Saturday, 25 February 2012

The benefits of living in a Welfare State aka the Scandinavian Model aka the Nordic Model

Recently an old school mate of mine wrote on Facebook that she was reluctant to have to go back out to work just three months after giving birth. In spite of sometimes feeling bored at home with only a baby for company I am really glad I don’t have to face her dilemma. As a Finnish mother, by law, I am allowed maternity leave for one hundred and five days at sixty percent of my salary. I can start the leave up to fifty days before the due date but at least thirty days before. After this I can get Parental leave and allowance at the same rate or I can switch with my husband and he can take the parental leave and allowance while I go back to work. That means that by the time parental leave ends and we start to feel the economic pinch our child is at least nine to ten months old. For sure it is still hard to leave your ten month old in daycare but it is a little better than sending him/her there already at three months old. However, if I wish, I can opt to stay home for up to three years and receive child care allowance of approximately three hundred and thirty euros a month which is not much but it is something. In addition there is the child benefit of one hundred and fifty euros a month until the child turns seventeen. If I had a permanent job I would be in an even better situation as my employer would be required by law to keep my job for me for up to five years after giving birth. And if I decided to go back out to work and put my child in a daycare centre, the cost is subsidized, so that the maximum cost per child is two hundred and fifty euros a month but could be less depending on your income.

And there are many more benefits we Finns are fortunate to have. If I become unemployed and I am a paying member of a labour union or an unemployment fund I can apply for unemployment allowance at sixty percent of my lost salary for up to five hundred days.  If after five hundred days I am still unemployed, I can then get a labour market subsidy of approximately seven hundred euros per month for an indefinite period of time. Unemployed immigrants may also apply for the labour market subsidy. There are also housing benefits for low income families. We receive free health and basic dental care. And free education all the way through to University. I did my Masters degree for free! And I also received a study grant of approximately three hundred euros a month while studying, so long as I didn’t make too much income of my own. Other students living on their own can get an additional two hundred and fifty euros a month in housing supplement. And of course there are sickness and disability grants and pensions for those too sick or old to work. In this welfare state sports and culture are also heavily subsidized.

Naturally all these benefits are paid for by high taxation. For instance, just recently I unexpectedly received my summer vacation pay. Since I had not given my employer this year’s tax card by default I was taxed the maximum rate of sixty percent (don’t worry I will get it back at the end of the tax year). So as you see the very rich are heavily taxed. But that’s the tradeoff for the benefits we receive. In Finland people don’t mind the higher taxes if it means that disadvantaged people are taken care of and we don’t have to pass beggars on the street. Finns are all about equality and taking care of those less fortunate in society. Hence, an individual giving to charity is not a common practice here.

Of course the Finnish social welfare system is not perfect. Every year authorities cut health, dental care, and social work budgets while we pay the same amount of taxes. Unless you have an acute problem the waiting line to see a doctor or dentist is months long and there are not enough places in the daycare centres. This is the result of the government not prioritizing and trying to support everything a little and therefore, not supporting anything properly. And of course there are people who abuse the system preferring to take as many benefits as possible instead of working but they are few. In fact the government recently increased benefits. The Helsingin Sanomat newspaper estimated that it is possible to get government support of up to approximately one and a half thousand euros a month without lifting a finger, while most cleaners make around the same salary. And then there are a few people who fall through the cracks and are homeless. However, those are usually alcoholics or drug users who do not qualify for housing if they do not stay sober. So no, our system is not perfect, but no system ever is. However, I think the Nordic model is the best system we have.

Here is an explanation of the Nordic model on Wikipedia:

Monday, 13 February 2012

My Pet Peeves

If this post sounds like a rant, then maybe it is. I recently had a bad day with the baby. She was crying and fussy all day and nothing I did helped. Most people would say it’s just one of those days and it comes with the territory. But thinking that really does not help the feelings of despair and frustration when you are going through it at the time. Add being confined indoors during the dark winter while nursing a cold and maybe you too would feel close to loosing it. In my frustration I posted a status update on Facebook saying “Danielle is wondering where all those friends, relatives, family members and in-laws are, who kept pestering me about when I would have children, when the child is fussy all day and doesn't want to be left alone for a minute?” Two of the responses I got was “fussiness is part of the package” and “chill…and enjoy it”. Arghhhhhh! This annoyed me to no end.

It seems society believes that if you are a mother it is forbidden to complain. If you are a mother you should always be happy and enjoy motherhood. If you do not, you are a bad mother. Are these people serious? Does everyone always love and enjoy every moment of their marriage even though they love their partner? Do people always love and enjoy every moment of their years of studies even if they loved the subject? It is not humanly possible to enjoy something every second even when it is difficult. And the last thing I need is to be told I should be enjoying my fussy baby. What I need at such times is some sympathy and commiseration.

Before I had Emilia I was always annoyed by the questions: “when are you going to have children?” and “why don’t you have children?” Is not just so yuh does have children and bam dey grow up! It takes time, work, patience and love. You need to show love and patience even when the child is fussy, even when the child is misbehaving, even when he or she is rebelling. So I had to think long and hard about the decision to have children especially since, unlike those friends and relatives who were always bugging me, my husband and I do not have any family living near by. Unlike my friends I can’t call and say “Mom/sis/ mother-in-law the child is driving me crazy and I need help. Can you come over right away?” Where are those people now when I am going through the daily grind? Are they here to help sooth the crying baby? Are they here to nurse her when she is sick and give me a break? No! So people should just mind their business and leave people to get on with theirs. What people should also consider is what if I was barren? How would those persistent questions have made me feel? How much despair and anguish would they have caused by their seemingly innocuous question?

