Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dinner with an Icelandic Family

I was recently invited to dinner by a kind Icelandic family with three children, ages 13, 10 and 4. Over grilled fish, roasted sweet potatoes, and ratatouille, I was able to learn more about family life in this northern country.

I asked the mother, Gurri, about the numerous baby carriages. Were Icelanders having a lot of babies or were they just taking them outside more often? She thinks they are having more babies. “It’s become a bit of a trend, during the recession,” she said. “You see carriages and pregnant women everywhere you go.”

Icelandic law allows for three months maternity leave, three month paternity leave and another three months to be used by either parent. Children can get a spot in a daycare somewhere between ages one and two. Until then, they rely on parents, grandparents, relatives or “home-mommys,” which are in-home daycares where up to five young children can be cared for.

Gurri pays just over $200 per month for full-time daycare for her son, including a full menu of home-cooked meals. This is thanks to government subsidies. She had been working full-time when she became pregnant with her third. Finding it too difficult to balance three children with a full-time job, she quit and stayed home for a year and a half. Now she is back at work. She gets up at 6:30 to go to the gym before work, then works an eight hour day. Her son’s daycare is less than a block away from home and her daughters’ school is just around the corner, within walking distance. The entire family sits down for dinner together in the evening.

In the summertime, her two elder daughters are largely on their own. The eldest, who is very involved in gymnastics, spends much of her days training. The 10-year old hangs out at home alone, plays with friends and visits her grandparents, who live within walking distance.

Icelanders get at least 24 days of vacation per day. In addition, they get 2 sick days per month for themselves and two days per month to care for their children. “So when we call in sick, we have to specify whether we are sick or our children are sick,” Gurri said.

They spent several years living in the U.S. The short vacations and poor social support offered in the U.S. led them to return to Iceland. “It was a serious factor we considered when we were deciding whether or not to stay there,” she said. “We would go to Iceland to see family in the summer for 4-6 weeks at a time. That just wasn’t possible with the vacation available at a U.S. job. Also, the daycare is so expensive and it’s very hard with no family nearby. In the U.S., your friends become your family.”

All of the children seemed to be affected by the daylight which lasts until well past 11 p.m. The 10-year old had slept until noon and was wide awake. The 13-year old had been up until 4:30 in the morning and was exhausted. The four year old was up several hours past his bedtime. His mouth smeared with chocolate from dessert, he put on a Viking cap with horns and accompanied me to the bus stop at 10:30 p.m., looking out for monsters to fight along the way.

The family lives in a duplex in a suburban neighborhood. Their home is spacious and airy, but they have only three bedrooms and the four-year-old still shares a room with his parents. “I’d really like to stay in this neighborhood and find a house with one more bedroom,” said Gurri. “But they don’t come up very often and they are very expensive.” Another option might be to turn half of the heated garage into another room.

Even though everyone had been occupied during the day, the family managed to put together a nice meal and enjoy an evening together. The 13-year old made the dessert – skyr and marscapone cheese with maple syrup and berries. The father grilled the massive piece of halibut, which fed five with much to spare. And mom took care of the side dishes. They were relaxed and friendly with each other. They had recently returned from visiting family in Scandinavia. While they were gone, the 4-year-old had his birthday. But it’s important that grandparents and relatives are invited to the party, so they all assembled when they returned.

The quality of life appealed to me – the reasonably priced quality daycare, having everything so close to home, the close family relations, the reasonable work schedule with adequate leave and the ability to spend long, relaxing evenings together. It’s the type of balance I strive for.

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