”So, you’re on vacation for six months? Aren’t you afraid that you’ll get bored?” When I mention that I’m on paternity leave I often get bemused reactions, even from people that really should know better (like pediatricians). I, therefore, figured I’d take the opportunity to straighten out some misconceptions about what I’m currently up to in Buenos Aires. In future posts, I’ll also get into some of my experiences of being on paternity leave in different countries and continents.
But first, allow me to correct myself. In Sweden (and as a Swedish diplomat I should at least try to convey our policy as correctly as possible) we refer to “parental leave” and eschew ”maternity” or ”paternity” leave. Our system is in fact gender-neutral, as parents get 480 days off per child that is shared between both parents. They have until the child turns seven years old to take their days. The policy stems from meeting the challenge to devise a system that allows parents to handle the well-known dilemma of how to combine family and work.
Many countries have run into a predicament when facing this apparent conundrum. To allow sufficient time to take care of the kids, maternity leave is typically implemented and often extended (yes, I’m aware that the US has taken a different route, but it is an outlier among developed countries). While such a policy is ostensibly generous to mothers it causes them to leave the workforce for prolonged periods of time and therefore negatively impacts their careers. There are plenty of studies to back this up; salary differences between men and women spike when they reach childbearing age and in many countries, women tend to drop out of the labor force altogether.
One way to allow parents to spend time with their kids and progress professionally is to involve the other parent, hence the idea of allowing fathers to take time off work as well. By sharing this responsibility neither party leaves the workforce for long enough to damage their career prospects. And let’s not forget the dads, while extended maternity leave enables men to further their careers it robs many fathers of the chance to spend time with their kids. If parents share child-rearing more equitably, they can both build strong bonds with their children and progress professionally.
In Sweden, this policy has been in place since the 1970s, which means that it is possible to study its effects and implications over time. The most obvious result is that parental leave has contributed to a high rate of female labor market participation. Allowing more time off for fathers is therefore now favored by institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, perhaps not obvious pioneers for gender equality. (Full disclosure, I’m actually rather fond of these institutions, so much so that my idea of a romantic getaway was to convince my wife to head to Bretton Woods to reminisce about their founding).
From my perspective, one of the key benefits is that fathers who take time off work to care for their children tend to stay more involved with their kids and take a bigger share of domestic responsibilities even after returning to work. So we’re not talking about a one-time effect of a symbolic nature but actually about a rather profound transformation of family life. In fact, men who take parental leave are less likely to get divorced, and their partners experience improved maternal health and overall well-being.
My first experience of parental leave enabled me to connect with our first son, Simon. Being in charge of taking care of him from 12 to 18 months old also provided me with the self-confidence to handle situations that can be challenging. It might sound ridiculous but many fathers find the experience of being the only man at kids’ birthday parties or at the pediatrician to be rather daunting. Going through these experiences has helped to build up the confidence to handle such situations, meaning that I’m no longer put off by them. My impression is that many fathers feel the same way.
One way to encourage fathers to take leave is to promote positive role-models. A prominent example is the photo-exhibition based on the work by Johan Bävman, which shows fathers that take an active role in their kids’ upbringing. My experience is that these photos are a great conversation-starter about different perspectives on fatherhood. Insecurities about this can take different forms, for instance, one of my main issues before going on paternity leave had to do with attire (!) as my image of a father on parental leave was of a man that spent his whole day in his pajamas or tracksuit. I just couldn’t stand the idea of being so unstylish! So for me, a photo exhibition of fathers bottle-feeding infants while wearing a knitted tie would have been more powerful!
In Sweden, we have found that it takes more than attractive role models to get fathers to stay at home with their kids. A key factor has instead been active public policy measures that provide tangible incentives, notably the fact that couples cannot decide that one of the parents (usually the mother) takes all 480 days, instead, each parent has to take at least 90 days to avoid losing the benefits.
Finally, for many people the elephant in the room is cost, how can societies possibly afford to pay for fathers to stay at home with their kids? Surely it must all be a luxury that only the quirky Nordics could afford? Actually, the reason why multilateral financial institutions now recommend poorer countries to implement shared parental leave is that it is too costly not to do so. In fact, the cost of women having to leave the workforce, whether to work part-time or take several years off and never being able to fulfill their professional potential and put their skills to good use, is exorbitant compared to the costs associated with helping families to share their parental responsibilities in an equitable manner and enabling women to work.
I look forward to getting into more details about my experiences in coming posts, as I have been on leave in Mozambique, Sweden, and Argentina (and yes, I also managed to work in between, I’m not always on leave!). Just to clarify, I’m not on a mission to convert the world to Swedish-style parental leave, but I do believe that fathers want to spend more time with their kids, and that a system that makes this possible is also beneficial to their kids and partners.
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