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Laura M.

The Perks Of Motherhood In Munich

One American mom shares how the love affair with moms and babies makes this European nation a great place to raise a family.

When I moved to Munich 10 years ago with my then German boyfriend, little did I know I would end up starting my family in Germany—with a French man. My now boyfriend, a software engineer, came to Munich for work and planned to stay only one year. We met during his first three months here while playing in an orchestra. He plays clarinet and I play violin. Six years later, we’re both still in Munich and now have a family!

Moms rule in Munich

Munich is a great city to live in, and I think it’s a great place to have a baby. It’s safe, there’s plenty of green space, it’s very clean, there’s a high standard of living, and, to top it off, it’s easy to get out of the city and to the Alps for day trips.

Although I’m not one who particularly loved being pregnant, my experience of being pregnant in Munich was pleasant. I found that people went particularly out of their way to be kind to open doors, smile at you (this is not so common among strangers in Germany) and even “fight” (with words, not fists!) on your behalf for others to give up a seat for you. While you’re pregnant you even get special treatment at government offices; this extends later when you have the actual baby too. Like when I applied for my daughter Eloise’s German passport, you get to ask for a special number so you don’t have to wait in line so long. This was a lifesaver with a six-week-old baby in tow! It saved having to wait hours, and instead we got out of there within a half hour.

Pregnancy the European way

At your first doctor’s visit, you start a booklet for tracking your pregnancy, and the same booklet is used for tracking a second pregnancy. All your appointments and test results are recorded and serve as a future reference. It’s recommended you carry the booklet around with you at all times in case of an emergency. The doctor’s visits are about every four weeks until the end of the pregnancy, when you go every two weeks and then every week. During my first trimester, I had an ultrasound at every appointment. I don’t know if that is common; perhaps it was just something my doctor did, but we certainly enjoyed being able to follow the development of my baby.

The dietary restrictions are very similar to those in the US, except maybe the views on alcohol. The official message I received from my doctor was, of course, absolutely no alcohol during pregnancy. But when reading other sources online, I found that it was often said that you could enjoy a wheat beer during your first trimester, and that the folic acid is good for you. I did not try it out. Since my boyfriend is French, I also learned a bit about the diet in France. I heard from multiple French women, young and old, that they did not know or did not bother about cold cuts and unpasteurized cheeses. They simply ate what they wanted and found it was neither a problem nor a concern for them.

In Germany, they have a wonderful sauna culture. I love enjoying the sauna at my gym and my doctor said this was okay, but I should be careful in the first trimester and should limit my visits to the less extreme ones. I was curious about this and started looking things up online in English. I was shocked to find a US site that forbade the sauna and used horrifying statements alluding to cooking your baby! In this case, I decided to follow the advice of my doctor here and indulged in the relaxing downtime I got in the sauna.

My midwife crisis

In Munich there’s a baby boom, with 16,450 babies born in 2014 and total population of about 1.4 million, and you see it on every corner. So when you find out you’re pregnant, the first thing you do is begin your search for a midwife, which is very common practice in Germany. While this is paid for by your insurance, you must find the person yourself. It is possible to make use of their services before the birth, but it’s most common for during and after the birth.

I was particularly grateful to have the reassurance from the midwife that everything was healing correctly and, yes, your nipples are supposed to look like that in the beginning.

My baby was due in June, so I didn’t expect to run into problems when I began my search in October. I was wrong. I called several midwives in my neighborhood only to hear that they were already booked through June and some even through July already! A friend recommended I get in touch with a company called Midwife Center Munich. Before the birth, you attend appointments at the center in between your regular doctor’s appointments, so you get to know all the midwives in the team (there were about six of them). At the midwife appointments, they check your blood pressure, weight, urine and the position of the baby. You can also take advantage of pregnancy massages and acupuncture.

I found the best part of the midwife system to be the help after the birth. For the first 10 days you’re home from the hospital, a midwife visits you in your home. She checks on the baby, but more importantly, checks on the new mom. Each visit in my home started with checking Eloise’s weight and a general check to be sure baby was looking healthy. Then she would turn to me. I had a c-section, so she would examine my wound and be sure everything was healing correctly. Since I was breastfeeding, she would check my breasts to make sure there weren’t any problems. As strange as it sounds, I was particularly grateful to have the reassurance from the midwife that everything was healing correctly and, yes, your nipples are supposed to look like that in the beginning. Then she was free to answer all the questions mom and dad had for the day. Since this was our first baby, we had a lot of questions. Around day eight or so, the midwife started to show me exercises I could start doing to get my pelvic area back in shape. This was also really helpful for me, since I was a bit hesitant to move too much after the c-section.

Also part of the system and paid for by insurance is a fitness course for getting back into shape that you start about 12 weeks after giving birth. My course was six weeks long and was the perfect introduction into feeling comfortable doing exercise after the surgery. A lot of moms meet through either their prenatal class or the postpregnancy fitness course.

