Alright, we have a new rule.
Setting aside the question of whether or not I am the person on earth who sets new rules for the entire population of American mothers, I hereby declare that we shall not, under any circumstances, engage in criticisms of “choice” without taking into account the fact that America hates people.
Not to be dramatic.
But it loves us fighting with one another about individual decision making.
You see, I moved to The Netherlands. Most of you know this. I have been permanently and irrevocably ruined. I will never see the USA in the same way–and I didn’t see it in a particularly flattering light in the first place– but I truly, deeply, had no idea how bad average American parents have it.
I don’t think a person can understand it until they’ve left the USA, raised children in pretty much any other developed nation.
From where I’m standing, it’s truly surreal to watch mothers in the States yell at each other about “choices” to be a stay-at-home mom or “working” mom, or to breastfeed or not, “helicopter moms” vs. “free range” moms or anything else we yell at each other about.
Why? Because every single decision we make is defined by the utter lack of social safety and healthcare in the USA.
In other words: it’s not you, it’s America.
No, I’m not making us all helpless victims of the system. What I’m saying is this: Every single decision we make as parents is almost entirely determined by the resources at our disposal, the structure of our communities, labor laws and rights, pension availability, healthcare, childcare, and the entire concept of work-life balance. Or lack thereof.
Critiques of “parental choices” are irrelevant and misguided if they fail to take into account how little “choice” most Americans have.
Allow me to explain. (When I say the word “guaranteed,” I mean “legally mandated at a national level.”)
Guaranteed paid parental leave allows mothers and fathers to establish a more stable and early role as parents, integrating breastfeeding if desired and allowing for a less stressful newborn period.
Subsidies on childcare for a much wider breadth of people allows many more people to have an actual “choice” in whether or not they work outside the home, or breastfeed, for that matter. Collective bargaining as a norm and robust federal labor laws allow for creative work structures, and things like “daddy days” in the Netherlands, a half day each week when fathers can take a day off work, PAID, to spend time with their kids. For the first eight fucking years of life.
A 36-hour workweek and flexibility within that week allows families to create more customized schedules and for both parents to share the childcare, and to not be financially penalized for it.
Guaranteed paid sick days and care days for both parents at all jobs further helps balance domestic and childcare responsibilities, and removes the stress of one parent always needing to endure the burden of a sick kid, or go to work sick, which means they’re exhausted and worn out at home, or get sicker and sicker until they really can’t work, at all.
Guaranteed paid vacation of 4-6 weeks a year plus an extra paycheck to fund it, plus quarterly child benefits to help you raise kids increases mental health and lowers stress levels of families, not to mention supports a functioning family as a whole.
Universal healthcare and FREE healthcare for children under 18 makes parents less obsessed with safety.
Subsidies and assistance for low-income/minimum wage workers make parents less concerned with their child being the top of the class. Parents are much less concerned about having The Best. Mommy wars and shame are virtually nonexistent. Because it isn’t an existential thing here–parent how you want.
Ever think about how many American parents are helicopter nutbags because they know a skilled labor, minimum-wage job is essentially a fast track to a shit life?
Well-funded schools not based on local tax income means your kid can go to any neighborhood school which gives you more time in the mornings and evenings and gives your children more independence, and removes the frantic need to live in certain neighborhoods so your kids have a chance at getting a decent education so they have a chance of getting scholarships to attend unaffordable universities to attempt to get a job that will pay off their student debt that accrues at 7%.
But we get mad about school choices.
Universal healthcare and robust mental health and addiction treatment programs make the streets safer, which allows kids to be freer, which allows us parents to be freer–not to mention access all of those services themselves.
Universal healthcare means you are not tied to your job for the benefits, for literal survival. So you have more actual freedom of employment. You can leave. You can start over. You can take a break. You don’t have to stay in a job that’s sucking your soul out your ears so your family has healthcare.
(Tell me again how the USA is the country of freedom, though.)
Affordable university means you are not strapped forever by student loans. It means you don’t have to panic about how to fund your kid’s education. It means you don’t have to work three jobs to pay for it all.
