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Making It Work: Continental Divide

When it comes to the work-family juggle and parental and sick leave, American parents are playing a different ball game than our European counterparts


Published on: January 30, 2015

About our Making It Work series

Readers, we’ve heard from you: The juggle of family and work is one of the biggest challenges you face as parents. This year in an ongoing series we’re calling Making It Work, we’ll go beyond tired-out debates about having it all to explore the issues you face, from on-ramping and off-ramping to the search for easy meals and family-friendly benefits over Facebook with #MakeItWorkMondays and #MakingItWork, we’ll focus on stories and solutions and make sure your voices are heard. Please send your ideas to

A decade ago, when Melissa Pailthorp and John Zilavy’s youngest child was a year old, the Seattle couple moved to Unterschleissenheim, a German city of 25,000 near Munich, because of Melissa’s work for Microsoft. They were supposed to stay for two years.

Family of four outsideInstead, they ended up living in Germany for eight. Life was easier there for parents with children, Pailthorp recalls. “It started with child care. It was immensely affordable [about $200 a month] and very high quality, with professionally trained day care people.” Health insurance was equally affordable, with full family coverage costing about $600 a month.

The Seattle parents were surprised to find that mothers are given a year of maternity leave by law, at 80 percent of their salaries. And new legislation provides as much as three months of leave for fathers as well. By contrast, the United States is — besides Papua New Guinea — the only country in the world with no nationally required paid maternity leave. Only about one in seven Americans receives such leave from employers.

Both Pailthorp and Zilavy talk of feeling safer in Germany than in the U.S., even during the three years they lived in Berlin, a big city. “It feels dangerous here,” Pailthorp says. Laws regarding driving and even riding a bike are stricter in Germany, including required safety courses. “Here they call that a ‘nanny state,’ but I thought it was good, actually,” Zilavy says. There was also peer pressure to practice safe behaviors. The first time Zilavy took his kids across the street against a red light, a group of older German women scolded him, even though there was no traffic. “And,” he adds, “public transportation is very good and affordable.”

A numbers story

While parenting may be as rewarding emotionally as it’s ever been (and even that has been up for debate this past year, if you read the book All Joy and No Fun or any of the associated Internet babble), in the U.S. today family life, for most adults, does not look like a Norman Rockwell painting. Roughly 60 percent of two-parent households with children younger than 18 have two working parents, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report, creating an environment of near-constant logistical strategy and juggling.

In 1968, about 37 percent of working-age married women with young children were employed; in 2011, the report shows it was about 65 percent — redefining the work/life balance in dual-parent and single-mother households. Among mothers with children younger than 18, the number saying they would prefer to work full-time has increased from 20 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2012, likely reflecting tough economic times, but also representing changing mind-sets about career.

The Pew survey, which gathered data for the report, finds that 53 percent of all working parents with minor children say it is difficult to balance the responsibilities of their job with the responsibilities of their family. Overall, 33 percent of parents with children younger than 18 say they are not spending enough time with their children (46 percent of fathers and 23 percent of mothers).

When paid work, child care and housework are combined, parents in dual-income households each put in, on average, close to 59 hours of total work time a week.

Over the past two decades, we’ve heard a lot about “family values” in America. But in reality, we haven’t really valued families, and in particular, children. A 2013 UNICEF report, “Child Well-being in Rich Countries,” ranked the U.S. 26th of 29 countries when it comes to a combination of material well-being and/or deprivation, health and safety, education, risky behaviors and housing/environmental quality. Only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania ranked lower. American children rated their own life satisfaction a bit better: In that category, we finished 23rd. Why? How are the countries that are scoring well — almost all of them in northern Europe — doing it? What are they doing differently than we are here, and how does that affect, say, Seattle parents’ day-to-day challenges around childbearing, child care and career?

After years of doing my own research into European countries’ policies and U.S. policies, I am still curious: In looking at how families here and in other countries make it work — or don’t — what can we learn about where we want to be headed?