My boyfriend and I also attended a prenatal class that took place over two days on a weekend, given by an experienced midwife. Although she explained the different options for pain medication, I had the feeling she was encouraging natural birth. More than once during my pregnancy I heard that you should not go into the labor set on having an epidural; rather you should simply see what happens. Also, I got the impression that it is assumed you will breastfeed. A lot of time was spent on this topic during the course, including stressing that 98 percent of woman can breastfeed, which was to tell us that they think everyone can do it. So I adopted these two lines of thought as well. In the end, I did have an epidural (and was so happy to have it!), which ended up being used for the c-section as well.

Photo: Courtesy of Laura M.

Eloise’s arrival

The delivery room was very spacious with a window you could open (there was no air-conditioning in the hospital, as is the case with most places in Germany), a comfortable arm chair, a birthing ball and birthing rope. I really was not in there long before it was decided a c-section was necessary.

The most memorable experience from my hospital stay was the support with breastfeeding.

After Eloise was delivered, she was taken into a separate room to be examined. My boyfriend got to follow and watch. They do not wash the baby after birth here. They say it’s better for the baby’s skin, so they simply wiped her clean with a cloth. Then my boyfriend got to have bonding time with her while I was still in surgery. As soon as I was out of surgery (and still feeling a bit out of it), they rolled me back into the room and attached Eloise to my breast. The hospital midwife (there were no nurses in the delivery room, just midwives and doctors), laid her on my chest and led Eloise to my breast. I just sat there holding her and watching in disbelief how this little creature instinctively knew what to do—although I wasn't so sure I knew what to do myself!

I was in the hospital for about five days. It’s normally two to three days, but because I had a c-section, it was longer. The most memorable experience from my hospital stay was the support with breastfeeding. During the first few hours (which was the middle of the night since Eloise was born at 11:11 p.m.), the nurse on staff took care of everything for me. She brought Eloise to me and attached her to me; then I rang a bell and she took her away. I needed time to recover from the surgery and could barely move. The next morning was much the same. After the first day, they started to leave me alone for the feeding. Anyone who has breastfed knows it’s a learning process, and sometimes I would just get stuck and Eloise would get upset. I simply rang the bell and a nurse came to help. Every time she was able to help Eloise latch on, and she was great at giving me tips for the next time. I never felt alone in the process. By the time I had to go home, I still was not completely confident it would all work out by myself, but I had the reassurance that a midwife would visit me at home the next day.

Breastfeeding: What I know now

Although I had a lot of support here for breastfeeding, looking back at the first few weeks, I now realize that my approach or mind-set for breastfeeding was completely wrong. I had the idea that I needed to be pumping. I needed to pump so that others could feed the baby, and I thought it was almost necessary that my boyfriend be able to feed the baby to bond with her. During the first few days I already started asking my midwife when I could start pumping. Every time she seemed confused by my question and instructed me that it was not necessary. As a first-time mom, I wanted to be sure I was doing everything “correctly,” so I followed her instructions—but I was really frustrated at the same time because I felt like pumping was what I was supposed to do. Looking back, I realize I could have relaxed a lot more about the whole thing. Since I had the year off, there was no pressure to start pumping early or even at all.

I was encouraged by Eloise’s doctor to breastfeed her as long as I could since it’s healthy for baby. I started her on solids around six months, when she gave me signals that she needed more to eat. I figured that since I had the chance to be home with her for the year, I should use my time for preparing her food. It helps that Munich has a lot of local markets to make grocery buying more fun. There’s a market every Thursday close to my apartment where I can buy everything I need. The vendors even recognize Eloise and like to ask about her and make silly faces. As for first foods, you see a lot of babies around town, Eloise included, gnawing on pretzels; not hard pretzels but the German kind you get from the bakery (the salt is usually scraped off for baby).

A mat leave you won’t believe

The maternity leave is very generous in Germany. When I told my mother (who lives in the States) that maternity leave starts six weeks before your due date, she asked me, “What will you do with all that time? Sit around and wait for baby?” I also thought it sounded unnecessary and even mentioned at work that I didn’t think I’d leave that early. I obviously had no idea back then! I was so grateful to be done with work six weeks before my due date, since it was right about the time when everything started to be uncomfortable for me. I can’t imagine having to work up until your due date. That seems insane to me now that I have experienced it for myself. And there was plenty to do. Aside from last-minute shopping for baby, in those six weeks, I finished up the paperwork needed for registering Eloise in Munich and doing research on how she can be registered for American and French citizenship.

Maternity leave in Germany is six weeks before the birth and 8 to 12 weeks after baby is born. You then have the option to take parental leave for up to three years and can be taken by the mother or father or split between the two. Maternity leave is paid by your insurance and your employer. Parental leave is paid for one year by the government and is up to 65 percent of your salary; the last two years are unpaid. Also, your position at your company is secure during this time (meaning they must take you back in the same or similar position). I decided to take advantage of what was offered and take the entire first year off. When I do start back at work in June, I have the flexibility to start back at only 20 hours a week and slowly increase my hours as we transition into life at day care and work. Also when I start back at work, my boyfriend will take two months of parental leave, which we hope will be an easier transition for Eloise.

The beer gardens are all kid friendly. Eloise went to her first beer garden when she was three weeks old! Many of the beer gardens have small playgrounds for kids or babies, and children simply sit on the ground and play.

