A career and kids: the balancing act
Spain is importing parts of different work-parenting models, offering varying options for parents to balance their working life in Spain with raising children.
Words, like anything else, can lose part of their meaning through excessive usage. "Balance in itself means nothing in particular," says Constanza Tobío, a researcher at Carlos III University in Madrid. "What does it mean when we are talking about a traditional family unit where the woman works but is still in charge of all the family obligations? There are many types of work-family balancing models."
Tobío adds that not all models have the same effect on different sets of parents and their children, and all of them often end up having undesired side effects.
Measures such as opening more public daycare centres – the Socialist Party promised 300,000 new slots ahead of the general elections – signing kids up to extracurricular activities, and extending school hours even during the holidays (a move that parent associations want to bring to all schools), can negatively affect children, who spend many hours outside the home from a very early age. In fact, their days can often be as overburdened as their parents' or even more so. The Spanish Psychiatry Association estimates that around 40 percent of children suffer from stress, with one of the leading causes being the accelerated pace of their lives.
Some experts, such as Irene Balaguer of the Rosa Sensat Teacher Association, believe that the quality of all these extra activities need to be greatly improved, while others think the answer is for parents to spend more time with their kids.
"Work-life balance measures are good if they help you spend more time with your kids; otherwise they're pointless," says Jesús García Pérez, a pediatrician and president of the Federation of Child Abuse Prevention Associations in Spain.
But focusing on other policies such as shorter working days, paid home leave or stipends for families with children can have adverse effects because usually it is women who are obliged to reduce their workload or leave their jobs for various periods of time. This can act as a setback to their careers, says Tobío, citing Germany as an example.
In that country, "most women stay at home during the baby's first year and then return to part-time jobs," according to a 2006 study by the European Commission.
In Spain, one out of every five female business executives renounces her maternity leave for fear of the negative impact it will have on her career, according to a survey by the business school Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Empresa (IESE).
A 2006 study by Tobío and her colleague Juan Antonio Fernández Cordón for the Alternativas Foundation, a progressive think-tank, broke down work-family balancing policies into three models.
One is the Scandinavian scheme, based on a combination of support services and periods of parental leave, with the aim of getting men more involved in childcare. Paternity leave can be as long as four weeks on 80-percent pay in Norway, or in the case of Iceland, a full three months for 80 percent of their wages. The Central European model is based on parental leave – in Hungary, five paid days for fathers – and subsidies for families with children. In such a system, women continue to be predominantly in charge of childrearing.
And then there is the French model, which combines support services, parental leave (11 days for fathers) and financial aid. Under this scheme, women with lower work qualifications end up leaving the labour force while their children are little, the Alternativas Foundation study reveals.
As for Spain, the study shows that work-family balance policies were 'not only few and far between, but also ineffective and confusing'. Instead, the authors of the study recommended a model based primarily on childcare support services, with parental leave periods and subsidies as a secondary measure. Two years and a few changes later, Spain is now offering parents a little bit of everything: support services such as daycare, parental leave, part-time work and subsidies such as the famous and controversial 'baby bond' of EUR 2,500 for each newborn introduced by the Socialist government last year. Still, the measures are far less comprehensive than those offered in many other European nations.
For instance – campaign promises notwithstanding – public daycare for children up to three years of age is currently only available to 17 percent of Spanish children, a far cry from Flemish Belgium's 81 percent, Denmark's 56 percent or France's 43 percent.
Parental leave in this country comes closer to the EU average, and the Socialists, who already extended paternity leave to 15 days, promised to stretch it to a full month if re-elected, while maternity leave would increase from 16 to 18 weeks for the second child and to 20 for the third. As for reduced working days, the Socialists promise that parents will have this option until their children turn 12 (the upper limit now is eight years of age) like in Portugal.
In over 1.8 million Spanish homes, including single-parent families, there are children under the age of 10 (comprising nearly 11 percent of the entire child population) whose parents work, according to figures from the National Statistics Institute. Faced with the difficulties of the early years until the child turns three, the days when he or she gets sick and the incompatibility of workplace-school schedules, in the end each family maps out its own system – just ask the grandmothers.
Below are two examples of how a working couple with children work it out – one taken from France and another from Spain.
Caroline David is a 36-year-old mother of three: Victor, seven; Clara, six; and Martin, one. When she and her husband Fabrice had the first two kids, she was the one who reduced her workload to 80 percent, but when the third child came along, it was Fabrice, 37, who worked a shorter day because her salary is higher than his. Money was also the main reason why Cristina de la Paz, 35, and not her husband Daniel Moreno, 33, reduced her working days. The couple works in Madrid and they have two children, Adrián, five, and Mireya, one.
Caroline's children obtained places for their kids at a public daycare centre in Paris when they were six months old at the latest. Cristina found a slot for her first child but not for her second. Caroline's three children attend public schools, while Cristina takes her kids to a private nursery and a private school. The eldest is still not attending extracurricular activities, but he will next year, just like 94 percent of children in primary school, according to the Institute of Education Evaluation.
Nearly two-thirds of all kids in Spain are signed up to more than one activity after school, usually to do with sports, computer use or studying English. Children are "pretty stressed," and their leisure time is full of school activities, sometimes because of their parents' work-related demands, says Aquilina Fueyo, dean of the Education faculty at Oviedo University. "These activities are not a lot of fun, but for the parents they represent safe places where they can leave their kids," she says.
For Irene Balaguer, the president of the Rosa Sensat Teacher Association, "if children are going to spend a long time away from home, then we need to guarantee the quality of that time." If that quality were guaranteed, families could put their minds at ease. But this is not the case, she says. School cafeterias lack sufficient guarantees, and extra time spent at school after classes comes under the supervision of underpaid workers without adequate training with kids during those hours, she says.
If the Spain of the late 1990s began seeing the emergence of the so-called "latchkey children" who spend several hours home alone, paediatrician Jesús García now talks about parents of so-called "horizontal children," who have enough money to pay a babysitter and who leave the house before their children get up, only to return when they are in bed again.
García also talks about the need to spend more time with children, especially to improve the communication with them. But the struggle against ever-longer working days in favour of personal time is often too much for busy families with children to handle.
Paternity leave across Europe:
- Spain. Fifteen days of paternity leave on full pay.
- Belgium. Fathers have 10 days, paid for in the public sector.
- Denmark. Two weeks on the equivalent of unemployment benefit, which can be taken during the first 14 weeks of the child's life.
- Germany. No specific leave for fathers.
- France. Fathers get 11 days of paternity leave.
- Italy. No specific leave for fathers.
- Portugal. Five days paid 100 percent.
- Finland. Eighteen working days on two-thirds pay.
- United Kingdom. Fathers get two weeks of leave, paid at a rate of EUR 260 per week.
- Norway. Four weeks on 80-percent pay.
- Iceland. Three weeks on 80-percent pay.
- Ireland. No specific leave.
- Greece. Two days in the private sector, five in the public sector.
- Luxembourg. Two days on full pay.
- Hungary. Five days after the birth of the child.
El Pais / J. A. Aunóin / Expatica
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