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Where Moms Have Even More Than It All

I once interviewed for a position at a legal publisher in the Netherlands. While walking through the corridors with the human resources person, I commented that the office was very quiet. I assumed it was a holiday I wasn't aware of or that there was an offsite meeting that day.

"Oh, that's because it's Wednesday," she said. And left it there, as though it needed no further explanation.

I had no children at the time, but now that I have one in "basisschool"—elementary school—I understand: schools nationwide, from the equivalent of preschool to the last day of high school, release students at noon every Wednesday. Because of this, many Dutch parents—often the mothers—don't work on that day.

The Economist recently published a piece about the working hours of the Dutch, reporting that more than 50 percent of the working population in the Netherlands works part time, more (by far) than in any other rich-world country.

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On average, just one-fifth of those old enough in the European Union work at a part-time job (8.7 percent of men and 32.2 percent of women). In the Netherlands, 26.8 percent of men and 76.6 percent of women work fewer than 36 hours a week, according to The Economist.

The day off was absolutely sacrosanct...

I can attest that the 32-hour week is absolutely normal. Although I currently freelance from my home, I previously worked in an office at a magazine. During the interview process, I was surprised to be asked, quite nonchalantly, if I would prefer work five days a week or four (at 20 percent less pay, naturally, but otherwise with all the benefits granted to full-time workers, including a pension and 25 days paid vacation annually).

I was able to work a decently paying job that matched my career level and only had to do it Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The day off was absolutely sacrosanct: I noticed once that my colleagues still arranged dental appointments and such to fall on working days rather than on their free day, because, as was oft quoted, "it's my free day."

The Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to live, and its children are among the happiest, according to Unicef. The OECD Better Life Index found that nearly 75 percent people living in the Netherlands and how are between 15 and 64 have paid employment, which is above the OECD average of 65 percent employed.

"People in the Netherlands work 1,381 hours a year, less than the OECD average of 1,765 hours. Less than 1% of employees work very long hours, much lower than the OECD average of 9%, with 1% of men working very long hours, compared with almost no women," according to the OECD.

The mentality here appears to be that you can have it all—work, family, relationships—if you do each in the right amount, without pressuring yourself to dominate in every aspect of life.

In her book "Dutch Women Don't Get Depressed," journalist Ellen de Bruin spoke to Sandera Krol, editor of Dutch women's magazine, "Libelle," about the cultural norm of the 32-hour week, especially for women.

"People from abroad always notice that we leave work early. If you have children, it is not the 'done thing' to still be sitting in an office at 8p.m.," Krol told de Bruin.

Krol says that, while in other countries the weekends are the only real free time, Dutch people strive for more consistency. "Daily balance between work and life is very much a Dutch thing," she says.

Because of the flexibility to work part time, the percentage of Dutch woman in the workforce is high relative to other countries. (Although, as The Economist points out, women's participation at the executive level is "dire.")

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Still, balance is about give and take. The mentality here appears to be that you can have it all—work, family, relationships—if you do each in the right amount, without pressuring yourself to dominate in every aspect of life. You get to prioritize, and most Dutch woman appear to put their family first.

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Photo by LisaClarke

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