Work-Life Balance in the Netherlands

I’ve tried several variations on work-life balance over the years, and found most of them to be fairly out of balance. When the children were small, Tony and I ran a business together, whilst juggling full-time care for a baby and a toddler. We thought a lot about hiring an au pair or a nanny, but moved around too much to ever really manage to do it. So my memories of those days are a bit of a haze of sleepless nights and management meetings, and never having quite enough time to do everything. Still, it was fun and exciting, and I do look back on those days fondly. And I learned some pretty mad organizational skills.

After our business failed during the economic downturn, I was a stay-at-home mom for a few years, while Tony worked. That’s when I found out that despite having been raised in a family where SAHM was considered the optimal occupation for a woman, I am a terrible SAHM. It made me miserable and depressed. To make matters worse, I was determined to homeschool the kids. I’m quite proud of the educational foundation I laid for them, and consider it one of my major parenting successes. And I do have some lovely memories of the time I spent with them. But by and large, it was a pretty difficult time in my life. I struggled a lot with guilt for not feeling more fulfilled by SAHM-hood (thank you, Mormon upbringing). But mainly I felt bored and overwhelmed at once, because so many of my social and intellectual needs weren’t being met.

So when I got a full-time job a couple of years ago, it was an instant improvement to my life. Adult conversation! Higher-level thinking! Appreciation for work well done! Job responsibilities that had nothing to do with dishes, laundry, or breaking up fights! I vastly preferred working full-time to being a SAHM. However, there were some things I didn’t love. My commute was an hour by car each way. I got through a lot of audiobooks, but it was a pain. I felt bad for my poor partner, who was as miserable at home as I had been. I felt like I never had time to do all of life’s little errands, and ended up doing a lot of that stuff on weekends, not leaving enough time to recharge. And eight hours was just a long time to be in the same place, doing the same thing every day. I’m a lover of variety (hence the obsession with travel), and the 9-5 was a bit too much routine in my life.

Amsterdam bicyclesFast forward to Amsterdam, where I think finding a good work-life balance is a bit easier. Dutch corporate culture is in general more accommodating about people having actual lives than U.S. corporate culture. For one thing, four weeks of vacation a year is an absolute minimum. Tony’s and my jobs both have five. And you are expected to take all your vacation days. Working four days a week or some other variation of part-time, especially for women, is quite common. And sharing of parental responsibilities is more pronounced here. It’s very normal to see dads making the school run or out with their kids, even during the day.

My work setup is a little unconventional, even for here, but it works beautifully for me. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, I work my Dutch job, at a private archive in The Hague, but it’s only fifteen hours total, which works out to five hours per day. Door-to-door, it’s an hour commute, but it’s by train, and the train has wifi, so I get quite a bit of work done for my other job during my commute. That other job is my American job, which was full-time until I moved here. Now I work for my American company part-time, with completely flexible hours (other than a couple of Friday morning conference calls, which are Friday afternoon conference calls for me because of the time difference, but hey, you can’t have everything). Tony and I take turns cycling with the kids to school, and I pick them up.

It feels like the perfect amount of everything. I spend enough time physically at work to enjoy it, but not so much it gets old. Wednesday and Friday morning and early afternoon, I have time to do errands (and occasionally even fun stuff) without the kids. I get home in time to make dinner from scratch almost every evening. Together, my two jobs are equivalent to one modest but reasonable salary. I’m not on track to break any glass ceilings, but I’ve examined my value system, and that’s actually more something I felt like I should care about than something that’s truly important to me. I’m still fine-tuning things, since I’ve only been doing this for a month or so, but it’s the first time in my adult life where I’ve felt like what I am doing is sustainable. I can picture myself keeping this life indefinitely, and not wanting to change a thing. And by and large, I feel pretty put-together. I have a lot on my plate, but I am happy and balanced enough to accomplish it all.

And then there are days like today, where my five o-clock Friday afternoon conference call coincided with the time when I was packing up the kids to go home from the park. The Homeless World Cup had been set up at what is normally a fairly quiet playground, so there was music blaring, and the sounds of football boomed out from the stadium. I was unlocking my bicycle and simultaneously trying to break up a sibling argument when my turn to speak came up. This was more or less the content of my contribution to today’s conference call:

credit for random beautiful photo of Amsterdam

What do you think?