I'm writing in English, which is strange in itself since I really love my own language, Finnish, and since I detest the power position that the English language has in global communucation... but I'd get way too many complaints from American friends if I didn't write in a language comprehensible to them.

Feb 18, 2011

About working mothers and stay-at-home ones.

To Virpi

Helsingin Sanomat had a most provoking column a couple of days ago. I know Virpi Salmi, the author of the column, isn't alone with her thoughts, and wanted to write a response. I realize a true response needs to be longer than what I can write on the discussion page, so here goes. TO those of you who can read Finnish, here is Virpi's article.

Women have indeed a fairly equal situation to men here in Finland, but there is a difficulty. Virpi points out that when the government pays money for mothers to stay at home with their children until they are three years old, that causes many highly educated women to stay out of work during this time. For the advantage of the society women should go to work, says Virpi, not stay at home - unemployed as it is.

I think Virpi's writing points out another serious flaw in our (Finnish) society. (I'm referring to myself as a Finn in Finland in this blog despite not living there anymore.) We have, as most countries don't, a unique situation: a mother can choose to go to work or to stay at home with her child. In the US the situation is often one of financial realities: a mother staying at home has no income, so if the father doesn't make enough money for the family to survive the mother has to go to work too. However, in the US daycare is not free and can in fact be extremely expensive, so if there are no grandparents to help out it might be cheaper for the mother to stay at home after all, depending on her income level. Maternity leave is fairly short, depending on your place of employment, and you don't get paid during it. In Finland it's different - paid maternity leave can be up to a year and after that one of the parents can decide to stay at home with the child and be paid a small amount of money by the government, as a compensation for not putting the child in the free day care. Few fathers use this, but most mothers do. Those mothers who are career-oriented can go to work and use this same free day care system.

The flaw I see is this: in stead of being grateful about this system that our sisters in the 1970's and 1980's put up, we tend to guilt those who choose differently from us. Mothers who stay at home feel and sometimes even say that the others are not good mothers, without properly maternal feelings and so on. The mothers who work are equally vehement against their lazy counterparts at home. "Working mothers do the same as stay-at-home mothers but much more efficiently" - "Working mothers sacrifice their children for their career" etc. The children's good is used by one side then the other.

Why couldn't it be good for the child if the mother gets to do what she enjoys and is good at? And that isn't always a paying career, just saying.

Virpi think that what's good for the society is at least clear. I say it's not that clear at all - free child care costs a lot of money for the society. Mothers who stay at home don't get paid money and therefore don't pay taxes, but they save money for the society and often also for the household (although not necessarily, depending on what they do with their days...) The cheapest thing for the society would be for those to take care of the children who already can't work for some reason, namely retired grandparents and - sorry, Virpi - unemployed parents, friends or relatives. I have to point out that today's society seems to spit out quite a lot of unemployed people, so seems like there aren't quite enough jobs for even those highly educated women. The second cheapest measure would be for families to pay for childcare (but this would mean many couldn't afford it), or to put children in huge groups and have one adult preside over them, but this all agrees is cruel. Day cares need one adult for each five babies (didn't check this, might be less babies), otherwise we consider it a bad day care.

Is the education going to waste? In day cares in Finland most caretakers need a university degree - Masters. We seem to think raising children requires education. So maybe the problem is that the mothers have education in wrong fields? Well, probably neither Virpi nor anyone else feels the country should be filled with wanna-be mothers with only early childhood education degrees. In fact, I firmly believe that adequate education in almost any field gives a bonus in raising the next generation.

I say, let the families make their own decisions, hopefully well-informed, educated decisions but their own! Mothers can stay at home - let's be grateful about that - and fathers can too - but neither one of them has to. That's the system that was decided on by the idealistic builders of the well-fare state.

Feb 8, 2011


... that can't be a real word, can it?

Been working on it. My boy doesn't talk yet but of course language development starts immediately when a baby is born if not earlier. I'm happy that I have two sisters with bilingual kids (Finnish-Swedish) so I know some things that work and others that don't work. I've also seen some Finnish mothers trying to teach their children Finnish in America. Comparing these is helpful. Here are some tips I've received or figured out myself:

If you want to raise a child bilingual you have to stick to it. It might offend friends or grandparents (hopefully not I:s grandparents) that they don't understand you when you speak to your child, but if you start making exceptions they will get more and more frequent until...

It's very difficult to raise a bilingual child in America. English is practically the only language they ever hear here, unless you watch Spanish TV (most don't), so they don't get exposed to many languages. Things are easier in Finland since they might hear TV in four-five languages.

If a child doesn't have a community of said language speakers (and the mother is the only one speaking it) he will grow up understanding it but will have an accent while speaking. (This creeps me out - how can you have an accent on your mothertongue, different from your mother's accent?)

The parents must always put extra effort to language-related things. You must speak good language because nobody else will... and also, you really have to speak all the time.

Books and films and things like that help a lot. I want to get a great Finnish library.

So, after all this trouble, why bother? Is it important in any way to be bilingual? Well, apart from the fact that knowing two languages actually helps you to learn more (the different structures of languages isn't so much a mystery, or the differences in pronounciation) or that it might be that bilinguality also boosts your language abilities in general (only if they're really strong languages both), there isn't much reason. Except that language and culture go together and I love my language and culture. I couldn't imagine that my children wouldn't be Finnish in both language and culture.