If you have a burnout, also known as extreme stress to the point that you’re unable to work–also known as “the way most Americans live,” or if you have a chronic illness making work impossible, you can take a year or two off, paid at at least 70%, then go back to work. By law, employers must pay this amount for 2 years, and again, this is a minimum. If complications from pregnancy arise, you’re paid at 100% of your salary.
You have the capacity to take care of yourself so you can take care of your fucking family.
Universal pensions means there are many, many more grandparents around to help their kids raise their grandkids. Do you ever think about that? Think about how many old folks work basically until death in the USA. Think about how many families take in their elderly or sick parents or family members because there’s nowhere else for them to go and nobody to care for them. What if that were relieved? What if that were covered?
Can you imagine the difference it makes to KNOW your chronically ill, mentally ill, or elderly parent or loved one is CARED FOR and you don’t have to personally guarantee they don’t die alone in a Lazy Boy armchair or your living room?
This is truly just the surface, friends. Off the top of my head.
So no, we don’t even get to scream at each other for falling apart in the USA as parents, for crumbling under stress, for messy houses or yelling too much. Working and middle-class American parents are thrown scraps, chucked into a society that doesn’t give a shit about them, then told if it isn’t working, they simply need to try harder.
Unless you’re rich, in the USA you’re set up to fail then blamed for it, and every conversation is reduced on both sides to identity politics and shit-slinging us vs. them. What a way to smash class solidarity, no?
It’s stunning to watch from here, and I’m fascinated by my own past participation in it. I understood it was more complex than simply “individual choice,” but I did not understand how much easier all of it would be, how vastly different all of it would be, if America treated basic human rights as actual rights instead of privileges.
I also did not understand the role of “culture wars” in all this and the way political parties form themselves around cultural issues precisely because it distracts us from the systemic problems materially affecting our lives.
As long as we’re angry at each other, we won’t get mad enough to be like the French, or English, or Russians, or the Dutch, who ate their aristocratic leader in 1672. I am not recommending that. What I’m saying is, people get mad when they’re tired of being fucked by the oligarchy, and then, sometimes, they revolt.
OH WAIT THE AMERICANS DID THAT TOO.
And as long as we’re mad at each other, we aren’t mad at them.
I know what some of you are thinking: You live in a commie country. You pay 85% taxes. (I read that literally a few days ago).
I pay the same tax rate I paid in the USA and California (around 24%).
Nobody gets ahead in those socialist countries. Lol. The Netherlands is a fucking tax haven. It’s regulated capitalism. Their healthcare system is a blend of public and private. I buy private insurance; if I want to pay more, I can have more services covered. But the basic package, and the cost of that package, and what it covers, is dictated by the government each year as opposed to for-profit insurance companies with a vested interest in me NOT getting healthcare.
This is worth repeating: The Netherlands is a tax haven, not some socialist utopia. It has some of the greatest inequality between rich and poor in the world. The difference? They raised the bottom, folks.
They don’t make these choices out of some bleeding heart niceness. The Dutch are fiercely pragmatic, science-driven (a lot of atheists and agnostics here), and measured. They make these societal decisions because they have the best outcomes for the society as a whole.
No worries, you can be an obscenely rich asshole here, too.
The only difference is that here the state has said, “You know what, the rich can be filthy rich and WAY richer than the bottom but the bottom can ALSO have a decent fucking quality of life.” A basic standard of living.
In America they say the rich get it all and the rest get nothing and sorry, there’s no other way it can be.
But there is. And until we stop blaming one another for the shit show of parenting in America, they’ll keep winning.
Writers: I have a memoir workshop coming up. I promise I’ll be less mad than I am in this post.
FROM MEMORY TO MEMOIR:
APRIL 6 – MAY 11, 2023
Thursdays at 10am PST/1pm EST
A six-week online workshop for the person ready to write a memoir, or the one with a shitty draft abandoned in a desk drawer. We will discuss everything from narrative arc to dialogue to writing about other people in a way that won’t make them hate you. This workshop involves weekly direct feedback on your writing and offers tiered support, including a whole-manuscript review.
KatieFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 7:06
I think this is true than true and I’m angry over the truth. I’m more on the side of have than have nots but I still want to have the entire system fully implode and start all over again. Hopefully rebuild the right way. I’m also terrified of the process of going down and coming back up again. Maybe because I don’t have too much/enough to stay out of the fray and will lose some of what I have (maybe temporarily) so others can get more but I hate thinking about who has it worse and how many parents and kids that affects. It’s depressing.
KariFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 7:25
God I loved this read. On point. Brilliant.
ZannaFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 7:30
Thank you for laying all this truth out so clearly. There’s nothing the elites here in the USA won’t do to keep the rest of us divided and fighting amongst ourselves. I’m pissed off, too.
suzanne dillonFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 7:34
Rage crying. Thank you for this.
AshleyFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 12:28
Oh my god yes! I have an eight month old and I feel like I’ve been internally screaming since he’s been born, ‘this is absolutely impossible.’
My husband and I both work from home, are not poor, and waited a long time to have him so we’d be more secure. And we’re practically drowning. I have no idea how anyone else pulls this off.
I feel like we’re one crisis from mental breakdown. And the main reason is that he wakes up a lot and doesn’t want to be separated from us… because he’s a baby! I was in a much better place mentally and physically while on leave, because I didn’t have the pressure of work hanging over me. We weren’t constantly getting sick from daycare. We weren’t worried about him crying in a place he doesn’t know and where he won’t eat because he doesn’t understand we’re coming back for him.
If we had better leave, for like a year, that *alone* would dramatically improve our lives. Just not having to be separated, being able to make up some sleep during the day, delaying some of the germ exposures that keep him home anyway… all of our stress would be so much lower.
When I express to peers how absurd it is that we’re expecting little babies to be away from their parents and their literal food source (if BF), people just sort of shrug and are like, ‘they adjust! They bond with their teachers! ‘ and yeah, they do, but why the heck do we put people in this position?! It’s not like capitalism is even getting good work out of sleep deprived, sad, mentally-about-to-snap people. So just let us take care of our kids for a year!
TinaFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 7:34
First, pretty please do a part two about the differences for the kids. Second, if they keep us fighting and in a perpetual state of “ignorance is bliss” then most will never question that they have any choice in the matter of their life happiness. I am in my seventh month living in Portugal and the weight off my shoulders is massive. The time between our travel insurance expiring and our private insurance kicking in was about two weeks. I didn’t lose a single moment of my life worrying about the what-ifs like I would have in the States. If the shit hit the fan I knew I wouldn’t receive a bill six months!! after a hospital visit for 100,000 euros. That is priceless. I know from your posts that the Netherlands isn’t utopia and neither is Portugal, but I wish I would have know about this “other side” a lot sooner because raising my son in the States for his first 8 years was extremely soul crushing and absolutely financially obscene. I hope our paths might cross some day in Europe.
CaraFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 7:39
Fucking brilliant. And depressing. And awful. And anger-producing. UGH.
JoseyFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 8:06
Spot on as always, Janelle. It’s scary how much we all continue with the terrible status quo because at least the shittiness is “comfortable” vs. the unknown of breaking it all down to build our society back up in a way that would benefit ALL OF US.
KristiFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 8:51
Thank you. I feel seen. I’ve been saying this to the best of my ability since my kid was born, and it’s a tough message to get through some people’s shells. Because we do grow shells to deal with being hated, being blamed and held individually responsible for conditions that are way way WAY beyond an individual’s power to address. I hope enough of us can come together to finally make some changes.
VickiFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 10:34
I feel this in my core. My husband and I haven’t had health insurance in over ten years. It’s one big fucking gamble with our lives. I worked full time when my two older kids were young. My husband worked and works full time as well. When I got pregnant with my youngest, I left and stayed home with her. A world of difference. Our system here is so fucked up.
