This law may seem crazy to Americans, but it follows as a natural development from Germany’s long history of offering governmental support for families, and its more recent history of encouraging mothers’ paid employment. By contrast, the American system, which considers families a private matter, looks crazy in its own right when compared to much of the globe. The U.S. has some of the most overworked parents, the lowest public commitment to caregiving, and highest rates of maternal and child poverty of any western industrialized country.
The court’s decision is part of a broader conversation taking place in Germany and around the world about who is responsible for the care of children in an age when two out of three mothers work outside the home in economically developed countries. In the case of Germany, the government’s decision to offer high-quality, low-cost, universal daycare helps to spread the expense of childrearing across society, suggesting that it is not parents’ job alone to either raise children themselves or contract it out and pay for that service themselves. (Germany’s public child-care system is state-subsidized and its operation is decentralized, so parents’ contributions are set by the regions and vary according to family size and income.) Germany’s approach is not merely some charitable effort to help families; it also comes with real economic gain, as child-care availability is known to have a positive impact on women’s employment decisions.
For Germany, the idea that the government has an obligation to provide childcare for young children is part of a recent shift. The cultural and legal assumption in Germany has long been that mothers’ main commitment should be to their children, as evident in the outdated adage “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (“Children, Kitchen, Church”), which intimates that women’s place is with their children, tending to the cooking, and at church. Combining work and family for German women was explicitly discouraged for decades by policies that reinforced a traditional gender division of labor, including extremely generous maternity leave (up to three years), generous tax breaks to single-earner families, short school days, and public healthcare and pension systems that automatically granted insurance rights to an economically inactive wife of a working husband. In essence, these policies encouraged women to stay home and care for young children, and the government provided mothers with material supports to make this possible.
But since the mid-2000s, Germany has been forced to reconsider this breadwinner-homemaker model. The country confronts a low fertility rate, labor shortage, and gender-equality mandates from the European Union. How might a nation tackle these three related dilemmas? By supporting women who work. This means that mothers alone cannot be responsible for childrearing.