Maternity Leave in Germany? A Comparison With the United States

Maternity leave in Germany makes life easier for babies and mothers

Maternity Leave in Germany? A Comparison With the U.S.

This morning, I read an article in the Washington Post about maternity leave in the United States. It talked about how American mothers often despair over how to survive on no income after the birth of their child. The topic wasn’t entirely new to me: 16 years ago, I found myself in the same situation.

In 1999, I accidentally fell pregnant. My boyfriend at the time never recovered, and the relationship was over before the baby was born. Of course, I was worried. My family was far away in France, the father of my child wanted nothing more to do with me, and my friends hadn’t yet started having kids. How was I supposed to handle it by myself? Luckily, I was living in Germany when this happened.

Maternity leave is the period immediately prior to and after the birth in which the mother is entitled to take a leave of absence from work. In the United States, however, “maternity leave” is little more than an empty phrase. While American mothers are allowed time off, they rarely receive any financial support.

There is no federal maternity leave in the USA

According to the International Labour Organization of the United Nations, there are only two countries in the world that do not have a law regarding paid maternity leave. These countries are the United States and Papua New Guinea.

The FMLA, or “Family and Medical Leave Act”, is a country-wide law that represents the closest thing Americans have to the German Maternity Protection Law. It permits full-time workers in companies with at least 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. According to Bloomberg Businessweek (print edition from January 18, 2015), only around 50% of working Americans fit into these criteria. Others, like freelancers, entrepreneurs, part-time employees and employees in smaller enterprises, get nothing.

Maternity leave in Germany

In contrast to the USA, Germany has an established, country-wide social security net. After paying my taxes for a number of years, I had the right to claim maternity leave in Germany, and get also parental allowance, and child benefit.

Before I wrote this post, I went down to the basement and dug out my old tax returns and payslips. During my six months of maternity leave between 1999 and 2000, I received a total of 19,600 DM (approx. 10.670 $):

Maternity leave in Germany (1999)

 Paid by?How much?When?Tax?
Maternity allowanceEmployer$ 7.830 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after birthYes
Child-raising allowanceGerman state$ 1.960
Child benefitGerman state$ 880monthlyYes

Loopholes in the US’ maternity law

“Loopholes” is perhaps the wrong word: it’s more about living in the right state or working for a parent-friendly company.

In America, there are only three states in which paid maternity leave is prescribed by state law: California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. A further ten states have state laws that improve on the provisions of the FMLA: for example, by reducing the minimum number of employees to 10 rather than 50.

Additionally, companies in California far outperform those in the rest of the country with regard to social benefits. In 2015, Bloomberg reported that Facebook offers four months of paid maternity leave to new mothers, while Google offers three months of fully paid leave for fathers and adoptive parents and five months for mothers. The company established this generous (by American standards) provision a few years ago, upon establishing that many new mothers were leaving the company; afterwards, the rate of employees quitting their jobs fell by 50%.

San Francisco recently became the first city in the USA to introduce a law obliging employers to offer six weeks of paid maternity leave to new parents.

Women in Germany have less children than those in the United States

Ranking according to the CIA Factbook
CountryChildren per woman
51Papua New Guinea3,16
142United States1,87
Source: The World Factbook

Money isn’t everything. More children per woman are born in the USA than in Germany – and in Papua New Guinea, too!
Why are so few babies born in Germany?

In Germany, the problem lies not in cash benefits but in people’s mentality. That’s my opinion, at least, and the statistics back it up: according to the “Familienstudie 2012”, 46% of Germans believe that small children suffer when the mother has a job.

When I fell pregnant in 1999, I knew very well that I wanted to, and would, continue working – and not only because of the money. But when I returned to my company after six months off, I was greeted only by disapproving shakes of the head. I’ll never forget the day a colleague warned me: “Ms Rochereul, don’t you know that children who aren’t raised by their mothers all become criminals?!”

Working mothers are common in France

I was born and grew up in France. My mother went back to work three years after I was born. Save for two exceptions, all my friends had working mothers – regardless of their social standing.

In 2014, 68% of all mothers in France had a job. For mothers with children under 3, this figure rose to 82%. The percentage of working mothers only became lower (53%) for large families with 3 children or more.*

In 2012, only 60% of German mothers were employed, ¾ of them in part-time work.

Look after yourself – the American mentality

The USA doesn’t only fail to offer benefits for mothers – there is scarcely any general assistance whatsoever from the state. The “Affordable Care Act”, better known as “Obamacare” is the first step in the direction of social welfare for all who need it. Yet it has been rejected by many, for the reigning mentality in the USA is: work and look after yourself.

Brianna Jones' maternity leave fund raiser


This is evidenced by the Washington Post article I mentioned earlier, which reports that more and more pregnant women are appealing for private donations – women like Kieri Andrews, who needs 2,000 $ to stay at home for six months after the birth of her baby, or Brianna Jones, a 19-year-old McDonald’s employee who needs help paying her rent.

Some Americans view Germany as a communist country

Many Americans merely shake their heads when I tell them that German universities are free, that employees have an average of six weeks’ paid holiday a year and that all Germans have decent health insurance.

Social welfare is a hotly debated topic in the current presidential election debates, particularly among the Democrats. According to his opponent Hillary Clinton, social democrat Bernie Sanders would make “a great president of Sweden”.

A final word

In addition to paid maternity leave, Germany also offers other allowances: a monthly child benefit or an income-dependent child-raising allowance: Children are required to attend school from the age of 3, and day-care centers for pre-school children are affordable in comparison to the United States.

I often question how Americans without families nearby manage to cope – and I still haven’t found any satisfactory answers.

As I queued up to pay at Trader Joe’s the other day, a heavily pregnant cashier stood before me. The due date was in a few days, but she needed money to live.

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*source: INSEE

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