The state of American child care is pretty abysmal. Day care is not well-regulated, the quality is often poor, and it’s expensive: In 35 states and Washington, D.C., it costs more than a year’s in-state college tuition. We are the only wealthy nation that does not guarantee paid vacation or sick days, so when a snow day or a fever keeps a child out of school, it can mean a career setback for many parents. And for working parents with low-wage jobs, things are even worse.
We point to other countries—often ones in Europe—as models of how to do child care right. But is it really so much easier to be a working parent in Paris than it is in Peoria? We asked working moms and dads from all over the world to tell us their child care experiences. Here is the fourth in our occasional series, from a Canadian-born mother in Vienna, Austria.
Name: Tova Marr
Partner’s: occupation: Engineer
Children: A son, age 3.
Hi, Tova. What are your work hours?
I work 38.5 hours a week, and my husband works 37.5 hours a week.
Who takes care of your son when you are at work?
Originally he went to a private day care, but he was kicked out because of his special needs. Long story short: After about a year at day care, our son started to act up. They initially said it was because I work too much. Then they said he had ADHD. I had a child therapist visit the day care who assured me that he is just very spirited. After a few months, without my knowledge, the day care had him analyzed, and one morning they gave me a letter saying he has Asperger’s. Tears and many specialist visits later, it was determined that he has developmental delays, and when he turns 4, a firmer diagnosis will be given.
It became clear that he would be eventually kicked out of day care. Around November they said there was a possibility they would have to let us go in the spring. So I decided to be proactive and sought out another private day care. We gave it a trial run for a month, and it cost us valuable time and energy. Toward the end of the trial, it became clear that he was not going to adjust quickly. So, the new day care provider suggested I rebirth him because I had had a cesarean section and ergo he missed out on a pivotal part of birth (she believed the same thing about women who have epidurals). Apparently I didn’t just work too hard; I messed his birth up, too!
Whoa. That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Is that a common belief?
The rebirthing thing isn’t a common belief here, but the day care seemed very popular. The plan was to restrain my son for 45 minutes while he screamed and then release him into my arms. It would recreate birth. I told her that unfortunately we were too busy that morning and then hoofed it. We never returned.
So we went back to the old, slightly less terrible day care. Finally in the spring they told us we had to leave, as they had threatened. We are about to start a new one just downstairs from our new apartment. It is public and amazing with child specialists onsite. I CANNOT WAIT!
Why did you opt for private care instead of public care at first? Is public care harder to get into?
It usually is easier to get into a private one, and they will take younger kids. It is a real challenge finding a place in a public one and for kids under 2.
How much does it cost?
The private day cares are subsidized by the state, so we paid about 300 euros ($393) a month. Public day cares are state-sponsored, so on average they cost 60 euros ($70) a month. Bear in mind that average salaries are around 1,300 euros ($1,706) net a month.
What happens when your son is sick?
I shake my fist angrily. Our place of employment allows a few days off a year for family sick leave. Otherwise I take a sick day or my husband does.
Do you live near family that can help you take care of your son?
My in-laws live here six months of the year. Usually we wouldn’t ask my mother-in-law to help as much as she has. Our regular day care time (before they hated our son) was 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and then our nanny would pick him up and take him home. Toward the end of his stay, they brought us down to part-time hours. And for the past six weeks, my mother-in-law has come by to take care of him three times a week until the nanny comes at 1:30.
Are mothers expected to be the “default parent,” which is to say, the person who misses work when the kid is sick, or who deals with school events and other organizational tasks?
YES! And that is why I was so harshly judged at our old day care. I speak German but am not fluent, so my husband took over the administrative tasks. Also, I started a new job, so I had less flexibility for days off. It is also very frowned upon to have a nanny here. In general, grandmas are expected to be the secondary caregiver. Moms should only work part time, and dads can do whatever they like.
How long was your maternity leave? And did your partner get paternity leave?
Maternity leave is on average two years here. I was unemployed, so that didn’t relate to me. I went back to work after 11 months, and my husband was able to take three months off. (Editor’s note: Austrian leave is complicated. For 16 weeks—8 weeks before and after birth—women get 100 percent of their pay, and they are not permitted to go back to work, even if they want to. After that, parents can choose to take up to two years of unpaid parental leave per child, divided up however they would like. Parents can also choose to postpone three months of that leave until the child’s seventh birthday.)
What is your employer’s attitude toward family responsibility?
My employer is pretty flexible in that respect. My boss is understanding when I have to take longer lunches or take half days.