Happy Women Go Dutch

How to be married in Holland

For her new book, the journalist and best-selling novelist Jo Piazza traveled the world during her first year of marriage to interview experts and laypeople about what makes marriages work across cultures and countries. In the following excerpt, Piazza recalls being laid off, Googling in search of happiness, and landing on The Netherlands. In Amsterdam, she talks to women about the difference between a life and a career path, and contemplates how to locate her own fierce independence. ‘How to Be Married: What I Learned From Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage is out today from Harmony Books.

I was a person who defined herself by her job. It was the thing I talked about when I met new people. Working was how I occupied most of my days. When I met my husband I was working eighty-five hours a week as a travel editor at a large tech company. This seemed normal. That’s what the Internet has done to us. It’s made us all feel as though we have to be “on call” all the time, even if we’re just humans writing words to improve SEO and not brain surgeons saving lives. I slept clutching my phone and had a panic attack if I found myself somewhere without it, including the bathroom, which is just gross.

And then my big, fancy job went away. I was laid off by text message while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in what the press described as a “bloodbath of layoffs.” The higher-ups said things like “I want you all to know this is for the good of the company,” like we were Greenpeace laboring to save the whales from extinction rather than an old-school Internet behemoth laboring to please our shareholders. My only contact with the company post layoff was the delivery of a padded box in which I was supposed to mail back my phone and laptop computer.

Everyone I told about my layoff said pretty much the same thing: “You’re going to get a bigger job right away, a better job.” Bigger and better meaning more money and more hours. I’d nod politely at them because they said it out of kindness and confidence in me, but the truth was there weren’t enough hours in a week for something bigger.

And I was exhausted. My job was taking a toll on my marriage. We wanted to have kids in the near future but my body was run-down and burnt out and I knew I was in no shape to get pregnant.

When it came to the concept of work/life balance, I had few good role models. Most of my friends dedicated their own lives to their careers, at least until they burned out. Many times, to the detriment of my health and past relationships, I’d worn my busyness and work title like badges of honor, believing if I didn’t keep straining for that brass ring I’d be a failure. As I sat around the house in my pajamas refreshing LinkedIn to see who looked at my profile, I Googled things like “work AND happiness AND fulfilled.” Google’s answer was the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is a place that consistently ranks among the top five happiest countries in the world and where couples claim some of the most satisfying long-term relationships. The New York Times once reported that the “Dutch as a nation emerge close to the top of the world happiness rankings established by Ruut Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 signals greatest life satisfaction, the Dutch score 7.5 — beating 6.5 for the French and 6.2 for the Japanese. They also defeat Americans with 6.4, the British with 7.1, and the Italians and Spanish who each total 6.9.”

I’d heard from my Dutch friends that one of the causes of this elevated level of happiness was that Dutch women give zero fucks about other people thinking they have it all. They don’t let their careers dictate their relationships or their family life. The majority of Dutch women, married or not, choose to work part-time in order to have more time for their marriage, their children, their hobbies, and their personal well-being.

In 2011 nearly 75 percent of working Dutch women were employed part-time. Many of my Americans girlfriends scoffed at this. They’d never dream of working part-time. They’d call that giving up, or worse, failure. But, Dutch women call the decision liberating and they don’t see their choice as bucking the feminist system.

“Every woman in Holland can do whatever she wants with her life,” fifty-two-year-old Marie-Louise van Haeren explained in an interview with Maclean’s magazine about how Dutch women got to be among the happiest people in the world.

Van Haeren described an idyllic existence filled with choices, where she rides her bike to work three days a week. She and almost all of her friends work part-time their entire careers in order “to have time to do things that matter to me, live the way I want. To stay mentally and physically healthy and happy. . . . Maybe this will turn out to be the fourth wave of feminism. Women protect the possibility that one day we’ll wake up to realize that life is not all about acquiring more material wealth, power, status. Many Dutch women that I know want to stay sane, happy, relaxed.”

It’s worth pointing out that the Netherlands has a strong government safety net in place that helps to make things like health care, retirement, and child care more affordable. That makes it much easier for women to choose to work part-time. Many women in the United States still have no choice but to work at least one job, sometimes more, just to pay their bills, feed their families, and keep a roof over their heads.

