Photo from Mount Royal, Frisco, Colorado.

"That is happiness; to be disolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." - Willa Cather

Friday, 2 September 2011

The reality of Danish maternity leave

(I'm already afraid of the "you're a bad mom" comments that will keep me awake at night)

"We have experienced that many 'ethnic' women suffer under the social control in Denmark"

This morning, as I heard one of the local Venstre party candidates say this on tv, I suddenly realized how "ethnic" I was.

Before we moved to Denmark, one of the few things I knew about Scandinavia was that there was a really long, paid maternity leave. And how could a woman who wants to have kids not be excited by this prospect? Of course, that was when I was living in the US. There were a lot of things I didn't realize then.

When a woman goes on maternity leave here, she is paid full-time salary because, well, her life beyond that of taking care of her baby, is supposed to stop. In some ways, maybe this is progressive. I mean, a woman is given the right to spend all her time with her baby and not worry about money or a job. And this contributes to the 98% rate of breast feeding in Denmark. Very, very impressive statistics compared to a country like the US, where in some states, only 50% of babies even get to try breast milk (think Mississippi and West Virginia), with the national average of babies ever breastfed being 70%. And only 35% of babies in the whole country are exclusively breast fed for 3 months, (CDC) whereas in Denmark 60% are.

It is cultural and it is built into their social system. And the system, looking at the statistics, works.

What about employment? Well, if you get a full 9 months paid maternity leave after having a baby, there isn't that big incentive to stop working. In Denmark 70% of women are employed and in the US it's just 59% (Danmarks Statistik and US Dept of Labor). This is however also partly attributed to the fact that families in Denmark simply can't afford to live comfortably on one salary.

So Denmark looks darn good in statistics. And they are the "happiest" country in the world year after year. And granted, it's a great place to live, as long as you agree with what everyone else thinks.

But here's my issue: if a "new baked mother", attempts to stray from her job as a full time mom, it is extremely difficult, expensive and socially unacceptable.

Basically, there is no child care available until a baby is nine months. Not even if you want to go back to work. Not even at the gym if you want to exercise for an hour. What about a babysitter, you ask? Well, then you would have to pay them by the hour and their legal hourly wage would actually be just slightly less than what I make as a physician. No kidding. So one can hardly rationalize the decision to start working again.

Right now, my mom is here, so I have been able to work and exercise. But both people at work and at the gym are wondering if I suffer from a psychiatric illness because I'm not spending 100% of my time with my baby.

When I look back on the first 9 months of The Lorax's life, I realize how extremely good I had it. I worked 12-18 hours a week, he was in day care 2 hours a day while I ran/swam/yoga'ed whatever. And I was so happy. More importantly, he was so happy. It was a magical time in our life. When I read my blog entries from that time, I see how much we both were glowing.

I have absolutely no less love for Mattias,

and yet, I feel I'm drowning in my new role as an exclusive mom while also trying to fit in the things I normally enjoy, including work, and trying to explain to the entire Danish society that "no, I'm not crazy and I DO love my kids"

Heavy topic for a Friday, I guess.

On to music...

I was wrong about the CSS song. As Steve Q said, it was too girly --- even for me! (I broke my cardinal rule: never recommend a running song before you run to it) THIS one ended up being good:

Running song of the day: Itchin' on a photograph by Grouplove.
(I have the same sort of child-like love for Grouplove that I have for The Jonas Brothers. Grouplove probably wouldn't be happy to know that)


Marathon Mom said...

Like you said that all sounds perfect until you are in the midst of it. I was bored and ready to go back to work after 6 weeks of my 13 week maternity leave. I felt like I was one of the few women happy to go back to work and wanted somewhat of a life back. Yes I love my daughter but for me to be the best mother I need to be around other people and workout.

Jessie Thomas said...

It is clear that you love you children and that you are good at it, just look at them, they have the looked of being loved all over them. Taking time for yourself...very smart thinking SLG.

Julia said...

