You’ve probably heard that Dutch kids are the happiest kids in the world. And of course, just like how French women don’t get fat, Dutch women don’t get depressed. As an American mom living in the Netherlands, I can’t help think that Dutch moms have it made.
Obviously as an expat, I’m naturally inclined to learn about Dutch culture by comparing it with my own (American) and can easily find myself falling into the temptation of romanticizing the differences. Motherhood is a challenging, rewarding, exhausting, invigorating, guilt provoking, insecurity unraveling, life affirming paradox for everyone. After all, no one can deny that being a mom is a universal shared experience. We easily lament one moment about severe sleep deprivation and epic toddler tantrums and the next moment eagerly partake in Fakebooking.
Without a doubt Dutch moms and moms raising their little ones in the Netherlands also have their equal share of real-life challenges, faced with making choices, compromises, and sacrifices. There are, however, some institutionalized and cultural differences between the United States and the Netherlands that are worth noting, especially when it comes to parenting. These differences are actually what kept me and my husband from returning back to the City by the Bay (at least, until we’re more financially secure enough to brave the playground of the rich).
Maternal Health Care Choice
Unlike the United States where pregnancy and birth is considered a medical condition, the Dutch consider pregnancy as simply a natural event in every day life that does not need much medical intervention. Pregnant women in the Netherlands actually have a choice whether or not to go to a midwife, or an obstetrician. Let’s also not forget that the American way of birth and maternity care is the costliest in the world.
Urban legend has it that almost all low-risk, healthy pregnant women in the Netherlands go to the local midwife for their entire pregnancy. High-risk women such as those with high-blood pressure, advanced maternal age and/or carrying multiples are relegated to the obstetrician. In reality and from my own experience and that of other mommy friends, whether or not we see an obstetrician, or a midwife is simply based on our personal preferences.
While there is a contentious, heated debate about the relative safety of planned homebirths (and one that I plan to write about another time), what’s important to take home is that the Netherlands has achieved empowering women to make informed decisions about their own care and delivery options. Women in the Netherlands have a choice between an obstetrician and a midwife – a hospital birth, or a birth at home, all covered by universal health insurance and that makes all the difference.
Postpartum Maternity and Newborn Care (Kraamzorg)
While postpartum care in the United States is virtually non-existent, each and every mom is entitled to having maternity care (kraamzorg) for eight to ten days after the birth of their child. The Netherlands is the only country where a professional maternity nurse (kraamzorger) will come to the home and look after the newborn and the mother. Generously covered by universal health insurance, the maternity nurse will show a first time mom and dad how to care for the baby, help resolve any breastfeeding issues, closely monitor the recovery of the mother and the growth progress of the newborn. In addition, the nurse will help with other children, prepare meals, take care of laundry (washing, folding and ironing) and perform light housecleaning. Moms in the Netherlands often refer to their kraamzorger as the fairy tale godmother, a real life Mary Poppins incarnate.
As more and more of my American friends are becoming mothers, I can’t help but wish that they would receive the same maternity care as I had. Postpartum maternal health care is a neglected aspect in the United States and one that deserves serious reconsideration. I have a sneaking suspicion that maternity nurses may also help with deterring postpartum depression by allowing the (new) mom to rest, regain her strength, and bond with the baby as someone else is delegated to run the rest of the household. Perhaps if we Americans stop for a moment and have a national discourse about a woman’s right and need to recuperate after child delivery, there would be a lot more happier and healthier moms.
Institutionalized Recognition that Parenting is Important for Both Men and Women
As the “part-time work champion of Europe“, the Netherlands fosters a culture that embraces work-life balance for all its members. Parenting is considered an essential aspect of life in the Netherlands with Daddy day being a recognized and continues to be a growing institution. The competitive Dutch labor market acknowledges the importance of both mothers and fathers, often allowing comparatively generous part-time work schedules, or working-from-home arrangements. The Dutch believe that offering workers flexible working schedules leads to greater productivity, not less – after all, the Netherlands did rank 5th on the Global Competitiveness Index of 2012-2013.
Interestingly, the Dutch also work fewer hours than any OECD country in the world, working on average only 1,379 hours a year compared with the OECD average of 1,776 hours. That’s a difference of 397 hours, or almost 50 8-hour work days! Can you imagine what you and your family can do with 50 extra days a year to spend together?
While American moms are struggling across the pond with the unrealistic expectation and tremendous pressure of having it all, Dutch moms are content with working part-time and having their men take on equal parenting responsibilities. On the positive note for both Dutch and American moms is that modern fathers are hands on, with fathers happily taking on bathing, dressing, feeding and diaper changing duties.
Family life in the Netherlands is definitely not free from the trials and tribulations of every day life. Sometimes I even question my own sanity as to agreeing in raising our young brood far from a strong, social support network of my relatives in San Francisco while my husband pursues his entrepreneurial dreams. There isn’t a day that passes that I miss my home, but for now, I can’t help but sing praises of my newly adopted country and her kindness and generosity towards her mothers.
Here’s to Finding Dutchland, where ever you may be!
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