For our tenth Motherhood Around the World interview, we're thrilled to feature Luisa Weiss, author of the blog The Wednesday Chef and book My Berlin Kitchen. Luisa lives in Berlin with her husband, Max, and two-year-old son, Hugo. Here are twenty things she found surprising about being a mom in Germany...
Luisa was actually born in Berlin—to an American dad and an Italian mom—but left when her parents divorced when she was two. "I moved to Boston with my dad, where I went to American daycare and elementary school," she says, "But I always visited my mother in Europe during school holidays and my summer vacation." Later, she went to college in Boston, spent a year in Paris and lived in New York for almost a decade.
"My husband Max and I knew each other vaguely in high school, but I didn't really meet him until I moved to Paris for a short-lived stint in graduate school," Luisa remembers. "Max was doing an internship in Paris at the same time and a friend put us in touch. We started spending time together and fell in love pretty quickly." A year later, though, Luisa moved to New York to start a career in book publishing and the distance proved too much for them. But their story wasn’t over yet. “Many years later, we got back in touch and fell right back in love again. I ended up leaving New York and moving to Berlin to finally start a life together.”
On first impressions: I arrived in Germany during a notoriously miserable winter, so the first few months I remember seeing snow and ice everywhere and feeling cold constantly. It was very quiet, too. Quieter, emptier, cleaner, colder and grayer than New York. I found myself missing my old life in New York. And of course my friends. It wasn't great. It was actually kind of awful. But the crazy thing is that my gut was very peaceful about it all, even if the rest of me was lonely and scared.
On loving the neighborhood: We now live in Charlottenburg in the west of the city. Our area is quiet and residential. We live right across from Schloss Charlottenburg (Berlin's largest palace), which is amazing—we often go for walks in the gardens. The city is quite large, but you can get everywhere pretty easily with buses, subways or above-ground trains. Berlin is a little different from the rest of western Germany because it's been a historically poor city with no industry, so it's much more relaxed than Munich or Stuttgart. There are lots of creative people who make their own hours.
On a hot-and-cold climate: The weather is...not great. Winters are long and cold and dark (we're on the latitude of Labrador, Canada, to give you an orientation) and summers can be disappointing. There were days this June when you'd find me in a fleece sweater and socks. But! If it's a good summer, there's no better place to be. The skies stay light until past 10pm, the air has an incredible fragrance of linden trees and earth and grass (Berlin is the greenest city in Europe) and the vibe of the city is friendly, fun and inviting. It's worth living through all the horrible winters.
On pregnancy chitchat: Pregnancy is celebrated in Germany, but people are generally pretty private, so you won't necessarily get chatted up by people in public about your due date and how you're feeling. I went to the U.S. when I was seven months pregnant and was happily overwhelmed with how extra-special-friendly everyone was to me, and when I got back to Berlin after that, I felt a little sad about the fact that people here are more reserved and quiet. Cue the tiny violins!
On having a baby in Germany: One of the things that surprised me the most was how cared for and safe I felt in childbirth and the crazy months thereafter. All of it was just so, so good.
Every pregnant woman is entitled to a midwife who makes house visits to care for you before and after the birth. My midwife was this incredibly chic and nice woman who would come once a week, do acupuncture on my living room couch and listen to my belly with a wooden horn. After the birth, she came to our house for six weeks to check in on me and Hugo—at first, every day and then slowly less and less. After six weeks, she said she wouldn't come back unless I needed her, which caught me completely by surprise! I might have gotten a lump in my throat—after all, I had gotten so used to her care. Oh, new mother hormones.
