Be Jealous: A Week In A Finnish Mother’s Maternity Leave

There is a reason American women should be bitterly resentful over their measly maternity leave: we’re the only industrialized country that asks mothers to make the completely unrealistic decisions that they do. Whether it’s financial losses for breastfeeding or the workplace being utterly hostile in the wake of motherhood, the United States doesn’t even come close to what countries like Denmark and Finland offer families.

Mommyish interviewed a Finnish mother named Liisa about her day-to-day life while on maternity leave in her home country, asking her to keep a diary of just one week. Liisa is a registered nurse and a mother of three. Her two sons were born in 2005 and 2007 respectively, and she and her husband welcomed a daughter in 2011. Her older son goes to preschool for fours hours a day while her younger son attends daycare a couple of days a week.

The following account is of her most recent maternity leave with her infant daughter. In addition to having her undivided attention on her family, with spare time for friends, her marriage, and even herself, Liisa was able to work on her nursing certification while on maternity leave. Her husband is a professional photographer and a primary school teacher. In addition to his nine to five job, he accepts freelance photography projects, some of which are financed by the EU.

Finland’s paid maternity leave is exclusively for the mother for the first four months. Following that period, parents get an additional 154 days to share between them. Mothers and fathers then have the option of taking a complete childcare leave, unpaid, until the child is three years old. Finnish parents are entitled to complete employment security should they take this option.

Liisa and her husband are by no means rich. The mother describes their income as “not high at all,” and yet Liisa’s diary reads like a woman of pronounced privilege, always available to collect her children from school and prepare home cooked meals. The mother tells Mommyish, “I would describe my recent maternity leave as a time I had really looked forward to. These peaceful, quiet mornings and the walks to the preschool with the youngest son and the baby have made the 10 months very nice. I have really enjoyed the pace of life where I have time to do all I need to do. I have really enjoyed it.”

Her life is by no means perfect, as she does describe some loud weekends when she is trying to study, her husband caring for the “loud boys” while exhausted himself. Life with three children is hectic, even it seems with all the time that government can give you. She admits that between the daily grind of keeping laundry clean and the kids fed, it can be difficult to even enjoy the downtime.

“We have tried to make the weekends enjoyable. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t,” she admits.

Her account is far from a luxury spa visit, nor is it frought with pressures to keep up with professional responsibilities while lugging around a breast pump. She’s always up early. She makes lunches for her boys. She works hard. But she also has enough time to truly be present and attentative to her children — something that very few modern women can achieve.

(photo: ruskpp/Shutterstock)

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  • Rhi

    These countries do have some wonderful policies for maternity leave, but none of them are focused on in this article.

    I don’t see what is so different from an American (or Canadian or British) maternity leave. She spends most of her time ferrying her kids to and from daycare/school and otherwise basically all of her entries are about laundry and vacuuming, some of which she’s still doing at 8:30 at night just to get into bed by 10 so she can do it all over again the next day. She’s even trying to squeeze her ‘me’ time (gardening) in at 8 pm when it’s probably pitch dark outside. So she’s cramped for that just like western parents.

    Where’s the super luxury that we’re supposed to be envious of? Her life seems as cramped and busy as anyone else’s that I know here in Canada or my US mother friends.

    • Mya

      “She’s even trying to squeeze her ‘me’ time (gardening) in at 8 pm when it’s probably pitch dark outside.” Ehh, guess again. In Finland it’s pitch dark during winters, but in June there’s midnight sun in northern part of the country (meaning the sun doesn’t set at all for a while). So, by the time she wrote this, the evenings were already light and bright until late. “Just like western parents”?? Umm, we count ourselves as a western society, thank you very much! A little knowledge in geography won’t kill ya!

      Also, nice condescending tone with ” ‘me’ time”! I’m Liisa’s sister, so I happen to know she enjoys her gardening, as well as e.g. art (like painting). So yes, it really is her enjoyable me-time.

      I guess the luxury is she can do this with government support without having to worry about finances too much, even though they’re not high income. The luxury is that she could choose to do this, because she wanted to.

  • Andrea

    The “luxury” Rhi, is in the fact that she can do all that and be PAID BY HER EMPLOYER for a whole year. In the US you count your lucky starts if your employer doesn’t fire you for having a baby. The most that most women get is 6 to 12 weeks of paid leave, if you are LUCKY,

    This woman gets to stay home with her young children for a year. I’d be happy with 6 months!

  • Emmy

    I live in a country that requires employers to give their employees a one year maternity leave and also one year severance pay to all employees that are FIRED, even if they did something awful to deserve the firing. Guess what? Employers don’t want to hire anyone because they can’t afford it so the unemployment rate is sky high…nearly 30%! Nothing is free, people.

    • Miles

      Seriously. Sure, it would be great if all new mothers could get a year fully funded leave, baby-bonuses, whatever. The reality is, most businesses can’t afford it and the government certainly can’t afford it. It has to come from somewhere.

    • Mya

      “and also one year severance pay to all employees that are FIRED, even if they did something awful to deserve the firing.” Maybe the horrible unemployment rate is more because of this than because of the maternity leave benefits?

      Guess what? In Finland the unemployment rate in 2011 was 7,8%. In here the support for new moms and SAHM’s (and dads) is paid by a government institution, in my understanding. From tax funding, that is. So yeah, I guess nothing is free. I’d much rather pay taxes than have a country where new mothers are forced to work because their employers can’t afford otherwise, and the moms can’t afford not to work.

  • JMB

    I wasn’t aware that the US treated mothers and families with such hostility.

    Acting as if employees don’t have families, or if they do it is an out-of-the-ordinary choice that ought not be acknowledged is ridiculous. It’d be like having a restaurant with no bathrooms, with the argument that “if you need to use the washroom, it’s your problem to make it work.” People have kids, and they shouldn’t be punished for it. you don’t want a society where people have careers OR children, do you?

    I am grateful that I have valuable time with my baby and know that my career, which I’ve worked for years to build until now, isn’t getting screwed in the meantime.

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