BERLIN A falling birth rate and an aging population have prompted Germany's female leaders to shake up the nation's old-fashioned family policies.
Labeled "birthing machines" and "raven mothers", for leaving their children too soon, working mothers have often been compared unfavorably with stay-at-home mums. This is set to change under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel and Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven, vowed last month to sharply increase the number of state-funded daycare centers for children under three, a bold step in Germany where pre-schoolers tend to stay at home.
"This is the first time since World War Two that politicians have actually presented a modern form of family policy," said Kerstin Bode, features editor of "Fuer Sie" magazine, a popular magazine aimed at career women and mothers.
"The conservative voices in the past argued that such measures were going to destroy families. But at the end of the day the traditional family does not exist anymore."
Parts of western Germany only offer state-funded childcare places for around 7 percent of eligible children. This figure rises to around 40 percent in the east where parts of the Communist-era state infrastructure remain.
Von der Leyen, who says Germany's attitude toward working mothers is wrong, promised to provide cash to triple childcare facilities to around 750,000 places by 2013.
THE RAVEN MOTHER COMPLEX
Traditionally Germany has stressed the importance of mothers raising their children as formulated in the adage of "Children, Kitchen, Church", reminiscent of the Ayrian ideal of motherhood as propagated by Hitler's Nazis, and of 1950s chauvinism.
Mothers leaving their young children to return to work were often dubbed "Rabenmutter" or "raven mothers" by unsympathetic politicians, implying they had pushed their offspring out of the nest into the care of others too soon.
Conservative attitudes persist in Europe's most populous nation, particularly in the more conservative, Catholic south.
"It is still considered a sign of social depravity if you don't raise your own children," said Dieter Lenzen, a professor in educational philosophy and president of Berlin's Free University.
Von der Leyen's proposals were greeted with outrage by one bishop from the southern state of Bavaria who said they would turn women into "birthing machines". He compared day-care facilities with communist-era state-run institutions.
"Von der Leyen's family policies are not meant to benefit children's well-being or strengthen family values but rather are mainly designed to recruit young women into industry," the bishop, Walter Mixa, said.
Bode called the bishop's views rubbish.
"Just because women are given the opportunity to decide if they want to be full-time mothers, to work part-time or work full-time, does not make them bad mothers," she said.
Many women worldwide face challenges juggling motherhood and jobs. A recent study in Britain suggested women with young children were the most discriminated against at work.
Von der Leyen, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrat (CDU) Party that rules in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), has spoken of her own experiences battling the prejudices of men as the mother of seven school-age children.
"There is a glass ceiling in Germany, but it's not necessarily a glass ceiling for women, it's a glass ceiling for women with children," von der Leyen told reporters last year.
Her approval ratings among German voters shot up as a result of her childcare proposals. She climbed 11 points in one opinion poll, published in Die Welt newspaper, to rank just behind Merkel, Germany's most popular politician.
Von der Leyen's plans will go some way toward bringing Germany's facilities for young children into line with those offered in Scandinavian countries.
It should also encourage more highly skilled women to have children, which would help swell Germany's workforce in the medium- and long-term and stave off an impending pensions crisis caused by a dwindling ratio of workers to pensioners.
"We can't just stick women in front of the cooker," Bode said. "We have to realize that they have a dual function as mothers and career women."