A few words on Dutch moms

A few words on Dutch moms November 11, 2015

who have been proclaimed, according to the Washington Post, the “world’s most relaxed moms,” at least by means of a rhetorical question in the article headline which precedes a piece, published last week, by an American expat, describing her experience.

Living in one of the most densely populated countries in Europe it’s pretty hard to ignore your neighbors, not to mention the famed Dutch aversion to curtains. Despite the lack of privacy there is very little sense of keeping up with the Joneses — or the de Vrieses, as the case may be. As a result, parents aren’t pulled into a vortex where each birthday party needs to be bigger and better than the last, or where clothes will determine social standing at school. Kids’ parties are simple and, most importantly, gezellig (cozy). They are usually celebrated at home with a small circle of friends and spending around 10 euros ($11) on a gift is perfectly acceptable. Since moving here I’ve only once had my daughter come home from school and ask for a particular brand of sneakers, and I suspect it was only because they were (hideously) rhinestone-encrusted. . . .

 In a culture where people aren’t encouraged to stand out or be different, pressure on children to be exceptional is also reduced. Homework is unusual in Dutch primary schools and students have one afternoon a week off school, which means kids have lots of time and space to be … kids.  Dutch children are given lots of autonomy and the freedom to explore, while parents aren’t burdened with the expectation that their child has to be the best in order to succeed.

If that isn’t enough, the Dutch have figured out another huge part of being able to keep your sanity as a mom: Part-time work. More than 70 percent of Dutch women work part-time, and are happy to do so. Part-time work may well be the not-so-secret ingredient to staying calm and relaxed as a mom. It gives Dutch women the freedom to stay engaged in the workplace, earn money and nurture a professional identity while still having time to meet a friend for coffee. By removing the worry of losing your identity to motherhood, or the stress of not being able to remember the last time you were home before 10 p.m., working part-time makes it that much easier to enjoy the time you have with your kids.

It should go without saying that I think part-time work is great, but with due recognition for the fact that you simply cannot get as much done working part-time, and cannot, in the same number of calendar years, learn as much and gain as much experience as your full-time colleagues.  Besides which, my experience with Dutch part-time colleagues has not been a positive one as, when we rushed to meet a client deadline, they went home every day when their work hours ended and delayed results (though, of course, that’s one case, and hardly proof of anything).

It’s also the case that it’s not just Dutch mothers of young children, or mothers generally, who are working part-time, according to this (admittedly old) Slate report; even women without any children at all prefer part-time work, as a cultural preference, in the same way as, a generation or two ago, it was perfectly acceptable and even considered appropriate for any middle-class married women, whether she had old, or young, or no children, to be a homemaker.

And as a consequence, significantly fewer women than men work their way up to managerial-level jobs.  (I’m speaking specifically of “managers” rather than “executives” to avoid the question of quotas.)  According to the Dutch government’s statistical agency, considering employees with children under the age of 12, 12.5% of men and 4.5% of women were classified as “managers” (for those with older or no children, the rates were 9.5% and 3.8%).   For the employees with young children, the difference is almost entirely due to the part-time work preference of women, since, among full-time workers, there are nearly as many managers among women as men (13.1% vs. 13.8%).

Which all gets me thinking about Ann-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business, which I wrote about not long ago.  She takes it for granted that the objective is to get as many women as possible working, and working full-time, and with the drive and ambition to reach the pinnacle of their professions, and further considers it as a given that men and women have equal aptitude in the child-care arena, so that, to the extent that there is to be any stepping-back from a career during a child’s youngest years (and I haven’t even addressed that report from Quebec that full-time daycare isn’t so great for kids), it should be done by men and women equally, taking turns, or with, on average, equal numbers of men and women making this choice.

But what if the experience of the Netherlands (where employers are required to accommodate requests for part-time work at proportional pay) shows us that the large majority of moms/women don’t want to Lean In and push themselves to achieve career success as defined by a succession of promotions, because they’re happy without it?

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