Well, I usually think you're kind of nutty ;) but on this one, you are not at all weird. So many of us would lose our minds if we had to be SAHM's even for "only" nine months. :( Thanks for the reminder that the amazing world of Scandinavia actually doesn't have it all figured out when it comes to life's contentment!

PiccolaPineCone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PiccolaPineCone said...

let me try again...

it's a double edged sword. if you look at progressive countries like Denmark they tend to have the lowest # of female executives and females above a certain level on the corporate ladder. whereas the US, in all its backwardness has among the highest % of female executives. Now, one could argue that having female execs is perhaps not the best indicator of a country's well-being and that % of babies breast fed is far more important or % of babies with a stay at home parent is far more important... that is beyond the scope of my coment (and leads to many highly debatable, high contentious topics which I do not feel qualified to comment on). my ONLY point is that there are some unintended sude effects to a system like Denmark's - though I guess if a woman was really career focussed she could opt out of the mat leave and daddy could stay home???

p.s. don't even get me started on how difficult it was to explain to people in Italy in Italian that I was looking for a gym with babysitting. i quickly realized i wasn't facing a language barrier but a massive cultural barrier!

p.p.s. you're a bad mom. :)
(i thought if i said it in an obviously joking tone it might defuse any other such comments)

pernillesarup said...

I agree with Piccola that Danish women pay a price for the long maternity leave.
Some men do take a bit of the time (usually the latter part of the leave), but most don't.
When the leave is over both mom, dad and child have got use to MOM being the child (and home) responsible person, and it is easy to continue that pattern. As a default mom is dealing with daycare/meals/cleaning/shopping. Not that the dad does not contribute, but if notting has been arranged for a particular daily routine on a particular day, it's moms duty, by default. This makes is a bit more difficult for moms to stay a bit longer at work, or join in spontaneous meetings. Networking though work related informal social events, is really important for building a career, and Danish women are on average not good at that. I for one should have been better!

Having said that I so totally loved my 6 months of baby time... and so totally went nuts in the last 3 months.
Would I have benefitted from 2h a day for work/workouts/sleeping: No doubt!
Would the kids be damaged? If it was a quality daycare 2h a day, I'm not convinced they would.

Danni said...

I reckon I would poke my eyeballs out if I had to be a SAHM for 9 months -- I have nothing but mad respect for women who love it or can swing it but I don't think there's anything wrong with not being one of those moms.

sea legs girl said...

Wow, no "bad mom" comments yet! Only from PPC, but she's always mean to me, so I've stopped taking it personally ;). And I learned an acronym, SAHM.

PPC, I have been thinking about you in Italy a lot, imagining the situation must have been about the same. You, unlike me, never really complained about it. Respect!

I am so grateful for your Danish perspective. I have to add that one thing I have noticed is that Danish women, almost without exception, look back on their maternity leave with extreme happiness, love of their child and longing to experience it again. There is a very, very tight bonding that happens with so much uninterrupted time together.

On the other hand, SR has commented many times that The Lorax benefited from a little day care each day because he was always very social, not afraid of meeting people, good with other kids, etc. Who knows if he would have been the same had it just been him and me...

SteveQ said...

Being childless, I'm thinking my views probably don't count for much.

The song I'm still grooving to after several months is "Techno Fan" by the Wombats.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how very different the system is over there compared to the U.S. What about purchasing some exercise equipment for your home as a practical solution? I don't know if that is possible/financially practical where you are located, etc. but seems like a good idea to meet your needs while home w/ the baby. I just purchased a used elliptical for our home, and combined w/ the baby jogger (and really early morning runs on my own) feel pretty confident that I will be able to get my workouts in, even w/ my 5yr. old and new baby that is due in a few weeks...just an idea!

- Shannon

Dale Nesbitt said...

I'm going to be a coward and shy away from the maternity leave part of the blog entry.

As for running songs, I think "I Feel Love" by Blue Man Group (originally by Donna Summer) is probably one of the best songs to get you pumped up.

kathleen said...

oh man. i hear you. i actually realized yesterday that for 9 months of my son's life i have yet to be by myself at home. really i just want a long shower and a nap. it's hard.

