Kreuzberg, a part of Berlin where you normally see young, good-looking people hanging out in coffee shops and bars, is home to another widespread subcategory of Berlin hipster: the cool dad. This guy is everywhere, on his own during the day, having a coffee with a baby strapped to his chest. And I'm not alone in noticing it. Visiting friends have often pointed out the same, wondering if the guys are using the baby as a prop to pick up girls. Despite their cynical assumptions toward parenting (think Hugh Grant in About A Boy), I know from experience as a British mother living here with a 5-month-old baby that this isn't the case at all. Guys ask me what stroller I went for and recommend good baby clothes shops. My Tuesday afternoon baby music group is full of techno dads dressed in black, hanging out with their babies, playing the tambourine. Some cafes are even "dads only." As far as I can tell, no one's trying to chat anyone up — it's all about the kids.
Just because I'm a man doesn't mean I can't have diapers and a sling with me. It's the time that we live in.
The strange thing isn't that there are men looking after their kids in Berlin. It's that us ex-pats even notice it — that it's such a foreign sight. So where do all these baby daddies come from? And what do they think of the clichéd idea that childcare isn’t the father’s job? "It's super nice looking after your kids. They have the first bit with their mother when they need to be breastfed and then the next bit with their dad," Berliner Cristoph Hock, a 29-year-old part-time hairdresser and father of one says. "I think we have a stronger connection with our kids this way. Why wouldn't you want to share it?"
Georg Claussen, 35 and father to a 3-month old baby girl, agrees. "Oh, it's different in Berlin," he said. "Sometimes I look after her, sometimes my wife does. I don't find anything strange in that, it's just the way it is." One explanation is that German paternity laws are much more child-friendly. It has the lowest birthrate, not just in Europe, but in the world. With many more people dying than being born, Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown money at the problem and the country now has one of the most generous family policies in Europe. Parents can receive up to 65% of their salary (capped at €1,800 or about $1,900) per month over a period of up to 14 months. "Men here get more paternity leave and are urged to take it, so it's much more common to see guys with babies midweek," says Claussen. "Sometimes companies will say: if the women are taking it, the men should too." Another explanation is that a lot of people in the German capital don't work the typical 9-5, in part because the cost of living is considered lower than in other major European cities, such as London. "There are dads with babies everywhere in Kreuzberg because no one has a proper job," says James Mills, a 30-year-old father of one from Oxford, who now lives in Berlin. "In London and elsewhere more people work in offices, whereas in Kreuzberg, a higher percentage of people are freelance or 'bohemian’ unemployed, i.e. they're not going down to the job center, but they're not working all hours." Sezana Araya, 28, from Berlin agrees. "Lots of people here are still studying or without a steady job. They work in coffee shops, someone gets pregnant and then they have to balance this new situation. Becoming a dad is less planned. If you talk to couples about how long they have been together, for many it's not longer than a year and a half and then you have to deal with the situation. There’s an ad hoc approach. If you’re not in a fixed job, you’ve got no excuse for why you won’t take care of the kid."
Parents in Germany can receive up to 65% of their salary (capped at €1,800 or about $1,900) per month over a period of up to 14 months.
Araya also thinks that societal attitudes have changed. "The alternative scene in Berlin is more open to equal rights," he said. "Just because I'm a man doesn't mean I can't have diapers and a sling with me. It's the time that we live in." Although work-life policies in the UK are now catching up with Germany (the Coalition introduced new laws that allow dads to share parental leave with mums for up to 52 weeks, with a total of 39 weeks paid), attitudes are proving slower to change. According to Charlotte Faircloth, from the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Roehampton, for most middle-class couples in the UK, shared parental leave remains a nice ideal that is hard to afford if the father is the higher earner. She also says that, for working class couples, "the breadwinner ethic remains a very important part of the male identity." Caroline Gatrell, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University, whose research focuses on sociologies of health, work and family, adds that, unlike in Germany, British men are often discouraged by line managers from accessing flexible working due to the belief that most men don't want to prioritise child care. “This situation needs to be improved – both for men themselves and because if fathers can work more flexibly, this opens up things for women and their careers." It may not suit everybody, but the things that work are working well. And as a new mum, it's a reassuring environment for child-rearing.