The part about us all fighting each other so we don’t fight those in power….absolute fucking truth. Why don’t people get this? Immigrants aren’t taking your scraps you’ve worked so hard to obtain. The people in lower want you to think that. Ugh. I could go on and on.
AmyFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 10:45
On fire!!!! Your last few paragraphs about having the same exact tax rate now as before just underscores EVERYTHING.
TaraFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 10:51
Wow. Like you I “know” there are inequities and systemic problems within the US system. But. When you lay it out and compare it to where you are now, it’s mind-boggling.
p.s. “You can be an obscenely rich asshole here too.” The BEST.
DeniseFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 12:01
People are always afraid of the wrong things. I can’t believe we’re having discourse about drag queens while everything is crashing and burning around us. Thank you for this refreshing (and frustrating) perspective.
EllenFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 12:47
Brilliant as always, so affirming and devastating at the same time. Thank you Janelle!
elizabethFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 14:03
I got teary reading this. It’s a “plea from the heart” (or more likely: a scream from the heart). We in the US are so lost, lost, lost when it comes to demanding basic rights and care. I thank you with all my heart for speaking/writing to this so fiercely. I used to be so deeply proud of being an American. Now, I duck my head and keep quiet. We’ve missed the mark. Badly.
WendyFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 15:37
I loved reading this – my folks are from Holland and I would love to spend time there alas I can’t get a Dutch passport. Australia is pretty similar to Holland with universal healthcare but with a rapidly aging population it is a bit worrying. Glad you are happy there – you deserve it!
sarah martinFriday, 17 March, 2023 at 15:47
An excellent synopsis of the issues, and the truth is so ridiculous. Thank you.
Is it ok to share this article publicly on a FB page?
EmilySaturday, 18 March, 2023 at 1:22
We know! Of course you’re right but this stings! It feels like Canadians humble bragging and at the same time calling us the meth lab in the basement during the summer of 2020. We are painfully fucking aware. I mean it when I say good for you! Nice that you were able to leave. Feel better? Good greif.
JohnSaturday, 18 March, 2023 at 3:57
“the Dutch, who ate their aristocratic leader in 1672. I am not recommending that.” – Jannelle
*takes off bib*
*quietly puts away the hot sauce*
I love hearing the “but your taxes are super high!” whinging, I once got it from an conservative friend and I just happened to have a pay slip in my backpack. His simmering annoyance came to a full frothing boil as he got on with the maths a started to realize I had a slightly lower tax burden than he did, particularly once we calculated the cost for his half assed, employer provided health insurance plan (as long as we’re identifying things that are nominally “free”).
He got especially pissed when I reminded him that I was at that very moment in the middle of my vacation, part of my yearly 30 days. The final blistering “oh, fuck you” came when he reminded me that sales tax in Germany was 19%, to which I asked him if he thought consumer goods were 19% more expensive.
“Well, yeah, you pay 19% more!”
“No,” I sighed, taking another long pull of beer, apparently failing to contain my smug socialist contempt before continuing, “a TV or a Washing Machine, or a Car cost pretty much the same in the Bratwurst Bundesland as they do anywhere in the US. If it costs 1000 bucks in the US, it costs 1000 Euros there too.”
“Oh, fuck you,” he spat.
“Only with state subsidized contraceptives, buttercup,” I grinned and blew him a kiss, because I’m nothing if not fucking classy.
TracySaturday, 18 March, 2023 at 15:36
I’m still pissed about my shitty maternity leave (4 weeks before and 6 weeks after at 66% of my salary) and my kids are 28 & 24 years old.
PeggyMonday, 20 March, 2023 at 5:18
I was wondering about the rich to poor inequality so I am glad you addresses. Before you did, I was thinking “oh, the gap must be narrower”. But raising the bottom is the answer is we cannot get a narrower gap!
JacWednesday, 22 March, 2023 at 13:18
from australia, I wish so much we would emulate the Dutch, rather than uncritically copy-catting “the American dream”