When society leaves new mothers alone and overburdened, Rose Volz-Schmidt helps them cope with the chaotic challenges of motherhood in the first months. She has created a broad network of volunteers and professionals to bridge the gap between families and the welfare system, and in doing so is strengthening young families and changing society's attitude towards motherhood.
The New Idea
Rose understood a crucial problem: The German cultural notion of the happy, self-sufficient mother is often far removed from women’s experience after childbirth. The majority of young, urban mothers are alone and overburdened, especially in the first three to four months, without family nearby, community support, or entitlement to official help (which is granted only to sick or teenage mothers). Rose is changing this scenario on several levels. By franchising her organization, “wellcome,” across Germany, she fills in the gap left by state welfare institutions and strengthens young mothers and families. She equips carefully selected partner organizations within the welfare system with the how-tos to build and coordinate local networks of volunteer caretakers—most are older women with grown children—to help young families during the critical period after childbirth. Rose taps a huge, unused resource with these older mothers, who welcome the opportunity to help their younger counterparts, and are proud to impart their knowledge. She helps the families and significantly lowers the risk of postpartum depression, stress, divorce, and infant health complications. She also improves existing welfare organizations by helping them offer a much-needed service to families in their region. Rose has built extensive networks between the regional wellcome hubs and partnerships with doctors, midwives, and nurses—who are with the mother near the time of childbirth—to spread the word about her service. Rose is ultimately challenging the perception of motherhood in German society, which implicitly assumes mothers are happy after childbirth and society should not hear from them. Rose teaches that childrearing is a collective societal endeavor, and shows how to assume this responsibility in a way that is rewarding for everyone involved.
The birth of a child is often happy and momentous, but also a significant life-changing event. Mothers and fathers are often insecure in their new role and need support. A few decades ago—and in some rural areas today—families had access to a network of support during the early, challenging months after childbirth. Extended families and friends supported young mothers by cooking, babysitting, shopping, and generally helping to relieve them from some of their household burdens while they adjusted to their new responsibilities. The increased mobility of young Germans on all economic levels has fundamentally changed this traditional pattern of support. Urban parents are increasingly isolated from their extended families, who may be scattered across the country, with only a small circle of close friends.
German social mores have not adjusted to this reality. Mothers are not expected to reach out to strangers for support during the early months after childbirth. There is a strong cultural expectation that mothers are aglow with maternal bliss and find fulfilment in their unique bond with their child. But this is often not the experience of many mothers immediately after childbirth. They feel overwhelmed; regardless of class background.
This has resulted in a set of lasting problems for families and society. Up to 40 percent of young mothers today suffer from some level of postpartum depression which is compounded by shame. Mothers are ashamed they are not happy and feel selfish or deficient. The cultural notion of “happy mothers” prevents them from seeking help. Shame and depression also affects their relationships with their children when the mother’s stability and empathy is crucial for healthy child development. It may also affect women’s relationships with their partners, with studies showing that every fifth marriage in Germany fails during the year after childbirth.
The German welfare state offers no support for young mothers during the transition time after birth, unless they suffer from health problems or are teens, and there is no effective distribution of information to put young mothers in contact with the range of existing services for them and their families. After the first three to four months, there are mother-child groups, breast-feeding support groups, and child care organizations. Rose discovered that there is also a vast, untapped resource in older mothers, many whose children have left home. They have more time and are happily willing to put their expertise to good use. So far, this resource sits untapped.
Motherhood and raising children is often perceived as an individual task. Contrary to the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, in modern society, the responsibility to raise children lies exclusively with the parents—and more often with a single parent.
Rose’s first challenge is to reach young mothers that are reluctant to ask for help. In each community she covers through her franchise, wellcome builds a referral network among professionals to help mothers with childbirth and pre-childbirth coaching. These professionals, including doctors, birth clinics, nurses, and midwives, distribute information about Rose’s organization to mothers after childbirth. They let mothers know that many other “normal” parents—not just delinquents (an immediate prejudice of many parents)—have benefited from wellcome’s support, and present this support as a normal part of early motherhood.
When mothers approach the regional coordinator of Rose’s organization, they are assigned a volunteer from their neighborhood to help them cope with the challenges of motherhood. The volunteer’s role depends on the family’s situation. Sometimes she helps supervise the infant or older siblings, does housework, shops, or when asked, works with the mother to solve early parenting problems by sharing her experience. The volunteer puts the mothers in contact with a range of available services in her neighborhood, including local crèches and childcare facilities. Mothers pay a fee for volunteer services, which ranges from €1 to €4 per hour (depending on the family’s income), and helps to cover wellcome’s operating expenses.
wellcome’s volunteers are primarily older women with older children. They are drawn from a large pool of interested mothers who contact wellcome after having read about it in the newspaper, heard about it by word of mouth, or are approached through the local wellcome franchise network. Volunteers work with one family at a time, and offer an average of six hours of support per week. The local wellcome coordinator tries to match volunteers with young parents in the same neighborhood, so that the volunteer has an intimate knowledge of the available local resources.
Rose’s training sessions for volunteers are succinct and she insists on two qualities in her volunteers. First, they must be reliable; young mothers must know they can count on their volunteers at an appointed time. Second, Rose teaches volunteers to enter families as “angels”—present for a short time to do what is needed, as long as needed, and then disappear. She does not want her volunteers to come in as “coaches” or trainers, or as overbearing “grandmothers” or surrogate family members. She understands that young mothers do not need additional complications or to feel inadequate. Most simply need support and encouragement.
