We are thrilled to launch our third annual installment of Motherhood Around the World. First up: My friend Penny lives with her husband Hugo and one-year-old Oscar in Amsterdam. (We were lucky enough to visit her a few years ago.) Here, she shares 16 surprising things about raising a child in the Netherlands…
Penny’s background: When I moved to Amsterdam for work in 2011, my first impression was that it was a beautiful, incredibly international city. Not only are there tourists from all over the world (often, far too many tourists), but there is a big “expat” culture here. There are lots of young people in their 20s and 30s working and living here, hailing from all parts of the world. That makes it very easy and navigable to live here as an expat.
A few years ago, I met my husband Hugo, who is French, and we now have a son, Oscar. We live in the east of Amsterdam (Oost), which is a mellow, family-friendly area right on the river. It’s not only super livable, but also has a great mixture of cultures. We’re total Oost fans now.
On biking everywhere: You see an unbelievable number of bikes on the street at any given moment. The school rush hour in our neighborhood is hilarious to observe; I’ve never seen so many people with young children either on their bikes or biking next to them, all waiting patiently at the stop lights, then taking off like Formula 1 drivers as soon as it turns green. It’s a circus out there.
You can recognize expat babies because they’re the ones wearing helmets. We bought our son a huge one. Already our six-year-old neighbor has asked, Why is he wearing a helmet? At least we’ve made it through the first year.
On family bikes: Many parents have one, two, three, even four children’s bike seats. Bakfiets, or cargo bikes, are popular, too. You’ll also often see a little kid riding their own bike alongside a parent holding onto their shoulder. Kids get super comfortable riding from a young age, often as early as two years old. They start off with a wooden balance bike, with no pedals. If they walk fast enough, it starts gliding.
On toughness: People here bike so quickly. Google Maps will give a walking, biking and driving time for trips around Amsterdam, and for biking and walking we double it for ourselves because the Dutch are so much faster than we are, probably because they’re twice as tall. For the Dutch, it’s unquestioning that you would bike in all weather. The kids here are also often “underdressed” by American standards — for example, not wearing hats or mittens. They have a sense of being super tough.
On childbirth: Holland is one of the few western countries that still regularly does home birth. [Twenty percent of births in the Netherlands are done at home, compared to less than 2% in the United States, England, France and Germany.] They treat pregnancy as a normal, healthy thing; it’s very de-medicalized. For a person like me, that’s great, since it’s very easy for me to get anxious about medical stuff. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and found it helpful, but a bit frustrating. Here, it’s super chill; you use midwives unless you have a medical concern — like if you’re high risk, or have gestational diabetes — in which case you’d see an ob-gyn. You don’t have a guaranteed space at a hospital when you go into labor, because it depends how busy it is that day; so you rank the hospitals in order of your preference, and your midwife calls around asking if they have space. We went into the hospital at 6 p.m.
We had a huge birthing suite and bathtub. They have a culture of no epidural, no intervention of any kind. I ended up giving birth on a stool because, apparently, a squatting position is more ergonomic for facilitating a baby-exit. (This is what mine looked like.) Our midwife was right in front and could put her hands underneath to catch the baby. Hugo was super involved and adorable; he cut the umbilical cord.
You’re kicked out of the hospital as soon as you can pee and take a shower. I foolishly could do that by 1 a.m., so although we had gone into the hospital at 6 p.m, we were home by 2 a.m. The reason this is okay is that they send a person called a kraamzorg to your house every day for eight days after the birth, for a minimum of three hours, to take care of you and teach you how to care for the baby. It’s wonderful.
But since I delivered in the middle of the night, we couldn’t call the kraamzorg until the next morning. Between 2 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. we were on our own with no clue what we were doing; I had barely learned to breastfeed; it was the most terrifying night of my life!
On maternity leave: You get 16 weeks, and you must take a least four before the due date. That’s all fully paid. There’s good parental leave, too. This year, I’ve taken six hours off per week, which basically ends up being a whole day. [You are entitled to parental leave when you’ve been working for the same employer for at least one year and are caring for a child who is younger than eight years of age. Both parents are entitled to parental leave.]
On childcare: A lot of babies will start at a crèche (or government-subsidized daycare) around three months, once their mother’s maternity leave ends. Oscar goes to an amazing crèche. Holland is one of the most popular places for part-time work, especially with women, so many kids are in crèche just two days a week or so. Our son is in four days a week. It’s great. Some people have nannies, as well, and of course grandparents often are very involved, too.
On work/life balance: On Wednesdays, kids have a half a day of school, so typically one parent will take Wednesday afternoons off. There’s generally a good work/life balance, and there’s more respect here if you want to make that balance — it’s easier to find a place that won’t frown on you for it. It’s funny, I didn’t realize how much I said “good job” or “good work” to our son; my French husband is always like, why does it have to be about job or work, he’s a little kid? Now I say, “Well done!” I don’t think there’s a Dutch idiom we say to kids that matches good job or good work.
