Children in school, mothers on stand-by

2014-06-24 19.16.11

I’m not saying there is a conspiracy in Switzerland to make life difficult for working mothers of primary school children, but if there were a conspiracy it might account for my experiences over the past four years, and look something like this:

Strategy 1: Mix it up
Have children start school (kindergarten) at the age of four but give them an erratic timetable. For fun, have the children come in three mornings a week, obviously not consecutive mornings, and throw in an afternoon just to keep it interesting.

I’m not making this up. My four year old has school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Thursday afternoon for two hours. That’s it. Every night she asks, do I have school tomorrow? And every morning, do I have school today? Keep ‘em guessing.

Strategy 2: Complications
In the first few years, give different classes different afternoons and mornings off each week. That way, families with more than one child will be kept on their toes with multiple childcare gaps and a different timetable for each child.

Strategy 3: The lunch trap
Close down the school for two hours in the middle of the day so that the timetable looks like this: Morning: 7.45a.m. to 11.30a.m.; Afternoon: 1.40p.m. to 3:30p.m.

Let the parents worry about where the children will eat and who will look after them. Provide a minimum number of places in an after-school programme nearby. Sit back and watch the parents scramble for these places, at their own expense.

Strategy 4: Rise and shine
Start school at an ungodly hour of the morning, so children are too sleepy to eat breakfast and parents are grateful for the children having random mornings off during the week to recover.

Ok, the early start is part and parcel of Swiss society. It’s the norm for people to start work before eight so we all have to go to bed early and get up early.

But the rest? I hear the argument sometimes that these timetables are geared towards children, based on the notion that starting school is a big change for children so they should be eased in gradually.

But I find it hard to believe such a lack of routine is good for children. What about the body clock? And I know it is not good for parents trying to organise childcare.

For stay-at-home mothers who are attached to their role, these timetables have one advantage. It makes them indispensable. They can rightly point out that they hardly have time to turn around, do the shopping and start cooking before the children are home again.

But what if this is a gilded cage? I want stay-at-home mothers to be valued, not shackled to the home. Is it good that mothers who have already put in a huge effort in the baby and pre-school years are so restricted they cannot think of taking on another activity during the 20 to 30 hours their school-gong children are away during the week?

Is there any other country clinging to this home-for-lunch model? In Ireland the four and five year olds attend school from 9a.m. to 1p.m., Monday to Friday. They eat a packed lunch at the 11a.m. break. From the age of six or seven (first class), the school day runs from 9a.m. to 2.30p.m.

This is not about treating schools as a babysitting service for selfish career-mongering parents (a view I’ve heard expressed), it is just a simple plea to stop pretending that the two worlds – home and school – have nothing to do with each other.

I should point out that my children like coming home at lunch on the days I am here but I wouldn’t consider it a hardship for them if things were different. They were just as happy doing five-and-a-half-hour days when they attended school in Dublin for a term.

More and more Swiss schools are adapting, and have begun to provide supervision and hot meals at lunchtime but it is still a minority. Maybe mothers will be able to ‘lean in’ a bit more when this becomes the norm.

Like most mothers of young children in Switzerland, I work part-time, and accept the trade-off that my career will stall for the time being, in return for spending more time with my children.

But to “escape” into the earning world even for 20 hours a week without live-in childcare requires some creative solutions. Last year I traded childcare with a neighbour, both of us taking on each other’s children for a 10-hour day. Luckily my husband also leans in to childcare duty and we have great support from family living nearby.

To repeat what I said earlier, it’s not that there’s a conspiracy to make life difficult for working mothers. It is just that the system evolved to complement a traditional situation which is no longer the reality for many families – and in some regions the winds of change have not yet arrived.

It’s complicated enough for two-parent families. Last week I heard a Swiss parliamentarian say that the majority of social welfare recipients are households headed by one parent. How many more of them would be able to hold down a job if their children weren’t coming and going every few hours?

So what do you think? Am I being unfair to the Swiss way of life? Would you swap your system for ours?

You’ll find more background on this topic in this article I wrote for swissinfo a couple of years ago: Swiss mothers hold back from having it all.

12 thoughts on “Children in school, mothers on stand-by

  1. Oh Clare, I could write a thesis on this topic! I think you’re being quite generous as I’m convinced it’s a conservative conspiracy to keep mothers chained to the kitchen sink and/or the milking stool. As an evil foreign mother whose children regularly attend lunch time and after school care (which thankfully exist in our Commune), I’m regarded as something of a pariah by the other mothers and even the teachers tut tut at my neglect. The kids also routinely lay on the guilt about being the only ones amongst their friends who don’t go home to nourishing meals lovingly prepared by Mum or Granny. My husband (whose Mum did lunch duty for his entire childhood) doesn’t see any reason to feel guilty but he’s not la mamma.