Anonymous said...

In Finland there is a saying “one child is a hobby, two children are a job, and to have three children is crazy” (perhaps this is a bad translation, I’m not a native English speaker). But still the Finns are quite productive, it is thought that this is due to the attractive, paid maternity leaves.

But poor baby! Why on earth did you want another child? After living in DK for some years you must have known very well about the conditions for the maternity leave there. You are so young that you could have postponed the baby planning by a couple of years anyway.

My “job” as a mom has been the most rewarding one so far. You can be replaced at work, you can be replaced practically everywhere by others, but your baby can only have you as his mom. This sounds very melodramatic, but this is the way I think now. I wish you beautiful moments with your new little family member!

Jen said...

I had no idea there were no options for childcare when they're that young. although I think there are a few hours a day at my gym where you can get someone to watch your kid while you workout but I guess that's the exception rather than the rule.

it does make sense now why most of the foreign moms that I know here have chosen to spend some of their maternity leave back wherever they came from so I don't think you're alone in that respect. I know that when/if we ever decide to have a child, there is no way in hell that I would be able to just sit home for 9 months. I know its not the same but I just returned from 2 weeks sick leave and I was going stir crazy at the end.

Kirsten said...

Keep doing what makes you happy and don't listen to society - you know Janteloven, doesn't matter what you do, there will always be somebody to tell you that you are doing something wrong.....
If you are happy I think the rest of your crew will be happy - and bond much better to the new little member!

Anonymous said...

first world problem

Anonymous said...

I've gotta say, I have a hard time feeling sorry for a person who gets paid in full for maternity leave and yet complains about not having enough time to work out.

Didn't you know this already? Plus when you say watch your kid for an hour, don't you really mean 2-3 hrs?

sea legs girl said...

Well, anon attacks again.

"First world problem" - yep. Exactly. In the third world new mothers tend to be surrounded by large families with lots of people willing to help out. Isolation IS a problem of the first world.

I regret if this post came off in a complaining way. There are so many great thigs about the system here. But I think it really is of cultural interest to point out that while it often seems "Scandinavia has it all figured out", Americans, Canadians, Brits, etc., should realized how lucky they are if this DO have that option of day care/help with their newborns.

Women should also NOT be discouraged from having kids just because they may want to have time to themselves to workout or whatever.

Now I would really appreciate it if all of these morally superior anons would leave a name or a profile and not run and hide after their comments. Hold your head up and say things you attach your name to.


Jen said...

I wouldn't worry too much about the anons.. they're probably the ones who always have the "if you don't like it, go home!" come back when questioned about why things are the way they are in denmark.. its like, well yes.. I would like it if the grocery store had a bit better selection but it would be a bit of an overreaction to leave my partner, my job and my life here just because I don't think everything in denmark is the best in the world.

Anonymous said...

my mom was one of those people who retired when she had her first baby and became a stay at home mom. My mom loves babies, lives babies, had babies when she was 23 after being the oldest of 6 kids (therefore raising 5 of her siblings). Yet, she tells me how hard it was to do everything on her own and how she needed my grandma. My dad was in the midst of his residency at Johns Hopkins, and it was the 80s so those were 120 hour weeks. She was a single mom living in a dangerous part of baltimore city. i have all these stories of her going to my grandmother's house just so she could take a bath, have a nap, or hell, go for a swim (we need to swim in our family, it's like what running is to you).

Don't feel bad. My family is full of baby obsessed SAHM and everyone says what my mom did was insanely difficult because you need alone time, adult time, etc. that is where extended family becomes so necessary. good luck! Wanting your time doesn't make you a bad mom. :)

The Fear of Choice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Short said...

Seems to me that the situation would be worse if you did not want to work and found yourself having to. I think it's a better system than most others.
In the first 14 weeks the mother is entitled to 14 weeks while the father is entitled to 2, after the first 14 weeks the parents are entitled to 32 weeks divided between them.
Curious to see what other systems have.
Australia use to have 52 weeks for the mother unpaid. Yippee..