Part-Time Work Really Works. Just Ask Moms In the Netherlands.
I had the chance to sit down with three Dutch friends while my family was living in the Netherlands to discuss with them their experiences working part time. Caitlin is a civil servant and mother of two who recently returned to work two days per week after a six-month maternity leave. Fennechien is a teacher and mother of three who works four days per week, sharing her classroom with another teacher who works one day per week. Geerte is an obstetrics senior resident and mother of three (recently having given birth to twins) and works four days per week. All three of these mothers navigated generous maternity leaves* and returned to work on a part-time basis.
This interview has been edited with permission for length and clarity.
Please introduce yourselves and your current experiences with work and caregiving.
Caitlin: My name is Caitlin. Currently, I work for a township in the south of Holland. I have two little girls: a two-and-a-half-year-old, and a four-month-old. I just started working again, actually, yesterday after my maternity leave. I work part time for 24 hours a week, so 3 days a week.
Fennechien: I am Fennechien. I have three kids: one is six, one is five, and one is one year and two months. I work at the primary school four days a week teaching grade one.
Geerte: I’m Geerte. I have three kids. I have a three-year-old boy and twins who are eight months old. I work as a doctor, and I officially work 80 percent. For doctors in the Netherlands, full time is 46 or 48 hours. So my 80 percent is like 38 hours. It’s four days. Four long days.
What has your schedule looked like over the years with work and children?
Caitlin: I used to work in the head office of a large, US-based corporation. I worked there full time, forty hours a week for almost four years before I got pregnant with my oldest. When I returned from my maternity leave, I worked for 32 hours a week, and I used unpaid parental leave one day a week for 8 hours a week (that job didn’t allow you to work fewer than 4 days a week). Then I switched to my current job. I started working there for just 24 hours a week, which was convenient because I was pregnant. I just returned yesterday, so I work three days a week now.
. . . “[My husband] started working four days, and I am also working four days.”Fennechien, teacher and mother of three
Fennechien: Before I had kids, I worked five days a week, but then I had my first child, and I used all my maternity leave—the paid part and the unpaid part. I was at home for nine months, and then I went back to work for four days a week. Then, half a year later, I was already pregnant again. Then I went away for the whole leave time but only the paid part. Then I worked three days a week and was home two days with two small kids. Then I got pregnant with my last child, and I wanted to work more so that my husband could work one day less and be at home with the kids one day a week. So he started working four days, and I am also working four days.
Geerte: When I didn’t have kids, I worked full time first, and then I started working 90 percent, which means one day off every two weeks, because full time was really hard work. I had already started that before I had kids. But then when I had my first child, I worked as a humanitarian doctor, so we moved to West Africa, and there I worked full time. But because life was so much simpler, it didn’t feel like full time there. For example, my husband would bring the baby to the hospital so I could breastfeed the baby, and then I would just continue to work afterwards, which is something that’s not really done here, of course.
After having the twins [back here in the Netherlands], I did the paid maternity leave, but I also took a month extra of unpaid leave. Just like Caitlin, I used the unpaid parental leave to work 80 percent. But since August, the government started providing nine additional weeks of leave, paid at 70 percent. You can use it as a part-time day, which is very convenient, because you’ll get paid for that day you are off at 70 percent, or you can use it to extend your actual maternity leave. For me, I’m using it to take a little bit longer holiday.
What do you personally value about being able to work part time?
Caitlin: For me the work-life balance is so much better. I used to work and then unwind on the weekend and then go back to work again. Now that I have kids, I don’t have the weekend for myself. But working part time you just have more time during the week to do your household laundry and stuff like that. It’s more balanced out and not all just focused on work. And then there’s spare time. Free time.
Fennechien: I think it’s very important that I’m also home with the little one during the week, because then I see more of her and her development. I can do stuff with her when all the [older] kids are at school, but I’m also able to do stuff at school or bring them to school and pick them up and play with friends during the week. They have time to be at home with me, not [just] on a weekend but during the weekdays. I can go to the swimming class with them or go to the park or the beach and be part of the school and be a reading mom and stuff like that.