Instead of investing a lot of time and money in training her volunteers, Rose has found it more effective to draw a “short line” between volunteers and the local wellcome franchise professional coordinator; this way volunteers can ask for help and support in difficult situations. She also offers volunteer meetings and trainings requested by volunteers. The team coordinators form the heart of each local wellcome chapter. The coordinator is responsible for building the referral network and supervising the volunteers, maintaining a comprehensive database of parenting and child support services in the region, and setting up a referral hotline. Every mother or father who calls and asks for help is referred to the relevant institutions even if what wellcome offers is not applicable to their specific problem.
Rose uses her program as an interface between young parents and the state system to overcome the fragmentation of the support sector. Before providing support services, new coordinators must recruit at least fifteen volunteers and make wellcome known to a required set of important referral network partners. After the program is operating, coordinators organize and facilitate three annual meetings for their volunteers, where they can share experiences and discuss best practices.
Coordinators are employed and paid by Rose’s carefully selected franchisees; typically welfare organizations or social organizations. For example, in areas with large immigrant populations she seeks organizations that work specifically with immigrants and in their language.
There are many advantages to this franchise strategy. For the local franchisees, Rose’s program adds value (a new way to reach their target group and attract Wellcome publicity) to their work and they find it worthwhile to employ and pay a coordinator. Second, existing organizations have local legitimacy and local contacts which allows them to implement Rose’s program quicker and more effectively, to reach more families. Third, it is a cost-efficient way to expand.
Partner organizations must agree to Rose’s franchise standards and rules. For instance, they must raise between €7,500-10,000 to set up a Wellcome hub under the direction of a trained welcome coordinator. This includes the Wellcome training and most of the personal costs for a working period of one year. They must also agree to strict evaluation rules and quality control. Additionally, the franchisees can incorporate the Wellcome program onto their homepage and receive media attention. Rose provides continual training and support to set up and manage the program.
Since Wellcome can train only a limited number of new coordinators per year, Rose is creating an intermediate level of trainers nationwide for Wellcome to delegate much of the coordinator training. These trainers will enable Wellcome to quickly process more new applications, and expand faster throughout the country. At present, Wellcome has trained seventy coordinators in twelve of the German states, and there exist correspondingly seventy local franchisees with 700 volunteers—reaching 1,000 families a year.
In 2006 an academic study was conducted to assess the effects of her work. It examined twenty-five mothers who received support from Wellcome alongside a control group that received no support. The difference was substantial: In Rose’s group, women’s self-reported well-being was higher, and rates of postpartum depression were lower.
December 2007 marked a key turning point for Wellcome. In one week in Germany, five infants had been killed or died of neglect, and there was public uproar about parental abuse and neglect. In response, Chancellor Merkel issued a public endorsement of Rose and wellcome’s work, which Merkel presented as a way to detect early parental problems and help young parents avoid violence and neglect. After this endorsement, Rose seized the initiative and approached regional health ministries throughout the country for funding. Many of these ministries had previously given her informal encouragement, but now began giving money. This money is enabling her to fund the trainers who will greatly expand wellcome’s capacity. Her current operating budget is €300,000 per year, but she would like to grow to €500,000 within the next year.
In future, Rose will use the networks she has built to deliver more services to young parents. She is now running a pilot project in Hamburg that targets “problem families”—identified by doctors or the social welfare system—and approaches them in a positive way. Her referral system gives vouchers for a “birthday fairy”—families can call and “order” a fairy (a social worker trained in early child development) who visits the family on the child’s first birthday. The volunteer arrives with a gift for both the mother and child, and begins to build trust. The “fairy” offers to help the mother with any child-rearing problems she has and quickly takes stock of the domestic situation to determine if serious domestic problems need to be addressed. The program is designed to target “at-risk” children—early intervention being very consequential.
Rose would like to offer more extensive childcare by linking parents who can occasionally attend to each other's children. When Rose has expanded wellcome’s support network throughout the country, she will begin to deepen their range its services.
Rose was born to a large family in a village of 600 people in the Black Forest. Her family had lived in the village since 1650, but neither she nor any of her five siblings stayed to make a life there. All moved to cities in different parts of the country, and left the supportive umbrella of the family and the village neighbourhood behind.
When Rose’s first daughter was born, her husband was busy at work, and her family was 600 kilometres away. Rose felt alone and afraid. Though she had eagerly anticipated her daughter’s birth and was a professional social worker specializing in child care, she found the early months of motherhood more difficult than she expected. There had been plenty of support before and during childbirth, but now there was none.
Rose has worked in family education for many years, and has started all sorts of innovative new approaches. She founded a support group for fathers—the first of its kind in Germany—to help educate them about how to contribute to early child-rearing. Eventually, she felt the program should be managed by a man, and found a male successor. She also founded a day care network to bring parents together to coordinate a system of mutual caretaking: Parents supervised each others’ children for certain amounts of time and helped overburdened mothers. Having been through early motherhood, she knew there was a huge gap in the welfare system that leaves mothers and families alone during the critical time after childbirth. Rose founded wellcome in 2002. Wellcome won a social venture competition, which earned consulting support from McKinsey. She describes this as a crucial period, when she began to think more ambitiously about systems change.