“Oma Mieke, Oma Mieke” exclaims my four year old son Julius. “Let’s go to the boerderij (farm) to pick up some eggs and then the bakery to pick up croissants. Then you can make me lunch!”
Julius is on his bike on our driveway, restless and impatient while sixty-two year-old Mieke bundles up his one year-old brother Matteo in his stroller.
She hands Matteo a package of baby cookies which Matteo gobbles up happily.
“Okay, no problem.” responds Mieke. “Rina, we’re headed out. Be back soon!”
Mieke isn’t our children’s biological Oma (grandmother). Rather, she is our version of a Rent-an-Oma – a surrogate grandmother to watch our children for a couple hours during the week. She is my secret to how I get any writing done.
I was actually inspired by this idea when I lived in the sleepy, retirement community of Doorn. Everywhere around us were Dutch people of sixty years and older. They would often stop us – at the local Albert Heijn grocery store or the playground in the woods – to chat and admire the boys.
And of course, there were also lots of grandparents either toting their grandchildren around at the weekly farmer’s market, visiting the local zoo, or simply out on the sidewalks pushing babies in strollers and chasing after toddlers on their walking bicycles.
Often referred to as Omadag (though Dutch grandfathers are just as hands on and involved), many Dutch grandparents dedicate a day or two a week to help care for their grandchildren. It’s the Dutch version of the modern day village, and the Dutch take it to heart. The ideal childcare structure in Holland comprises of the responsibility spread out during the week. For example, when Michele’s children were young, her mother-in-law would take the kids a day a week, her husband Martijn on his alternate Fridays off, and she’d take them for two days and the rest went to créche.
It’s a healthy mix allowing children to develop meaningful relationships with their grandparents but not becoming too much of a burden. Even the Dutch government fully supported the idea of Oma and Opa involvement, And I have the sneaking suspicion it’s one of the reasons why Dutch children are so happy.
As a Dutch-American family, we are not in the privileged position to have grandparents live nearby, or who are not interested in taking care of their grandchildren a once a week. So why not just “Rent-an-Oma”? There seemed to be a lot of older Dutch grandmotherly types who took a lot of joy in being with my children and I obviously needed help.
Apparently, my brilliant the idea of “Rent-an-Oma” was already fashionable two to three years ago – you can either have a Oma nanny or even adopt an Oma. And the Dutch government was behind the idea, even providing a subsidy for Omas and Opas who are registered as guest parents.
I couldn’t, however, just invite any stranger to my house of course – careful screening, a list of requirements of what we wanted, interviews and background checks had to be conducted. When we found Mieke, we wished we had done it sooner. As a former kindergarten teacher and a nanny with over twenty-five years experience, Mieke is the Dutch Mary Poppins of our dreams (yes, she also sings). Her authoritative but kind handling of the children and overall love for toddlers and babies puts our mind at ease.
The idea of Rent-an-Oma is more than just hiring a nanny, a babysitter or even an au pair. It’s about hopefully fostering a lifelong connection with someone who can pass down their own wisdom and culture to the next generation. It’s about sharing with my children stories from the past, of continuing the oral tradition of stories that will enrich my children’s imagination. And it’s about creating our own village, of being honest with ourselves that we cannot continue to parent alone and need the support of kind souls around us.
There’s been a lot of interest in the news lately about how the Dutch and even Americans incorporating their elderly population into modern day society. There is the story about college students living in retirement homes and even a preschool program that’s part of a nursing home.
My own friends who heard about my rent-a-oma experience on Facebook were quite positive. One friend enthusiastically responded, “Holy sh*t. I want a Rent-a-Oma here. In fact, I once made a joke about how may I should have tried to rent a grandparent.”
Let’s consider making Rent-an-Oma a trend around the world.
P.S. Did you know we have a book called The Happiest Kids in the World? If you live in the UK, you can pre-order a copy! (For American and other international readers, please wait till our American publishers gives us more info!) Thank you for the continued love and support.