Geerte: I have the same thing. I like that it’s more mixed. It is not one block of work and then a small block of weekends. Working part time allows relaxation. A better balance. It’s just nice to be present as a mom. You can actually do things and you’re not tired all the time when you’re at home. But to be honest, I’m still searching for the right balance. It’s not totally there yet.
What is the most common work-life balance setup for families you know?
Geerte: Within our friend group, if both parents work, it’s usually not that one does full time and the other does part time. It’s almost always four days and four days, or at least like 90 percent, and then they work longer days to make it four days. I think that’s almost the most common way.
“Working part time allows relaxation. A better balance. It’s just nice to be present as a mom. You can actually do things and you’re not tired all the time when you’re at home.”Geerte, doctor and mother of three
Caitlin: We don’t have that. But I know a lot of friends have the same thing. Because my husband works irregular hours like night shifts and early mornings, it’s not possible to do that. But that would be really nice. But it’s common. You hear a lot that they both work four days.
In your field, what are the norms around part-time work? Do most people work part time or is it looked down on or hard to ask to work part time?
Fennechien: Most of the teachers work part time. We have 25 colleagues, and I think 2 of them work 5 days and the rest work part time. In my job it’s very easy to work more days or less days, and you can change every year if you want. I find it very easy to speak out if you want to work more or less, and then it will be accepted. Most [teachers] work three days, and then you share a class with a colleague. You call it a duo. One of the teachers works three days, and one of them works two days, and then you share the administrative work and all the things around the class. But now I’m working four days, and one teacher is working one day. But she has no responsibility around the class, for example, being in contact with the parents or all the things around work. I’m working four days, but I work more in the evenings at home because there’s so much work.
“”[My desire to work part time] definitely influenced my choice and specialty.”Geerte, doctor and mother of three
Geerte: With my job it’s not very common to work less than 80 percent. Most people work 90, even the moms, and then they use their compensation days for weekend shifts or things like that to have one weekday off every week. But then, for example, I tried to work 70 percent these last 3 months, because I want to make use of this new paid parental leave, but with that I noticed that the unpaid work actually became so much more that it felt like I was working more than with the 80 percent. So I am not going to continue that.
There are other consequences to working part time in more competitive careers. For example, I have a sister who’s an engineer, and she notices that if she works less than four days she will just get the less interesting projects. And so it sometimes influences the type of thing you do as well. For me, it really has influenced what type of medicine I’m practicing. I actually really liked surgery, so I considered becoming a surgeon for a long time. But surgery is very male-dominated still, and if you work part time, people tend to think that you are a lesser doctor, whereas in gynecology and obstetrics where I work now, it’s much more accepted. So [my desire to work part time] definitely influenced my choice and specialty.
“Yesterday was my first day back at work in six months, so I was excited. . . . It was a break from my kids. But . . . tomorrow is my day off. I love that I have tomorrow with my kids again after two full days of work. It’s really the balance for me.”Caitlin, civil servant and mother of two
Caitlin: At my corporate job, [working part time] was accepted, but the work mentality there was really ambitious. I think I missed a promotion because of working four days a week. And I think it has to do with the position you’re in and the content of your work. I had a job where I worked a lot with big business-to-business partners. So when I’m not there on Wednesday and the police department needs me on that day, somebody else has to do it, and the workload of someone else gets bigger. I get that. In my current position, however, it’s really normal to work part time. I was really surprised. I’m one of the younger ones in the office, but even people who are older all work part time. I think it’s a good place for me to be right now.
How much did the possibility of working part time factor into your decision on what career path to pursue?
Caitlin: Because I now know the difference in the different work fields, I would never go back to working full time in such an ambitious working space. Besides taking care of my kids, working part time really is better for me mentally. Yesterday was my first day back at work in six months, so I was excited to have some time for myself just to eat my lunch without having to talk to my toddler or being interrupted like, “Can I have a bite?” It was a break from my kids. So that’s nice. But I also love that tomorrow is my day off. I love that I have tomorrow with my kids again after two full days of work. It’s really the balance for me.
