The state of American child care is pretty abysmal. Day care is not well-regulated, the quality is often poor, and it’s expensive: In 35 states and Washington, D.C., it costs more than a year’s in-state college tuition. We are the only wealthy nation that does not guarantee paid vacation or sick days, so when a snow day or a fever keeps a child out of school, it can mean a career setback for many parents. And for working parents with low-wage jobs, things are even worse.
We point to other countries—often ones in Europe—as models of how to do child care right. But is it really so much easier to be a working parent in Paris than it is in Peoria? We asked working moms and dads from all over the world to tell us their child care experiences. Here is the fifth in our occasional series, from a mother in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Name: Maartje van 't Riet
Occupation: HR manager
Partner’s occupation: Assistant professor
Children: A daughter, almost 3, and an 8-month-old son.
Hi, Maartje. What are your work hours?
Both my husband and I have a day off a week. On paper, we each work 32 hours a week. Full-time contracts are 40 hours a week. We both have flexible working hours, which means we can both work from home, and we can also work during evenings and weekends if it means we start our working day later or end it earlier.
Who takes care of your children while you work?
Our children attend a kindergarten three days a week. It is privately run, and operating hours are 7.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. We receive a monthly refund from the Dutch IRS (Belastingdienst), which depends on our household income and is based on a (assumed) maximum hourly rate and a maximum number of days of kindergarten per month. The number of days is dependent on our monthly working hours. All child care facilities are supposed to be registered with the government, in order for parents to be eligible for the refund.
How much does it cost?
For three days a week, the rate is 1,000 euros ($1,311) per child. A five-day contract costs 1,660 euros ($2,178) per month. But we get a portion of that refunded. How much you get refunded depends on your salary and how many children you have. (Editor’s note: For example, if you earn less than 17,230 euros, or $22,298, a year, you get a 90.7 percent refund on child care for the first child and a 93.3 percent refund for subsequent children. Someone with the median U.S. household income of $51,900 would get a 74 percent refund for their first child, and an 89.5 percent refund for subsequent children.)
If you have one child and make more than 118,189 euros ($152,960) per year (both parents' incomes combined), the refund is zero. This part of the policy is recent; until 2012 the refund for higher-earning parents used to be higher.
What happens when one of your children is sick?
You're not allowed to bring in a child who's running a fever. He or she is supposed to stay at home. You're not allowed to bring in a child who's been given aspirin.
Do you live near family that can help you take care of your children?
The Netherlands is a very small country, and all cities are quite close together. However, traffic can be very bad. My parents are two hours away, and my in-laws are about an hour from us, but travel times can be much longer during rush hour. Still, without their help, we would be nowhere. And they used to help even more. When our daughter was born three years ago, we asked both my mother and mother-in-law to help us out by caring for our daughter a day a week (alternating weeks). Back then, I worked full time and was at my job five days a week, but when our son was born, we decided it was best for me to cut back a few hours, because our parents are not living nearby and the care for two small children might just be a bit too much for them.
Many families regularly have family members like grandparents coming in to care for small children. Especially with the costs of day care rising (because of the lowering of the IRS refund over the past two years), the number of hours that children in the Netherlands were enrolled in day care dropped substantially, and it is thought that care from a family member has largely made up for this. As my parents and in-laws always tell me, when they take our children out to the playground on weekdays, they meet up with lots of other grandparents “on duty.”
Are nannies common in the Netherlands?
There are several types of “nannies” in the Netherlands. Some families hire a gastouder (literally “guest parent”), who will either care for the children in the family home or have several children from different families coming to her house. A guest parent has to be affiliated with a certified agency. Those guest parents (and the agencies) are treated a bit like day care centers, meaning that they have to be certified and will be monitored by some government agency. All guest parents operate on a very small scale, they are caring for a small number of children (depending on the age group, but up to a maximum of five children).
Hiring a guest parent can be expensive compared to bringing your child to a day care center. For larger families, however, the cost per child is lower, plus the benefits of a guest parent (when she is caring for the children in the family home) can be substantially larger. The government refund is lower when you hire a guest parent than when your children attend a day care, and a family pays the guest parent's wage, plus a fee for a guest parent agency. I'm not sure how many families hire a guest parent, but in terms of numbers, I think child care centers really provide care for most children under 4.
When children are attending primary school, some families hire a baby-sitter or nanny for the hours after school. This is not regarded as hiring a guest parent (unless you hire someone through an agency, in which case all of the above applies). Otherwise, school-going children attend a BSO (Buitenschoolse Opvang, or “out-of-school child care center”—like a day care center for children after school), which is a form of child care that you can get a refund for.
Are mothers expected to be the “default parent,” which is to say, the person who misses work when the kid is sick, or who deals with school events and other organizational tasks?
Not really. Most employers are lenient toward fathers, especially for parents our age (30-35 years old). A few decades ago, it was certainly different: Parenting was much more perceived to be a woman's task and employers generally did not expect male employees to take time off. Around us, we see lots of “older” dads working full-time jobs, while their spouses have small jobs at best, but most of the younger parents have a 50/50 share in parenting. Our kindergarten is filled with as many dads as mums at pick-up time.
How long was your maternity leave? And did your partner get paternity leave?
Dutch mums get 16 weeks paid leave, from 36 weeks pregnancy. You go on leave when you're 36 weeks pregnant. Though you can go on leave at 34 weeks, you are not permitted to work after 36 weeks or for six weeks after the baby is born. After the baby is born, your leave is 12 weeks. (The payment is 100 percent of earnings up to a ceiling of 194.85 euros ($252.11) a day.) Dads get two fully paid days off.
Both parents can take unpaid parental leave for up to 26 weeks in total, and you can take the leave anytime you want (all at once, or only a few hours per week). There are some caveats; for instance, you have to have a permanent contract with the same employer for at least a year. Though it is unpaid leave, some employers have excellent conditions that will pay for up to 60 percent of the hours you are on leave. Many fathers can work less when they have children because of this.
What is your employer's attitude toward family responsibility?
In general, attitudes are very modern. It is, however, very dependent on the type of employer. My husband works in academia, which is (like government or public institutions) very well-equipped in dealing with work-life balance and family issues. In the private sector, corporate culture can be old-fashioned and sexist—it depends on the company. For me, I'm working at a consulting firm that has a strong masculine culture, but at the same time there are lots of young colleagues who share my values, plus there are many benefits available, such as setting your own agenda while working on projects.
What about the cultural attitude toward family responsibility?
The only thing that always strikes me about the perception of parenting choices is that a pregnant woman gets the same question over and over again: “Will you be cutting back your hours, taking a day off?” (Sometimes even, “Will you stop working when the baby is born?”) Whereas dads-to-be are seen in a slightly different fashion. People simply ask them: “Will you be working full time?” If he says no, they say, “Oh, because you're very modern, off course.” When I was pregnant with our daughter three years ago and planning to work full time, someone asked if I would be working four days a week. When I said no, he was surprised and said, “Oh, Really? Three days, then?”