West debates how to encourage women to have both children and jobs

Erkki and his wife, Ritva, here in calm, lake-filled Finland on the edge of Europe face a challenge that confronts families across the Western world. Ritva as well as Erkki works full-time, as do 70 percent of all Finnish mothers with children under age 7.

Their son is three years old. Sometimes a neighbor can care for him during working hours - but the family urgently needs a day-care place for him.

The situation has wider implications:

Ritva feels she is in no position to consider more children. Sociologists say that Finland and Italy are both examples of how birthrates appear to be falling throughout the industrial world as the number of working mothers increases.

This in turn raises the prospect of fewer and fewer workers having to support more and more older people by the end of the century, with the likelihood that taxes will have to be raised considerably unless public spending is cut soon.

A key question for Western families is how to balance women's desires for self-expression by working with homemaking, which many modern women consider reduces their equality and opportunity. According to Finnish and American sociologists, there is an urgent need to find new ways to encourage women to have children while protecting their freedom to have a job.

Young women from London to Helsinki show no signs of wanting to stay home instead of working. A new study by a group called Work and Society in Britain shows women twice as likely as men to look for ''expressive values'' in work.

Another study by the Institute for Employment Research in Warwick, England, indicates that women are likely to seize 70 percent of the 560,000 new jobs that are expected to be generated in Britain in the next seven years.

How best to help those working women with families?

* By providing more day-care centers for children under seven?

Silja Lihr of the Finnish National Board of Social Welfare says yes, that is one good way. But, she said in an interview, Finland has places in day-care centers for only about 30 percent of the children who need them.

With the Finnish government, like many others, wanting to cut back social welfare spending at a time of prolonged recession, extra places are not about to be provided soon with public money.

* Flexible working hours so working mothers can juggle their schedules to be with their children (and husbands) more?

Yes, says Mrs. Lihr, but Finland is a conservative country as well as a calm one, and most working days are the standard eight hours. Little headway is being made in changing this, she says.

* Shorter working hours for both husbands and wives?

Yes again, says Mrs. Lihr, but there is little sign that such a change is on the way for Finland's 4.8 million people.

* Increasing child-allowance, maternity, and other benefits paid by the state?

The concept is included in a government report on family policy submitted in 1980, according to Kari Klemola, an official with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. In fact, child allowances have just been boosted by 15 percent to $ 347 per year for the first child (rising to $763 for the fifth) with an extra $ 200 a year for each child under age 3.

But Mr. Klemola says in a recent report that ''the position of families with children remains in many respects precarious. . . .

''Merely improving the services and financial support provided by public authorities will not succeed in solving or mitigating every problem. . . .''

As he sees it, families need to be more self-reliant in facing and coping with challenges.

Mrs. Lihr also spoke of areas where governments cannot legislate. ''People in Finland find it very hard to express their feelings openly,'' she said. ''The people are quiet, and don't know their neighbors. In the north and east distances are very great and many communities are isolated during the winter.

''It would be good if families could show their feelings, especially parents toward children. More communication is one answer. . . .''

Finland has much in common with Scandinavia and Europe as a whole, yet it is also struggling with rapid social change of its own.

Many families have left the isolation of the north and east of the country in recent years to flock to Helsinki and the surrounding towns of Porvoo, Vantaa, and Espoo.

Espoo and Vantaa have ballooned to more than 130,000 people. Newcomers like Erkki and Ritva lack friends and roots.

Housing is a challenge. According to Aarno Strommer, director for research and planning of the National Housing Board, the housing shortage is acute. Rent control laws make building rental homes unattractive.

Rental housing fell by 10,000 units a year during the 1970s, he said.

Finally, alcoholism remains a threat to family life in Finland. Finnish officials say consumption of 100 percent alcohol jumped threefold between 1962 and 1977, requiring much more rehabilitation and welfare spending. Alcoholism is at least partly responsible for increases in the divorce rate.

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