It’s funny to think that exactly one year ago, today, I had an outie belly-button and constant Restless Leg Syndrome.
(Just in case you’re not familiar with RLS, it’s related to the nervous system and causes this constant urge to move your legs. Mostly at night, sadly, when all you want to do is relax.)
I’ve tried to explain to Todd what it feels like and the best I can come up with is this: imagine high powered fizz from a pop/soda rushing up and down through the veins of your legs.
The only thing that temporarily alleviates the sensation is to move. But, the moment you stop–that fizz starts back up. Slowly at first, and then gradually to a more nuclear fizz the longer you try to keep your legs still.
Pop fizz in the veins for at least four months straight. It drove me completely insane.
I tried all of the Old Wives Tales, from sleeping with six bars of Dove soap under my sheets to eating mustard sandwiches. I even went outside at 2 a.m. and stood, barefoot, on the cool concrete. Nothing helped.
Daytime was characterized by the feeling that my hips were being crushed under the weight of a body forty pounds heavier than normal. A dark line of pigment ran the vertical length of my stomach. It was hard to eat more than two tablespoons of food at a time and not upchuck.
And, I had a severe addiction to orange juice, of all things. At a friend’s birthday party, I parked myself in front of the open bar and ordered no less than twenty glasses in a row. I literally could not stop. The bartender gave me one and I chugged it down in one long gulp, slapped down my glass, and ordered another. It was bizarre.
Eventually, I sensed he was going to cut me off. So, I asked other people nearby to order the juice and pass it my way when he wasn’t looking.
But, for all of this, last year on the 20th of April I felt like the luckiest duck on the planet. Good things were happening. I was six weeks away from becoming a mother, and I’d just begun a fourteen-month paid maternity leave.
Germany really takes care of its mommy’s and daddy’s. It’s amazing, really.
To begin with–you stop working a full six weeks before your estimated due date. From then, until two months after delivery, you earn your full salary. For the remaining ten months of maternity leave, you get 67% of your salary in monthly installments. And, mothers and fathers are equally entitled to this paid leave. (Apparently grandparents are also eligible for maternity leave if the mother is single? I’m not quite sure how this works. But, worth pointing out.)
You can take up to three years off and still be guaranteed your job when you return.
There are a few options as far as that’s concerned. You can take that first year with pay and the next two without. Or, you can spread the 67% of one year’s salary over the first two years (and go without for year number three.)
In addition to all that time, which to me is more valuable than anything, you get what’s known as Kindergeld (or child money) meant to offset the costs of being a parent. If you have one or two children, you’re entitled to 190 Euros per child each month. With three, you collect 196 Euro per child, and if you have more than that it raises to 221 per child.
If you do the math (as I just did in a Google search bar) it works out to a grand total of 41,000 Euros per child by the time they are 18 years old.
That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Now, I’m not the breadwinner of this family by any means. The school I teach at is really small (only 200 kids from pre-K all the way on to the last year of high school.) So, most teachers work part time. I’ve been there in an 80% capacity for the past five years.
I also fall under the highest tax bracket in Germany (Steuerklasse 1) which means that forty percent of my salary goes to taxes.
At the end of the month, what I bring home doesn’t cover much more than a weekly slab of salmon purchased at the little fish market that takes over our parking lot every Tuesday.
The taxes I pay cover everything from retirement, health care, university education, and—the one I knew I’d get the most pleasure out of if we were ever able to have a baby—maternity leave.
After April 19, I spent my days relaxing in cafes or on the couch with my feet up. Most of the time both hands were pressed down on my stomach, feeling various body parts of Laken squirming beneath the skin. The Rat Race (which is actually not so rat-like in Germany) went on around me and all I could think was— “Haha, suckers!”
My doctor prescribed weekly acupuncture appointments, so on Tuesdays I did a waddle over to Sankt Elizabeth and joined a group of other heavily pregnant women sitting in a circle of chairs.
We took our shoes and socks off, and make sure our pants were rolled up to the knees. On the floor was one of the hospital midwives, and she rotated among us, sticking needles in our legs.
It’s fascinating to think about how interconnected the body is. These little jabs to the lower part of my leg were going to potentially ease the pain of labor. How neat is that and who first thought of it? I mean, I know that acupuncture developed in China. But who first stabbed a foot and make the connection that it brought relief during labor? (Stuff to file under ‘Research This.’)
