Unicef calls the Dutch the happiest children in the world and they rank second in the OECD for life/work balance. How big a factor is parental leave?
Robbin Haasnoot, 33, greets his daughter and wife as they return from swimming. It’s Tuesday morning and although Haasnoot has a good job at a bank in Amsterdam, he will spend the day with his family. He does this every Tuesday as part of his so-called ouderschapverlof, or parental leave.
“I have a contract to work 36 hours a week,” Haasnoot explains. “I can take parental leave up to 26 times my weekly working hours and I can spread it out over time. So now I take one day off a week to be with my family and work another half day at home.”
Although women are also eligible for parental leave, it is commonly referred to as papadag. Haasnoot is one of 25% of Dutch men who avail of long-term, unpaid parental leave for fathers, spending one day at home a week for up to two years to be with his children.
For Haasnoot, taking parental leave was a clear choice — even a responsibility. “Knowing how to care for children takes practice,” he says. “You have to do it all, regularly. It doesn’t come naturally. It’s a skill, a mindset.”
Although he stresses that he doesn’t judge fathers who don’t or can’t take parental leave, he can’t imagine doing it any other way. “There’s a father on my street who leaves for work at 6:30 in the morning and comes home at 930 at night,” he says. “And yes he has a big house and a nice car. But that’s not the most important thing to me.”
Haasnoot also says his decision to spend a day at home with his children has strengthened his relationship with is wife, because they are truly equal. “It would absolutely be harder for me to understand what my wife does with the children day to day if I didn’t do it myself,” he says. “I never have to ask, ‘what did you do today?’ because I already know. And my wife and I together decided to have children, so together we need to take care of them.”
But it’s not all about sharing the burden. For Haasnoot, parental leave also allows him to feel more involved, more like a dad than he might otherwise. “I like that I get to take them to the doctor, to the playground — I’ve made friends with many of the mothers. That I get to know what’s going on with them during the day,” he says. “And you see the effect. When my daughter falls down, sometimes she runs to her mother, but equally to me. She knows that I am also nurturing and that is a good feeling. They know I take care of them just like their mom.”
Last week, for example, he took his daughter to a music class. “I was the only father there,” he says. “But it’s amazing. It’s so much fun to play and sing with your kids. Going there every week gives me so much joy. Instead of resolving incidents at the bank — it’s much more fun than that. So if you ask me to choose going to work or to music class, definitely the second one. No doubt.”
Haasnoot admits is it also exhausting to stay home with the children some days. “I have more energy left when I come home from working for nine hours than some days when I spend five hours with my children,” he says. “But I feel having a relationship with my children now is important. When they are older, maybe it’ll be too late.”
As for his career, he says it has stalled somewhat, but he expects he will make up for that when his parental leave is over. “I started in a branch office ten years ago at a certain level and then every two years I made a step up.. and now I’ve not made any steps in four years because I was at home,” he says. “That’s fine — I chose this and accepted that it meant I will probably stay at the same level for a time. But I earn enough to support the family.”
Currently in the UK, rights to parental leave and flexible working for parents are being extended, but the BBC reports that fewer than 1 in 10 UK men take anything beyond the two weeks statutory leave.
Haasnoot think that’s a missed opportunity for dads. “I can advise every father to take parental leave. It’s the little things you miss. When I am watching television in the evening and my daughter comes to me with a cookie we baked together that day… those small gestures make me feel like a dad, like a real dad – not only the one who brings the money home.”
What do you think? Do you take parental leave, or are you considering it?