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.
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.