Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The old Finnish work ethic

In September we had an au-pair for six weeks. It didn’t work out so she left, which was unfortunate as it was a big help. But the reaction, from my in-laws and the older neighbour, to my getting an au pair was, “why do you need an au-pair? Emilia is an easy child”. In all honesty in a lot of ways they are right. Emilia is an easy child. She has never been a baby who cries a lot, is usually good tempered and smiling and laughing and does not seem to be too willful. But on the other hand she is a handful. She is a very active and social child. Before she was able to play by herself you needed to be with her all the time entertaining her or she would cry. That meant I couldn’t shower or eat or cook or clean or do much of anything during the day while she was awake. And when she didn’t sleep well (which as all parents of babies know is often) I was usually tired and just trying to get through each day. So I felt we needed some help and since both me and my husband’s family live outside of Finland I thought we should get an au-pair so I could have some help and we could have some free time together.

But in Finland hiring household help is very rare. One reason is that labour is too expensive in Finland, even with kotivähennys (a tax-back incentive that gives you back 40% of the money you spent on household help at the end of the year), for the average Finn to afford. But another big reason is the old Finnish work ethic that you must always be industrious, work hard and be self sufficient. That means that you shouldn’t rely on other people to help you and you should always be busy. If you are ever relaxing you must at least have some knitting or be doing something useful at the same time. You should never be idle. If you hire others to clean your house or yard or look after your children you must be a lazy person who likes to take advantage of poor people. Such is the mindset of the Finns.

Coming from a culture where anyone who can afford to will hire someone to help clean, cook and iron at least one or two days a week this thinking is a bit extreme to me. Some of my relatives have had maids and my grandmother said she had one when her children where very young. In fact her reaction to us getting an au-pair was “Good. You need the help!” I see nothing wrong with hiring someone to help you at home. All mothers know how hard it is to try to do all the housework and take care of children, especially if they also have a job outside the home. At the same time isn’t it a good thing to provide a job to someone? It is not advantageous if you pay them a fair wage and treat them like human beings. I guess the last time hired help was the norm in Finland was when the ruling Swedish speaking class hired servants and of course in that era we know how well the upper classes and aristocrats in Europe treated their servants. But now we are in the twenty first century where we have to pay taxes and pension contributions for such employees. They have unionized rights and regulated salary norms and working hours. It is not the same as two hundred years ago.

I really don’t understand the logic of working yourself to the bone if you can afford not to. It’s better for children if their parents are rested, happy and have more time and energy to spend quality time with them. When the au-pair was here I was well rested and got all the housework done. When I was with Emilia I had energy and time to concentrate on her alone and spend quality time with her. I actually enjoyed spending time with her and wasn’t just trying to get through another day. My mother-in-law will not see it this way but I really think it was better for Emilia. My father-in-law told me that we are young enough to have the energy to “kestää” (endure) like they did with three children while he worked a lot and my mother-in-law was home alone with the children. Like us all their family lived too far away to be of any help to them. But my husband remembers them being stressed all the time when he was a child. Children are intuitive and can pick up on the stress and tension in a house and it affects them. 

The younger Finnish generation's attitude towards hired household help is different to their parents. I know a couple who, after constantly arguing over who’s turn it was to clean, decided to hire a cleaner. They both work long hours and found it too stressful to worry about cleaning when they were hardly ever home. The husband of this couple told me that he has not mentioned to his father that they recently hired a cleaner. He says it is easier not to mention it than to argue with his father about it being a waste of money and having to explain why he and his wife can’t just clean the house themselves. Another friend was telling me that his father doesn’t understand him. His father thinks he should always be working hard. That it doesn’t matter so much whether you are a labourer or a high powered executive but the point is that he should always be working hard. 

Why does the older Finnish generation want us to go through things the hard way like they did? Shouldn’t you want better for your children? And does it make sense to work yourself to death at the expense of your health and quality time with your family if you can afford not to? Is it not better for your marriage and the family to be rested so that you can be in a good mood and have time and energy for your husband and children? Why should I prove to society that I can be supper-mom but be tired and unhappy?