Everyone in Germany knows the rabenmutter.
The word translates as “raven mother” and is used to describe the kind of woman who places her toddler in day care so that she can go back to work, the implication being that she is unloving, selfish and heartless.
That characterization may sound harsh to Americans, but the idea of leaving your child in the care of someone who doesn’t necessarily love it, of paying a stranger to do a mother’s job just doesn’t sit right with many conservative Germans.
Andrea Juchem-Fiedler, a mother of three, said she got a bit of the rabenmutter treatment from her mother and sister after she decided to return to work when her youngest child was 10 months old.
“They said, ‘Isn’t that a bit young to be leaving your child?’ ” Juchem-Fiedler recalled.
The rabenmutter complex helps explain why Germany has had the lowest birth rate in Europe for the last three decades and why a record high 30% of German women are expected to never have children.
Germany is in the throes of a baby bust. Since the mid-1960s, each new generation of Germans has been a third smaller than that of its parents. If the trend continues, the population will shrink from 83 million today to about 79 million in 2050.
At the same time, the number of retirees is ballooning. By 2020, 30% of the German population will be 60 or older. Who will fund their pensions? The ratio of workers paying into the pension system and those receiving a pension is now 2 to 1; in a decade it will be 1 to 1.
Germany is hardly alone. Across Europe, birthrates (the number of births per 1,000 of population) and fertility rates (the number of births per woman of child-bearing age) have been in a long, steep decline.
According to demographers, a population needs a fertility rate of 2.1 babies per woman to sustain itself. Germany’s fertility rate is 1.37, Italy’s is 1.23, and Spain’s is 1.15. The U.S. has a relatively healthy rate of 2.11 births.
The European figures foretell a burgeoning demographic catastrophe that threatens to undermine the continent’s economic viability and unravel its vaunted social welfare safety net. Some see it as nothing less than an existential crisis.
“What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense by creating a next generation?” asks American theologian George Weigel in an essay on the decline of religious practice in Europe.
Weigel answers his question by suggesting that there is a direct link between Europe’s loss of faith and the loss of its desire to reproduce.
According to Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, a conservative Christian group based in Rockford, Ill., “Europe is almost lost -- to the demographic winter and to the secularists. If Europe goes, much of the world will go with it.”
He blames West European governments, saying they have adopted policies “inimical to the natural family.”
Demographers are less certain about the link between faith and fertility.
Steffen Kroehnert, who studies demographic trends at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, notes that France and the Scandinavian countries, generally regarded as among the least religious countries in Europe, are also the ones with comparatively healthy fertility rates. France has a fertility rate of 1.9; Norway 1.8.
Kroehnert also notes that the low marriage rate and high divorce rate in Scandinavian nations do not have a detrimental effect on fertility, while the high marriage and low divorce rates of Italy and Spain do not result in more babies.
What Kroehnert and other experts are discovering is that European couples want to have babies but they are inhibited mainly by work-related economic factors.
A landmark report published earlier this year by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British think tank, suggested that if British couples could have as many children as they wanted, an additional 90,000 babies would be born each year. Similarly, a German study found that if women had as many children as they said they wanted, the fertility rate would jump to 1.75%.
“My thesis is this: All over Europe, young people -- men and women -- have similar attitudes toward children. They want to combine a career and children and they want to be financially independent from their partner,” Kroehnert said.
“A society which supports this model, through its tax system and through the higher participation of women in the workplace, will produce more babies. That’s why you are seeing higher birth rates in France and the Scandinavian countries,” he said.
Governments are slowly coming to grips with the problem. In Russia, which has seen its population shrink by 700,000 a year due to sharply falling fertility rates, President Vladimir V. Putin has proposed a one-time payout of $9,000 upon the birth of a second child. With the average monthly wage in Russia about $300, the amount is substantial.
Deeply religious Poland, which for the first time in its postwar existence has found itself with a declining population, recently announced that it would pay about $320 to the mothers of newborns. Carlson, from the Howard Center, praises Poland’s government for trying “to help turn the tide of family decline.” To show support, his group plans to hold its 2007 convention in Warsaw.
But Anna Hejka, the chief executive of a Warsaw investment bank, said Poland’s approach was “irresponsible.”
“The key thing is to get the policy right. Give people tax breaks; don’t give them money,” she said.
According to Hejka, the relatively insignificant amount of money being offered by the government was unlikely to persuade educated working women to have more babies, but it might lure those least fit for motherhood -- alcoholics, drug addicts or women in the most dire domestic circumstances.
In Portugal, another conservative Roman Catholic country, the government of Prime Minister Jose Socrates has unveiled a plan that would require workers with fewer than two children to pay more toward their government pensions; those with more than two children would pay less. The idea is that the next generation works to pay your pension and if you have not contributed enough children to the next generation, then you pay a penalty.
“You can discuss this idea as a point of social justice, but I don’t think it will have an effect on the birthrate,” said the Berlin Institute’s Kroehnert.
As experts debate whether financial incentives can induce women to have more babies, governments are trying to find policies that work.
Compared with other European nations, Germany spends generously on pro-family programs, but the results have been disappointing. France spends less but gets much better results. One explanation is that in France working mothers aren’t considered rabenmutters. Educated Frenchwomen are expected to pursue their careers even after they have children and the state makes it possible by funding extensive day-care facilities.
Last month, Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, unveiled a package of reforms aimed at banishing the rabenmutter and making it easier for middle-class working women to have children.
Under the reforms, working women would receive two-thirds of their salary for up to one year if they take time off after birth. The ceiling is $2,300 a month; if a woman is earning less than $1,275 a month, she would get her entire salary. Men also would be eligible for two months of paid leave under the same terms, or a couple could split the 14-month total any way they please.
“No mother has kids for the financial benefits, but, of course, it plays a role,” said Claudia Hassenbach, head of the Women’s Union for the Christian Democrats, Merkel’s party.
Hassenbach said the purpose of the new financial package was to help close the gap between the number of children German women said they wanted and the number they produced.
Juchem-Fiedler and Claudia Kelz, another working mother, agreed that the proposed reforms were a positive step but said much more needed to be done.
“What do you do after the first year? There still aren’t enough day-care centers for children under 3,” said Kelz, who added that she gets the rabenmutter look each day at 4:30 p.m. when she is the last to pick up her child from day care.
Another sore point is the school day in Germany, which typically ends at noon or 1 p.m. Both women say it should be extended so mothers can hold full-time jobs.
“I don’t expect the government to pay me to have children,” said Juchem-Fiedler. “But I do need the government to help me realize a life with kids where I can take control of their future and my future.”