Friday, 6 November 2015

Going Dutch

Someone posted this piece in the Washington Post by Mihal Greener, an Australian writer raising her family in Holland, on my Facebook page this morning.

It made me want to cry.

According to the April 2013 findings by UNICEF in their report 'Child well-being in rich countries: a comparative overview', Dutch children are the happiest in the world.

I'd heard about this report, and about Mihal Greener, a couple of years ago, when UNICEF first published this finding, but somehow it made a greater impact this morning. 

Perhaps it's because yesterday I stood in the dreary, wet playground and endured two mothers, one each side of me, making endless less-than-subtle digs about status, work and motherhood in the minutes before pickup, without ever actually asking each other a question. I'd had a very nice day, working from home, getting on with stuff. After five minutes of playground pleasantries, I felt like a collapsed balloon.


Recently my twelve-year-old daughter realised that one of her friends is a Taker. This particular young lady takes every utterance around her, and replays it through her own self-obsession. If someone says, 'Mutual friend X is feeling sick', Trainee Taker will say either, 'Oh! I feel sick too!' or 'Eew, that makes me feel sick!'. 

Daughter and I discussed whether 'talking about yourself' is always taking. We wondered whether one should essentially be utterly self-effacing at all times. After all, this is what centuries of culture told women they should be doing. Perhaps silence and self-effacement is the only answer in a world of bitching and gossiping.

We concluded, however, that it is possible to talk about yourself and not be a Taker. If you extend your interlocutor's experience by sharing your own, develop the conversation, reassure the other person (who has, quite probably, just said something that makes them feel vulnerable), you can keep the whole circle of life moving without maiming, killing, ignoring or climbing on top of the other. 

Tell that to a bunch of mums waiting in the playground. After fully nine years of Playground Politics, I can honestly say it has become no more comfortable. It's still like walking into an office after you've been made redundant. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of mothers who consciously do not engage in the put-down games that seem to hold sway for most. That doesn't mean I don't have friends at my children's school. It just means that the playground feels like verbal trench warfare a lot of the time. But it's so completely normalised that I bet most people would be surprised that they are doing it, and probably just think it's the way of the world. 

What's it all based on? Essential insecurity about the position of mothers in contemporary British society.

How can I assert this? For one, because my life used not to feel like this before I had children. For two, in other countries, like Holland, but also Australia, mothers don't seem to be exhibiting this kind of neurotic behaviour. They seem — and it's only a generalisation of course — but they seem to like themselves, their bodies, their homes, their jobs, their bicycles, their cheese and their children. 

Their children, who are going to grow up into the tallest people on earth, despite not ruling out dairy from their diets. 

Their children, who are also going to have a life expectancy of, on average, 81.4 years, with a world life expectancy ranking of 17. 

Happiest, tallest, among the longest-lived. 

What are they doing to make that happen? 

According to Mihal Greener, they're not doing anything. 

They're not stressing, they are not overworking (themselves or their children), they don't have to pull so many late nights, they don't have to work all hours to make ends meet, they don't feel they have to one-up each other on clothes, gifts, kids' parties, food, thinness, holidays etc etc. They live calmer, more balanced lives than we do. They are valued, and they value themselves and their children. 

Meanwhile in Britain, we are currently condemning millions of women to years and years of furious drudgery, oneupmanship, workplace misery and mistrust, so-called multi-tasking, alienation, depression and lack of fulfilment. Once they become mothers. 

No mother, it goes without saying, is exempt from occasionally losing it. It's not nice, but it is a universal (because children push you to your wits' end, and because every life has stresses). I think that Mihal Greener herself would be quick to acknowledge that she's exaggerating for (comic) effect — that she, like me, is using the Dutch to hold her own culture to account. 

Having lived in Australia myself, however, I'm surprised that Greener finds such differences between herself and the Dutch. To me, Australian and Dutch women are remarkably similar. In Holland they say 'doe gewoon', and in Australia they 'just get on with it'. Either way, my personal experience of both countries is that mothers, whatever their work, are open, friendly, calm, competent, and don't exhibit the same social anxieties and insecurities that British mothers do. 

Time for a huge caveat, which also applies to Greener. I am sure that my — and her — observations originate in being the outsider. I also heard women discussing education in Australia in exactly the same competitive way I hear it all the time in the UK — it's just that *I* was relaxed about it at the time, because I wasn't in my own culture, and so wasn't targeted by the other women — quite simply, I didn't pose a threat to them, because I wasn't part of their system, fighting for the same scarce resources. I am sure that had we stayed in Oz to educate our kids, I would have found the same Motherload I do in the UK.

Call me half-Dutch, but I still idealistically think we should all be going Dutch on bicycles, eating hagelslag and kaas with a cheeseslicer for breakfast. Oh, and living in a society without a two-tier education system.

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