Do Dutch Mamas Know Something We Don't?

Dutch women work less than Americans, and are happier
Dutch women work less than Americans, and are happier

Fewer than 10 percent of Dutch women are employed full-time. The pay gap between women and men in the Netherlands is the highest in Europe, and few Dutch women hold leadership roles in business or government.

That makes the Netherlands sound like the land feminism forgot. But women there are happy. Fewer than 4 percent wish they had more work hours or professional responsibilities, even though a quarter of them make so little money they can’t be considered financially independent.

By contrast, over 75 percent of employed American women work full-time. We worry constantly about our careers. Many of us define ourselves by what we get paid to do. But it doesn’t make us happy.

Careers, it seems, just aren’t that important to Dutch women. Overall, they report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives than American women. Are we doing it wrong? What do the Dutch know that we don’t?

The lives of Dutch mamas sound idyllic: they nearly all stay home with their kids or work part-time. Few return to full-time work even after their kids are school age or grown up. Slate’s Jessica Olien describes a culture of relaxed afternoon coffee dates and long hours spent on personal projects: gardening, knitting, playing sports. Who wouldn’t be happy?

Americans. As Jessica puts it:

The ideal American woman doesn’t just putter around in the kitchen or dabble in knitting. She opens a cake shop and knits scarves for fashion shows. She appears on Oprah. She follows her dreams.

Even though I’m almost positive that even if I am able to become this mythical woman I won’t be happy, part of me still wants to be her. It’s hard to shake the way I was raised.

I’ve recently returned to work after a stint as a homemaker. I had the life Jessica describes as the norm in the Netherlands: spending long lazy days in the garden with my kids, meeting friends whenever I wanted for coffee dates, going to the beach on a whim.

After 5 years, I was going insane with boredom and frustration at the triviality of so many of my activities. I wanted, as Jessica says, to follow my dreams. I work about 30 hours a week now, not quite full-time, and feel like it’s the perfect balance of home and career.

Perhaps if I were Dutch, I’d have been happier working less, or not at all. In America, that lifestyle is out-of-sync. I could meet a friend anytime for coffee, but most of my friends had day jobs. Their lives were just tuned to a different rhythm from mine. I’d also been raised to expect a challenging career to be part of my life. Not having it made me feel like I was, to quote my high school math teacher, “Not working up to my potential.”

Do you feel like your career is essential to your satisfaction, or have you cheerfully thrown it aside for more fulfilling pursuits? Could you be happy in a laid-back, Dutch style life?

Photo: leedman