Congress is expected to vote soon on legislation that could reshape the US social safety net by making childcare more affordable and introducing paid parental, medical and caregiving leave.
It would be a dramatic overhaul in a county where parents are often expected to return to work soon after giving birth and spend on average more than $9,000 a year on childcare. But some Americans have already experienced versions of the proposed policies because they live abroad.
The Guardian spoke with three of those parents about living in places where, like most of the world, paid parental leave is a fact of life and childcare can cost less than groceries.
Ireland: affordable preschool and monthly child benefits
Tallie Dubois has lived in Ireland for only a year but she said her family has already felt the benefits of affordable childcare. “What we pay for childcare here is what we paid for groceries in New York for a week,” said Dubois, 26.
She and her husband, who is from Ireland, decided to move from New York with their daughter, who is now five years old, and son, who turns two next month, to have a higher quality of life.
An instant change: the family went from spending $1,400 a month on their daughter’s childcare – and preparing to pay the same for their son when he started preschool – to paying €373 ($438) a month for both children with benefits. Next year, they will pay €650 ($760). In Ireland, families also collect a €140 ($164) child benefit each month until their children turn 16. “I remember thinking: ‘What?! You just get money?’” Dubois said.
“That was something I wasn’t used to that is a big help,” Dubois said. “That right there covered half of their childcare expenses for a month.”
Not to mention they don’t have to pay for their family’s healthcare, beyond the cost of taxes. When Dubois gave birth to her daughter in the US, it cost more than $20,000.
Dubois said there is a “lift of a burden” raising a family in Ireland that allows them to focus on more than just getting by; they now have new opportunities.
“It leaves room open for me to get a master’s degree and not go into debt, it leaves room open for us to decide whether we want to have another child or not – because in New York we definitely can’t afford more than two, because the two we have are expensive enough,” Dubois said. “But here it’s possible we can have a third kid and we don’t have to go into debt.”
Dubois is a first-generation American. Both her parents are from Haiti, and she said her parents always had an idealized vision of the US, but realized how much hardship came with the country’s opportunities.
“My mother worked two jobs while I was growing up. She worked 16 hours a day, and same thing with my father,” Dubois said. “My mother completely understood us wanting to move to Ireland and as soon as we moved here she said, I see a complete change in the kids, and she agreed it’s better for them here than it is in New York.”
The Netherlands: prenatal leave and postpartum support
When Brenda Villarreal told her employer in Amsterdam that she was pregnant, she was surprised to learn she could begin her maternity leave weeks earlier than expected.
The company told her she had to stop working her job as a global tax planning manager four to six weeks before her due date this past April and that she wouldn’t return for at least 10 to 12 weeks after – a total of 16 weeks leave at 100% pay.
“That was news to me because I thought I’ll just work up until the day my water breaks,” Villarreal, 46, said. “I have that American mentality, I’ll just work, work, work until I have to take it off.”
Villarreal said she and her husband, who is Dutch, have long been career-focused, and she had to train herself not to open her computer or work emails once her leave began earlier this year. It helps that her boss has been extremely supportive and takes her maternity leave seriously.
“He was very good with anything that came to me; he’ll immediately take care of it and pick it up,” Villarreal said. “Nobody has called me, nobody has sent me any urgent emails or messages or anything like that. It’s very respected.”
Instead of work emails, Villarreal’s first days with her daughter included daily home visits from a maternity nurse as part of the country’s Kraamzorg postnatal care service. These nurses help new parents with everything from bathing to making daily meals to mental and physical health check-ups for the baby and mother. “I felt like she was a member of the family,” Villarreal said.
During the pandemic, Villarreal valued these visits even more because family and friends couldn’t easily travel to visit the newborn (her mother was able to visit from the US this summer only because of a special exemption for newborns’ grandparents). And when the nurse left, Villarreal and her husband could still turn to their midwife at any hour of the day for questions. After six weeks with the midwife, families then rely on the local child health clinic, or consultatiebureau.
“It’s just this very smooth process, at least in my opinion, of really good care in the Netherlands and shows how much mothers are taken care of and appreciated,” Villarreal said. “It really does feel like a hug during really difficult times.”
Next August, the Netherlands is extending its parental leave policies so both parents will qualify for an additional nine weeks’ leave at 50% pay.
Japan: five days of hospital rest and a year of leave
Teni Wada had lived in Japan for more than a decade when she gave birth to her daughter there in December 2017. Right outside the clinic that week, she was confronted with a reminder of her early life in the US: the first Starbucks had just opened in the city where she lives, Edogawa.
On day three of Wada’s hospital stay, the new mom felt ready to take the short walk for a brew. But she was stopped by a receptionist on the first floor who insisted she must rest at the hospital, where she would stay for a week.
“That was my culture shock moment: I can’t even go outside,” Wada, 36, said.
In Japan, women typically stay in the hospital for at least five days after giving birth. In the US, a longer hospital stay means more cash – the average cost for childbirth in the US is between $12,000 and $16,000.
Birth costs wouldn’t change with the proposals in Congress, but the costs of the weeks and years after would.
In Japan, women are guaranteed six weeks of leave before their due date and eight weeks after, paid at an average of 67% of their wages. When that period ends, they can take up to 44 weeks of parental leave, at a lower pay rate. Fathers can take up to a year off on reduced incomes, though many don’t and the country is pushing for more people to use this benefit.
Wada took about 10 months off before returning to her job as a kindergarten teacher and was able to go back in part because her husband used his leave.
But she struggled to find childcare and was even waitlisted at the school where she taught – childcare waitlists are a common problem in Japan.
Costs for childcare vary depending on whether people use public or private day care, with the former costing about ¥10,000 a month, or less than $100.
Wada, who is from South Carolina, said she doesn’t have plans to move back to the US but when she thinks about it, she’s instantly reminded of one big barrier. “Every time I think about going to America, [health] insurance is the first thing in my mind,” Wada said.
If she did move back, she said she would probably schedule her family’s doctors visits for their annual trips to Japan.
How does the US compare?
The US is a global outlier on family policy: out of 193 countries, 182 have paid sick leave, 185 have paid leave for mothers and 108 have paid leave for fathers, according to the World Policy Analysis Center. “These are very, very widespread policies and guaranteeing three months or more is very common,” said Dr Jody Heymann, founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center.
In June, Unicef ranked US national childcare policies 40th out of 41 wealthy countries because of its weak investments in leave and childcare.
Democrats are still working out the details of the proposed changes, but the aim is to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave, at a cap of $4,000 a month, and to make it so families spend up to 7% of their household income on childcare.
Heymann, a UCLA distinguished professor of public health, public policy and medicine, said: “The US is extraordinarily far behind and if all this passed it would be a crucial step in the right direction, but it would in no way put us in the lead in the world.”