What a German politician’s baby woes can teach Jacinda

by Cathrin Schaer / 13 February, 2018
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German politician Kristina Schroeder speaks in the Bundestag in 2013. Photo/Getty Images

How stressful is combining work and baby duties for a politician? Kristina Schroeder's example may be of use to Jacinda Ardern.

“It was a catastrophe for me.” That was the headline on a recently published interview with a German woman who had her first baby while working full-time. And why should we care? Because that woman was Kristina Schroeder, Minister of Family Affairs for the world’s fourth-largest economy between 2009 and 2013.

In 2011, aged 33, Schroeder became the first German Cabinet minister to give birth while in office and the whole country was fascinated, watching her “Babykugel” grow. At the end of 2017, Schroeder – soon to be a mother of three and no longer a minister – talked to one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, Die Zeit, about what all that was like.

She didn’t have too many fond memories. For one thing, she couldn’t take the maternity leave German mothers are entitled to: usually both parents can have a year off on around 65% of their salaries, and up to three years off altogether. Not German MPs, though they get only the eight weeks known as “maternal protection”.

I can understand why it’s like that, Schroeder reasoned. “People voted for you, sometimes even directly. I would find it a problem for any democracy to then say, ‘Bad luck, your vote doesn’t count for the next few months.’”

Her boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel, was understanding. After all, as Schroeder says, Merkel knows only too well what it’s like not getting enough sleep night after night. But outsiders sometimes saw Schroeder’s motherhood as a weakness. A review of Germany’s “laziest politicians” based on how often MPs turned up in Parliament gave Schroeder bad marks – because nobody took her eight weeks off into account. That made her mad. And an arcane political ritual involving the federal budget committee, millions of euros and a tradition of keeping ministers waiting led to her being delayed for hours, her newborn long overdue for a feed.

“It’s seen as a test of your strength,” Schroeder explains. At the time, she was worried what people would say if she left, she adds, but if she had to do it again now, she would just go.

“Organisationally, there’s a lot you can do,” the career politician concluded. “But you pay a price, because you are missing out on time with your children. [There’s] no 24-hour childcare that can help you with that. And there are limits. As chancellor I don’t think you could have a child – you would never see it.”

Since Schroeder’s pregnancy, there have actually been many more young ’uns around the Bundestag. In the last legislature period there were 21 births, a record, and the Cabinet had more MPs with young families than ever before.

This could have changed the way politicians with families are perceived. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel did not hide the fact that his absence from Parliament was due to his three-year-old being sick. His foes even praised him for being such a good dad. And former Labour Minister Andrea Nahles has insisted on being open about the problems of “having it all” – both a family and a career – because, she argues, “it’s not a question of one’s private life, it’s political”.

In 2016, a group of senior German politicians founded the Parents in Politics initiative, hoping to draw attention to the subject. And they came up with a manifesto. Sundays should be politics-free, meetings should be more effectual, with prearranged end times, and efficiency should be encouraged over presenteeism. Finally, they all promised not to be so mean to and competitive with other politician-parents, despite the fact that politics is a mean and competitive business.

All of the founding members of the new initiative signed the manifesto – including Kristina Schroeder.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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