I can sum up my experience of Austrian motherhood in one conversation with my midwife, Andrea. We were drinking herbal tea in her Vienna office while discussing how to insert oil into my vagina.
“When should I start pumping?” I asked. At my 37th week, I feared missing the supposed window in which the baby might take the bottle and wanted my husband to get in on the feeding as soon as possible.
Andrea gave me a look that was so perplexed I thought she’d misunderstood my English. “But where are you going?” she asked.
When I was a childless New Yorker, none of the bleak, well-documented difficulty and expense of raising babies in the city registered — until my husband was offered a job in Vienna. With its free health care, subsidized day care and generous financial aid to families, Austria seemed to be everything the U.S. wasn’t — an ideal socialized haven in which to get knocked up. When the offer came in, I had just finished graduate school. My nascent writing career was flexible. I was also 34 and baby hungry. We jumped at the chance.
I got pregnant almost immediately after our arrival, and the Austrian goods started pouring in. A gynecologist took care of the ultrasounds and blood work (for free, of course), and Andrea, our private midwife, was on call 24/7 until six weeks after the birth — all for $1,900. Although the baby was 12 days late, Andrea was nonplussed. She was much more traumatized by the fact that after 28 hours of labor, the whole thing ended in a Caesarean, which cost us nothing. (Her C-section rate was 10 percent. In New York, one in three births end in surgery.)
Once home from the hospital, Andrea showed up every afternoon for a month to check my scar, weigh the baby, and help with breastfeeding. Her ongoing presence single-handedly kept me from slipping into the quicksand of postpartum depression.
I’d heard all the horror stories from my new-mom friends back home, so I knew how truly good we had it. What I didn’t expect, however, was for my experience of Viennese motherhood to change me — and my relationship to my work — so profoundly.
I didn’t foresee motherhood derailing my career or my ambition, but since my work options abroad were limited, my postpartum pie-in-the-sky plan was as follows: Have baby. At 4 months — when she’d be sleeping through the night, hahaha! — get a babysitter and resume work on my book proposal. Sell book. Write it. (Go ahead: laugh.)
I harbored no fantasies of being a SAHM. I knew I would go insane. I imagined a sitter coming 10–20 hours a week.
My husband’s academic salary was small, but there was no pressure for me to return to paid work right away: I received €12,000 from the Austrian government for my year of maternity leave. This was more than the monthly salary I’d made the previous year as an adjunct at a local university. (This government subsidy was, by the way, on the low end; women who had been employed full-time when they gave birth earned up to 70 percent of their salary, capped at €2,000, for up to a year, and their jobs protected for up to two years. If they got pregnant within those two years, their jobs were protected for two more.) *
Four months came and went. I got a wonderful sitter for a meager six hours a week, but I could barely think. Writing went out the window.
But more to the point, that book — the book in which I’d stupidly wrapped up all my ambitions — seemed to have been written by another person, in another lifetime. With my baby forever at my breast and on my mind — and with all of us shacked up in a foreign land — I could not for the life of me find my way back into that old material.
Instead, I reluctantly turned into the Primary Caregiver. I cooked; I laundered; I did all the nighttime shifts. My husband dove into his work, traveled around Europe to give talks, revised his book at a steady pace. Mine languished on my computer.
Despite enjoying most of the time I spent with our daughter, I couldn’t help feeling resentful. My career was just as important to me as my husband’s was to him, but with my book in shambles and no clear job to return to — the adjunct work was no longer cost-effective — I felt trapped. Becoming a mother in a place where I didn’t speak the language and had no professional contacts suddenly seemed monumentally shortsighted. It had stalled out my career before I’d even gotten it off the ground. What was this time “out” turning me into?
But my concern was out of step with my surroundings. Virtually every mother in Austria stays home for at least one year, if not two or three — very few day cares accept children before 12 months and nannies are not the norm. All kids are guaranteed a subsidized spot at age three, but many kids start at 18 months or 2 years when maternity leave ends. Some women have the state’s blessing to work part-time until their children are 7, although this is often unrealistic: An accountant friend who tried to work 15 hours a week once her son turned 2 found it unmanageable — clients expected her to be constantly available. She quit.
