While the costs of raising children can certainly squeeze many adults in their 30s and 40s, increasingly these same adults are finding themselves responsible for the care of their own parents as well. Termed the “sandwich generation,” this group of adults are dealing with mounting stress and pressure to financially provide as caregivers to both their children and their parents. Such responsibilities often demand they make certain career decisions that allow them to juggle these roles and take care of their family, and sometimes these decisions are tough ones to make.
For the past five weeks, I have been privileged to take some time off and travel the world with my husband. Our journey will last about six months in total, and will take us across every continent except for Antarctica. In the process, I have been interviewing women and their families in different countries to better understand the issues women face abroad and how they are both similar and different from those experienced in the U.S. I’m documenting these interviews on my blog, Women of the World.
So far, I’ve traveled through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Italy. Some of these countries are the most progressive in the world when it comes to gender equality, and I’ve learned valuable lessons not only about gender, but about ways of life for Europeans that in some ways seem to be healthier, happier ways of being compared to how we live in the U.S.
The 4 things I’ve learned about life overseas are specific to my experience—they are not meant to perfectly represent life for everyone in these countries, but rather provide a snapshot from the people I’ve talked to and my observations so far.
1. Work is NOT the center of life
In many of the countries I’ve visited, work is not as intimately bound up with one’s identity as it often is in the U.S. Many European professionals go to work at about 9am in the morning and return by 4 or 5pm. And when they come home, they’re done with work—there’s no incessant need to check e-mail after-hours or even talk much about work at all. Instead, things like time with family and outside hobbies are more important. But work isn’t unimportant to Europeans—in fact, every person I talked to takes a lot of pride in their work, it just doesn’t take center stage in their lives. And in addition to working fewer hours, Europeans get more vacation time too—in fact, it’s a law that every country in the European Union provide 4 weeks of paid vacation to employees. To me, this seems like a way more balanced way of living.
2. Parental leave is amazing
Parental leave is not just a lofty policy ideal like it is in the U.S., but a real benefit that both women AND men are entitled to in many countries. For example, parents in Sweden get 480 days of leave at 80% pay that parents can split up however they choose, and that’s after 18 weeks reserved just for new moms. Additionally, dads get 90 days of leave reserved specifically for them. In Estonia, parents get more than a year—435 days—to share after maternity leave ends, and are paid the average of both their wages.
Caregiving is valued in many countries, and government makes it a lot easier for families to combine work and family– in addition to generous parental leave, childcare is also way more affordable. In Finland, government-funded childcare is free to all parents with children age 7 and under. And if parents choose not to use childcare and stay at home to care for their children, they get paid for it.
3. The idea of a level playing field actually exists
In the U.S., we believe that all men and women are created equal, and that there is opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard. But in reality, not all opportunities are created equal. For example, where you can afford to live greatly impacts the quality of public schools available to your children, and there are stark differences between wealthy and poor neighborhoods around the country in terms of educational attainment and success. And with skyrocketing costs of college, many Americans either can’t afford to go or, if they do, are then saddled with crushing debt that affects their economic security for the rest of their lives.
In places like Finland, public schools are more or less equal in quality and even state universities are free. Students in Norway typically pay a fee of 50 euros per semester at public universities. In these countries, making education more or less equal regardless of family income or background is the solution to leveling the playing field and giving every citizen a truly equal chance.
4. Men have more freedom to define their own masculinity
In the U.S., we’ve made a lot of progress toward breaking down gender roles and prescriptions about how men and women ought to behave. But compared to some European countries, we have a long way to go. In my travels, I have been struck by how some of the men I’ve met seem much more willing to express emotions and talk about things we almost never hear men talk about in the U.S., like mental illness and eating disorders. I met one young man who had taken sick leave from his job because he was struggling with depression. He talked about his challenges so openly and honestly, without an ounce of embarrassment or shame. And the fact that he actually could take months of leave from work to deal with his mental illness is amazing itself—as he put it: “We might pay a lot in taxes here, but when you get sick—physically or mentally—our country will take care of you.”
It’s true that the way of life for Europeans is due in large part to their bigger governments, and therefore, higher taxes. Yet, working families often don’t feel strained because of it—in fact, Norwegians enjoy a higher disposable income than the average working family in the U.S. For many Europeans, providing these benefits is a part of their culture—they truly value caregiving, family, and equality and couldn’t imagine life any other way.
While I absolutely love my country and am proud to be an American, I think it’s a good idea to look beyond our borders and take some lessons from other successful countries back to the U.S. Bringing more balance and fulfillment into American lives can only make us stronger.
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