Bouncing Back

Rebel(lious) visions for a post-Covid-19 society
bouncing back | fixing family leave during and after covid19

Fixing family leave

At Rebel, we try to contribute to the communities we work in by acting on well-founded, rational arguments, and not pay too much attention to our baser instincts. But then Covid happened, and those of us with young children were suddenly on parent duty 24/7. One of your present authors went into lockdown with a six-month-old baby, another with one who wasn’t even four months yet, and the luckiest member of our team was stuck at home with two little bundles of joy. Let’s just say rational thought often took a backseat to our more primal emotions.

Still, spending so much time at home with our children was also a very special and intense experience. One Rebel mom has to admit that – even after three months at home – she was still coming to terms with motherhood, and that being forced to stay home longer was actually a good thing for her. And our newly minted Rebel dad was grateful for the opportunity to spend more time at home as he and his partner settled into family life.

The care-work ratio: high time for a reassessment

Now that things are slowly starting to go back to normal, we might be inclined to just pick up where we left off. Sure, we’re still working from home, but we’re not organizing our work-life balance in a fundamentally different way than before. Instead, we’re slipping back into our old patterns, going back to the outdated and unbalanced gender roles we’re all familiar with.

That realization inspired this contribution to Bouncing Back: a series of articles in which Rebels take a critical look at how they want things to be as we return to some semblance of normalcy. The world has been turned upside down this year, which seems to us the perfect opportunity to implement lasting changes. And those feelings we had about family leave and parenthood? They were just begging to be quantified.

Family leave: the Dutch government’s problem child

The Dutch government has recently been making small strides when it comes to family care – baby steps, if you will. Since January 1, 2019, partners of women who have given birth get one full week of leave instead of two days. On July 1, 2020, this was extended by five additional weeks, at 70% salary. In late April, Minister Wouter Koolmees sent a proposal to the House of Representatives to allow all parents to take nine weeks of paid family leave, at 50% salary. The proposal was accepted and will go into law on September 1. Although domestic societal forces are definitely playing a role in bringing about these changes, the most important factor is pressure from the EU. But even after these most recent changes, the Netherlands remains miles behind countries like Sweden, South Korea, and France when it comes to family care legislation.

A facts-based contribution to a highly sensitive public debate

Keeping this in mind, our recent experiences and insights provide a great jumping-off point as we make the case for change. Our intention is to provide a facts-based contribution to a debate that’s often dominated by people’s emotions surrounding parenthood. And those emotions can run high: “Why would you have children if you’re just going to dump them at day care?” one side might argue. “Why should I have to pay for your leave?” the other side might retort.

It makes sense that people are quick to voice their opinions on a subject like family leave, but the current tone of the debate on this topic is not exactly constructive. One thing’s for sure, though: no matter what happens, someone will have to pay for it. So who should pay for what, and why?

In 2010, the government asked research agency SEO to map out the social costs and benefits of extended family leave.[1] A good first step, but the results are far from comprehensive: there’s still a lack of research data on “non-standard” families, for example. Instead, most studies focus on mothers and their babies, ignoring any partners who might be involved. We were also unable to find much information on topics like two-father families that use a surrogate mother, or families that consist of two same-sex couples. This is not entirely without good reason, of course, as it’s primarily women who face long-term negative consequences in terms of their financial independence as a result of having children. In 2019, Tamar Stelling published an article in De Correspondent in which she explained how this “baby bill” – what science calls the child penalty – is footed entirely by women.[2]

And then the pandemic hit. Day cares and schools closed, which meant that the child care burden on parents increased. And if we’ve learned anything over the past months, it’s that we collectively turn on autopilot in times of crisis, assigning the greatest share of care tasks to mothers.[3]

This is our chance to make a change

This is not just undesirable, but also a missed opportunity. Because if there was ever a moment to recalibrate, this is it – both when it comes to our work-life balance, and to how we divide care duties between parents, regardless of gender.