The value of time

Taxes, a big bugaboo for Americans, are not that much higher in Germany than here, Zilavy points out, but “you get far better value for your taxes. I met fiscally conservative Americans who stayed in Europe because of the quality of life there.” Part of that quality of life included as many as 15 annual paid holidays. “I got 30 vacation days a year by law,” Pailthorp adds, “and pretty much unlimited paid sick leave, but after three days you need a doctor’s note. Everyone there, from executives to assembly-line workers, takes their holidays. It’s odd for anyone not to take a real vacation. We met virtually nobody who wanted to go back to the U.S.” While living in Germany, the couple came to enjoy the fact that stores were closed on Sundays so that workers had a chance to spend time with their families.

There are some downsides to the German system. Professional women with children, for example, often feel pressure not to work, Pailthorp says. But Zilavy, who was a “house husband,” ended our conversation with a ringing defense of Germany. “I can’t think of anything they did over there that didn’t make more sense than what I see over here.”

I can't think of anything they did over there that didn't make more sense than what I see over here [in America]. 

- John Zilavy

Since 2002, I have been active in Take Back Your Time, an organization whose goals include policy change in America that would ensure paid family and sick leave, and paid vacations, things almost every country on earth, rich or poor, already requires. Germany’s family-leave policies, for example are not atypical. Czech and Slovak mothers can take as many as three years off when they have a child (with 28 weeks at full pay), and six years if their child is born with a disability. Swedes get 16 months at 77 percent of their salary; Danes get 52 weeks, Norwegians receive 46 weeks at 100 percent of their salary (Norway also requires that fathers take two weeks), and the U.K. provides 39 paid weeks at 90 percent of salary. France, the Netherlands and Spain offer 16 weeks of maternity leave at full pay.

Even our neighbor Canada is on the bandwagon: Mothers get 15 weeks of maternity leave and can share another 35 weeks with fathers at 55–70 percent of pay, depending on the province.

Why do these countries do this? They understand, explains Seattle physician and University of Washington School of Public Health lecturer Stephen Bezruchka, that “early life lasts a lifetime.” Parental leave results in children who are healthier, happier, better adjusted and more able to learn. Bezruchka and other experts say our refusal to pay for such leave when children are infants costs us far more later in poor health and other problems.

Going Dutch

The Netherlands, a crowded country of 16 million whose capital, Amsterdam, is now the world’s most diverse city (with more than half of its population born outside Holland), ranks no. 1 in the UNICEF study by a wide margin, coming out on top in three of the five categories and in the top five on all. Its children also report the highest levels of life satisfaction. Anmarie Widener, an American who earned her doctorate at Leiden University in the Netherlands and wrote a dissertation, “Sharing the Caring,” comparing family policies in the Netherlands and the U.S., is not surprised by these findings. “It’s just so different being a mom there,” she says.

Widener moved to Waddinxveen, a small and conservative Dutch town, when her then-husband told her he wanted to live in Europe and found an IT job there. Their daughter, Eden, was 18 months old. Widener found she could do a four-year Ph.D. program in Holland for just $2,500, even as a nonresident. The Dutch made every effort to support their family life.

“We got child benefits, money,” she explains. The benefit, called a kinderbijslag — about $100 a month — was more than enough to pay for preschool for her daughter. “It surprises you, because you get nothing like this in the U.S., and you go there and even though you are a foreigner, they care about you. You really feel cared for.”

Widener’s son, Elijah, was born in Holland. The cost for childbirth was minimal, and for the first eight days while she was home with her child, the government provided a worker to assist her with chores. She was impressed by the peuterspeelzaal, or preschool, her children attended. “It was very social and all about learning to cooperate and interact. Mothers volunteered a lot of time there as well,” Widener recalls. Through early elementary school, children are escorted to school by their parents on bikes, and after that, the children ride by themselves or walk. The schools are close to where the children live, and most go home for lunch.

