Germany's labor minister portait
What irritates conservatives in her conservative party about Ursula von der Leyen is that she possesses what in modern Europe passes for impeccable conservative credentials: She is married, says grace every evening and has seven children.
So when this popular minister complements the father to care for children, or taps her bottom when asked by the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung what body part she looks at first in a man, it is that much harder to attack her. Ms. von der Leyen, 51 is concerned about difficulties in German families and trying to find solutions for them. In a country where statistically women have 1.38 children and only 6 percent of mothers return to full-time work after their second child, Ms. von der Leyen - first family minister and now in charge of labor - says it beggars belief.
"I can't exist in Germany," she said in an interview. When her cellphone rang halfway through, she answered and assured a daughter that she was nearly on her way home. Then she showed off her favorite Christmas present: a photo collage of her four daughters, three sons and husband, plus dog and horse.
It took a traditional yet career-minded mother to start ditching taboos that are as old as Germany itself. "Supermom," "Mother of the Nation" and "Family Revolutionary," newspapers call her.
Some point to her connections - her father had been prime minister of Lower Saxony. Money was never an issue. She always had a cleaning lady, a nanny, though never the "butler" some begrudging party colleagues claimed. Some feminists find her piety annoying. "That woman," they sigh.
But Ms. von der Leyen seems to have the swelling support of middle-class Germans who can no longer afford to have a woman stay home and raise children. Above all, she voices no doubt that Germany would be better off if more women were like her. "I know I am a good mother," she says, smiling.
She was not always so certain. Back when she had three children and was a part-time doctor trying to work around a village kindergarten in northern Germany that closed at 1 p.m., her husband got a scholarship to Stanford University. The family moved to California for four years, carrying emotional baggage.
"We arrived from Germany ridden with guilt," she recalls. "I was worried about being a bad mother. My husband was worried about whether he should work even harder."
The years in California, where she studied health economics and did research at Stanford, were a turning point. "It was the first time that I was not criticized as a mother for wanting to work or as a professional for having children" she said. "On the contrary, the attitude in America was: You have children, that's great. Now get to work because you have to pay for college."
"It was liberating," she said. So liberating that she had another four children and in 2001, went into politics.
A year later, she was family minister of her home state of Lower Saxony, and in 2005 Chancellor Angela Merkel brought her to Berlin. Since then, she has striven to remake her country somewhat in her image. If Germany does not accommodate educated women who want children and a career, those women will quit Germany. "When the signal is: If you have children, you're out, then women who want to work have two options: Either they have no children or they emigrate," she said. She hopes the "female brain drain" is averted. "Things are changing dramatically. When my daughters are grown up, they will say: "Where was the problem?"'