During my nearly four years as a mother in the Netherlands, it has been a fascinating ride observing the different cultural norms and behaviours associated with motherhood in the Lowlands. Barely out of the “new-mother” gates it became clear to me that Dutch mothers were different – in many ways – to the North American archetype I was used to. On first glance they appeared to be much more relaxed with their pregnancies, births, and subsequent happy babies. Was this really the case?
In the first year as I struggled with difficult decisions regarding breast-feeding (to stop or not?), daycare (am I a bad mother?) and returning to work (how can I abandon my baby?), I often noticed one striking difference between myself and the other Dutch mothers around me: guilt. Or rather, a lack of it.
Back to work
Most working mothers in the Netherlands put their children in creche at the age of 3 months. This is the standard, as Dutch maternity leave extends to 3 months after birth. Of course, some working mothers tack on an additional holiday or leave, but it is rare to see many taking a leave of longer than 4-5 months.
For both children, I opted for 7.5 months. I felt this was an acceptable compromise: somewhere between the generous Canadian one-year leave, and the Dutch 3-months. The reactions to this decision, on both sides of the Atlantic, could not have been more different. My Canadian friends and relatives all felt deeply sorry for me: “Only 7.5 months? How are you going to manage? What kind of country do you live in?”. The Dutch reactions, however, were on the complete opposite side of the spectrum and ranged from surprise to incredulousness: “How will you manage this? How can you afford that? Why would you want to??”
Of all comments, the latter caught me most by surprise. The truth was, it was never said in a heartless way. These were loving, caring working mothers, who truthfully wanted to know -and understand- my reasoning for taking a longer leave. For the most part, they knew the Dutch 3-month zwangerschapsverlof as standard practice, a given, and did not question its right or wrongfulness. Never in these discussions did I ever hear an ounce a guilt surrounding the topic of returning to work. Of course many wished it was different and that they could spend more time with their babies, but a few also outright stated, without shame, that they were happy to have routine, structure and fulfilment back in their lives. Both camps simply accepted the reality and got on with their lives.
Breast or bottle
The attitudes I encountered towards breast-feeding were similar. My Dutch midwives, friends and colleagues all shared a common belief: breastfeeding was, of course, beneficial for the baby but simply not meant for everyone. Again, this was a rather freeing thought. It removed all notions of guilt and self-blame from the equation. Formula was not seen as an evil substitute, but rather a practical and necessary solution. I was told, time and again, by my Dutch kraamzorg, doctor and midwife that it was “just as good” as breast-milk (a claim which I do not fully agree with) and that the decision to breastfeed or not, should weigh all factors such as the mother’s health, mental state, family life, working life, sleeping situation, husband’s support, and so on.
As I struggled with breastfeeding, sleeplessness and exhaustion, my Dutch midwife sat me down and matter-of-factly said “Colleen, it’s just like on the airplane. You must put on your air-mask before the baby’s. A healthy, happy mother is much more important than which milk your baby drinks”.
This would be the first, of many times, I would hear the “oxygen-mask-first” adage in relation to motherhood. A simple, yet effective comparison, rooted in traditional Dutch pragmatism. As I left the hospital with my second child, my Dutch maternity nurse repeated the phrase, this time with an added caveat: “Take care of yourself first – and feel no guilt in the process”.
The bottom line is, Dutch mothers simply don’t feel as guilty as North Americans – and that’s a good thing. This healthy attitude allows them to achieve a much more balanced approach to motherhood and its demands. In the Maclean’s magazine article “How Dutch women got to be the happiest in the world”, the author argues:
“Dutch women have smashed the vicious circle of guilt that traps other Western women, to embrace a progressive form of work-life balance.”
Has all this happiness rubbed off on me? I’d like to think so. I work four days a week, and have managed to banish all guilt surrounding this decision. I love my children, I love what I do, and I’ve learnt from the other Dutch moms around me that there is no “one-size-fits-all” to motherhood. Dutch women rarely compare themselves to each other. You hear neither self-praise or self-doubt in relation to their personal parenting decisions. They are in fact that, personal – and rightfully respected as such.
Great post Colleen. It resonated with me big time. Guilt is the pits.
