Parents Are Struggling. Could the Government Be Helping?

It’s time to re-think America’s relationship with social support.

Photo by Johann Walter Bantz on Unsplash

Germany is in the midst of its second full lockdown to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Daycares and schools are closed. Employers are required to allow employees to work from home if at all possible. N95 masks are mandatory in some parts of the country.

This lockdown, currently called a “Hard Lockdown,” which follows the “Lockdown Light” that started in October, will likely be extended into what some are calling “Mega Lockdown.” But even knowing that the lockdown end date probably won’t actually be February 14 as planned, I, like most parents, am still counting the seconds between now and then.

Honestly, this lockdown is easier for me than the first, and I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m more accustomed to it all, or if it’s because this time around I have a full-time job (which I’m doing remotely, of course), as opposed to a cobbled-together web of freelance gigs that I can say no to in order to focus on my three-year-old son. (Yes, I’m saying that working full-time and navigating childcare duties with my husband, who also works full-time, is easier for me than full-time mothering. Yes. 100%.)

Parents are buckling under the pressure of having their kids at home.

But also this time around, the German government is at least talking openly (see Angela Merkel’s latest appeal to parents here) about the fact that parents are buckling under the pressure of having their kids at home. In fact, this time around, Germany is allowing parents to use their Kinderkrankentage (paid leave to be taken when your kid is sick) while schools and daycares are closed.

Americans, let me repeat that: the government is paying my salary so I can take days off work to care for my kid, who can’t be in preschool for who knows how long. (Europeans: this is probably not as big a deal to you, but it’s such a big deal to Americans that I’m writing a whole essay about it.)

I’m still wrapping my head around this. Parents are usually entitled to 10 of these days yearly, and the government has upped that to 20 per parent this year. Single parents will have 40 instead of 20.

To be clear, in the last lockdown, parents got nothing. And I’m not sure 40 days will be enough to actually see us to the other side of this one. No one is. We could be doing this well into spring, or longer, if vaccination doesn’t pick up rapidly, especially now that the new variants have been detected here.

But still…40 days? Paid? To take care of my child? My American brain just can’t quite fathom it.

I would so much rather be in a place where I’m paying more to help more people.

When I first talked to my team lead about potentially taking days off when preschools closed, I’d planned to use some of my vacation days. He insisted I save those for an actual vacation and explained the Kinderkrankentage to me. I told him Americans don’t even know what to do with 30 days of paid vacation. Six weeks? That’s more than some (most?) mothers get off when they have a baby in the US.

The last time I wrote about my experience of the robust social safety net in this country, several readers responded with lots of Impressive Words about how the benefits I was experiencing and calling free were not free at all.

Well, yeah, no shit. I’m the one paying the taxes. I’m the one looking at my paycheck and wondering where most of it has gone.

I’m also the one remembering, in moments like this, that I would so much rather be in a place where I’m paying more to help more people. Because I’m not the only one getting those extra days. Families who earn much, much less than mine are also able to use them. Families with parents who aren’t able to work from home are able to use them. Families whose kids have special needs are able to use them.

I’m also grateful to be living in a place where government values parents engaging with their children — or, at the very least, where politicians understand that if they don’t help parents in some way, they will be very unhappy come the next elections.

Is 40 days enough? Probably not, if I’m letting myself be realistic. Is it something? Yes.

I write about the system here in Germany not to say that this is the way things should be done. I write about it to say that this is a way things could be done.

Even as we emerge from the trauma that has been having Trump as a president, the US is still stuck in its ways. Biden isn’t Trump, but he’s a hard centrist, even with many leftists calling loudly for bigger changes and better reform.

Maybe it’s time to think radically about new ways to make change.

Here in Germany, Merkel is part of the CDU, the Christian Democratic Union. They’re a liberal conservative party, one that’s actually considered center-right (here’s a brief explanation of liberal conservatism, if you’re an American who, like me, is used to only seeing those two words in opposition to each other).

Without unpacking the entire history of German government, and how it has obviously been hugely affected by the Nazis and the DDR, my point is simply that other places govern differently than the US, and life functions in those places. Indeed, for many people life is thriving in those places, or least it was in non-COVID times.

Germany has the strongest economy in the EU, in spite of its vast social benefits (which, as an aside, do not seem so vast to many Europeans, especially my Danish and Swedish friends). This is a reality that many Republicans insist is not possible.

Perhaps it’s time to shelve our very narrow American definitions of liberal and conservative.

But even conservative politicians here are ready to support the people they’re governing with some kind of tangible action, rather than the “thoughts and prayers” so many American politicians love to spread around.

Perhaps it’s time to shelve our very narrow American definitions of liberal and conservative. Maybe it’s time to think radically about new ways to make change — ways that don’t just echo all the system as it already is. That system is inherently flawed — designed to benefit only a small (white, male, and upper class) portion of society.

I’m sure some people will read this and be excited to tell me all the ways I’m wrong and don’t understand politics, etc. I think sometimes people forget that writing a personal essay about how politics affects your life doesn’t turn you into a politician or a historian.

I don’t have to know the exact ins and outs the US government to know that my quality of life is better in Germany than in the States. I don’t need to have a PhD in political science to understand that I am much better supported by government than my American mom friends are.

Writing about getting paid leave to take care of my son doesn’t translate into me having a plan for how to fix the US government and economy. There are many people much more qualified to make those kinds of plans. My goal as a writer and a mother and an American far from home is simply to point out again and again: there are other ways.

When will we seek them out?

Caitlin is a writer, editor, and translator living in Berlin with her husband and their angsty threenager.

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