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 seventh in our occasional series, from a father near Mechelen, Belgium, which is about 30 minutes from both Antwerp and Brussels.
Name: Peter Mertens*
Occupation: business IT developer
Partner's occupation: engineering
Children: Three kids, ages 2, 9, and 10.
Hi, Peter. What are your work hours?
My work week is usually 39 hours, but currently I'm taking parental leave, so I work four days a week (32 hours). My working hours are flexible: I can start anywhere from 7 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. and can finish work anywhere between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. On Fridays we can stop work at 3 p.m. My partner works at the same multinational and has the same working hours. We are allowed to work from home two days a week, but I currently only do that once a week since I'm already on a part-time schedule and contact with the office remains important and beneficial.
Who takes care of your children while you work?
In Belgium, there are privately run day care centers, subsidized ones, and day cares entirely run by the government. Child care is something you can start arranging as soon as you find out you’re expecting a child.
We started ASAP when my partner found out she was pregnant, just to make sure things were arranged in time. You register at the local town hall, and they will look for a spot in the different public organizations and let you know what’s available. You are also free to visit privately run day cares and make your own arrangements. In big cities, waiting lists exist, but where we live it's all pretty relaxed, especially if you start looking in time.
It might not be your preferred spot, but most of the time a solution is found. Still, day care remains on the political agenda, but that's more focused on getting single parents (mostly women) back in the labor market. Right now it’s cheaper for them to stay at home on an unemployment benefit instead of paying for day care.
When we applied, we got two offers from the town hall, both where minders take care of children in their own house. These setups allow one person to accommodate a maximum of seven children. The providers get inspections, advice, and a certificate, which is checked annually. These routine checks for health and safety come from a governmental organization called Kind & Gezin (Child & Family).
We ultimately chose a privately run day care center. It is 3 miles from our home, and it’s on the way to work—which is a 50-mile drive. They also offer other flexibilities.
Our day care hasn't closed once—the owner hasn't had more than one day off due to sickness in more than four years. She's already teaching them stuff they normally only pick up in preschool (putting a jacket on by laying it reversed in front of you and using the sleeves to flip it, that kind of stuff).
Nearly all children attend preschool as soon as they are 2½ years old (though the numbers may vary a bit for certain minorities). School is free, so financially it doesn't make much sense to keep them in a day care for much longer.
For older children, in our community we also have an excellent care center that’s run by the town. It allows you to drop off kids as early as 7 a.m. and pick them back up at 6:30 p.m. at the latest. They walk the kids to and from school. We drop the oldest two children at 8 a.m. and pick them up at 5 p.m. School starts at 8:45 a.m. and runs until 3:45 p.m. Wednesdays afternoons there is no school. Hence most employees who work four days take Wednesday off, me included.
How much does day care cost?
Privately run day cares charge between 24-27 euros a day ($30-$34). There is no reimbursement directly, but you can tick a box on your income tax papersstating that you don’t use the subsidized child care facilities. Then you get a tax cut of around 200 euros per year.
The subsidized day care centers come in two forms. The semiprivate ones charge between 1.50 euros and 27.70 euros a day ($2 to $35), depending on the amount of subsidies they get. The day cares or home cares that are fully public are charged on a sliding scale based on income, with a maximum of 15 euros/day (about $19). When both parents are working full time, you almost always pay the entire 15 euros. We ended up choosing a private day care because it offered us more flexibility and it was ultimately cheaper—even though on paper, we were paying more—because of that flexibility.
It’s complicated, so let’s take a real-world example of how this plays out.
My colleague sends his son to a subsidized day care and pays 24 euros (about $30). Of this, he gets a tax cut resulting in a net price of 15 euros ($19). His son goes to day care four days a week—his grandmother takes him the other day. Both parents have 26 days of holidays. If they spend three weeks of those together as a family holiday (15 days), they both still have 11 days off.
If they spread these vacation days out so only one parent is at home, they can theoretically avoid the daily cost of day care for a total of 37 days, which you'd think would be a net yearly savings of 555 euros ($703). But their day care only "allows" their son not to be present for a maximum of 20 days, so the center is guaranteed a more stable income stream. And because many day care centers are closed the last two weeks of July and the first week of August, this forces them to plan their vacations to sync up with the center to avoid the extra cost.