But there are also plenty of women and men in the States who choose to allow our careers to dictate our lives — where we live, how we live, how often we see our spouse, how often we see our kids, and even how we define ourselves. This often happens after we’ve reached a certain level of career achievement or as a result of having been born with a certain level of privilege. Among my own friends, you were considered a failure if you didn’t try to “have it all.”

Because of our jobs we often come home late at night, moody and irritable. Because of our jobs we don’t have enough time to work out or eat well, leading to chronic and costly health problems down the road. Because of our jobs we often live thousands of miles from our families and supportive communities.

The best decisions for our careers will often trump the best outcome for our marriages. What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we could find space in our lives for ourselves, our marriages, and our careers?

Dutch women may not be the breadwinners, but they are often the decision makers in their relationships. Equality is less of a battle in Holland, where it is ingrained in the culture, than in the States. Women’s rights are well established here, participation in the labor force is high, and there is a legal system in place to give women equal opportunities. It’s a system that breeds independent women who are less dependent on the institution of marriage. But beneath the fierce independence is an even fiercer love of family and a sense of practicality focused on keeping the family unit strong.

Spend a night out in the Netherlands, swing by a canal-side bar or a dinner party, and start talking to the Dutch. No one will ask you what you do. I don’t think anyone asked me about my job the entire time I was in Holland, unless I was the one to bring it up first.

When I mentioned to one Dutch woman that I used to work six days a week at my last job, and sometimes a few extra hours on Sunday, she looked at me with horror, her un-Botoxed brow furrowing in disbelief. “You Americans love talking about how busy you are with work. Does it make you feel important?” She said this without malice, with genuine curiosity. I’d grown used to the Dutch bluntness from the moment the woman who stamped my passport at the airport remarked that I was prettier as a blonde. “When do you have time to see your husband?” Then she added with greater gravitas, “Or do yoga?”

“They think we’re crazy,” I said to my husband later that night. Despite the fact that neither of us was particularly interested in smoking weed, curiosity had gotten the better of us and we’d decided to try smoking a legal joint in one of the city’s coffee shops. Being a naturally anxious person, I was particular about which of the coffee shops we gave our business to. My ground rules were that it had to be clean, have nice lighting, have no photographs or paintings of Bob Marley on the walls, and not be decorated in the manner of an Eastern European youth hostel.

“Don’t you think we’re a little crazy?” Nick said, looking down at the menu, which offered five-euro individual joints and a seven-euro space cake. “Seventy-five percent of your stress and our arguments start because of something to do with work. Don’t you think it makes more sense to actually create a work/life balance instead of just talking about it all the time?” We smoked about half a joint, decided we might be too old for this shit, and walked back to our Airbnb rental, which was really an attic, up two flights of steep and narrow stairs that were really ladders.

The two of us talked about the concept of work/life balance for the next couple of hours, coming to the conclusion that Americans blather on a great deal about the topic but rarely take concrete actions to find better balance. We write and read articles about it, we buy books to help us try to rearrange our too-busy schedules, we fill our Sundays with dread and unhappiness over the prospect of Monday morning. But we rarely choose to do anything that actually solves the problem.

Dutch women are fierce, independent, and ambitious. They use that ambition to craft a life rather than a career path. That did seem like a feminist choice to me.

There’s so much talk about women trying to have it all. That “all” is ambiguous and ever shifting. It can include the perfect marriage, a successful and fulfilling career, a happy family, and a healthy mind and body to boot. It often includes children but doesn’t have to.

There’s less talk about how the hell to do it, how to juggle everything, and what trying to have it all can do to a marriage.

I had no idea what I was going to do next. It wouldn’t be easy for our family to live on one salary; in fact, it would be nearly impossible. Plus, I didn’t want to define myself as a wife. I love working. It’s not that I wanted to check out of the workforce. I just wanted to reset. And if the time ever came, I wanted Nick to have that option too. The only thing I did know is that I didn’t want my next job to dictate my life or my marriage. Nick and I had to stop existing like two business travelers who happened to wind up in the same place once in a while. I wanted a career that I loved without killing myself and my relationship to have it. There had to be a way to achieve something closer to the reality of a work/life balance. I needed to find a way to be so Dutch.