Last week two interesting articles about working mothers in Germany turned up in the London Times and the Globe & Mail. The pieces pointed out that Germany — for all of the benefits it offers families — is a difficult place for working mothers, who are strongly discouraged from maintaining their careers while their children are young. The Globe & Mail suggests that this may be contributing to Germany’s very low birthrate; if women must sacrifice so deeply for children, it’s more likely that they will opt to remain childless.
Those of us who advocate for paid family leave, universal healthcare, and high-quality daycare and public education have a tendency to point across the ocean and idealize European systems. But interestingly, while European families have higher quality of life in many ways, expansive career opportunity for women hasn’t been one of them. One would think that might strengthen the traditional family, but overall Europe’s birthrates have been very low — 1.5 children per family, not enough to “replace” the population. In Germany, Austria and Italy, among 17 others, the birthrate is either negative or at zero.
Scandinavian countries, which are striving for both quality of life and gender equity in the workforce, have fared better, averaging 1.8 children per family. (Russell Shorto explores the declining birthrate phenomenon and talks about Scandinavia versus other parts of Europe in this fascinating New York Times Magazine article.) But even in Scandinavian countries, the birthrate falls well below the United States’ average of 2.1 children per family.
When you’re in the thick of maternity and motherhood, the idea of a year-long leave or benefits that allow your family to live comfortably on a single income seem very appealing. But more and more I’m meeting mothers from Europe who have chosen to live in the US, partly because their opportunities are so much more robust in this country.
That doesn’t mean we don’t need to continue to argue for massive change — there is an enormous difference between offering a year-long leave and the paltry twelve weeks unpaid that women in the US are guaranteed. And there is something to be said for the pursuit of happiness; according to the OECD, eight of the ten world’s happiest places are in Europe. The US doesn’t make the top ten list.
Maybe I have too much faith, but I see a constellation of factors converging in the US that is likely to lead to a new model that could expand workforce opportunity and choice for women, while boosting our happiness. With more women entering and re-entering the workforce at higher levels of skill and education, and a new policy focus on working families by the Obama administration, there is much to be optimistic about. Perhaps one day soon our European counterparts will look to us as the model.
- Stephanie Coontz compares European and American systems in her article Motherhood Stalls When Women Can’t Work.
- From The Mama Bee archives: Are Working Mothers Better Off in Other Countries?
- From The Juggle at The Wall Street Journal: One Way to Higher Fertility Rates; Support Working Mothers.