European countries are increasingly under pressure to help parents, and particularly mothers of young children, combine paid work with family life. Low fertility rates and the prospect of future labor shortages as the baby boom generation retires have put the problem of balancing work and family onto the political agenda. Even so, the pace of change has been slow in many countries. In Germany, for example, skepticism about mothers working when their children are young and the fact that local governments and the voluntary sector claim responsibility for social services have slowed large-scale changes in family policy (Evers et al. 2005). In the Netherlands, governments have sought to increase women's workforce participation, but this has largely been through encouraging part-time work, thereby preserving much maternal care at home. At the same time, other European countries – the Nordic countries, France, and Belgium – have a longer tradition of helping mothers work for pay through parental leave, child care, and working-time policies, and they tend to have both higher rates of female labor force participation and higher fertility rates (Table 3.1).
These policy differences and their apparent stability raise questions about why countries went off on diverging policy trajectories and stayed on those paths. This chapter traces the origins of these diverging pathways by exploring the historical roots of policies for working mothers.