Maternity leave is here! At nearly 36 weeks pregnant, in the middle of a baking hot summer, the timing couldn’t be better. But, as I look at the short time off typically taken in the Netherlands, I wonder – why is parental leave so different between countries? And how can we make sure we’re living in Sweden next time?! …
Image: Flickr / Antja Schultner
If you’re having a baby in the Netherlands, you legally have to stop working 4-6 weeks before your due date. When I first learnt about this I thought it was madness. I’ve always had the UK approach in mind (although I’ve never had a baby there): you work until you’re almost ready to pop, then enjoy a big old maternity leave after.
Now I’m on maternity leave day one, I think I’ve changed my mind. It’s one of the best summers in years, which means most of the time I feel like a human oven. I’ve been padding around the office with no shoes on. That’s not nice for anyone. And, trying to reach my keyboard was getting harder and harder over the top of the basketball bump strapped to my belly. The idea of spending four weeks relaxing, finishing the nursery and getting mentally ready for our baby to arrive (if you can ever be mentally ready) is amazing. These Dutch are onto something.
The downside: you only get 16 weeks paid leave, which includes the 4-6 weeks pre-baby. When I first had discussions about when I’d be back in work, we did the calculations and my return date was November 24. Our little girl would be less than 3 months old. Most people – like me – choose to bump this up a bit with holiday days and unpaid leave. If you’ve been working for more than a year, you get 26 weeks to be used before the child is 8. But, it’s definitely normal to return to work well before your baby’s one year – or, for that matter 6 month – birthday. This also explains why there’s so many (expensive) daycare centres in the Netherlands and why they routinely take babies from a couple of months old.
Why are there such massive differences in parental leave arrangements between countries? I use parental deliberately, because the provisions for Dads also vary hugely. The Netherlands allows 2 days. 2 DAYS!!! Just think of all the bonding a new Dad can do in that time. Did I mention one of those days is mainly admin – registering the child etc.? Sheesh poor Charlie. He’s obviously going to use some holiday to extend this. There’s not a chance I’m letting him leave me after 2 days.
In my childbirth preparation group, as we’re all from different countries, we talk a lot about what’s normal in our home nations. One of the girls is Swedish. In Sweden – as in all the Scandinavian countries, I believe – parents get c. 18 months paid leave. What’s more, they can decide how to split this between Mum and Dad. It would be completely normal for the Father to decide to take 6 months off.
My first conclusion would be each country’s length of leave offered, and how they divide it between parents, tells you how the country feels about the importance of raising your child yourself and the role of the Dad. But this doesn’t fit with my impression of the Netherlands:- an extremely family orientated country, where the women often wear the trousers. When I think that most of my UK friends take 9-12 months off, this doesn’t make immediate sense either. The work-life balance is so much better in the Netherlands. I’d have thought the Brits would be rushing back to work and the Dutch would be taking the time at home with the new family. Expat life is a constant learning curve.
I don’t have the answers to my question. But how can any first-time parents anywhere know what will be right for them anyway? I know people who’ve loved every second of their maternity leave year. And I know people who’ve been dying to get back to work to engage their brain in some adult talk. But, I guess at least if you have the option for either you can do what suits you. Better start learning Swedish now, in case we ever have a baby number two …
What’s normal parental leave where you are? If you were making the rules, what do you think you’d offer? Any Swedes out there who’d like to boast about how amazing their country is?