Going Dutch

‘Who are you?’

That’s not normally a question that would send beads of sweat trickling down my back, but when that information was requested from me in Dutch by a snotty nosed 2 and a half year old it was ridiculously unsettling.

Having spent the best part of ten years in the Netherlands, my grasp of the language is enough to keep most managers and customers happy, but not it seems, curious toddlers acting as crèche-bouncers and demanding to know what I am doing in their territory.

That was my first notable challenge of raising a child in a foreign country, the language, I simply didn’t have the vocabulary that goes with conversing with, or about children. I could order a round of drinks, get my trousers taken up at the tailors, even talk my way out of a parking ticket, but I didn’t know the words for ‘nappy’ or ‘buggy’.

When faced with anyone under two feet tall, I was a mute.

Often, life as an expatriate heightens your sense of being Irish, throw a child into the mix and that sense becomes magnified. The urge to make our home that little bit more Irish is strong, I’ve had the sounds of Sharon Shannon and Christy Moore filling the kitchen on Saturday mornings far more often than I would have if I lived in Cork or Galway or Wicklow.

Our daughter physically stands out here. Dark hair, blue grey eyes and sallow skin are not traits that would make a child conspicuous at home, but when she’s sitting among taller, blonder, more sun-kissed children she becomes quite the novelty.

Here she is ‘the Irish girl’.

Most of the differences between raising a child here or at home are intangible, surrounding social, familial, or general attitudes, making the easiest to identify differences the financial ones.

Before the Irish ‘budget of doom’ of 2010, children’s allowance in Ireland stood at €1,800 a year, while here in the Netherlands it’s equivalent doesn’t even even amount to €780.

Interestingly, that figure is unofficially tied to the cost of 3rd level education. Saving the 2009 amount in a long term savings account for 18 years is calculated to precisely meet the average cost of a 5 year 3rd level education.

While it may seem paltry in comparison to its Irish variant, the simple truth is that ‘children’s allowance’ doesn’t need to be any higher. Forking out €50, or anything for that matter, for a GP visit is unheard of, and all health services for children are automatically covered under the mandatory polices of their parents.

Childcare expenses are offset by tax refunds of anywhere from one third to two thirds of the cost, dependent on your income. Although in great demand and following national guidelines, the crèches are privately run and plentiful, so you are more than able to shop around for the one that suits you best.

Governmental support for families doesn’t just come in the form of tax reliefs or allowance payments. The strongest show of genuine concern for the welfare of families as important cogs in society comes in the form of the 26 weeks unpaid leave each parent can take for every child they have.

This leave, which can be taken in any manner you wish in agreement with your employer, meant I was able to take a month off when my daughter was just a few months old. I also get to use a day’s leave each week to be at home with her, as does my wife, allowing us to provide a healthy mix of time with other children at crèche and time at home with her mam and dad, without having to worry about it affecting our job security.

Practicalities aside, it allows my daughter and myself the time and space to build up a priceless relationship. The only way I could envisage this in Ireland, a lotto win aside, is if I were unemployed.

Men using the leave in this way has become known as ‘Papa dag’, or ‘Daddy day’, and is a common feature of professional life here. I work in a team that consists a dozen or so men ranging from 22 to 52 years of age, with not one of them finding it unusual that I would reduce my hours to be at home with my daughter.

On the rare mornings I take her to the crèche I see significantly more fathers dropping of children than mothers. Parenting here is a mix of mothers and fathers, both working, and both staying at home.

There would of course be advantages to raising our daughter in Ireland. It would be great for her to see all her cousins more often, grandparents would be able to spoil her, and there would be family support always readily available when needed.

Unfortunately, being a father means having to make hard decisions for the welfare of your family. It simply would be at best – too uncertain, and at worst – too unwise a move to return now.

Even assuming that we could find the jobs needed to house and feed ourselves, the idea of playing prefab roulette with our daughter’s primary school education just doesn’t sit well with me.

The uncertainty over the future provision of quality education and health services in Ireland is too great for us to risk the relative certainty of what we can provide for our daughter here.

As sad as that may be, it means that for the time being, she will just have to remain ‘the Irish girl’.

‘Going Dutch’ was original published by Dad.ie in December 2010.