Geerte: I think while I was studying medicine I was more naive about how possible it would be if I wanted to work more part time, but now I’m realizing more and more that it does really influence the type of doctor I could be. I’m still training. I’m still specializing. And, for example, now it takes super long before I’m actually a fully certified gynecologist because I just have to make certain hours, and because I work part time it just adds more months and more years to my training program. But also it takes longer to develop certain skills. Working part time does really influence your career. I just know that it doesn’t make me happy to work full time. But sometimes I’m still frustrated that it influences my career as much as it does.
With your current schedule, what is working well, and what would you change?
Caitlin: My current employer is really flexible. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m an account manager. I’m often on the road to see clients, so I can really set my own agenda. I can make an appointment a bit later so that I can bring the kids to daycare, and I could even do some email at night if I want to stop my day a little bit earlier so I can pick them up again. At my previous job I really had to work from 8 to 5:30, because I needed to be available by phone for all the big business clients. Now, I work on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. On Monday my mother-in-law watches the kids. And then on Tuesday and Thursday they go to daycare. I’m happy with it, because I think daycare is really good for their development and their social skills, though I do think it’s expensive. For our two kids to go to daycare for two days a week it’s about €800 monthly. But I like it for their social skills and that they also can be at home just one day or at Grandma’s.
Fennechien: I’m now working at the same school where my kids are going, so that’s very easy to bring them and to pick them up, because it’s all in the same place—even the daycare for the little one is in the same building. On Thursdays, though, they are at my classroom after school, because the daycare after school is full, so they don’t have a place there on Thursday, but I’m on the waiting list. But for Wednesdays, the kids are at the daycare until 6, so I’m able to do things in the afternoon for myself after the school’s closed. [My day off is] Friday, and my husband is home on Monday. So the little one is going to the daycare the whole day Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. And then the older ones are also on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Geerte: I’m not totally happy yet with how I have everything organized. What I don’t like is that after a long day of work, I still often have to work in the evenings to prepare my next day. All my colleagues have the same problem. But because everybody is fighting to make the work-life balance better, there are some small changes that are slowly happening in the hospital. But for me the balance is not totally right yet.
What I do really like is [what we have because] we have twins. In the Netherlands, you have daycare, but you also have a system called Huis Ouders, which is like a nanny. So you have two options: having a person that actually has kids babysit your kids at their house or having a person come to your house to babysit your kids. And once you have three kids it’s actually cheaper to have the Huis Ouder than to send all three kids to daycare. My husband works irregular shifts, so he sometimes has to leave at like 5:30 in the morning, and then I have to leave at 7. So if we would have to dress the kids and bring them to daycare before that, we’d need to have special daycare for these kinds of hours. Now the nanny just comes, and if the kids are still sleeping they’re still sleeping. It’s really convenient.
If your profession offered full time or nothing, what do you think you would do?
Caitlin: It’s really difficult, because we have a mortgage to pay and a certain lifestyle we want. So I have to work. It’s not possible for me to just stay home and not have an income. But I could never put my kids in daycare full time and just see them maybe an hour before work or after or on the weekend. So I would stop my job. I’d maybe side hustle or be like a couponing queen. I don’t wanna have kids in daycare full time. The years fly by, so working full time would be wasting my time with them.
To add, I’m not that passionate about my job, so I think that makes the choice easier to just stay at home with my kids. But I know I wouldn’t be a good mom if I was just home full time. I think it’s really nice to have a break and some time for yourself.
“If I have to choose five days or nothing, I choose nothing. But on the other hand, I like the work. I don’t think I would be a better mother if I were at home five days. . . . I would miss the colleagues and the conversations and the work I’d be able to do at the school. I like that I’m not at home the whole time and that I’m also able to be somebody else besides being a mother.”Fennechien, teacher and mother of three
Fennechien: I wouldn’t be working five days. So if I have to choose five days or nothing, I choose nothing. But on the other hand, I like the work. I don’t think I would be a better mother if I were at home five days. I also own a web shop. I make educational posters for the class or at home. So for me it is possible to do only that job at home. But then I would miss the colleagues and the conversations and the work I’d be able to do at the school. So I like that I’m not at home the whole time and that I’m also able to be somebody else besides being a mother. I like being a teacher also. I think I would be very depressed if I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.
