says:

      Hi Abigail,
      If you’ve been teaching in schools, then you’ve been at the front line. That must have been (or must be) an interesting deep dive into the differences in the two cultures. I will definitely check out your book – the “toad” reference gives me an inkling about what the tone is 😉

      Thanks for your feedback!

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