“Anyone reading this will hate me when they hear that childminder costs are highly subsidised and kindergarten is free. We only have to pay for the dinners. The level of care is very good too.”
This week’s interview comes from further afield than usual. Fionnuala Zinnecker is a mother of three, with a German husband, an M.A. from TCD, and a huge love of cookery. Originally from Ardcath in Co. Meath, she has been living in Germany since 2003. While on maternity leave I 2008, she started her first blog My Kitchen Notebook, and recently branched out with Three Sons Later, where she writes about family life, crafts and upcycling. You can find Fionnuala on Twitter @threesonslater.
Thank you for joining the series Fionnuala – could you tell me how many children you have and their ages, and a little bit about where you live?
I have three children, all boys. They are aged six , four and six months. We live just outside the German town of Karlsruhe. Our house is just a few metres from the Rhine. We are 10 km from our nearest French village and 40 minutes drive north of the Black Forest. It is a great location.
And now could you tell me a little about your job – what do you do and for how long have you been working at it?
I work as a project manager for an international telecommunications and engineering company. The job allows me to travel all over Europe to meet customers and colleagues, to use my language skills and to implement network deployment projects. I’ve been with the company for nine years now.
What kind of hours do you work?
At present I am on parental leave but previously I worked a 30 hour week over four days, generally from 8am till shortly before 4pm. While we have flexi-time at the company, I am restricted largely by having to collect my children in the afternoon. On Fridays I am off, and I try to stick to that, switch off and do household and family stuff.
Do you have the flexibility to work from home?
I count myself lucky to be able to work from home occasionally. It takes some of the pressure off. If a presentation needs finishing or there are conference calls with the US, I can log on for a while in the evenings. I prefer to be able to get out of the office on time to pick my children up myself rather than have an afternoon minder.
And you travel sometimes for work?
Yes, I do. To some extent I can arrange the frequency myself. The trips are never long. I don’t like to be away from my family for more than a couple of nights if I can help it. Depending on the project I am working on, the travel may be within Germany meaning max one night away. More often though I have to travel to Spain, Hungary or the UK. On occasion I have to travel to Ireland and I enjoy the chance to pop to the supermarket for brown sauce, chocolate Buttons and Odlums wholewheat flour and maybe meet someone for a quick cuppa at the airport.
What kind of childcare do you use?
When my two older sons were under two years old, we used a childminder for them. She was 16 km in the opposite direction to my work and my husband’s but she was amazing and very flexible. Once the boys hit two, they each in turn got a full-day place in our local kindergarten, just round the corner. The opening times are short compared to what you are used to in Ireland, 7:30 am to 4:30 pm, hence my 8 am to 4 pm work schedule.
Since last September my eldest son is at school. They begin school later here, at 6 years old. He is in what they call here full-day school, meaning 8 am to 4 pm. Regular school starts at 8 am too but ends at 12 pm and most children go home then. Approximately one third stay on for school dinner, supervised homework and activities like art, theatre, and so on.
How do you think childcare options in Germany compare to Ireland?
Childcare here in Rheinland-Pfalz, the state we live in, is excellent. But it is not as good throughout Germany. Anyone reading this will hate me when they hear that childminder costs are highly subsidised and kindergarten is free. We only have to pay for the dinners. The level of care is very good too. Becoming a kindergarten teacher involves completing a three-year course including internships. The course is followed by a year working in a kindergarten as recognition of the qualification. So all in all it takes four years.
I feel that our tax contributions, though high, are put to good use.
We heard a lot about extended parental leave in Germany, and very good state payments while on leave – is it as good as it sounds?
I have to say yes, it really is. Maternity leave is only 14 weeks and at that the first 6 weeks are to be taken prior to giving birth. Eight weeks after the date of birth of the baby maternity leave ends and parental leave begins.
The parents are entitled to part-paid leave up till the baby is 14 months old and it is to be shared between them. Should only one parent avail of the leave, it ends at the baby’s first birthday. The leave can be taken simultaneously, e.g. 7 months with both parents on leave together or one parent taking the majority and the other having a few months off at the same time. It can also be taken consecutively.
The state pays you between 65% and 67% of your average basic net salary based on earnings for the 12 months prior to starting maternity leave. There is a huge amount of paperwork involved in submitting your application and getting it approved – tax returns, wage slips, doctors’ certs, employers’ letters – but it is worth the hassle to be able to spend that first year at home with a steady income.
In terms of unpaid parental leave, you can stay at home till your child is three years old. If you go back before your child is two, you can ask your employer to put a year of unpaid leave on hold for you to take before the child turns eight.
On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
While the running around dropping off and picking up is time-consuming, what I find most difficult to balance is giving enough attention to work and to the kids. I like to do my job well, be that my paying job or motherhood. Spreading my time between three children is tricky. Each needs a certain amount of attention and with one in school, one at kindergarten and one (soon) with a childminder, it will be tough trying to find the balance again.
