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Opting out of the work-family balancing act

29% of women in Switzerland aged between 20 and 29 would like three or more children Keystone

Meet two Swiss women who have chosen not to juggle work and family, and are happy with their decision. Only one will be feted on Mother’s Day.

Standing in the apartment she calls her husband’s bachelor pad, Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti is making Turkish tea. Expensive crèches and a lack of childcare facilities outside school hours are not problems Moretti has to deal with.

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti courtesy

Six years ago, the director of the Montreux Jazz Artists Foundation reduced her working hours to study in Paris. She and her husband rented out their house – a transformed coal warehouse in Vevey – keeping this small, separate wing for themselves.

Moretti, 47, divides her home life between Vevey and an apartment in the vibrant Marais district of Paris, where she studies philosophy, art history and anthropology. Her dual existence is punctuated by travel for her job and would have been impossible with children.

“I always thought I wouldn’t have children,” says Moretti, who grew up in the countryside in canton Fribourg. There were no neighbours and no contact with children out of school until her brother was born when she was six.

Baby bother

“I don’t know if it was jealousy but I really didn’t see what purpose he served,” she says of the baby brother who cried every night in their shared bedroom. She remembers not being interested in her classmates either.

Moretti met Adrien, a stage set designer, when she was 25. They married soon after, agreeing they didn’t want children.

That decision is rare for young people in Switzerland. According to “Families and generations”, a study External linkconducted by the Federal Statistical Office in 2013, only 6% of women and 8% of men aged between 20 and 29 don’t want children.

The same study found that 29% of women in Switzerland aged between 20 and 29 would like three or more children. A further 62% would like two and 3% one. The reality, as suggested by responses from the 50 to 59 age group, is different: 22% women have three or more, 42% have two and 16% have one. 

Moretti found it easy at first to ward off questions about having children because she and her husband were relatively young. “But I always had the impression that it was a compulsory step, as if it was the duty of a woman to bear children,” she says.

Later, to dispel her in-laws’ conviction that something “wasn’t right” with her, Moretti consulted a psychiatrist. He provided her with a medical assessment certifying that she had no pathological problem but was simply not interested in having children. She gave the document to her mother-in-law and the subject was never raised again.

Children lead to happiness?

“I think social pressure is very strong,” says Moretti. She observes that while the Swiss are generally respectful of the privacy of others, that isn’t the case when it comes to the question of starting a family. “Everyone feels entitled to ask you about it,” she says. “It’s nobody’s business.”

According to the Statistical Office study, 59% of men and 65% of women aged between 20 and 80 have biological children. But almost the same number – 55% of men and 60% of women – believe it’s not necessary to have any to be happy and fulfilled.

Despite her choice, Moretti observes that Switzerland, with its ageing population, is committing a strategic error by not making life easier for working mothers. “I think it’s terrible that children are a luxury product,” she says. “I have colleagues who pay CHF2,500 ($2,565) a month in childcare because both parents are working.”

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the gross cost of full-time care for a child under two in Switzerland represents 67% of the average salary, making it the most expensive in the world. Even when financial and tax benefits are deducted, the net cost still gobbles up 30% of an average salary.

Andrea Sidler

Two kilometres away from Moretti’s home, mother-of-four Andrea Sidler apologises for the mess in her apartment. For a home of six people, it looks remarkably tidy. Sidler’s children – aged 21, 19, 15 and 6 – are out and she has a couple of hours to herself before picking up the youngest from school for lunch.

Sidler grew up in Zurich and did an apprenticeship as a stationery sales assistant. She came to canton Vaud to learn French and met her husband Georges, a self-employed painter and decorator. Their first son Raphaël was born when she was 24.

“For me, it was obvious that I would go back to work later as we had our first children very early,” she says.

Working mothers – pay off?

But now, aged 46, Sidler doesn’t see much point in working. “First, I don’t know if I would manage to juggle work and family,” she says. “And secondly, I calculated that with what I would earn and what we would pay for childcare, we would just pay more tax.”

Sidler is among the 19% of mothers in Switzerland who live with a partner and don’t contribute to the household income. But it is only in just over one-tenth of households composed of couples with children that the mother’s salary represents 50% or more of the family income. The figure is not surprising, as 63% of mothers with children under 25 work part-time. Only 17% have full-time jobs.

Sidler sometimes feels guilty about her husband being the breadwinner but believes her presence matters to her children. “When we’re sitting around the table at midday, they talk about a lot of things – they share a lot,” she says.

With four children in the house, she and her husband don’t have much of a private life but that doesn’t seem to bother her.

“We know it’s a time that will pass,” she says. “For young children, that presence is important, even if people tell me it’s not.”

Sidler says she has become more confident about her choice because she’s seen that being at home for her children has a positive impact on them. “Some mothers tell me I’m lucky and they would do the same if it were possible financially,” she says. “Others say they couldn’t do it.”

She believes it’s up to each woman to make her own choices and decides what works best. For her, what’s important is devoting quality time to children of any age and listening to them.

“I’ve seen all kinds of family situations and the children have grown up and are doing well,” she says. “My children will also be affected by the way I’ve brought them up and will certainly judge me. There is no ideal family situation.”

Women with tertiary level qualifications are less likely to have children in Switzerland. While 30% of women in this category have no children, the proportion falls to 17% among women with a secondary II level of education (high school diploma, apprenticeship) and 13% for those with no post-compulsory education.

In households composed of a couple and at least one child under six, 72% of mothers work but most have part-time employment. While 60% of children up to the age of 12 are in some kind of day care arrangement, institutional childcare services – if available – are not always affordable or compatible with parents’ work schedules. Home-based childcare (with a nanny, au pair, babysitter, relative, friend or neighbour) is the most widely used, regardless of the age of the child.

In Germany, France, Austria, all crèche places are subsidised and parents pay a maximum of between 14% and 25% of the total cost, depending on the country. Switzerland only subsidies some places. In canton Vaud, parents pay an average of 38% of the total cost of a place in a crèche, while parents in Zurich pay around a third. 

In Sweden, where family policy aims to support the dual-earner family model and ensure equal rights and obligations in the areas of family and work, public childcare is guaranteed to all parents. Pre-school facilities are heavily subsidised and parents cover an average of 11% of the real cost. Fees, which are directly proportional to parents’ income, can represent up to 3% of the family’s monthly income, but no more than 1,260 SEK (about CHF151) per month. Consequently, 55% of children under three and 96% of children between three and six are enrolled in formal childcare.

The Swiss government introduced in 2003 an incentive programme for the creation of crèches. The duration of the programme has been extended twice and will run until 2019. By July 2015, the programme had enabled 48,500 places to be created. 

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR