Vaterland? The new Berlin dads

Berlin's new generation of fathers is shunning traditional gender-role stereotypes to spend more time with their kids – but German legislation isn't backing them up.

Image for Vaterland? The new Berlin dads
Photo by Marta Domínguez

A new generation of Berlin fathers is shunning the breadwinner stereotype: they want to play an active role in their kids’ lives. When will German legislation catch up?

When Hannes Ravic was born in 1960s West Berlin, his father moved out of the family’s apartment into a place of his own to work undisturbed on his university thesis. His son and daughters only saw him occasionally after that. Over 40 years later, Ravic says: “The worst thing for me as a child was when my mother was away and my father had to bring me to bed. He didn’t know our songs or our stories – he just wasn’t a source of comfort.”

In Ravic’s own household things are very different. He is the one who sings to his two young children, Senta (5) and Mathis (4). He owns a sewing machine; he cooks. The housework is shared between Ravic and his partner, and both of them work.

I could never imagine being just a weekend dad. My kids and I are so close… my partner has even been jealous of our bond.

“Of course we do!” Ravic laughs. “It never even occurred to me to worry whether changing diapers was effeminate!” In his forties when his children were 
born, Ravic took several months’
paternity leave after each of the births.
Neither time was as long as the Bild
 employee would have liked, but, as his 
partner is self-employed, she doesn’t 
receive employer child benefits.

 would have been great to be home 
longer, but we were happy I could take 
those three months. I’m just proud as 
punch to be a father, even when my 
kids drive me crazy.” Ravic belongs to 
Berlin’s ‘new dads’: a generation of men
 who care less about being the ‘breadwinner’ of the family and more about 
the intrinsic value of spending time 
with their children.

The fact that Ravic requested paternity leave at all places him in a minority in Germany. German parents have a right to up to three years’ Elternzeit (parental leave), to be shared between them as they please. If one parent requests time off work, they will receive financial compensation – known as Elterngeld – for up to 12 months of this Elternzeit. If the second parent also takes at least two months off, the family can request Elterngeld for 14 months. Only around one-quarter of fathers take paternity leave, however, and 60 percent of those only request two months.

Hans-Georg Nelles, who runs the advice website for working fathers, ‘Väter & Karriere’, says a lot more fathers would like to request parental leave, but believe their employers would disapprove. “Those fears aren’t unfounded either,” says Nelles. “I personally know of several men whose careers plummeted after they requested parental leave.”

Ravic’s eagerness to become a father, especially a two-time father with a partner who already had a son, was also rare. Germany’s birth rate has been decreasing steadily for over 20 years, from 1.45 per woman in 1990 to 1.39 in 2010.

According to a 2008 Bertelsmann Foundation study, part of the reason for this drop is that men, in particular, are hesitant to have children: approximately half of all men said they would be just as happy never having kids.

“Germany is stuck on this birth rate plateau, even though people would like to have more children,” says Günther Stock, who led the 2012 Berlin-based study “Zukunft mit Kindern” (A Future With Children). Research showed that potential future parents need more options. Stock feels family-friendly measures – such as subsidies or benefits – need to be more accessible, without the bureaucratic headache of having to individually request each one.

Berlin already has more to offer than many smaller German cities, he says. “But beyond local offers, Berliners’ mind frames are also a lot more flexible, meaning they actually use those opportunities. Here people are not stupefied by a father taking time off to be with his kids, for instance.”

Nelles, on the other hand, believes fathers’ lack of rights are key to explaining men’s reluctance to have children. “German fathers who are not married are punished in our society,” says Nelles, a married father of three. “The mother has all the rights and fathers are simply expected to pay, even if they are never allowed to see their children.”

Michael Stiefel, the 47-year-old founder of the
 association Kinder- & Vätertreff, resents Germany’s 
unfair treatment of fathers. Stiefel’s daughter was 
born in 1995.

“My partner and I didn’t want to get married, but we did want a child,” he recounts. “It seemed completely natural to me I should take care of our child too.” But when Stiefel went to request seven months’ paternity leave, he was told he first needed to get the mother’s permission: legally, she was the sole guardian.