And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel the guilt. Here in Germany I find that most mothers working work part-time and often mornings, due I suppose to school finishing at 12pm. There is a German term “Rabenmutter” which means a mother who does not look after her children properly. Unfortunately it is often applied to working mothers, which doesn’t help relieve the guilt. Returning to work nine months after I having my first child I was asked “Why did you have a child if you are not going to look after him?” and “Isn’t that a terribly long day for him?” when I mentioned that my son was with the childminder from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm. The German male is not generally known for his sensitivity.
Over the years I have got used to the mindset here. I know I do a good job in the office and I am pretty sure I am good at motherhood. My husband is behind me completely. He is the exception to the comment above concerning the German male!
Do you think there’s an optimal solution out there – a perfect balance that enables a mother to have a fulfilling career while being there for her children?
I don’t think there is one perfect solution. I suppose a lot depends on factors like how much you need the money, how much you enjoy your job, who is minding your kids when you are not there, and so on. For me , the option of working from home works well and I do need that one day a week off to concentrate on the household, the groceries, bills,..
If you could do any job, what would it be?
That’s a tricky one. The planning and creative aspects of my job are what I enjoy most. Outside of work, creativity is very important to me too and I am trying to pass that on to my children. Ideally a job where I could work a lot from home would be great – writing, research, that kind of thing.
As for childcare, school is a must so there is not guilt linked to that. Kindergarten is great for the kids from the age of three socially, so there would be no guilt linked to that either. It is the one to three age bracket that I am in two minds about.
Would you be a stay-at-home mother if there were no financial considerations?
I think I would. But I would get more involved in community-based work. I need an outside interest. As it is I am involved in a few local activities but if it wasn’t for work, I would do more. Much as I hate to think of my children growing up and moving on, I wouldn’t like to wake up one day and have no strings to my bow and not know what to do with myself.
Do you think there’s a glass ceiling for women, or is it a perception based on the fact that mothers often look for flexibility or part-time hours, which in turn limits their opportunities?
My view is that mothers mostly put their children before their careers and, as you say, they go with whatever they can get in terms of part-time work and flexible hours. There is a lot to weigh up when approached with an offer of a promotion or a new job. We ask ourselves how it will affect the whole family, not just whether or not we aspire to that role, how much the extra income would benefit us or what career moves would follow from moving up the ladder.
I like to see women succeed in their jobs, but I don’t think we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we opt to stay on a rung of the ladder that suits our family best. There is a time for everything and when children are young, they need family time.
Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?
I recommend making it clear from day one back on the job which days / times you work and which days /times you don’t work. In my experience people will accept that you are not available all the time and if you do agree to an exception now and again, they will be pleased with your commitment.
Make sure you have a back up plan for when the kids are sick, school is suddenly off because the heating has broken down (these things happen), you are stuck in traffic and won’t make it to crèche on time or whatever other mishap may occur. It is reassuring to know that a relative or neighbour is at hand to step in when neither you or your husband / partner can.
Tell you kids a bit about your job. Remind them that you are not leaving them for the sake of it but so that you can go on family holidays, buy birthday presents, nice clothes, etc. Help them to understand what is going on. If they don’t adjust well to you working, make sure to make the most of the time you have at home. Leave the cooking and cleaning, eat beans on toast and play games till bedtime instead.
Any other comments?
If I have learned anything over the last six years, it is that being a working mother can be a huge strain or a great compromise. To make the most of the situation, you need to re-assess your priorities every now and again. What worked when you had one child might not be viable with two or three. Before taking decisions, look at what you’ll lose or gain as a family. And if it all gets to be too much, sit back, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and think “Take it one thing at a time”.
Fionnuala, I really loved this interview – it’s so interesting to hear about life as a working mother in Germany, especially from the perspective of an Irish woman, who also has an idea of what it’s like here.
I am definitely envious of your subsidised childcare – free kindergarten sounds incredible. As does the option to stay at home for three years. And the paid parental leave. It’s all good, The system seems very much geared towards letting parents stay home while kids are small, encouraging dads to take parental leave, and then making it easy to go back to work, in terms of subsidised childcare – we could learn a lot from the Germans!
I do find the Rabensmutter topic very interesting – I read about it some years ago, and it caught my attention because we had a German office and I worked closely with a lot of German colleagues. I had noticed that most either didn’t have children (and openly discussed that they had decided against having kids) or had children and tended to give up work, or work part-time. I only knew one person who had a child and worked full-time, across the whole office. I wonder if here in Ireland we had better parental leave, would the trade-off be an expectation that mothers avail of it no matter what?
And finally, I absolutely loved what you said about the glass ceiling and that we’re not shooting ourselves in the foot if we decide to stay on a particular rung of the ladder. I see it the same way. Whether we want to lean in, or lean out, or stay put, or step off, it shouldn’t matter – it’s different for everyone, for a huge variety of factors. And when kids are small, I think mothers are very good, as you say, at weighing up everything, and looking at the bigger picture.
Fionnuala, thank you so much for this great interview, and I look forward to reading more about life in Germany www.threesonslater.blogspot.com.