In addition to being happy, “The kids were not spoiled at all,” Widener told me. “They were polite, helpful. I never met a Dutch child I didn’t like. The kids didn’t have a lot of things — bikes, of course — but nothing ostentatious. The Dutch frown on conspicuous consumption. We had some friends who had a big-screen TV and actually seemed a bit ashamed of it. ‘This is really American of us, isn’t it?’ they told me.”

Instead of stuff, Widener’s Dutch neighbors spent their money on frequent trips, taking full advantage of the 30 or more vacation days that most receive from employers. “It became clear that my neighbors kept going on vacation,” she explains. “It seems like they went every month or two. It was so natural and normal to them. They went during all the school breaks, for up to two weeks at a time. They wouldn’t even think of only a week off as a vacation. They went car camping in France, Switzerland and Italy. They didn’t fly. They all had these little pop-up trailers they call caravans.”

This may help explain why polls find the Dutch to be the fourth-happiest people in the world (Americans rank 17th), with Dutch women and children coming in at no. 1. Happiness research shows that experiences, including travel, result in more long-term satisfaction than do material goods. Research also confirms that vacations improve health, reduce depression and strengthen family bonds. In addition to their own required paid sick leave, leave to care for sick children and vacation time, Dutch parents also receive three “emergency” paid days off each year to attend to important family functions.

Encouraging part-time work

One important thing to understand about the Netherlands is that although the Dutch are very productive economically and work hard at their jobs, they put in the fewest working hours annually of any country on earth, about 400 less than the average American worker. “It’s the largest part-time culture on earth,” Widener says. Three-quarters of female workers and nearly a quarter of men work less than full-time.

They are encouraged to do so through the Working Hours Adjustment Act, passed in 2000, a law that allows Dutch workers to reduce (or increase, though few choose that option) their working hours while retaining their jobs, hourly salary rate, promotions, universal health care benefits and prorated benefits, such as pensions and vacation time. Employers cannot refuse such requests unless they can demonstrate undue financial hardship for their firms, so the vast majority of such requests are accepted. Moreover, European law requires that part-time workers be paid the same as full-time employees for comparable work.

America needs to find a way to achieve greater balance so women have more opportunities to advance at work and men partake more in caregiving and housework.

-Anmarie Widener 

For families with children, a common Dutch pattern is for fathers to work four days a week, and mothers, three, reducing the amount of time children spend in day care. It was actually proposed by the conservative Christian Democratic Party as part of a “family values” campaign, but won broad support in Holland’s multiparty parliament. While it results in less overall household salary, it usually also means that families end up in a lower tax bracket, reducing that negative economic impact on families. And besides, Widener points out, “One income is enough to cover families in the Netherlands. You see very little real poverty of the kind you see here.” Single mothers work 16 hours a week and receive housing subsidies and other supports, including paid vacation time. “I only go on two vacations a year,” one of them told Widener, explaining that she was a low-income single mother.

For her dissertation, Widener surveyed 100 American and 100 Dutch parents regarding life satisfaction, conducting in-depth interviews. Not surprisingly, in five of the six categories she measured, the Dutch parents fared better. The exception was “self-esteem.” Widener now lives in McLean, Virginia, and teaches gender studies part-time at Georgetown University. Like Seattle mother Melissa Pailthorp, Widener sees a downside to the Dutch system, while acknowledging that it is still extremely popular with women. “Working women like it for the balance — they like [the] caring,” she says. “But it’s very hard for women to advance to managerial positions there. The Netherlands, like America, needs to find a way to achieve greater balance so women have more opportunities to advance at work and men partake more in caregiving and housework.”

American parents speak

Mothers in the U.S. are well aware of the problem of the “motherhood penalty”: New data from Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has studied the parenthood pay gap for 15 years, finds that on average, men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children (if they lived with their kids), while women’s pay decreased 4 percent for each child they had. Low-wage-earning women with children younger than 6 suffered a wage penalty five times as great as that of higher-paid women with young children, according to a report on Budig’s findings in The New York Times.