The funny thing about the birth is that it was kind of hellish on paper (25 hours of labor complete with IV drugs, an epidural and then a Pitocin drip followed by an emergency C-section), but I felt so loved and taken care of that I have only happy memories of the whole thing. Each laboring woman is accompanied by a midwife on staff, and I cycled through four midwives due to my long labor. Three of them were angels on earth—kind women who took care of me as if I were their own daughter. I cry every time I think about them. (The fourth was a little cold and clinical. Each time I roared into a contraction while hanging on to a cold sink in our room, she would reach out and touch my shoulder gingerly with her fingertips and ask if I was okay! Makes me laugh now.) Their main concern, it seemed to me, was that I was feeling good and strong and brave at all times. After 12 hours of labor, it was one of the midwives who told me it might be time to get an epidural (I hadn't been holding out; I just didn't realize how much time had gone by) and after the anesthesiologist had come and gone, the midwife literally tucked me and my husband into bed like we were tired children. We were hunkered down in a room that looked like a hotel, complete with a double bed and a television.
On maternity leave: Working women go on compulsory maternity leave six weeks before the due date and eight weeks after the delivery (at full pay) and can take up to 12 months off at 65% pay (depending on your income level, the percentage changes slightly). Self-employed women can take up to 12 months off, at approximately 60% of the previous year's income. So, even though I was self-employed, I could take a year-long maternity leave! This is the difference of a country with a low birth rate—the government has to make having children attractive. It's wonderful to feel so valued as a woman. The government is showing you that your contributions to society are valuable and worth supporting, which feels really good.
On childcare: In western Germany, many women stay home with their children until they are three years old (at which point a daycare spot is free and guaranteed). My pediatrician gave me a lot of pressure for going back to work when Hugo was 18 months old; she thought I should stay home with him until he was three. But most women I know went back to work sometime around the one-year mark. When parents go back to work, they have a couple options: either daycare (called kita) or a tagesmutter, which translates to day mother. A tagesmutter works out of her own home and takes care of a few children at once, usually not more than four or five.
On money from the government: Parents get money from the government each month called Kindergeld. You get about 200 euros/month per child, depending on how many children you have. The money is to help with diapers, food, toys, whatever. It's not an enormous amount, but a nice chunk of change. You get paid that amount per child until they're 18, but if they don't have a job after that, then they get it until they're 21, and if they're studying, they get it until they're 25.
On making friends: In general, I find that while German women aren't as outwardly friendly as American women, the moment they decide to open up to you, a far deeper and more meaningful friendship can develop quite quickly. Strong friendships are very common, and women here are happy to talk candidly about the struggles of motherhood. In general, Germans are allergic to insincerity, which is refreshing.
The nice thing is, when it comes to parenting, German people don't think anyone else has it figured out. There's a sense of self-reliance—you do what you need to do and you'll figure it out, and people are nice and not judgmental. I've never felt judged here. If anything, the criticism comes from inside me!
On the Berlin disposition: Berliners are well-known for their grumpy attitude. A lot of expats, tourists and friendlier Berliners find it off-putting until they learn to deal with it. But there are lots of friendly people in Berlin, too, and as long as you are polite, most people will be nice to you.
On child-friendly activities: Hugo's favorite thing is to go to the zoo. He is obsessed with animals. OBSESSED. Hippos, rhinos, elephants, buffalo, giraffes—he loves them all. And Hugo loooves puddles. He cannot resist them. Every time he jumps in one, he screams "patsch!" (which is German for "splat!") with glee, which is pretty great.
On playgrounds: There are lots of playgrounds in Berlin, even in the very middle of the city. They have wooden play structures and are always built on sand. Sand feels a lot nicer than wood chips or even those rubber mats I've seen in the U.S. In the summer, you can take your shoes off and (if you close your eyes) feel like you're on vacation. Everyone brings shovels and buckets in their strollers. So even if you have just a little baby, going to the playground will entertain him or her.
On toys and books: Germany is the producer of many world-famous toys, from Selecta, Haba and Hess wooden toys to Playmobil figurines and Schleich animals (which Hugo is obsessed with). Toy stores generally have pretty fantastic stuff with a lot less plastic. As for books, there's not as much of a focus on early literacy; kids don't learn to read until they go to school at 6 or even 7. Daycare is all about free play.
On push bikes: One thing people here are really into push bikes without pedals or training wheels. Every single toddler here has one, across the board. The belief is that once you learn to balance, you'll be able to ride a bike. You'll see a lot of little kids—three and four years old—riding real bicycles. Sometimes I'm like, "Wow, that's a really small person riding down the sidewalk."