It riled Laken up, that’s for sure. I often had doctor appointments right afterwards, and Dr. H would ask if I’d just had acupuncture because her heart was going like O.J. Simpson’s while he awaited his verdict. (Sorry, I’m watching that miniseries.)
Once I hit the final week leading up to my due date, the midwife went in for the Big Cahuna and gave me a jab to the little toe on my foot (is that also called a pinky? Why am I blanking on the parts of a foot? I’m so sleep deprived, sorry.) Anyway, for some reason that very small toe can trigger labor if acupuncture is done there.
And, trigger labor it did. Less than twelve hours after the jab, my water broke. If anyone reading this is trying to get labor started—stick a little needle in your pinky toe.
After Laken was born, things were plugging along just fine (nasty case of post-partum depression aside) until I got a letter filled with all these new multi-syllable German words I’d never heard of before. But, the first sentence was clear enough.
My request for maternity leave money (known as Elterngeld in German) was denied.
One of the things I find hardest about expat life is when you’re given some information that directly impacts you and is crucial to understand right then, right there—and you can’t. I’m not just talking about language, either, although that was certainly a huge part of it. There’s a whole system in place that I simply don’t have working knowledge of.
Staring at this letter that was obviously telling me I wasn’t going to get my salary, I’d say I had a question or two. Why not? Who could I talk to about it? Why was this happening to me? What do I do now?
Google translate only goes so far; trust me, I tried.
Eventually a German friend came over and attempted to read the letter in English. Even she had trouble with the wordiness, the technical language, and the fact that the letter contradicted itself in a few areas.
She finally went ahead and called L-Bank (the place that takes care of issuing maternity leave) to clarify a few things and this is what she found out–
I wasn’t eligible to receive my Elterngeld because, rather than a German work visa (known as an Aufenthaltstitel) I had a SOFA Stamp issued by the United States.
Now, I used to have a German work visa. But when I married Todd, who teaches for the United States military, I automatically fell under what’s known as SOFA status (or the Status of Forces Agreement.) Having SOFA just means that, as Todd’s wife, I fall under an agreement made between the U.S. military and Germany that allows me to live and work here. The SOFA stamp allows me to stay with my husband. And earn a Euro or two if I desire. That’s it, essentially.
When I got SOFA status, I asked my school if I still needed to renew my German work visa and they said no—the SOFA stamp was sufficient.
At the time, I thought it was such a relief—whew! No more going to the German Landratsamt and applying for a visa renewal and dealing with cranky offhand comments meant to scare me out of the country, like “it will be difficult to get a visa approved right now,” even though it always came through in the end.
As soon as I found out I was denied my money, I went in to a total frenzy and called my school. Because, as an expat whose husband is also American, who else is supposed to be your advocate besides your place of employment?
After seeing a scanned copy of the letter, they understandably told me that the best advice they could give would be to see a lawyer.
For some reason, this sent me in to a tailspin. We were in Bavaria at the time, watching cows decorated in bells and flowers as they were herded down from the hills (as one does in Germany on a Sunday.) I cried and shouted my frustration out loud like a crazy person, while Todd pushed the stroller beside me. He did his typical Todd-thing of being unwaveringly optimistic.
“I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re going to get paid. This is just a misunderstanding.”
But, I know my luck.
And that’s what set me off. It seems–and I know this sounds incredibly dramatic —that everything regarding settling in to expat life has been a battle. Always, always, always. Nothing comes easily. From finding jobs to having a baby to having just one successful visa-related experience—it’s always a weird struggle.
And, just this once, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.
I’d paid full German taxes for five years–more, in fact, than I technically should! As a married woman, I should have fallen into tax bracket 2 and paid a lesser amount each month. But, since Todd works in an entirely different system than the German one, it made sense to file as independent in tax bracket 1. (There was also the fear that, if I filed as married, they would take Todd’s salary in to consideration and try to tax that as well. Apparently, it’s becoming more and more common.)
Six other people from my school were on maternity leave. I was the only one refused pay.
I didn’t want to be worried about finding a lawyer; I didn’t want to pay for one.
All I wanted was to do was enjoy this first year—known as Kennenlernenzeit (getting to know you time) in Germany. I wanted to do what the other moms were doing. Like, chug coffee in the morning to clear away the hallucinations brought on by lack of sleep. Meet up at each other’s houses. Talk about how much we missed alcohol and salami and milk products that made breastfed babies gassy.
But, twelve months later the battle rages on…
TO BE CONTINUED…