That’s why we’re calling on the Dutch government (can someone forward this to Wouter Koolmees?), but also on the Dutch business community, to show courage by giving our current family leave system the complete overhaul it needs. Here’s what we envision:

  • Pregnancy leave (starting six to four weeks before the due date and with full pay[4]) for the expectant mother.
  • Maternity leave (currently until ten to twelve weeks after birth, fully paid) and partner leave (one week fully paid and five weeks at 70% pay) are extended and combined into one joint “leave account” with a balance of twelve months and a maximum of nine months per parent, to be used during the first year of the baby’s life.[5]

“Why do we need this?” you might be thinking. “And what’s all this going to cost?” That’s why we’ve crunched the numbers! First we listed the social costs and benefits, and then we did some math (swapping out the traditional cocktail napkin for a slightly larger placemat). Here’s our conclusion: significantly extending family leave for mothers – and especially also for their partners – is a very good idea. Our thesis is that this is perfectly feasible, and that the benefits will outweigh the costs. In this article, we explain what this thesis is based on, which will hopefully allow us to have a sensible discussion for once.

The benefits: health gains and quality of life

For us, this project arose out of curiosity: how is it possible that the Netherlands, as a well-developed and prosperous country, is lagging behind on family leave? Is it really that expensive to give parents more leave? We decided to do the math. First, we looked at the effects longer leave has on the mother, quantifying these where possible. We didn’t run this calculation for extended partner leave, but this would certainly be worth doing to get a more complete picture, because many of the drawbacks that come with only extending the mother’s leave disappear when leave is made – more or less – equal for both partners. But until this becomes a reality, we’d be remiss not to at least mention the effects of extending partner leave.

Health benefits

The first benefit of extending maternity leave is that mothers will be more likely to breastfeed longer. In 2015 (under the same family leave legislation) between 19 and 27 percent of women said they stopped breastfeeding because it was difficult to combine with work,[6] Despite the fact that breastfeeding longer has many health benefits, both for the child and the mother.[7] Our calculations resulted in estimated health benefits of €3 million per year.[8] Examples of these health benefits include a lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes for the mother, and a lower risk of developing asthma and obesity for the child.[9] Breastfeeding longer also means that less money is spent on formula – €450 million per year in total.

Then there’s the positive effect on the mother’s mental and physical recovery after childbirth.[10] During the period after childbirth, mothers often experience various mental problems, such as postnatal depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Research shows that longer maternity leave has a positive influence on the mother’s mental health, both in the short [11] [12] and long term.[13] For the benefit op the mother’s recovery, the optimal leave duration seems to lie somewhere around six months.[14] Research also indicates that extended maternity leave has positive effects in terms of the mother’s physical recovery, although the evidence for this is less strong.[15]

According to the scientific literature, longer family leave also has positive health effects for the child, in addition to benefiting its overall development.  For example, we know that cognitive development benefits when the mother works less during the first year of a child’s life.[16] It has also been shown that children of mothers who return to work within twelve weeks after childbirth are more likely to develop behavioral problems.[17] But partners play a vital role too, as their presence during infancy is of crucial importance to the child’s development.[18]

Financial savings

Another advantage of longer family leave is that children go to day care (or childminders) at a later age. We assume that extending family leave by three months will translate to children going to day care three months later. This would save society almost €65 million each year. Approximately two thirds of these savings would be on the part of the government, as it would spend less on day care benefits, and one third would directly benefit families that rely on some form of day care.

In the period shortly after childbirth, parents pay a higher-than-average number of visits to the family doctor, hospital, or baby clinic. Normally, parents would have to take time off for these visits, at their employers’ expense. But when family leave is extended, they can just schedule the appointments in their free time. The effects of this may seem small, but assuming that at least one of the parents is home three months longer and that parents – on average – have to take a few hours off work for each of these visits, it would save a total of €55 million a year.

Time at home with a baby may not fully qualify as free time, but it’s safe to assume that many parents would still prefer it to spending time at work – especially given the fact that they don’t lose any income during their leave. Leisure time is usually valued at 80% of net income plus social security contributions.[19] It’s a bit of a stretch to assume that this would also apply directly to time spent taking care of a newborn, but it should be clear that this time has value too. Because what’s more valuable than spending time with your child during the first few months of its life? If we value this non-working time at 40% of net income instead of 80%, the value of the additional leave would be more than €200 million per year, based on the income of the average mother.