Although it has not always been easy to be at home all day, I’m pleased to have had the year to be relaxed about parenting and ease into this new life together. I don’t think I would have been able to do this had we been living in the US or France.

Photo: Courtesy of Laura M.

Serious about work-life balance

The work environment is also very understanding and accommodating for people with kids. For example, when it comes to vacation (you generally get more than 20 days in Germany) people with kids get priority for vacation during the school holidays, which happens to include prime vacation time in August. Also, there’s never any question when someone needs to leave early because a child is sick or needs to be picked up from day care.

Eloise will start day care this June. There is public and private day care offered here in Germany for kids under three years old. After three years, a child enters kindergarten until they are six. Kindergarten costs vary: State-run schools cost substantially less than private ones. I’m excited to see how Eloise will grow and change in her day care, where they will be speaking both German and French.

Photo: Courtesy of Laura M.

German engineering for babies

One item I found really useful here that I didn’t see in the US are the sleeping bags for baby. While there are sleeping bags in the US, all the ones we received as gifts I found to be impractical, since you had to put baby’s arms in armholes. How do you do that without waking a sleeping baby? The sleeping bags here attach over the shoulders, making it easy to lay baby down in the open bag and then latch it shut at around the shoulders. I found it so great not to have to worry about baby being cold. To my dismay, Eloise just stopped wanting to sleep in the sleeping bag at 10 months old. I would much prefer she were cozy in a sleeping bag!

Another thing: Wood toys are really popular here. Being a French baby, Eloise, of course, has a Sophie the giraffe. The Bugaboo stroller is really popular in the city, but there are equivalent German brands you also see just as much. We have a Teutonia stroller and I love it. I can fit everything in it from my trips to the drugstore, grocery store, fruit stands and the market.

Germans are known for being frugal and this extends into baby gear. Most of the friends I have who have had or are having babies have borrowed a lot of their baby gear from their family or friends. It always seems their first thought is, “Where can I get that second hand?” from clothes to strollers and cribs. Not that second hand isn’t common in the US, but I realized I didn’t have to worry as much since I was lucky enough to have a baby shower hosted by my family. I traveled to the US during my second trimester for my baby shower and I was grateful to return to Munich with a myriad of gifts covering nearly everything we needed (except large items like a crib or stroller).

Photo: Courtesy of Laura M.

Babies welcome in Munich!

In my opinion, there is not a better city for getting around with a new baby and a stroller than in Munich. We don’t have a car and don’t plan on getting one since there’s no need (did I mention that her pediatrician is in our building?). The public transportation is extremely stroller friendly. Multiple strollers fit in all the trams, buses and subways. Most stations have either an elevator or escalator, or both. And even if the elevator and the escalator are out of order, there’s someone around willing to help you carry the stroller down. I can only recount one time this past year when I was at a station that didn’t have an elevator or an escalator. Also, there’s an app that gives you a map of each station and lets you know which elevators or escalators may be out of order so you can plan your trip.

But when you’re out and about with baby, you have to be prepared for people to touch her and push their advice on you. I don’t want to make too much of a generalization, but in my experience, the Germans seem to think they know what’s best for your baby. One time when Eloise was maybe around six weeks old, she was going through a phase where she would choke on her own saliva, but she’d always figure it out and be okay. I was on the tram with her and this happened. I was watching her to be sure she was okay, hovering over her myself, when a woman violently tapped me to try to tell me how to handle it. When I politely brushed her away, she tried to reach over me into the stroller. I managed to stay calm and gently push her back. By the time she backed off Eloise was fine, as my instincts told me she would be. Another time a woman insisted we put up the cover on Eloise’s stroller when she saw a few flurries outside. We insisted she was fine and the snow would not make her melt.

Photo: Courtesy of Laura M.

I’ve also found that it’s easy to go out to eat (I usually do lunch) in Munich and use it as a way to keep up with my coworkers while I’m out for the year. Most restaurants have a high chair (and you can call ahead to reserve it) or a table with space for the stroller. And when the weather is nice you can sit outside at most restaurants. Even better, the beer gardens are all kid friendly. Eloise went to her first beer garden when she was three weeks old! Many of the beer gardens have small playgrounds for kids or babies, and children simply sit on the ground and play.

The playgrounds here are also pretty spectacular. They have great jungle gyms, toys for digging in the sand (think: cranes and buckets you can lower down and bring up to the jungle gym), and are kept clean by the city. As a parent, you also don’t have to worry too much about dodgy playground equipment; everything is pretty sturdy.

Photo: Courtesy of Laura M.

Missed connections

I haven’t lived in the US for quite some time now, so there’s not really any material item I miss or wish I had, but I certainly do miss having family around during this time of Eloise’s life. Grandparents, in particular, play a strong role in children’s live in Germany. It is not at all uncommon to see grandparents around town pushing strollers, taking care of their grandchildren during the day. With both my parents and my boyfriend’s parents being very far away (his in France), we feel it most when we wish we had a babysitter for a few hours or wish we could just drop Eloise off at the grandparents’ so we can get a break. We’ve had support from friends here, but it’s just not the same as family.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Laura M.