On playgrounds: There are awesome playgrounds with cafés or restaurants right next to them. Kids climb up really steep ladders and go down crazy slides. There’s certainly a culture of the family setting up shop with a picnic, and parents having wine while the kids play. My friend’s husband, who is Dutch, says he doesn’t think the playgrounds should even have the sponge-y ground; kids should learn to toughen up. One random thing: There are very few baby swings, I have no idea why. These are the sort of things you can’t get answers to!
On making friends: This is definitely something we struggle with. Although the Dutch people we’ve met have been friendly, it has been difficult to get to know them on a deep personal level. I liken it a bit to Minnesota, where I’m from, and even Seattle, where I lived for a number of years: people are super friendly but there’s a limit to how close they’ll actually let you get. Now that I’m a mother, I wish I had more mom connections. Amsterdam is also such a city of expats and movement that as soon as you make new friends, inevitably some of them move away. All that being said, in our new house, we share a common terrace with five apartments. Everyone is Dutch, and there are six kids. There are a few with whom we feel we could really be close friends, but it takes time, of course.
On being down-to-earth: The Dutch ethos that I’ve been taught both in classes and by Dutch people is to be normal. Basically, the Dutch credo is “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg,” which means “just be normal, that’s already crazy enough.” The idea is that essentially you shouldn’t try to stand out from the crowd too much or be better than others. There’s no push to make your kid be the best or fastest or craziest.
On used toys: Every year, on King’s Day in April, there are “kindermarkts” or kid markets where little kids (with their parents) sell and buy used toys. Before I had a kid I thought it was cute yet logistically nightmarish, but now that we have Oscar I realize the sheer genius. This year we got two enormous boxes of amazing blocks for two euro. The kids are so fired up to buy and sell and negotiate. Many sell pastries or lemonade, or arrange carnival games that people can pay to play.
On fashion: Do you know the blog Stuff Dutch People Like? Number one, most Dutch women are tall with a straight build, so they can pull off clothes that someone like me cannot. Like, pants that are baggy in strange places. Dutch guys aren’t afraid of brightly colored pants or shirts, and often have semi-long hair styled with gel. The dudes are insanely tall — the average man here is over 6 feet tall. Many Dutch women are also super tall and wear super super tall heels; these women must be 6’3″ when all is said and done. I’m like at their boob height. One trend right now for women is tennis shoe wedges (like these). It’s like the Pontiac Aztek in a shoe form.
On food: The Dutch love bread and potatoes and sausage. The most famous Dutch meal is stamppot, which is basically mashed potatoes with sausage and maybe kale all mixed in, in the wintertime especially. I borrowed a Dutch kids cookbook from a friend, and it said that from a very young age, you can give your kids a crust of bread to chew on, now you can give them potatoes. It felt very Dutch. Kids here also chew on giant Grissini crackers, those pencil-sized breadsticks. We started giving them to Oscar and he just freaking loves them.
A lot of Dutch kids also eat chocolate sprinkles on bread for breakfast, called hagelslag.
On restaurants: People sit at cafés right along the canals. Many restaurants have a kid corner, with space to play or a basket of toys. When we go out, we usually get drinks and dinner, and there’s great live music. Crowds around town are typically pleasantly mixed in age — from the twenties up through the seventies. It’s a good mix, it’s a nice city for that. You don’t feel like you’re old turning 40.
On children’s stories: Jip and Janneke, from the 50s or 60s, are still very prized. They’re drawn in silhouettes, so there’s no sense of race. They’re best friends, a boy and a girl, who hang out and have adventures. All the kids have Jip and Janneke rainboots and lunch boxes.
On gender equality: I’ve noticed that little Dutch girls often speak loudly and are not afraid to voice their opinions. Equality is very important here in general. Boys and girls don’t seem to be raised differently, where girls should be demure. Men do not hold doors open for women. Guys do not pay for meals on dates; you split the bill.
Looking ahead: Amsterdam is a great place to raise a child, and we feel very lucky to be here. It’s the kid-friendly, comfortable and urban-yet-relaxed lifestyle that definitely appeals. Plus, for an American, to be so close to so many amazing European destinations is still a thrill — three hours to Paris by train, a short flight to London or Berlin or Bordeaux… Still blows my mind.
Thank you so much, Penny!
(Photos courtesy of Penny Sheets, as well as a bike photo from Stuff Dutch People Like, bakfiets from Esther, hagelslag from On My Journey, kid markets from Winkles, stamppot from A Hungry Bear Won’t Dance, and a few from my and Alex’s vacation photos.)