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?

9 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree with you more. My mother told me very early in life that you can't be all things to all people (mother, wife, cleaner, gardener, busy executive etc) so choose what's most important to you very early, and hire help to take care of the rest.

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  2. I couldn't agree with you more. My mother told me very early in life that u can't be all things to all people in your household (mother, wife, lover, cook, cleaner, gardener, nurse, professional, etc) so choose which is most important to me and hire good help for the rest. Well written.

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  3. Hi there! I'm a Trini living in Stockholm, I'd love to hook up sometime :) If you see this, e-mail your contact details to jennytk at g mail dot com please!

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  4. A friend of mine wanted to comment on this post but couldn't figure out how to leave a message here so instead she sent me a Facebook message. Here it is:

    Hi Danielle,
    I did not know how to comment this on your blog. I love it and hope to see you and Emilia, after Xmas we will hopefully have some days off with Eemeli.
    Hiring help, well my Mom's generation also says that they had to manage it alone like you said And my Mom keeps reminding me about it now when I am alone taking Eemeli to daycare and working, it is pretty tough when Janne is working outside the city all week. The fact is that my Dad was working in another city until I was 10 and we always had a part-time "half-day" Nanny One of my Nanny's was like a Granny, she and her husband took us to their cottage on an island during summertime and my parents really had some time off. People forget...I hope we still would have the system here nowadays and too bad it did not work with the au pair. Hoping to hear more.
    Minna

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  5. It's the Lutheran work ethics of "he who does not work shall not eat" and "idle hands are devils hands" etc.
    And the other is that for a Finn the very thought of "rising above your station" without proper "authorisation" is something alien.
    So hiring someone to do "your work for you" while you're healthy and young would imply exactly that unless you're exceptionally wealthy and influential.

    There is part in Finnish psyche that makes us want to keep the status quo no matter what hence hiring servants, flailing wads of money around, speaking loudly in public and all that would break it and thus it would be considered rude and inconsiderate towards those who cannot have what you have.
    Therefore because we Finns want to belong we instead call to MLL (Mannerheimin lastensuojeluliitto) to get our hired help, we don't go and directly hire someone from a job agency unless we are absolutely sure that we need one in permanent basis even if we could afford a one.

    In other words showing off (even mildly or by omission) is a bad thing that no "true adults" would do and therefore it should be left for juveniles.
    So remember act "like an adult" and so your (house) work diligently, tirelessly and most importantly never ever complain that your work is hard. :)

    Hopefully above opens a bit about Finnish psyche about what should and should not even if younger generations don't mind so much about the above and to be honest not many in working life either but getting caught "breaking the rules" is what brings you trouble, so same is any other country I think.

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  6. Dear Anonymous,
    I have myself observed all that you said. That the Finnish work ethic dictates you do all your work yourself or be considered lazy or rising above your station and taking advantage of the poor. But what people do not consider is that traditionally people lived in large extended families who divided the labour. Now we have nuclear families with one woman at home alone taking care of small children, cooking and cleaning. So it isn't as simple as it sounds to "do your work yourself". Anyway as a mamut I can be excused for not following the rules as we are considered strange and never behave as normal people should ; )

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  7. It has now occurred to me that maybe the Finns cannot handle having hired help because I have observed several (not all) Finns while on vacation in Tallin treating the serving staff at restaurants and bars like their servants. They were quite rude and seem to look down on them although they are their Finno brothers. Of course these people were very drunk. But I have always found that people's true nature shine true when they are drunk so I don't consider drunkenness an excuse.

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  8. It has now occurred to me that maybe the Finns cannot handle having hired help because I have observed several (not all) Finns while on vacation in Tallin treating the serving staff at restaurants and bars like their servants. They were quite rude and seem to look down on them although they are their Finno brothers. Of course these people were very drunk. But I have always found that people's true nature shine true when they are drunk so I don't consider drunkenness an excuse.

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