'Daddy Day' Now an Institution in the Netherlands
When it comes to equal parenting, it can be worthwhile to see up close exactly what that means. As it turns out, this short video gives a pretty fair idea of some of the practicalities of, if not precisely equal, at least close to equal parenting (New York Times, 12/29/10). It's about a Dutch couple, Remco Vermaire and Jorunn Lobordus who have tweaked their relationship to the point at which they both work part time and stay home with the kids part time. The piece focuses on the dad, Remco who's a 37-year-old attorney in Utrecht. He's the youngest partner in his firm and it was with some trepidation that he first requested a four-day work week. But his firm wanted to keep him as an employee, so the partners agreed. Remco says the clients he represents understand when he tells them that he can't meet with them on Fridays because it's his day off. That's because, in the Netherlands, fathers working part-time are so commonplace that they've coined a term for it - Daddy Day. So when Vermaire tells clients that Friday is his "Daddy Day," they easily defer their needs until the following Monday. Apparently the idea of Daddy Day is catching. The younger men in Vermaire's firm have all met with him to discuss having one of their own and are eager to try it. Still, far more Dutch men work full-time than do Dutch women. The video reports that about 25% of men are part-timers while an amazing 75% of women are. Depending on the number of women and men in the workforce, that could mean that some 50% of Dutch employees are part-timers. In the United States by contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 20% of employees work part time. So Daddy Day has become an institution in Dutch culture, and that must mean that Dutch women are open to the concept of fathers caring for children. That is, the women there must be less possessive of their parental role than mothers elsewhere. In the United States, for example, there's a great deal of persuasive social science showing that mothers act as gatekeepers to the child, i.e. they control access. So a mother who wants to marginalize a father in his child's life, can usually do so. The methods are many, ranging from denigration of his abilities as a parent all the way up to divorce, refusal of visitation, false accusations of abuse, parental kidnapping and the like. In those family dynamics, fathers play a role too. They, like the mothers, tend to see mother and child as, in Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin's phrase, "a package deal." That is, whatever else happens, mother and child stay together. Fathers and mothers alike often see him as expendable in the child's life, but not her. The video shows the side of parenting in which that's not the case. Jorunn Lobordus is nothing if not open to her partner's close relationship with their two kids. "I love him more since he's a (more involved) father," she says. She likes to see him getting love from the children and giving it to them. Most important, she likes the fact that, when the children are afraid or in need of comforting, they "go as easily to him as to me." That's the one mothers so often cite as hard in the process of coming to equal parenting - when the kids turn to him, not her, for solace. But Lobardus reports that she "feels proud and happy" when they do. She has, in short, a greater ability than many other mothers to appreciate what her partner offers the kids. She obviously doesn't have her whole soul and being invested in her motherhood; that allows her to set aside her gatekeeper self which in turn eases fatherhood for Vermaire. The video shows an entire set of things changing to accomodate fathers and fatherhood. The culture allows men to work part time. That means not only that Vermaire's superiors at work give him a day off, but that his clients are familiar with and accepting of the concept of Daddy Day. For his part, Vermaire realizes his own need to be a part of his children's lives, to be a more complete father than simply one that provides the money for their daily needs. He's willing and the various institutions of Dutch culture make it possible for him to be both provider and hands-on dad. And finally, his partner "gets it." She doesn't need to be super Mom; she sees what being a father means to him and the kids and doesn't force them to stand aside to satisfy her. It's a system all of whose parts need to move in the same direction in order for change to occur. If any part sticks and refuses to move, everything else gets stuck too. That of course brings up the Dutch family law system. Has it changed to acknowledge children's real need of a father in their lives. Happy and harmonious as Vermaire and Lobordus seem, many other couples are not. So how do Dutch courts treat men like Vermaire when it comes time to decide custody? Do they, like so much of the rest of the culture, promote fatherhood? Do they recognize the fact of Dad's greater involvement? Or do they fall back on the same destructive habits we so often see - primary custody to the mother, limited visitation to the father which Mom is then free to ignore? Those are important questions. With the high rate of divorce and separation, Dads can't be expected to put aside important time at work in favor of more family time if they're treated with the same disdain as fathers who don't. Family courts are a part of Dutch culture and society the video doesn't touch on. And however much people may be moving toward greater equality in parenthood, the courts have the ability to stop the wheels of change all by themselves. Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.