    1. I think there is a strong clique defending the status quo and keeping up the pressure on non-conforming mothers. At least in some conservative areas. It’s probably very different in the cities.
      Aren’t children great at laying on the guilt? Whenever I mention the school lunch option to the kids, which I might need next year, they react with a chorus of horrified ‘no’s.

  2. No, I do not think you are being unfair at all. This is a crazy schedule and I think you are quite right in saying that young kids need routine – there is comfort in knowing exactly what’s happening each morning on waking up, and indeed on going to bed. I’m feeling blessed now after reading this – never been a conspiracy theorist, but you have made some really salient points re: social engineering here. BTW – my 1st (now 2nd) grader’s schedule: Sunday to Thursday (our weekend being Fri/Sat) 7.45am (class starts at 8) to 2pm – this includes 2 x 20 minute breaks for snacks, drinks, lunch, a bit of a run around. Gives me plenty of time to do what I need to do, be it work or dreaded household chores/grocery shopping. Most businesses have a midday break here between 1pm and 4pm, so this school schedule allows for fathers to do the pick-up at school as well – majority at school gates are dads in fact.

    1. That sounds so civilised and family friendly Safia. And it’s nice to hear about the fathers picking up the children from school.
      Despite the protective approach to school hours, the Swiss are in favour of independence in other ways, encouraging children to make their own way to school. You see children as young as six taking the bus or walking alone.
      And one major difference to London or Dublin is that there is no competition or waiting lists for ‘the better’ schools. There is a catchment area for each school and parents have no choice in the matter.

  3. I don’t think you’re being unfair. It sounds exactly like the kind of system that old men would dream up to keep uppitty women at home. Keep on finding solutions. Equal rights for women are not a given in any country.

  4. That sounds terribly disruptive and confusing for everyone! At least here we have 5 consecutive mornings, which gives a nice balance to working at home life for me, and hanging out with my daughter in the afternoon. It does sound like a bit of a conspiracy!

    1. A friend in Zurich has had mon-fri mornings as well for her children since day one. Seems like total common sense but parents here in Fribourg seem to be so used to the chopped up week they think it’s logical. This year my 1st class girl has Thursday mornings off for no apparent reason. I think five morning kicks in next year. Yay.

  5. It is a bit ridiculous and I often feel it IS a conspiracy to keep women in their true profession, putting everyone else first. Lack of affordable healthcare is a horrible burden on so many people and this crazy schedule is geared toward people who don’t have to implement it.

    1. Indeed. I hope things are better for you in Bern. The weird thing is that whenever I question the hours, and the lunchtime gap etc., even on the school parents council, I get blank looks. I’m afraid I am in a minority of one. Tempted to write a rant to the local paper.

      1. I give you such kudos for speaking up at these events. I heard there is some discussion on the national level concerning the consistent schedule and including a hot lunch. But the argument that seems to be coming out is that it would increase taxes and FORCE families into two-income families whether they want to or not. I call bull but it’s just crazy. There are, as you say, an old guard who seems to think that women should want nothing more than shuttling their kids back and forth to oddball school schedules. Not to mention the families these schools have split in two or three sending them all over the place, in every direction forcing them to have to consider sending very young children on a trip alone with public transport and unwilling to reconsider when the parents express their problems. They seem to have no central system for using their common sense when they create these difficult logistical problems for families. GRRRR. WRITE THE RANT TO THE PAPER!!!!! Better yet, write the rant and we can circulate petitions and you can print other examples of people who are struggling and then lists and lists of names of families would beg for a change.

      2. Thanks for the encouragement Tara. It sounds like you are advising me to launch a people’s initiative, which I could do now since I’m a Swiss citizen. But seriously, I could start with a letter to the editor. I get the impression there are improvements happening, or in the pipeline, in several cantons but as usual it is very difficult to get an overview of the problem on a national level. Not that I’m a great believer in task forces researching problems, I think it is called for here. I would love to know how many children and families are being short-changed, forced to cast around for inadequate childcare solutions or to leave their children alone at home over lunch. One mother I met on the bus yesterday has an 11 year old who is alone at home for the lunch break two days a week, and he doesn’t feel comfortable in the house alone. It’s their only option for the moment as the local after school / lunchtime care facility is full and does not take kids older than 8! GRRRR.

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