It is virtually impossible to criticize a system as generous as Austria’s, and I have never once dreamed of switching places with my friends in New York. But the result of these laws is that early parenthood here is particularly gendered: Few of my friends’ husbands were involved in the day-to-day childcare. Just two dads I knew took their lawful paternity leave — usually two months to their wives’ twelve. Like in Sweden, Austrian fathers lose their allotted time if they don’t use it, but for various economic and cultural reasons — they are often the primary breadwinner and can’t afford the pay cut (this was our situation) or they fear stigmatization at work — very few take it.
But unlike my husband and me, my expat friends didn’t struggle over the gendered turn their marriages had taken. These women had already given up their careers upon moving to Vienna, or had always expected a year or two of paid leave with a new baby. They felt little anxiety about keeping their careers going — or, like me, getting them out of the red. Why should they? By law, their jobs were protected.
A few months in, I started to understand the question my midwife had posed when I asked her about using a breast pump. “But where are you going?” she’d wanted to know, as if I were planning to abandon my child. The logic seemed to be: My husband had his job, and I had mine, which was culturally mandated and for which I was paid. What else could I possibly want?
By and large, in this city it is mothers, not nannies, who hold court at the Spielplatz and pick up the kids at day care any time between 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (Even if the center is open until 5 p.m., many caretakers discourage mothers from coming in later.) Vienna is known for its famously high quality of life, in large part because it makes living so easy for a young family. But this view of early parenthood not-so-subtly decrees that children are best off with their mothers — even if this is not what the mother actually wants. As a friend of mine noted, “It’s a country that protects mothers, not women.”
When Austrian culture was new to me, I found this wildly problematic — sexist even — and on some level, I still do. I wish that my husband had been able to take paternity leave; research shows that fathers who do are much more involved in the child’s care, long after the leave has ended, and that it has positive knock-off effects on the mother’s career. But while I am massively grateful for the year my daughter and I had together — it certainly made me question how anyone could perform their job properly on so little sleep and while leaking out of so many orifices — I think that a year or two of maternity leave should also be a choice.
Here’s why: I have American friends who had no desire to stay home for a year; they were actually happier going back to work. (Many, of course, weren’t and most wanted to work part-time.) My best friend in New York put her daughter in day care at four months, was promoted during her first year of motherhood and now has her dream job. A year at home would have destroyed her — and, within the American system, would have forced her to quit a job she had been working toward for over a decade.
But I also see now that putting my daughter in full-time care at four months would have been wrong for me. It is, in fact, still wrong for me, and she’s now almost 3. I can’t imagine giving up our long afternoons at the park or fighting with my husband over who will take her to the pediatrician — even if it meant I’d be more successful or wealthier. Is this because I’ve become Austrian in my approach to parenting? Probably.
I thought that having a baby abroad would stall out my career — and in the short term, it did. Fewer opportunities were available; I’m not as far along professionally as many of my working-mom friends back home; I make less money. This causes my husband and me no small amount of anxiety, especially with a move back to the U.S. imminent.
But because of one simple, life-saving amenity — subsidized day care — I have actually gotten my career back, without having to sacrifice too much time with my daughter.
We pay less than $150 a month (yes, a month) for almost 30 hours of top-notch care a week. I have been teaching and tutoring part-time for over two years now, but I didn’t have to go back to work, as so many American mothers do, simply to afford child care. I went back because, like my husband, I wanted the intellectual and financial rewards.
The hours I now spend on that resurrected manuscript — or even the ones I spent writing this — are possible because of day care. And those hours are absolutely vital to me. Do they sometimes seem insufficient? Yes. Would I ask for more of them, if it meant having a more high-powered job? If it meant a more secure financial future? If it meant racing home at 6 p.m., hoping to catch an hour or two with my baby before bed? Right now, I wouldn’t. And, luckily, I don’t have to.
And for that, I only have Austria to thank.