Every second of every day, babies are born all over the world. Where those babies are birthed and raised has an enormous impact on who they become. Location also has a huge impact on how parents actually parent.  Over the next few months, we will explore what parenting looks like outside of North America with mothers living in Bahrain, Australia, Tanzania, Argentina, India, and Austria. This series will discuss some of the rituals around sleep, food, family, tradition, gender, parenting roles, maternity leave, and childcare in other countries. The mothers profiled will share what surprised and enraged them, what motherhood struggles they endured, what they miss about North America, as well as what wisdom they have gleaned by moving far from home.

I never in a million years expected to move to Austria. Like so many New Yorkers, I had romantic fantasies of moving abroad—to Paris or London, mostly—but Vienna? It had never even crossed my mind. Then, as these things go, I met a man. He got a job in Vienna, we got married, and moved 3,000 miles away. Within a month of our arrival, before I spoke a word of German, I was pregnant.

The most surprising thing about parenting in Vienna was that women are prohibited from working during the eight weeks before and after their due date, under the country’s Mutterschutz, or mother protection, law. Many women don’t return to work for at least a year, sometimes two. Many got pregnant again within that second year and were then able to extend their parental leave for another two years, meaning that women often spent upwards of four years exclusively taking care of their young children, blessedly without the risk of losing their jobs. (If you worked a government job, you were allowed to work part-time until your child turned 7.) What’s more, women both expected and wanted all that time with their babies. 

As an American woman brainwashed into thinking 12 weeks was ample time to figure out how to care for a tiny human, I was convinced that after three months—on the long side of American maternity leaves, which are generally unpaid—I’d be ready to give my baby over for a few hours a day and exercise my brain. To whom I was planning to hand over my baby was a complete mystery: There were very few, if any, daycares for babies under one, and nanny culture was virtually non-existent in Vienna.  

So when I voiced any, even small, existential concern about losing my identity as a writer (or simply as a person other than Mom), I was often met with blank stares. Why wouldn’t you want to be with your baby all the time? Who else should take care of her?

But nothing about those early months of motherhood looked anything like I thought they would. At four months, when even American women with “long” maternity leaves were pumping in bathroom stalls at the office, I could not for the life of me imagine thinking beyond: Does she need to be changed/napped/fed/put to bed? Mothering occupied all my time and brain space and, like anything else I hadn’t done before, I needed practice doing it. 

I was, in a flash, beyond grateful that I wasn’t being pushed back into the workforce. 

I wasn’t being pushed back into the workforce because, according to the Austrian government, I already had a job as Mama, which was culturally mandated and well paid at a minimum of 1,000/month for a year. Women who’d been employed full-time when they got pregnant (I worked part-time as an adjunct professor) received two-thirds of their salaries, capped at 2,000/month. The only women who did go back to work earlier were freelancers.

Mothering, in fact, was so utterly considered my job, that when I asked our midwife when I could start pumping so that my husband could also feed the baby, she looked at me completely bemused: “But where are you going?” 

When I went to the playground, the pediatrician, the grocery store, and cafés in the middle of the day, I saw mothers. Die Mütter. Mothers, mothers everywhere. This was an odd mix of absolutely marvelous and a tad stifling. What if I wanted to work? (Did anybody else miss their work, even a little?) What if I felt better about being a mother if I didn’t have to be one every single waking hour of every single day? 

A few months in, when I was, in fact, ready to write for an hour or two, exercise again, or simply have an hour to myself and I brought up babysitters or nannies to my expat mom’s group, the universal reply was: I want to be home with my baby! Why would you need a babysitter?

Yet after spending the first three years of my daughter’s life in a country that supported our family so generously (we also received free healthcare and, beginning at 14 months, virtually free daycare), I cannot fathom doing it any other way. I now look back at that first year with crushing nostalgia.

But motherhood in Austria pulled at my feminist strings just a bit. Why was I supposed to stay home all this time? What about my husband? Austria did offer paid paternity leave, and the most common set-up was for the mother to take 12 months off and the father to take two—these were often taken around the birth, and then at the very end of that year. But for many reasons—mostly because we couldn’t afford his pay cut—my husband didn’t take those hours, and our duties became alarmingly gendered.

For years, I couldn’t figure out why this whole arrangement rankled me. I did, after all, have it so much better than 99 percent of my American cohorts, and I cherished the government sponsored time I got with my baby. I didn’t want it another way, but why was this the only way? 

Finally, a fellow expat in Vienna voiced my frustrations: Austria is a country that supports mothers, she said, not women.

The ability to choose what kind of mother I wanted to be was taken out of the equation. A mother is someone who is there. Who wants to pause her life to care for her babies, even if that pause lasts half a decade. Whose personal ambitions can be sidelined for a time. This seemed to work for most Viennese women—or at least for those who did not see their work as having much to do with their sense of self or ambition. Who welcomed the interruption in the daily grind.

Now that my daughter is 6 and we are back in the U.S., I see this early “sacrificial” time, when I put everything aside, as nothing but a gift during a time when I was learning to be a mother—something I hadn’t known I would need time to learn. It was a time when our focus was squarely on each other: a mother and her baby, getting to know each other, no other cares in the world.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • In the public medical system, a pregnant woman signs up to give birth at a particular hospital, not with a particular obstetrician. So when she goes into labor, she appears at the hospital and the birth is assisted by whoever is on call.
  • A midwife is on call for every birth, and stays with the birthing woman for the duration of her shift (approximately 12 hours).
  • Babies are often given a very mild fennel tea in the hospital, dubbed Babytea. Fennel has long been used to curb colic and various infant teas are available.
  • Every child is guaranteed a spot in a state-sponsored Kindergarten (or daycare) at age 3, but many children start around age 1. Private Kinderkrippen (for younger kids) are more costly—between 200 and 400/month. Public Kinderkrippen are also free but fewer in number, so priority goes to women who are going back to work.
  • Cultural activities are very accessible, with yearly family passes for under 50, so it’s common to see families at various museums and concerts around town.

Abigail Rasminsky  has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Cut, Epicurious, Longreads, O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Writing Program and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

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