Now in spite of all my doubts and fears I decided to take the plunge anyway because I wanted to have a child more than not. And I recognized that it will be hard and that I will have to deal with it. I realized I will have to deal with being home all day everyday, alone in the dark with a screaming baby. And I resolved to deal with it, and for the most part, I am. But don’t make me feel guilty and inadequate if I complain. I believe I am better off complaining than keeping it inside. Keeping things inside and feeling that I have to be the perfect mother would probably lead me to develop post-natal depression. Or like a friend said to me on Facebook I would probably start taking antidepressants or drinking like those perfect looking wives and mothers of the 1950’s. We need to recognize that mothers need sympathy and help, not criticism and judgement.

While we are on the subject of criticism and judgement, why is it that those most critical and judgmental are always other mothers? If you look up any online blog or discussion forum there are lots of mothers criticizing others for going back out to work too early or going back out to work at all. Or they are criticizing others for not breastfeeding. Do we know that mother’s circumstances and the reasons she has for going back to work or not breast feeding? Sure in theory it is probably best to stay at home until your child is school age but what if the family needs the money? Studies show that children growing up in poor households are at a great developmental disadvantage. Poverty is in fact worse for a child than being put into day-care. Or maybe that mother is going stark staring mad being at home instead of in the workplace doing something mentally stimulating and challenging. And we don’t need any studies to tell us that a child would be better off with a sane mother who works than a depressed, mentally unstable mother who stays at home. Is this mother a bad person because she prefers or needs to have a life outside of the home? I think not. I have a friend who thinks that mothers who like and want to stay at home and be a house wife are backward and old fashioned and I strongly disagree with that viewpoint also. Everyone is different and has different needs.

The breastfeeding issue however, is probably the most contentious issue out there. If you don’t breastfeed you are made to feel like a bad mother who does not care about the health of her child because “breast milk is the best milk”. After reading about all the benefits of breast milk I believe most mothers in Finland, Trinidad and the USA (I can’t talk for other nations I haven’t lived in) want to breastfeed. If they don’t they probably have a good reason for not doing so and one should not assume they just don’t want to.

FYI, there are various reasons why breastfeeding (though “natural”) does not always work. One problem is that breastfeeding does not necessarily come naturally. Breastfeeding is actually a skill which a new mother and baby need to be taught. Without the correct instruction it could all go very wrong and you may end up with a baby who is not getting any milk out of the breast. Some babies may never learn how to “latch on” properly and in one case I know the suction power of the baby was so weak that although the latch was correct she just did not suck hard enough to get enough milk. Also, sometimes it can take a long time for the milk to “come in”. In the mean time the child may be supplemented with the bottle and later not want the breast. Or in a few cases the mother just does not produce enough milk. So you see, the natural method of breastfeeding, does not come naturally. Sometimes it takes a lot of work, frustration and stress for it to work. And in spite of all this it still may not work.

Having said all that, I will now go on record and tell everyone that I do not breastfeed my baby. I tried and it did not work because of insufficient instruction, leading to improper latching on and therefore, supplementation with bottles which lead to rejection of the breast. I also had a problem with my milk production due to all the stress and lack of sleep. In spite of the help of a friend who is a midwife and two lactation consultants I had very little success. The feeling of failure and inadequacy as a mother were tremendous. And having everyone ask all the time, "Are you breast feeding?" and then proceeding to give me advice on breastfeeding, only served to make me feel worse.

At the end of two weeks of trying to produce milk and breastfeed, my husband advised me to stop, because I was too stressed and in his opinion becoming depressed. Two days later I took his advice and decided not to force my screaming baby to my empty breast anymore. That day I felt so much better and my milk “came in”. I started to enjoy motherhood because I was able to get some sleep and have time to take care of my baby since I was not trying to pump every two hours in order to get my milk going. I realized my husband was right. Deciding to give up on the breast feeding and giving her formula was healthier for my child than having a stressed out mother who had no time to spend nurturing her. A renowned Finnish professor and paediatrician at the Children’s hospital in Helsinki said in an article, that in developed countries such as Finland with a clean water supply and well regulated food safety, formula is almost the same as breast milk. Unlike formula in the 1970’s, the formulas on the market today have been specially formulated to closely mimic breast milk. They are based on thorough research and analysis of the composition of breast milk.

In spite of this I still felt it was in my child’s best interest to receive some of the antimicrobial properties of breast milk and so I pumped breast milk for twenty-five minutes, four to six times a day, everyday for three months. I stopped after three months because it was becoming difficult to find the time to pump while trying to care for an increasingly active and social baby. My mother-in-law does not understand why I have stopped pumping breast milk for her grandchild and still mentions it. Every time Emilia gets sick she says it is because she is not being breastfed. These comments used to make me feel sad, inadequate and a failure and I would become really angry. But I am finally learning not to let other people’s opinions and advice, on how we should live our life and care for our child, bother me anymore. I can never be a perfect parent so as I saw written somewhere all I can do is try to be a “good enough” parent.