Our day care center only closes for 1½ weeks in the summer, and we are allowed to take as many days off as we’d like without having to start paying for those days. It allows us to more freely choose our holidays. Couples who don't have full freedom of choice concerning their holidays may end up paying 255 euros (about $323) for nonattendance. If the grandparents offer to take our daughter to go to the beach, that doesn't cost us anything—it only saves us money.
Are nannies common?
Nannies are fairly uncommon. Only rich Eurocrats or top managers seem to employ them.
What happens when a child is sick?
Our day care is pretty flexible in that and will even administer prescription drugs, if the dosage and all is clearly instructed by us. Most subsidized day care centers will simply refuse a child coming in with anything more than a common cold.
Do you live near family that can help you take care of your children?
No. The grandparents live too far away to help out on a daily basis, but planned days are possible. Grandparents were still a means of providing care a generation ago, but these days most grandparents are still at work themselves.
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?
Largely yes, but the culture is changing. Still, I was only the second dad at work to apply for parental leave. Even though I work for a multinational from one of the Nordic countries, their culture regarding dads participating hasn't yet fully trickled down to Belgium.
In our household, tasks are split evenly. Since currently I'm the one working four days a week, it seems only natural I do most of the driving to extracurriculars, washing, ironing, and small household tasks. When my partner worked four days a week, she took care of these things more than I did. All other tasks are split evenly, and we're both happy with this arrangement.
In case of serious illnesses, we take turns in staying at home or call grandparents. It all depends a bit on who has the most practical schedule that week. But we notice many colleagues (mostly 45-plus) still find it a bit odd, and many dads still defend themselves with the classic “my job doesn't allow me to work anything less then full-time.” But the tide is changing, and more and more thirtysomething fathers are seriously considering taking up paternity leave or effectively doing so.
Schools don’t really demand parent participation during normal school hours. Any help is fully optional, and often grandparents are called upon as volunteers for reading classes or handiwork (sewing) for a maximum of two hours a week. There is little pressure or obligation, even for the grandparents, who, again, often still work too.
What was your paternity leave like?
Dads get 10 days off, starting at the actual day the baby is born. They get paid according to the same rules as moms (82 percent of their salary up to a cap). Twelve years ago, dads only had three days. Now, you have four months to take up all these 10 days. The first three are paid by your employer (by law), and the other seven are paid by our excellent and elaborate social security system.
What was your partner’s maternity leave like?
Maternity leave here is 15 weeks, of which you have to take at least one week before the calculated birth date. You can, however, stop working a maximum of seven weeks prior to the calculated date and have eight weeks left after giving birth.
If you only take one week off before the calculated date and you give an early birth on the second day, you effectively lose the remaining six days of that week and will have 14 weeks left. These 15 weeks are fully paid, with a maximum of 82 percent of your salary up to a cap. This boils down to roughly a 1,300 euro-net salary a month for anyone working full-time ($1,642), except for those in the lowest-paid jobs.
And then you get parental leave?
After those first 15 weeks for mothers, either parent has the option to take parental leave. Both parents have a right to take three months completely off, work half-time for six months, or work four days a week for 15 months. You get this for every child and can take this up to anytime before the 12th birthday of the child for whom you invoke this right.
There are some caveats. For instance, you have to have a permanent contract with the same employer for at least a year, and your employer may ask to postpone your request for a maximum of six months. Employers cannot refuse the request though.
The half-time periods can be taken up in three blocks of two months each. The four days a week system consists of three blocks of five months. Social security pays for this: roughly 108 euros/month in a four day a week system, 600 euros/month for a half-time interruption, and about 1,200 euros/month for a full time parental leave.
What is your employer's attitude toward family responsibility?
Our employer is respectful and accommodating. Sometimes heads of departments have their own little mindset, but the law is clear and strict, and there isn't much room for such an attitude. So taking parental leave may be frowned upon sometimes, but it is not really getting in the way of career opportunities, apart from the usual men-women career discrimination, but that's a whole other subject.
*Name has been changed.