Women of all ages, just like men, want a secure job they enjoy, but they are less likely than men to ask for raises or aspire to top management jobs, according to 2013 research from Pew. Among U.S. millennials (workers ages 18–32), 61 percent of women reported that they would like to be a boss or top manager someday, compared to 70 percent of men. Among Gen Xers (ages 33–48), 41 percent of women reported wanting to be a boss or top manager versus 58 percent of men. And 51 percent of working mothers report that being a working parent has made it more difficult to advance in their career, compared to 16 percent of working fathers.

According to you, the readers of ParentMap, we’ve got a ways to go. While many parents feel supported in their work, and many mothers can opt out of the workforce, others in a recent survey of more than 3,000 readers expressed anguish about their situations. “There is no flexibility for parents,” writes one. “I just resigned from a terrible company,” reports another. “There was no paid sick time, and I had to file an HR complaint to get weekends off.” Another complained about constantly changing shift times.

Among other survey comments: “My husband’s job is hourly, so he gets no paid time off.”

“I wish employers were more open to part-time work schedules. Part-time implies less than second class.”

“Every sick hour I accrue goes to taking care of sick children.”

“My employer made it very difficult for me to tend to my daughter.”

“So many of us are contractors or part-time employees and have almost no sick time, vacation time, holiday time or maternity leave.”

“I have a 30-hour-a-week job. Still, we struggle when one of the kids gets sick.”

“It’s hard to keep a full-time job in the corporate world, because there isn’t any flexibility.”

There are, however, some promising signs, both in Washington state and nationally. Google cofounder Larry Page has been promoting a 32-hour workweek. Paid sick days are now required in several American cities, including Seattle, and in the state of Connecticut. California and New Jersey require paid family leave. The City of Berkeley just passed an initiative (with 81 percent of the vote) giving employees the right to request shorter or more flexible work hours without employer retribution, a law similar to one in the United Kingdom that has seen four-fifths of such requests accepted by employers. It’s not as strong as the Dutch Working Hours Adjustment Act, but it’s a start.

Here at home, the road ahead

In 2015, the Washington State Legislature will be considering three important bills that could make a difference for families, in addition to a proposed increase in the minimum wage. A family-work coalition organized by the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle is pressing for two of these: a mandatory paid sick days and safe leave provision, which includes time off to deal with the consequences of domestic violence, and a family and medical leave insurance act, which would provide payment during extended leaves for childbirth, adoption, serious health conditions or care for sick family members. On the national front, The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, introduced last year in Congress, proposes an insurance plan to provide paid family and sick leave to every employee. It would come through coverage similar to Social Security and would be administered through the Social Security Administration.

In recent weeks, President Obama has been vocal about more support for parents. In January, he announced that federal employees would receive paid parental leave, and during his State of the Union speech Jan. 20 he drove the point home, saying, “Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own.” The president also raised the gender pay gap and the need for Congress to increase the minimum wage.

Then there’s vacation. Currently, the U.S. is one of only a handful of nations that do not require paid vacation time. The others — Burma, Nepal, Suriname and Guyana — are all small and poor. In Washington state, state Rep. Gael Tarleton, a Democrat, is introducing legislation that would make Washington the first state in the nation to guarantee paid vacations for workers. (Puerto Rico already requires three weeks.) The bill would provide 12 days for full-timers, prorated for part-timers, and apply to businesses with 10 employees or more. A cost-benefit analysis of Tarleton’s bill by graduate students at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs found it would bring a sizable net economic benefit to the state. It could be a model for other states.

In the current political climate, these bills may have a hard time. One argument against generous family leave policies like those in Europe is that Europe is struggling economically. But interestingly, the countries with the best policies and the shortest working hours — the Netherlands, Germany, Nordic countries — actually have the strongest economies and are doing very well. In California, a 2011 report revealed that six years after the introduction of a statewide paid family leave program, both workers and businesses report positive effects.

There is no evidence that family-friendly policies are harmful to national economies; indeed, such policies lead to greater hourly productivity, better health and more life satisfaction — all things that juggling parents, trying to make complex modern lives work, would relish.

We’ve got a lot to learn. 

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