Letter from Portugal: Here moms are “dondocas” or “paradas.”

by Katrina on December 3, 2013

In Maxed Out, I pepper you with statistics about how the U.S. lags behind most of the developed world when it comes to support for working parents. But that doesn’t mean life is perfect in those other places, either.

The letter below is from a mom of two named Susana. She works in Human Resources for a multinational company in Lisbon, Portugal. With Susana’s permission, I’m sharing her email here as a reality check that even in countries that provide the basic benefits we lack in the U.S.—things like paid maternity leave, and more support for breastfeeding—workplace culture can still be fraught with stress for parents.

From Susana:

I finished reading your book, and I had to write to you to say that I loved it.

First of all, I’m not American, I’m Portuguese and I’ve always lived in Portugal, where we have some good help from the government, like paid parental leave, but also lack other necessary help like public daycare.

Despite some of these differences, while I was reading your story it was like I seeing myself, as I feel so much like what you described. I have a 5-year-old son and an almost 2-year-old daughter, and especially since my daughter’s birth I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and stressed. I don’t like the life that I’m living and feel we deserve better.

My husband and I both work full time, and my husband is very hands on at home and with the kids. In Portugal it’s not common to be stay at home parents. You’re supposed to work, and if you don’t you’re seen as a lazy bimbo (the word in Portuguese is “dondocas”). Working part-time or from home is not well seen either.

To make it worse, because of the financial crisis that we’re living, the company where my husband works sent him to work abroad on a project, and since our girl was 2 months old, he worked in another country during the week and came home only on weekends. This lasted for 18 months, and it stopped because we couldn’t take it anymore. I was on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown and my husband and children were miserable. So he informed his superiors that the travels had to stop, and found a way to work from here.

Since then, things are much better for us, and the kids are happy again…but deep down inside I continue feeling that I don’t have enough time for my children and my family as I wanted, and as I should have. I would love to work part-time, but a year ago when I mentioned it at work, I was advised to not ask for it, as I could risk being fired.

For your statistics 🙂 in Portugal we have the following good things:

  • 5 months of paid parental leave for the mother after the birth of the baby.
  • At least 2 months of paid parental leave for the father, and the possibility to share the mother’s leave.
  • After the return to work, the mother or the father have a paid absence time of 2 hours per day to breastfeed or bottle feed the baby until he’s 1 year old, and if you breastfeed, this leave has no limit of age.
  • Paid sick leave for pregnant women, when there is a risk pregnancy.
  • Paid absence time from work for medical appointments related to the pregnancy, even for the father.

On the other hand…

  • There are very few public daycares (run by social security or the government), and private daycare costs about the same as a national minimum salary (€ 485, which is about $ 650 per month), which makes it very difficult for most couples to have more than 1 child.
  • Public education is granted from age 5 on, so until that age families spend a lot of money on daycare.
  • The average number of babies per woman is 1.28 (way below the USA).
  • Part-time work is seen as something bad, and work from home is almost non existing.
  • Flexible work schedules exist but are not the most usual, and a person is a good professional if he works very long hours.

Until 2 months ago I was having an internal “struggle” with myself trying to balance work and family, I was even looking for a new job, but after my vacations in August (and before reading your book) I finally accepted that I am on the “Mommy Track” (We recognize the “Mommy Track” when we see it, but we don’t have a term for it. We just say that someone is “encostada” or “parada,” which means that you’re standing still). I’m going to stay on the Mommy Track, because I can’t do it all and my family is the most important.

I realized that I can’t change jobs because I would lose the flexible work schedule that I have now, and the work flexibility that I have, that allows me to work full time and manage to raise my kids and be there when they need me the most.

A few days ago here a TV ad came out, from the Portuguese national electrical company, and while some people praise it as so beautiful, it made me sad and a bit depressed, as it shows a typical day of a typical Portuguese mom. No one seemed to notice that the father only appears at the beginning and the end, sitting down and looking at the kids, and the mom does it all, and only stops way after the kids are in bed.

And in the end she has a happy look on her face like her life is perfect.

The title and message is “our energy is present in every moment of your life, but the biggest energy is yours.”

I thought it was really lame.


* * *

Check out my new book! Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink

Pick up a copy for yourself, and another for a maxed out mom you love. Selected by Parade editors as one of the “top picks for parents.” Selected as a “mom must read” by Parents.com.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }


Wow. I’m finally catching up on my reading (working mom and all) and I’m shocked by the commercial the woman mentioned in her letter. I should say I’m not surprised at all, but how can people think it’s beautiful? The husband/father is almost completely absent, and there is no way a woman would look so pleased at the end of such a day. Depictions like that one diminish and invalidate the difficulties that women (and parents in general) face today. Ugh.



Hi Katrina,
I just wanted to let you know that I finally worked up the “courage” to ask for the part-time schedule (from 8 hours/day to 6 hours/day). First I got a NO from my manager, but then I insisted and based my request in the labor law here. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t easy. I was threatened with sending the request to the lawyer, going to court, and even being fired, but I didn’t let the threats get to me, and after 1 month and a half of the initial request I got the Yes. These 2 hours make a huge difference in my kids’ and my quality of life.



Woo hoo! Good for you, Susana!


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