Living with universal day care in Germany showed me that Australia’s system is neither a luxury nor a right – it’s a last resort.

Living with universal day care in Germany showed me that Australia’s system is neither a luxury nor a right – it’s a last resort.

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I had reservations about sending my two-year-old daughter to day care (“kita” for childhood state in German) in Berlin – cultural differences being the main point of contention, but also trusting others with their care, Covid, widespread “mother” guilt.

However, since the beginning of the year, she has been going there, Monday to Friday, from 9 am to 3 pm. And it’s free, except for the €50 (A$75) we pay every month that covers food and the occasional extra like ice cream on a hot day. In a day care group of seven, along with two caregivers, they go to playgrounds, gymnastics, plays and community gardens. Lunch is served every day, and when it’s delivered, I’m told my daughter screams, “Essen!” (Food!), and runs to the door in her little felt hausschuhe (flip flops).

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It all sounds very cute, but of course utopia isn’t. Like many other countries, early childhood educators are often low-income people, and many centers are understaffed, often chronically. In theory, however, since 2013, all children over one year of age in Berlin are entitled to subsidized care in the public system until they reach school age. The problem is that finding a kita location is not easy (I contacted over 30 when we started our search last year and got positive responses from only three) and even harder to find a multilingual center (many have a waiting list years and are not located in our neighborhood). The discovery of all this has shed some light on why so many people have asked us if we started looking for a kita when my daughter was still in the womb, despite a pattern of 12-14 months. elternzeit (parental license).

In the end, it’s often a matter of what you can find rather than what you might want for your child – a pedagogy (if any) you align yourself with, for example diversity within the center and certain dietary preferences. Ultimately, we opted for the first kita that offered us a seat, and while the group isn’t as diverse as we’ve been led to believe, and the lunch menu features meat gyros or a German version of rissoles every Tuesday, even though we were told the kids who ate a vegetarian menu, we are usually happy, as is my daughter, as long as we get her on time (we didn’t dare be late).

But I have to squint at the small changes I’ve seen in my daughter since I started kita. She’s not going to wear sandals without socks now (cliché, but in our experience it’s true), doesn’t like to get dirty and hates getting her clothes wet, so much so that it took two weeks of gentle persuasion before she wet her bathing suit on the beach. Her favorite German song is about not putting your elbows on the table when you’re eating. All of this makes me wonder how much behavioral correction is needed at such a young age.

When I go to pick her up, my daughter is happy to see me, somewhat relieved, but also often reluctant to leave, an added insult to the fact that she does many of the things for her caregiver that she wouldn’t do for me, including sit in the stroller, brush your teeth, brush your long hair. One day I commented on how beautiful her hair looked, and her caretaker replied, quite matter-of-factly, “Yes, we do,” as if it had never occurred to me to do the same. I’ve tried to explain that I haven’t been able to style her hair in months, but most of the staff aren’t interested in talking to me, and often don’t recognize me when I’m there – no hello, no chat about how the day went. Mostly it doesn’t matter, the important things are somehow said, but it often makes me feel like a kid. Like the time one of the caregivers asked me if I had read the latest Covid testing email. When I said yes, she leaned forward slightly at the hip and, speaking loudly and clearly through her mask, said: “Und hast du es verstanden?” (And did you understand?)

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While I don’t connect with my daughter’s caregivers, and there are things I could do differently myself, I trust them with their care—and I can see that my daughter feels connected to them in the community, even though I don’t. If we were to return to Australia, as I hope we will one day, the money I earn working part-time as a freelancer would not make this level of service financially viable. And so, despite my initial hesitations, perpetuated perhaps by how island life has been for the past couple of years, I now realize how incredibly lucky we are in Berlin to have universal child care available to us. Not only am I able to work without the financial burden of caring for the kids, I can also take time for myself if I need to.

Let’s hope that the early childhood education reforms announced by the New South Wales and Victorian governments last week could mean that more Australian fathers – but especially mothers – have the same basic entitlement. I was tempted to call it luxury, but in a system that leaves no other choice, that’s not really what it is.

• Gabrielle Innes is an Australian freelance writer and editor based in Berlin

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