Social effects

But a more equitable distribution of family leave between parents has a wide range of qualitative benefits too. Partners who spend more time with their child have the opportunity to get more involved in its upbringing, and they also learn more about everything that goes into taking care of a child. As a result, these partners will take on more of the childrearing responsibilities, both during their leave and after.[20] Because those first few weeks after a child is born are a crucial window when it comes to “renegotiating the division of labor.”[21] Ideally, the result of this renegotiation is that work in the so-called second shift – the housework people do in their spare time – is distributed more equally.[22]

This also ensures that women who have just had a child don’t need to cut down on their work hours. Earlier in this article, we mentioned the child penalty.[23] In the Netherlands, this penalty is mainly the result of mothers choosing to work less after having their first child.[24] This means that if partners were to take on a greater share of the care duties, the position of mothers – and women in general – on the labor market would improve, bringing true gender equality one step closer. It might even help close the wage gap between men and women. In the current situation, there’s a financial incentive for employers to have men on their payroll – they’d only be absent from work for a couple of days should they have a child, whereas a female employee would be home for months. If there’s an equal distribution of family leave, the current wage gap (which is simply the result of supply and demand) would shrink.

Costs and benefits

Of course, someone would have to pay for extending family leave, and employers would take a financial hit as a result of longer absences (assuming someone who works generates more revenue than what they cost). But how big of a hit are we talking about here? We calculated what it would cost if mothers would take three months’ extra leave. What we found was a total loss of turnover of just under €1 billion per year. Make no mistake: this is a substantial amount, the effects of which would be felt immediately, while the benefits would be spread out across the short and long term. The reduced care costs as a result of longer breastfeeding, for example, would take years to start paying dividends. There would also be a major discrepancy between who would bear the brunt of the costs and who would stand to benefit the most – the former being the government and the latter the parents and children. Of course, the government might still end up benefiting indirectly.

Extending family leave doesn’t just benefit families 

So far, the benefits of extending family leave don’t entirely outweigh the costs in our calculations. Nevertheless, we’re convinced that the other benefits (which are a lot more difficult to quantify), in combination with the positive effects we found, more than make up for the costs. To really drive this home, we need to widen the picture: besides the improved wellbeing of young families, extending family leave helps strengthen the resilience of women in our society. The Dutch government has been trying for years to improve women’s participation on the labor market, and – as a result – their economic independence (which is atrocious in the Netherlands). In 2008, the Part-time Plus Task Force was set up to investigate how this problem should best be addressed. A report published by the task force in 2010 called for changes across the board, from the leave system to private day cares and outdated school hours. Because taken all together, these factors combine to create a “part-time trap” for women. But we were still in the midst of a financial crisis at the time, so the report was largely ignored.[25] In April 2020, an interdepartmental policy study on part-time work by women was published. It arrived at the same conclusions as the Part-time Plus Task Force’s 2010 report. Time to take action, right? Oh, wait, there’s a crisis on…

Companies also have a role to play – and Rebel’s no exception 

We’ve made some pretty strong statements in this article, so allow us to add some nuance: we understand all too well that the changes we propose would take time to implement, and that we can’t just expect the government to take care of everything. A modern employer should provide a modern support system for young parents. ING, ABN AMRO, and Coca-Cola Europe all chose to extend partner leave before July 1 of this year, when it became legally required. HEMA recently changed its leave policy to make family composition irrelevant to family leave, extending leave for “rainbow families” – gay couples using a surrogate mother, families with more than two parents, or lesbian couples that choose to adopt. In families like these, at least one parent tends to miss out on the beginning of their child’s life as a result of the leave policies currently in place.

We applaud the kinds of initiatives these companies are taking. And, to be honest, we should take a page from their book: Rebel’s own family leave policy is pretty basic. So we’re also using this article and our calculations to start an internal discussion. Hopefully, the result of this discussion will be that the only present author who doesn’t know the joys of parenthood yet will have all the time in the world to take care of his future children – when he’s ready to take that step, of course.

Help us refine our calculations and add to the discussion

Chomping at the bit to weigh in on this thorny issue? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Getting a full and accurate picture of all the benefits that come with extending family leave is no easy task, and we’d like to gain a more thorough understanding of the effects on partners and non-standard families. Because if we have all the facts – and if we can all agree on them – there’ll be a lot less disagreement on the solutions we need. In this article, we’ve attempted to jump start the discussion with an initial broad-strokes analysis, but that’s just the first step. Help us fine-tune our figures and arguments so we can have a facts-based discussion on how to recalibrate the current balance, and fix family leave.