On the local fare: Germans traditionally have a hot meal at midday and a lighter, cold meal at dinner. Most children will grow up eating open-faced sandwiches with their parents at dinnertime (called Abendbrot, or evening bread). You might have a couple of slices of dark bread, butter and a slice of cheese for one piece of bread and a piece of ham or salami (or a shmear of liverwurst) on the other. A few slices of cucumber, some tomatoes, or a couple of slices of kohlrabi round out the meal. Easy!
On teaching self-reliance: Hugo is two, and we recently had a parent/teacher conference with his daycare. The teacher said, "I'm concerned about his coming into the group of older kids." I asked why, and she said, "He needs to learn to stand up for himself more. When other kids come up and take toys away from him, he just lets it happen." I was like, well, isn't that just sharing? And she said, "He needs to either take the toy back or fight. We teachers can't fight all his battles for him!" I was laughing inside, because it was SO different from how we were socialized as children. In the U.S., we were taught that you have to share, you have to compromise. In Germany, it's all about self-sufficiency and standing up for your rights. When German friends come over, and Hugo wants to play with something the other kids are playing with, my German friends will say to their kids, "Come on, take it back! Did you not want him to play with it? Go take it back." It's not meant to be confrontational or mean in any way. But their emphasis is teaching the child to stand up for himself.
On family dates: "Date night" is a term I've only ever heard in the U.S. Hiring a babysitter on a regular basis isn't the norm. If grandparents live close by, they might watch your children for the evening; but otherwise you'd either not go out or just take your kids with you. People aren't offended if you show up at a restaurant with children. Things in Berlin generally aren't that fancy, and children are sort of expected, like part of the landscape.
On non-helicopter parenting: Childhood is a time of freedom and happiness. I see little kids walking or biking to or from school alone all the time. Sometimes on weekends, I'll see kids in the neighborhood all alone, buying breakfast rolls for their families. Once a kid is around seven or eight years old, parents really encourage more autonomous behavior (that is controlled, obviously). Germans prize independence in children, which can feel a little strange to someone brought up in an American-Italian home (I think my parents would still like to hold my hand while crossing the street and I'm 36). The non-helicopter parenting totally extends into teenagerhood. I remember all my German friends having co-ed sleepovers. When you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, from basically fourteen on, you sleep over at their house in their room, unsupervised. Parents are so much more permissive and trusting—there's a whole groundwork being laid of self-sufficiency and trust.
On work/life balance: Most German employees get about six weeks of vacation a year, and most people work 30 to 40 hours a week; It's very rare to work beyond that. Being a workaholic isn't considered a virtue. There's the sense that you have to live your life, and that while a career is interesting and fulfilling, it's not the whole picture. (In fact, I'd say it's not even 50%. It's part of a whole pie made up of your family, your friends and travel. Adult friendships are considered very important, for both men and women.) Germans value their time at home each day, and many women I know work part-time so they can spend afternoons with their children. There isn't a lot of hand-wringing about "having it all." People just naturally manage to live well, it seems, with work and leisure both playing important roles.
On why Berlin is wonderful: I love living here. On a practical level, Berlin is still relatively affordable. The cost of rent, childcare and health insurance are low enough that you can have a pretty great middle-class life without the constant pressure of having to make tons of money. There are great forests and lakes everywhere, as well as world-class culture and masses of fantastically interesting people. It's such a wonderful place to be a mother or a child.
Thank you so much, Luisa! Read more about her on her blog The Wednesday Chef and in her book My Berlin Kitchen.
P.S. Motherhood in Norway, Japan, Abu Dhabi, Northern Ireland, Mexico, India, Congo, China and England.
(Personal photos courtesy of Luisa Weiss; sandwiches photo by Gourmandise; outdoor bike photo by Adam Berry; outdoor lounging photo by Thomas Meyer; bike/gallery photo by the New York Times. Interview by Caroline Donofrio and Joanna Goddard)