A new childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers is reigniting the debate in Germany over the role of women in society and the definition of family.

The federal government passed a law late last year introducing a monthly childcare supplement of €100 to €150 – what they called "Betreuungsgeld," which translates roughly to "money with which to care for someone." It’s expected to cost the government €1.2 billion each year.

As of August, this supplement will be paid to parents of children aged three and under who are not in a state-subsidized daycare. It can be used for other forms of care, such as a nanny or a private home nursery – or for parents who choose to stay at home to look after their children. It bridges the gap between the state-subsidized maternity leave for the child’s first year of life, and public kindergarten, which starts at age three.

"The official rhetoric is that we have to remunerate parents who make the choice to stay at home and raise their children," said Lena Hipp, an expert in organizational behavior and head of the Work and Care research group at the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin.

But Hipp said this new supplement does not address the shortage of subsidized childcare in Germany. The government estimates there are 220,000 fewer childcare spots available than needed. Many municipalities are already worried they’ll face lawsuits from parents who can’t get their children into one of these spots.

"You can see this goal to provide large-scale childcare for everyone has not been realized, so the ‘Betreuungsgeld’ has the function of hiding this political failure," said Hipp.

Emotional debate

The public debate is emotional on both sides.

mi-lena

Lena Hipp, of the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin, says many of Germany's family policy programs are highly ineffective. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Critics say the Betreuungsgeld promotes an antiquated view of women’s role in society by encouraging mothers to stay home instead of pursuing a career. They denounce it as a "stove premium" and an early election gift for conservative voters. Many child care experts cite educational and social advantages to a child attending a nursery from an early age.

Berlin resident Anja Danisch-Kumar said she is enjoying taking a year off to care for her daughter Freya, now seven months old.

"It’s great. I can fully concentrate on being a mom, I can get to know my baby and my baby gets to know me," she said.

Danisch-Kumar wants to return to work when Freya turns one, but hasn’t found a spot in a subsidized daycare yet.

"I have started looking, I am on waiting list, so I have to wait and see. It’s really stressful, but I try not to stress too much about it," she said, adding that she may consider a private home nursery or nanny until she can find a spot.

Danisch-Kumar thinks the government is going in the wrong direction by offering the Betreuungsgeld. She’d like to see the money used to create more daycare spaces and to pay childcare workers better.

"Homestay moms would have stayed home anyway — they might get 100 or 150 euros, but it doesn’t help the daycare program. The government says it wants to give us an option to choose, but it’s not really an option. For me, I would like to go to work and take her to daycare," she said.

A question of choice

Proponents of the program say the majority of Germans, if they had the choice, would like to raise their children at home. They argue that most mothers already take a year off when the child is first born, and this would simply extend the support until the child goes to kindergarten at age three.

220-birgit

Birgit Kelle speaks for several groups supporting traditional roles for women in Europe. She says every parent's choice for childcare should be respected. (Supplied)

"I do not fight only for me, but for all women who want the time to raise their children. I don’t want them to hurry up to the next job because they can’t afford to stay at home," said Birgit Kelle, a spokeswoman for the campaign Yes to Betreuungsgeld.

"In most cases, it’s a case of money as to what you do. The mother is going to work after one year, and she says, ‘I have no choice,’ so it would help all those women who want to stay at home, who want to care for their children. It’s not much – 100 or 150 euros is a joke, but it’s better than nothing."

'It’s not much – 100 or 150 euros is a joke, but it’s better than nothing.' —Birgit Kelle, supports Betreuungsgeld

Kelle and her husband have four children ranging from four to 14 years of age. She stayed at home three years for each child and now works as a freelance journalist.

Kelle said she’s been dismayed by the controversy and the negative messages the debate is sending women.

"It is really diminishing the role of women, because I never had a debate where they talked so [negatively] about women. [They seem to be saying that] if you stay home and are happy raising your children, you are a silly housewife," she said.

"Supporting a traditional family is not very popular in German politics. Most women want to stay at home with their children, but the politics don’t work for them. We should allow both options and the parents should not be played off against each other. And the parents who take on the responsibility in caring for their children should not be insulted."

Supplements could be axed after election

The first payments for children turning one will start going out Aug. 1.

Company daycare

Private companies are hoping to fill in some of the daycare gaps in major German cities.

"Employees have to work a lot, but there is the family they want to take care of and there’s a demand by the society to find a solution – how can we fit both demands together? And the political answers are not enough at the moment," said Dominik Schmengler, a consultant for an agency called Department of Tomorrow, which helps German businesses open on-site daycares.

"After the [maternity] leave, it’s easier for the mother or father to come back to work if you can leave in the morning, leave your child and you are just 200 or 500 metres away if something happens," he said, adding incentives like this are a "pull factor" in attracting good employees.

"It’s close and calming on both sides and it’s not that difficult to convince the companies because they have an advantage even if they have to pay – they have good, motivated employees."

Schmengler’s company has set up a nursery and larger kindergarten for two companies in Munich, and he’s meeting with firms in Berlin to expand there, too.

Many people expect the public backlash means the Betreuungsgeld will be cancelled after the federal elections in the fall, no matter which party forms the government.

"[Angela Merkel’s]

conservative party is struggling with these new ideas of how families should be and how they should support it," Hipp says.

"They could cancel it, and say we’ll use this 1.2 billion euros for spending on childcare and daycare provisions."

Research done out of the Social Science Research Centre shows Germany spends a lot of money on family policy, but the programs are "highly ineffective."

The research shows providing quality subsidized childcare options, training more childcare workers and paying them better are the best ways to achieve the goals of allowing mothers to work, increasing fertility rates, supporting parents materially and avoiding child poverty, Hipp said.

"Giving stay-at-home moms 150 euros isn’t an act of high recognition, because it’s so little, and for how much these women do and provide for society, it’s totally out of balance," she adds.

People on all sides of the debate agree – choice is important, and so is Germany’s debate on the changing face of the family.

It’s ironic this discussion is happening at a time when Germany has one of the lowest birthrates in the European Union. A study by the Federal Institute for Population Research found declining birth rates are partly the result of difficulties in balancing work and parenting.