We toy sometimes with the idea of returning to the UK (by that we really mean London). For our careers and old friends and family, it can seem very tempting. Very tempting indeed, until we start talking about childcare. Berlin’s plentiful offering of affordable places for children to spend their time is almost unbeatable and it is one aspect, amongst many, which ties us firmly here for now.
Our children have attended KiTa (Kindertagesstätte – nursery school for pre-school children) since they were eighteen months old. They could have started younger – many children in Berlin are sent at 12 months from 9am to 4pm – but for us that seemed too soon. So we were slower: at first, it was only for a couple of hours each morning, and then progressively more, until we found a rhythm that works for them and for our working patterns: three days a week from 9am to 3pm and two days a week from 9am to 12.15pm. They could stay for longer but we are happy to have them at home as much as work allows.
Each morning we meander two minutes around the corner at a very slow child’s pace. Almost all of the children who attend our KiTa live within the same small block of eight or so streets. After KiTa, local playgrounds inevitably become a hotspot for children and parents to meet. The KiTa itself serves as a great socialiser, beyond the hurried chat over muddy boots and rain jackets during the picking up and dropping off: they organise at least four events a year, for parents and for children, involving plenty of tasty German cake and lots of chatter.
The cost (scaled depending on your income) is low even for the highest earners. The monthly combined cost of sending our two children to KiTa for what count as full-time places (ganztag), though we don’t use all of our allotted hours, is significantly less than a third of what it would cost us to send only one child to a private nursery in London. I can’t even begin to compare it to the cost of employing a nanny.
This is not the case all over Germany. Berlin’s extensive provision of KiTa places for children from one year old is a legacy of the city’s Socialist past, and dates back to a time when all mothers were expected to fully re-enter the workforce or continue their academic studies no later than a year after having given birth, if not sooner. To allow for this, the city (and the rest of East Germany) needed KiTas and plenty of trained Erzieher(in) (nursery teachers) to run them. And the parallel expectation in mothers that they will most definitely return to near, if not completely, full time work remains equally strong.
In much of former West Germany, however, KiTa provision starts at three years old, and even then you might only be looking at a half-day place. If both parents want to work before that, you need to organise something privately and likely with much less availability and at greater expense. So in many ways our KiTa ties us not only to Germany but really to Berlin. There is legislation in place to provide more KiTas in the rest of Germany, so perhaps our options are widening. London, with its expensive nurseries, even more expensive nannies, and therefore requirement that both of us would need to be working in highly paid and highly pressurised jobs in which we barely see the children at all, is certainly the much less favourable option.