“Luckily at that time we were still on good terms and she gave it to me, but I felt somehow betrayed by society. I mean, how is that gender equality?” Stiefel says, anger welling up in his voice. But it was not until his relationship crumbled that he felt the full throttle of the system.

Before 2010, an unwed father could only obtain shared custody of his children if the mother agreed. If she wanted to retain sole custody – which single mothers receive automatically at birth – the father was powerless to challenge that decision.

In 2010, the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Germany needed to change its custody laws. In response, the government released a proposed custody reform in November 2012. Biological fathers can now bring custody claims before a family court. Mothers will still automatically receive sole custody at birth, but they lose their right to veto a father’s wishes, leaving that decision to legal professionals.

Stiefel feels the reform is insufficient. “The problem is the general scepticism about fathers. We have to prove we are good, whereas mothers automatically get granted the right to raise their children from birth onwards,” he says. When he and his partner separated over 10 years ago, Stiefel was immediately ordered to pay child support, but had to fight to merely see his daughter. His only chance of maintaining a healthy father-daughter relationship was to comply with his ex-partner’s every wish.

Once granted time with his daughter, Stiefel also had to learn to be a single dad. Realising quickly that men from previous generations were poor sources of knowledge, Stiefel founded ‘Vätertreff’ in 2001. “At the beginning it was just these breakfasts for dads and their kids, because I wanted to learn from them and provide my daughter with a child-friendly social sphere.” Now the association counts over 200 active members, hosting information evenings, consultation sessions and activities.

Stiefel realises that Berlin’s ‘new fathers’ mainly belong to a young, privileged group that hardly reflects Germany’s broader reality. And the legislation still reflects this reality. “Politicians may talk a liberal talk, but their actions push for traditional roles – for one partner to take care of the kids while the other pays and keeps quiet.”

Author and journalist Robin Alexander, on the other hand, feels that Germany might be too quick to let go of traditional roles. “When I wrote my ‘how-to’ book for young parents, I was super-enthusiastic,” says the father of three. “Because I thought, yes! Now men can do more. I’m all for the broadening of roles.”

Five years later, the political affairs correspondant for Die Welt is more sceptical. “Now I think that what is really happening is that women have fewer options. Certain models of living – like the stay-at-home-mum – are becoming extinct, and instead women have to be this all-in-one deal, like Ursula Von der Leyen or Kristina Schröder,” says Alexander, making a face and referring to Germany’s labour and family ministers.

“I’ve always been very sceptical of the Elterngeld system, though, because it’s the only social benefit giving more to those who need it less. Really it’s just an indirect way of encouraging richer people to have more kids.”

When the subsidy for parental leave was introduced, he and his wife simply calculated how to get the maximum cash (Elterngeld is income-adjusted and capped at €1800 per month) and weighed who could better afford to take off work and for how long. “It was unusual to be a father on parental leave for a year in 2007, but it was no big deal – we just did it,” Alexander says.

Unfortunately, it is not so easy when relationships fall apart. After many years of effort, Stiefel is currently discussing with his daughter whether he should start a shared custody trial against her mother – now that he is legally able to. Ravic is thankful he will never have to face such a trial.

“My partner and I immediately filed for shared custody when our children were born.” The process was relatively easy. “I could never imagine being just a weekend dad. My kids and I are so close, sometimes my partner has even been jealous of our bond.” Ravic may be a ‘new dad’, but in many ways he still faces an old system, so he chose to err on the side of caution. And who could blame him for not gambling his kids?

Parenting benefits at a glance

■ Parental leave was introduced in Germany in 1989. Since 2001 it’s been known as ELTERNZEIT and lasts up to three years.

■ In Germany 25 percent of men take some PATERNITY LEAVE; in Sweden 80 percent do.

ELTERNGELD is income-adjusted: the minimum benefit is €300/month; maximum is €1800. You can claim it for up to 14 months.

KINDERGELD is a €184 monthly benefit paid for each child until the age of 18 (max. 26).

■ Starting August 2013, parents who don’t send their kids (ages 1-3) to kindergarten will receive BETREUUNGSGELD, a monthly €150 payment.