Geerte: I’m very similar. I would definitely not be a better mom by being at home full time. But I also think if I had to choose full time or nothing, I would end up choosing nothing also. Or I would move and start living in Africa again. Or I would be like Fennechien; I would find a way to do something that could use my non-mother skills.
How would you respond to parties who say that part-time work keeps women out of leadership roles or is in some ways harmful to women?
Fennechien: I don’t like that it’s only the women who have to work less. Now I see around me that most of the dads are also working part time. So when it’s more normal for the husbands to work less, then it’s becoming more normal also in the more important kind of jobs.
Geerte: I was actually joking with one of my colleagues that we said we would share one position once we’re gynecologists. We would just share time 50/50. And then we would actually work 60 percent to have a little bit of overlap, because you need to. I think, in the end, if everybody works part time, you need a few more people than you would have if everybody worked full time. But I think it’s possible. But you need to have a mentality change.
Fennechien: But that’s arranged like that in the teaching job, because you share a class and you share the same job.
Geerte: Exactly. So I think it’s definitely doable. But because it’s not normal everywhere, [working part time] can be harmful, not just for women, for anyone who works part time. Like how Caitlin said that she missed the promotion because she was working part time. I think that’s the reality still in many professions, especially the competitive ones. But once you have a mentality change that quality is not necessarily measured in time, or you have a system where someone is working all the time but it doesn’t necessarily have to be one person, then it should be possible.
But I think it will have an influence in the end on the diversity of your job. For example, one of the surgeons I used to work with worked part time. But she only did breast surgery, and that made it possible for her to work [part time and] to be a very good surgeon. But in my mind that was sort of boring. I understood her choice, and it made her life balance the way she wanted it. But that’s one reason why I didn’t do surgery, because the kind of surgeon I would want to become would not be possible in part time. I would like the diversity of doing different things. You need to make choices. You cannot say I want to do it all, but I want to do it in only three days.
In general, do you feel like the Netherlands does a good job supporting parents? What, if anything, do you think the government could do better?
Caitlin: I think they are doing a pretty good job, because there have recently been a lot of developments, which only make it better and better for our parents. They have extended maternity leave and are providing more leave for fathers too. I am still breastfeeding, so I’m pumping at work right now, and it’s arranged that you can spend 25 percent of your work time nursing or pumping. That’s a lot because I don’t need that much time, but I could go to the daycare nursery and go back to work in that time if I wanted to. So I think that’s really arranged well in Holland.
“Once you have a mentality change that quality is not necessarily measured in time then it should be possible [to have both a satisfying home life and work life].”Geerte, doctor and mother of three
Fennechien: I think back in the day maybe dads would be looked upon [differently], like, “Oh, you are taking vacation off to be at home?” And now, because the government is arranging it, then it’s more normal. It’s normalized also by colleagues that you take time to be at home because it’s not [just] your choice but the government seeing the need for it.
Geerte: I think really good improvements have been made now. I think also maybe it would be good for everyone to have the possibility for six months of parental leave in total. That would help also because of the benefits of breastfeeding. You see a lot of women stop breastfeeding when they start working. You see a very big drop after three or four months even with women that continue. So I think, ideally, longer leave for both parents should be an option. But I think I’m happy with where it is.
* For context, maternity leave in the Netherlands includes leaving work on a mandatory basis at least four weeks before your due date (though you can leave as early as six weeks before your due date) and provides ten to twelve weeks of fully paid leave after the baby arrives. Families are then offered several months more of unpaid leave (calculated based on their number of working hours), which they can use at their discretion any time before the child turns eight. (A recent policy has also extended the paid period of leave by nine weeks if it is used in the first year of the baby’s life.) More detail on Dutch maternity leave policy can be read here, and information on the childcare stipend which we discuss in the interview can be found here.
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.