A trove of 1920s report cards and the stories they tell.
Jan. 5 2009 11:27 AM
Happy Mutter's Day
Europeans may have fast trains, universal health care, and fantastic maternity leave, but there's one thing they don't have a lot of: kids. Or, for that matter, mothers. The birth rate in much of Western Europe fell slowly in the last half-century, rapidly over the last decade, and death rates have long eclipsed the number of babies born. In 2009, Italy had 9.19 births per 1,000 inhabitants, and Austria 9.17. It would seem to be a Continental trend, but France avoided it with family-friendly postwar policies that accord both benefits and normalcy to multiparous women, and Spain, after years of losing population, has slowly begun to creep back up. It is Germany, though, that wins the dubious prize of least fertile on the Continent. In 2010, the country hit a new low of about 8.1 births and nearly 11 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants. Not that you'd know it if you were to come to Prenzlauer Berg, the neighborhood anecdotally known as the most fecund corner of Berlin.
After the wall came down, East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg was settled first by young musicians and artists and later by architects, journalists, and doctors. They painted over the graffiti; formed co-ops in gorgeous prewar buildings; and put in cafes, pubs, and boutiques. In what seemed to be the final touch on a neighborhood revitalization project, along came what appeared to be an explosion of births. Indeed, there are so many pregnant bellies, and so many children, the neighborhood is often cited in the press as an exception to Germany's dire demographic picture.
"Though we did not plan it, we became pregnant within our first year here," Graeme Hawkins, an expat New Zealander married to a German, told me. They've lived in the neighborhood six years now and have watched it boom.
When I was pregnant, during the summer of 2008, I rented a room in the heart of Prenzlauer Berg for several months. At the Saturday farmers market in Kollwitzplatz, next to a large, crowded playground, the cheese ladies would look at my growing belly and advise me which of their wares were fetus-friendly; other vendors took excellent guesses as to which trimester I was in. I took prenatal yoga (Yoga für Schwangere) at two different studios. I indulged in prenatal massages at two spas and bought cool maternity frocks at a boutique called SexyMama. I admired baby clothes, paraphernalia, and toys at a dozen locales, all within an easy stroll of my apartment. My downstairs neighbors had two kids; upstairs they had three; and, in the apartment across the courtyard, Hawkins' wife, Caroline Lesdosquet, gave birth to her second child and would rock the newborn in the shared garden, enjoying the late summer sun.
But the idea that Prenzlauer Berg is some kind of baby-boom heaven is a "false impression," says Dr. Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. "You see a fair number of children around, but the background is that after Prenzlauer Berg became a hip center, many young people moved there, all in potential childbearing age. Many of those women had children. But if you calculate the fertility rate of Prenzlauer Berg, you end up below Berlin average. And Berlin is below the German average. It's just a cohort effect. If you have a group of women between 20 and 40, of course you have babies." The news of this strange demographic miracle "spread very fast. Because so many journalists live there, and they had their own babies, so of course it must be a boom. We did the calculation. It is no boom."
Germany's birth-rate problems go back to World War II. The Nazis encouraged Aryan women to bear Aryan children, even awarding medals to women who had four or more. The most extreme was the Lebensborn experiment, in which young, "racially pure" women were matched up—usually with SS and Wehrmacht officers—and asked to breed for the fatherland, often out of wedlock. The state would then care for this "master race," first by providing for the mothers in special homes, then by educating and feeding the children. Thousands were born this way. Some have recently come forward, burdened forever by the shame of their birth.
After the war, each subsequent government shied away from encouraging childbearing for fear of appearing to mimic Nazi efforts.
But it wasn't just the Nazi past that haunted West Germany. In the east there was another model of socialized childcare: Every man and every woman was expected to work, so daycare was built into the fabric of society. But because that was Communist, the West German government rejected it. And so they did nothing. After a brief boom in the 1960s, the birth rate began to plummet as more women began to work and to create careers that were complicated by taking time off to be with kids. Compared with the United States, German maternity-leave and job-protection policies were always generous, but there were none of the incentives that France had. Making matters worse was a lingering stigma around mothers who went back to work and put kids—whose school day ended at lunchtime—into daycare. These moms were called Rabenmütter, or "raven mothers," and their offspring were known as Schlüsselkinder—basically, latchkey kids. Both terms are pejorative.
In the face of dire demographic numbers, a big push to incentivize childbearing and to encourage women to take a full year of maternity leave finally came on Jan. 1, 2007, when Germany implemented a new—nearly Scandinavian—style of stimulus called Elterngeld (literally, parents money). Mothers, as well as their partners, are now encouraged to take up to 14 months' leave, during which they receive 67 percent of their former salary. While those who were already committed to having children are clearly glad to receive the benefits, it's not clear whether Elterngeld prompts the childless to reconsider.
"I don't think it encourages people to have children, but it does encourage them to stay home longer," says my former neighbor Graeme Hawkins, who works in finance and now has two small children. He suspects that Elterngeld has encouraged more fathers to take paternity leave, but he says, "It might even delay the bearing of a second child, because the amount of money doled out is based on the salary received the previous year." One friend, a journalist, derisively snorted when I asked if Elterngeld had changed parents' behavior. "Nobody has kids because of Elterngeld," he said. "And all the people I know who got it took it not to take care of kids, but to write a book or go on vacation. I'm not sure if the state should pay for that."
"There are several reasons why the effect of the new family policy can't be measured yet," says demographer Klingholz. "First, it takes a long time to trust the policy. And second, we now have 40 years of very low fertility, an average of 1.4 children per woman. This low fertility rate has become something like a social norm. People who have children today have very few brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts—so it is normal in the mind of those on the street to have 1.4 children per woman." It is normal, in other words, not just to have one child but to choose not to become a parent at all. Couples who are childless by choice are common. That has yet to change.
And yet, the Prenzlauer Berg phenomenon—even if it is exaggerated—shows no sign of fading. My landlord's new wife was pregnant when I left Berlin. I recently returned to the neighborhood to photograph my old stomping grounds and to show off pictures of my own little one. Everyone asked when I'd have another. There are more families in the neighborhood with two children, occasionally even three. And each Saturday and Sunday morning the cafes are full of baby carriages.
"Upon reflection," says my old neighbor, "in a country where birth rates are significantly below replacement levels, it is nice to see the next generation around. A child's giggle from a nearby courtyard is a magical end to the day."