'We Don't Feel Like Babysitting Our Grandchildren'

While Swedish parents are supported by a feminist welfare state, Israeli couples are struggling domestically and economically.

Here's a not-so-simple question: Would it be proper to force new fathers to take three months of maternity/paternity leave? This question will be the central issue in the Swedish elections this fall. At present, Swedish parents are entitled to no less than 16 months of paid maternity leave. In practice, Swedish mothers usually take advantage of most of this time, while fathers merely take the two months paid vacation required by law (the debate over the third month is currently heating up in the context of workplace inequality that still exists in Sweden).

One way or another, in this feminist welfare state, the basic assumption has dual implications: Raising children is no small matter, and without children there would be no economy, no society - in short, no economic growth. The Swedish realize that two working parents are incapable of raising their child alone. It is obvious to them that infants are dependent on their parents, and that the economy depends on these children, so the economy must allow the parents to raise them.

Here the norm is quite different, to put it mildly.

"There is no doubt - two is not enough," says D., the mother of a one-year-old son, "and the problem is that we have to pay good money for any help."

D. returned to work as a chef in a restaurant after four months of maternity leave. D.'s parents and in-laws are not happy about being recruited to raise their grandson. They are relatively young grandparents - in their sixties - newly retired, and want to enjoy their new personal freedom, earned through great toil.

"They have no intention of starting over again," says D.

D. therefore has no other option but to hire a nanny.

"It does not seem worthwhile. Instead of going to work and paying a nanny almost what I earn, I could stay home and take care of my son," says the young mother. "But it's more than the immediate calculations. I have to go back to work not only to earn a living now, but also to retain my position at work in the future. No one is promising to save it for me."

In Sweden jobs are saved. The two Swedish parents can remain away from their jobs for a total of 18 months (16 with pay) and their employers are obligated to give them back their positions. Both parents are also entitled to trim their jobs by 25 percent - from 8 hours a day to 6, until their child is 8 years old - and employers are not allowed to penalize the parents in any way.

Raising a family in Israel seems to be particularly complicated and difficult. On the one hand, there is tremendous pressure on young people to have children. Raising a family is still a deep-rooted value, and encouraging large families is still part of Zionism. There is also tremendous pressure to raise children who excel and achieve, and to provide them with all their psychological, cognitive, consumer and social needs. On the other hand, the state apparently does not recognize its children and the requirements for raising them.

In Europe, by contrast, the situation is just the opposite: The norms of a welfare state are usually applicable; the norms for parenting excellence are not as excessive as in the United States and Israel; and while birth rates are declining (1.3 per woman in Germany, 1.7 in Sweden and Britain) and no-children families are on the rise (30 percent or more in a few central and southern European countries). Europe is therefore aging and becoming less family-oriented and more individualistic. Fewer children are being raised there, but those who are are in a supportive atmosphere.

In practice, the family orientation in Israeli society is also eroding, but this erosion has not yet received public recognition. One can already hear Israeli grandmothers saying, without any guilt feelings whatever, "We don't feel like babysitting our grandchildren."

"A few of my close friends are grandmothers," writes Brach Brill, a modern grandmother, in her column in Ynet's Internet parenting forum. "Are they willing to raise their grandchildren or take care of them a few days a week? No way. All of them have full lives of their own. They work, enjoy themselves, nurture their spousal relationships and invest in themselves. The grandchildren, as cute and cuddly as they may be, are invited to visit or are visited, but always in controlled measures."

Brill describes how tiring it is for her to be with her young grandson for a whole day. "This is not a brief pleasure of an hour or two - coming for a hug and a story and moving on with the day - but real full-time babysitting. I feed him, diaper him, rock him in his crib, cook chicken soup; in short, everything that a professional babysitter is supposed to do for pay, I do on a fully volunteer basis, but to tell the truth, with not much pleasure."

This honest grandmother received more than a few contemptuous responses for speaking her mind. Young people who decide to have a family therefore have to find other very creative ways to succeed. A. and G., for example, an alternative medicine therapist and a music teacher, have managed to divide the parenting week between them. He works in the mornings, she in the afternoons. Other couples divide the week neatly in two - the mother is home from Sunday to Tuesday and the father on Wednesday and Thursday. The price of this is a lack of shared family time, plus the fact that the working parents have to pass up regular full-time jobs with big salaries. Priorities have to be altered, and this is not suitable for everyone.

One mother of three children relates that in her home, in the town of Modi'in, many mothers, herself included, work from home. "It is a solution, although a limited one. I'm at the computer all day long, and my children see mostly my back. But at least I'm at home."

Other parents speak of improvised support networks.

"If I am stuck without a babysitter," says the mother of a toddler, "there are always friends, parents from the pre-school, who take my daughter home with their child for the afternoon, and it's a mutual arrangement."

This mother says that such arrangements are one of the positive aspects she discovered via the daily difficulties.

"I discovered a longing for community, and found that there are very generous social networks, parents who help one another without a second thought, even if they only know one another from the pre-school parking lot. No one relies on their biological families anymore. Through lack of choice, but nonetheless joyfully, we build extra-familial networks."

Each year the American magazine Working Mother ranks the 100 best companies for mothers. Among the top 10 for 2005 are giants such as HP, IBM and the Ely Lilly pharmaceutical conglomerate. These companies usually rank highest thanks mainly to their flexibility in work hours, allowing parents to go home in the middle of the day, and sometimes subsidizing day care or other special efforts.

In Israel, there are still no such pressures on employers. Yesterday Shelly Yachimovich announced the opening of her campaign, in the framework of the Labor Party's election campaign, "in favor of mother-friendly workplaces, and free education from age 6 months."

It will be interesting to see what position these burning issues will capture in Israeli society during and after the upcoming elections.