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.