As someone who was born and raised in the US, the idea of working full-time and being a mother in America — a country that ranks last in "family friendliness" — always terrified me.
So when Bram (my Dutch husband) suggested that we move to Doorn, a tiny village located in central Netherlands, to start a family, I thought, Why not?
I was a bit apprehensive at first, but as soon as we had our first son, I was surprised by the richness of Dutch family life. For years, the Netherlands has been consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to live.
As part-time champions of Europe, the Dutch work an average of 29 hours per week — the lowest of any industrialized nation, according to the OECD. (The average American, by comparison, works roughly 43 hours per week.)
Dutch kids are known as the happiest in the world, according to UNICEF, Britain's Child Poverty Action Group and the World Economic Forum. Part of the reason why is because shorter workweeks, especially for fathers, means more time at home and higher involvement in sharing parenting duties.
The role of fathers in the development and well-being of children has been increasingly recognized by researchers. HBSC studies have suggested that Dutch children's relationships with their fathers have improved significantly in step with the increased time they spend together.
Dutch fathers believe in taking a more equal role in child-rearing and household chores. You're just as likely to see a dad pushing a stroller or wearing a baby-carrier as you would with a mom. When a child has a fever, for example, parents will take turns staying at home with the child, with most employers showing understanding and leniency.
Years ago, when the full-time workweek was reduced to 36 hours in the Netherlands to combat unemployment, the government compensated those who had been working a 40-hour, 9-to-5 workweek by giving them extra vacation of half a day a week — or one day a fortnight.
This time off is frequently used by fathers as their "papadag," which literally translates to "daddy day." Today, as more and more Dutch fathers see the benefits of spending time with their kids, taking a papadag has become the norm.
(Pictured above: The author and her family)
"Taking a papadag is pretty common, especially within the public and government sectors here," my friend Mathijs explained when I first moved to the Netherlands. "Choosing to do a four-day workweek was an easy decision. I appreciate the extra time I get to spend with my daughter alone," he said.
In our home, Bram also does his share of papadag: He's in charge of the week's grocery shopping, taking our kids with him. Bram also does all the weekend cleaning, laundry and vacuuming.
After that, he'll take the little ones to the zoo or the pool. For me, it's my time to catch up, finish my writing assignments, blog posts and other projects.
(Dutch moms also enjoy the benefits of the part-time work culture here; many continue working part-time even after all their children have started school full-time or have left the nest, but that's a whole other discussion).
When I tell my American friends about papadag, they often look at me in disbelief: "Seriously? Dads choose a four-day workweek just to spend time with their kids?"
The concept is simply unheard of in many places, especially in North America, where taking a workday off to be with family would be shocking, let alone a week.
That's not to say that American fathers don't care about spending more time with their children. In fact, 63% admit that they spend too little time at home and on child care duties, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
For American moms, 53% say they're satisfied with the amount of time they spend with their kids. Yet even in families where both partners hold down jobs, research has shown that women still tend to shoulder most of the parenting and household chores.
It also doesn't help that the US is the only OECD country that still has no federal policy in place to guarantee working mothers or fathers paid time off to care for their new babies.
According to an HBSC survey, Dutch children (ages 11 to 15) scored the highest in the world in having a good relationship with their parents.
In a culture where one's job is inextricably linked to one's identity, American dads who lean out can face isolation and stigma. A lot of men of my generation aspire to be hands-on fathers who change diapers, cook dinner and do the laundry. But the sad reality is that for many who start out with these lofty, progressive ideals, the pressures at work make it impossible in the long run.
In America, parenting is seen as a private, rather than communal, concern: You've taken the decision to have children. That's your choice — deal with it. In the Netherlands, however, it's something for which the whole society takes responsibility.
Dutch parents often have a rich support network; the ideal child care structure consists of both parents working part-time, and the family getting additional help from both sets of grandparents, neighbors and local babysitters. It's the modern-day village.
Parenting is challenging no matter where you live. But the Dutch have managed to create an enviable work-life balance. Wouldn't it be amazing for all of us — and our children — if the rest of the world actually caught up with the papadag trend?
Rina Mae Acosta is a writer and founder of the parenting blog Finding Dutchland. She is also the co-author of "The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less," published by The Experiment.
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