[1] E. van den Berg, A. Heyma & T. Smid, Kosten en baten verlenging zwangerschaps- en bevallingsverlof: van 16 weken naar 18 of 20 weken, SEO, July 7, 2010.

[2] T. Stelling, Dit is de belangrijkste bron van ongelijkheid tussen man en vrouw in Nederland: baby’s, decorrespondent.nl, September 14, 2019.

[3] J. Hoffer, Laat vrouwen niet alle lasten van de coronacrisis dragen, trouw.nl, May 30, 2020.

[4] For the sake of completeness: a lot of people think that maternity leave is already fully paid for by employers. It’s not. Since having children is seen as a contribution to society as a whole, maternity leave is paid for from public resources by the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV), which reimburses employers. This is also the reason why self-employed people receive financial compensation when they have a baby. It should be noted that there is in fact a cap on the amount the Dutch government will reimburse per day (which is fairly high). Most companies choose to compensate their employees themselves if their salary exceeds this cap.

[5] In our further calculations, where applicable, we have assumed an even distribution between mother and partner, in which both use six months of leave.

[6] D. Peeters, C. Lanting & K. Van Wouwe, Peiling melkvoeding van zuigelingen 2015, TNO, January 1, 2015.

[7] Our calculations are based on the assumption that all mothers who would normally stop breastfeeding because it’s too difficult to combine with work would keep breastfeeding until the end of the sixth month.

[8] This is a combination of avoided healthcare costs and avoided disease burden.

[9] M. Buijssen et al., Health effects of breastfeeding: an update, RIVM, 2015.

[10] Improved recovery not only means less mental and physical complaints for the mother, but also lower healthcare costs, less absence from work, and higher productivity.

[11] P. Chatterji & S. Markowitz, Does the Length of Maternity Leave Affect Maternal Health?, Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 72(1), 2005, pp. 16-41.

[12] K. Staehelin, P. Bertea & E. Stutz, Length of maternity leave and health of mother and child – a review, International Journal of Public Health, Vol. 52(4), 2007, pp. 202–209.

[13] M. Avendano et al., The long-run effect of maternity leave benefits on mental health: Evidence from European countries, Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 132, 2015, pp. 45-53.

[14] R. Dagher, P. McGovern & B. Dowd, Maternity Leave Duration and Postpartum Mental and Physical Health: Implications for Leave Policies, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, Vol. 39(2), 2014, pp. 369-416.

[15] M. van Niel et al., The Impact of Paid Maternity Leave on the Mental and Physical Health of Mothers and Children: A Review of the Literature and Policy Implications, Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Vol. 28(2), pp. 113-126.

[16] C. Baum II, Does Early Maternal Employment Harm Child Development? An Analysis of the Potential Benefits of Leave Taking,

Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 21(2), 2003, pp. 409-448.

[17] L. Berger, J. Hill & J. Waldfogel, Maternity Leave, Early Maternal Employment and Child Health and Development in the US, The Economic Journal, Vol. 115(501), 2005, pp. F29-F47.

[18] R. Cox, Tijd om vader te zijn: vanaf 1 juli zes weken kraamverlof, AD.nl, June 28, 2020.

[19] C. Koopmans et al., Werkwijzer voor kosten-batenanalyse in het sociale domein: Hoofdrapport, SEO, June 2016.

[20] M. Huerta et al., Fathers’ Leave and Fathers’ Involvement: Evidence from Four OECD Countries, European Journal of Social Security, Vol. 16(4), 2014, pp. 308-346.

[21] R. Bregman, Zo krijg je mannen achter het aanrecht, decorrespondent.nl, February 7, 2014.

[22] S. Jones, Second Shift Moms, University of Washington Tacoma, 2017.

[23] T. Stelling, Dit is de belangrijkste bron van ongelijkheid tussen man en vrouw in Nederland: baby’s, decorrespondent.nl, September 14, 2019.

[24] T. Stelling, Dit is de belangrijkste bron van ongelijkheid tussen man en vrouw in Nederland: baby’s, decorrespondent.nl, September 14, 2019.

[25] J. Hoffer, Laat vrouwen niet alle lasten van de coronacrisis dragen, trouw.nl, May 30, 2020.

By: Renée Jaarsma, Dexter Voskamp, Richard de Bruin and Radboud Koning 

 

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