When Olga Mecking moved to the Netherlands, she was pleasantly surprised to see so many fathers on the playground during the workday.
When we moved to the Netherlands from Germany, one of my first tasks was to find a playground. I needed somewhere to go to when my eldest threatened to jump out of the window. She was two years old and had just acquired a baby sister. This proved too much and she was flying off the handle, and to be honest, so was I. In fact, a stranger had accused me of abusing her and called the police on me simply because she was having a tantrum and I was trying to get her in her stroller. Of course, she was screaming. At that point, I was so sleep-deprived that I could only take everything one minute at a time. I was certainly not thriving, in fact, I was barely surviving.
I found a nice playground close to home. It was clean, spacious and had a big swing that my eldest loved. We went there almost every day. One day, I realized, something was different about the parents. I approached one with a friendly smile. He smiled back and returned to playing with his child. I thought “a father at the playground, how nice!”
And then I looked at the other parents and I realized what felt different. All the other the parents were dads. I was the only mother. What’s more, these dads were highly engaged, chasing their little ones around while blocking out the rest of the world. I began watching them in earnest. These dads were doing an amazing job. In fact, they were out-parenting me in every possible way. When it was time to leave, their kids left without a peep to go home while I had to force my eldest daughter into the stroller. Their kids never cried while mine screamed their lungs out. Their sons and daughters shared their toys while my daughter screamed, “MINE!” as soon another child as much as looked at the toy she was holding (even if said toy wasn’t hers). And when I awkwardly sat down to breastfeed my baby, they were neither shocked nor disgusted. They ignored me and continued to play with their kids.
I felt like an intruder. No, I was an intruder and I resented it at first. But, then I realized I was being ridiculous. I was jealous. After all, I should have known better. Growing up in Poland, my father used to take me for walks. At that time, fathers taking their kids to the park was unheard of. He got looks that said, “What is this man doing with this child and where is her mother?” These days, fathers are expected to share of parenting duties, but it hasn’t always been like that.
The truth was of course the children at the playground were lucky to have such involved fathers. But, I wondered, how this was possible. It was a weekday. Anywhere else, most fathers would have been at work. What made the Netherlands so unique?
The Netherlands have been called the champion of part-time work, and not without reason: according to The Economist, where “more than half of the Dutch working population works part time, a far greater share than in any other rich-world country.” With 75%, women are in the majority when it comes to part time work, but 26.8% of men work less than 36 hours a week. That is slightly more than one in every four men. Many of these men are fathers, which would explain the high visibility of fathers in the Netherlands, and at the playground.
Dutch fathers aren’t hard to spot because they’re everywhere. I see them every day. They bring their children to school and on errands. They play with their kids. And they do all that with a natural style I can’t help but admire. Dutch fathers also have incentives for working less and spending more time with their families: they get two days of paternity leave as well as one fixed day a week they can stay at home with their kids-called a papadag or “daddy day.” My Dutch mom friends often mention the papadag: “My husband is with the kids while I work” or “We’re spending this day as a family.” Now my husband does the same.
Dutch children have been called the happiest in the world, and one of the reasons is the high involvement of fathers in sharing parenting duties. But the Netherlands are not perfect when it comes to gender equality: Dutch women typically work part time or stop working altogether after having kids, and they’re more responsible for domestic chores than men. Historically, Dutch women have always been more oriented towards the home which is one of the reasons for the high number of homebirths in the Netherlands.
Unfortunately, the Playground Incident, as I call it, has never repeated itself. Now, most of the parents I see on playgrounds these days are mothers. Recently, the Dutch government has cut subsidiaries for daycares, causing even more mothers to quit their jobs and stay at home. But the image of fathers at the playground has never really left me. I’d love to see a world where fathers rule the playground as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Because the Dutch show us that when fathers are involved, everyone’s better for it.
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