Nice Colleen!! We love feeling guilty in America…! Otherwise you’re not a good mother! Haha! Love you!!
Loved this post. Weirdly enough, as a Dutch mom in the U.S., I’m experiencing this phenomenon in reverse. I went into motherhood with my Dutch mindset, but the constant questioning of that method often did make me feel guilt. And also a little rebellious. At some point, when my son was still a baby, I would always be asked the same question if I was out and about without him. (which we all know is only on the eleventieth of never, practically)
First thing people would say was ‘where’s the baby?!’ (On a datenight…in a bar!)
My standard answer to that became ‘oh I left him in the car, but don’t worry, I cracked a window’.
Haha the didn’t take you seriously did they?
Wow – surprised to read that maternity leave is still only 3 months in NL… But, glad you’re enjoying your time in there!
I can agree about most of it. At the same time: Most of Dutch women are working parttime, wich is not as acceptable in other countries.
I don’t agree about the fact wonen don’t judge each other over here. When I decided to work 4 days a week, and bring my kids to daycare (bso), a lot of women judged me for it, thinking it was pityfull for the children to go to daycare so much. Maybe it depends if you are living in a city or village.
I lived in the Netherlands for over 17 years and returned back to Germany 4 years ago. Here maternity leave is 3 years – and mums can return to the same jobs… resulting in the fact that it is hard to find a long term working relationship since most of them are fill in jobs. Personally I find the Dutch way much more fair, to everybody …
The Dutch have always struck me as pragmatic.
Great post, fun and thought provoking. With our 3 kids, my wife and I often stuggle with work / life balance, particularly with the youngest.
I believe the difference is that women from other cultures…US…Australian etc like to discuss and express their concerns and difficulties whereas Dutch mothers quite often keep tight lipped preferring to be seen as strong and coping and rarely discuss problems they are having.
Well written. I am a Dutch woman who jad her first 2 daughters in the Netherlands and my youngest is Sweden where I live since 2008. Here in Scandinavia they are even more relaxed I think. There is not pressure to go back to work so soon. Also the employers fully understand that if your child is sick that you as a mother stay home a few days. There is even a ‘social insurance bank’ for that which pay those ‘lost’ days to the mother. In Holland we had to take a holiday when the child is sick….or have grandmothers to jump in….or simply lie that we are sick ourselves to prevent spending all our holidays. Also the maternity leave should be a bit longer. Like 6 months. That would be much better. Personaly I find a year a bit long to stay away from work.
I think that one of the biggest difference in motherhood with the Dutch is that they go bak to work..yes..but 2or3 days a week!! 16 or 20 hours.. So of course there is balance and not guilt..while other mothers like me have to come back to work full time
I wonder if the child care is higher quality there vrs here in the US? Is being a childcare worker a highly desired occupation?
In the US, I’m sad to say, it’s considered a lowly profession and is paid as such. Therefore, the best workers look for better paying jobs with benefits leaving the less desirable workers to care for children…not always but usually. Typically, when a highly qualified person chooses child care they quickly lose moral when they are over worked and extremely underpaid. The inability to find desirable and trustworthy childcare providers makes the guilt of returning to work quite legitimate.
To answer your questions, yes I think it is in general. Off course there are exceptions but the quality of our daycares is very high. It isn’t thought of as a lowly job but it isn’t really well paid either. There is quite a selection requirement for the job with educational and personal demands (specific college degrees and no priors). But also in these daycares you do find the relaxed Dutch atmosphere where getting dirty during play time isn’t a problem. I do think they are underpaid but, as usual over here, they can easily get by with just that one occupation. We rarely have people work 2 or even 3 jobs full time over here. Because we try to index the minimum wage each year to balance out the inflation. I’m most definitely not saying our system isn’t flawed but I do like it that most people I know (in fact I think just about all of my friends and family) can get by with 1 job per person with a usually max work week of 40 hours.
I think that the Dutch parents treat their children like small adults and not like princes and princesses, thereby feeling guilty if they could not spend enough money or time with them, I think it is good for the parents to do things without their kids some of the time, kids are people and not ” gods ” that need to be adored
Hear hear! Unfortunately the prince(ss) mentality is creeping in over here as well.