Men left holding the baby

SPOLAND,
Sweden – Mikael Karlsson owns a snowmobile, two hunting dogs and five guns. In
his spare time, this soldier-turned-game warden shoots moose and trades
potty-training tips with other fathers. Cradling 2-month-old Siri in his arms,
he cannot imagine not taking baby leave. “Everyone does.”

From
trendy central Stockholm to this village in the rugged forest south of the
Arctic Circle, 85 percent of Swedish fathers take parental leave. Those who do
not face questions from family, friends and colleagues. As other countries
still tinker with maternity leave and women’s rights, Sweden may be a glimpse
of the future.

In
this land of Viking lore, men are at the heart of the gender-equality debate.
The pony-tailed centre-right finance minister calls himself a feminist,
advertisements for cleaning products rarely feature women as homemakers and
preschools vet books for gender stereotypes in animal characters. For nearly
four decades, governments of all political hues have legislated to give women
equal rights at work – and men equal rights at home.

Swedish
mothers still take more time off with children – almost four times as much as
fathers. And some who thought they wanted their men to help raise the baby now
find themselves coveting more time at home.

But
laws reserving at least two months of the generously paid, 13-month parental
leave exclusively for fathers – a quota that could well double if the Social
Democrats win the September election – have set off profound social change.

Companies
have come to expect employees to take leave irrespective of gender and not to
penalize fathers at promotion time. Women’s paychecks are benefiting and the
shift in fathers’ roles is perceived as playing a part both in lower divorce
rates and increasing joint custody of children.
In perhaps the most striking example of social engineering, a new definition of
masculinity is emerging.

“Many
men no longer want to be identified just by their jobs,” said Bengt Westerberg,
who long opposed quotas but as deputy prime minister phased in a first month of
paternity leave in 1995. “Many women now expect their husbands to take at least
some time off with the children.”

Birgitta
Ohlsson, European affairs minister, put it this way: “Machos with dinosaur
values don’t make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women’s magazines anymore.”
Ohlsson, who has lobbied European Union governments to pay more attention to
fathers, is eight months pregnant and her husband, a law professor, will take
the leave when their child is born.

“Now
men can have it all – a successful career and being a responsible daddy,” she
added. “It’s a new kind of manly. It’s more wholesome.”

Back
in Spoland, Sofia Karlsson, a police officer and the wife of Mikael Karlsson,
said she found her husband most attractive “when he is in the forest with his
rifle over his shoulder and the baby on his back.”
In this new world of the sexes, some women complain that Swedish men are too
politically correct even to flirt in a bar. And some men admit to occasional
pangs of insecurity.
“I know my wife expects me to take parental leave,” said a prominent radio
journalist who recently took six months off with his third child and who
preferred to remain anonymous. “But if I was on a lonely island with her and
Tarzan, I hope she would still pick me.”

Introducing “daddy leave” in 1995
had an immediate impact. No father was forced to stay home, but the family lost
one month of subsidies if he did not. Soon more than 8 in 10 men took leave.
The addition of a second nontransferable father month in 2002 only marginally
increased the number of men taking leave, but it more than doubled the amount
of time they took.

Clearly, government money proved
an incentive – and a strong argument with reluctant bosses.

As populations in Europe decline
and new labour shortages loom, more countries have studied the Swedish model,
said Peter Moss, an expert on leave policies at the University of London’s
Institute of Education.
The United States – with lower taxes and traditional wariness of state meddling
in family affairs – is not among them. Portugal is the only country where
paternity leave is mandatory – but only for a week. Iceland has arguably gone
furthest, reserving three months for father, three months for mother and
allowing parents to share another three months.

The trend is, however, no longer
limited to small countries. Germany, with nearly 82 million people, in 2007
tweaked Sweden’s model, reserving two out of 14 months of paid leave for
fathers. Within two years, fathers taking parental leave surged from 3 percent
to more than 20 percent.
Claes Boklund, a 35-year-old Web designer in Stockholm who is taking 10 months
off with 19-month-old Harry, admits that he was scared at first: the baby, the
cooking, the cleaning, the sleepless nights. Six months into his leave, he
says, he is confident around Harry.

“It’s both harder and easier
than you think,” he said.

Understanding what it is to be
home with a child may help explain why divorce and separation rates in Sweden
have dropped and shared custody has increased since 1995, according to the
national statistics office.

Family-friendly policies do not
come cheap. Taxes account for 47 percent of gross domestic product, compared
with 27 percent in the United States and 40 percent in the EU overall. Family
benefits cost 3.3 percent of GDP, the highest in the world along with Denmark
and France, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development.

Yet Sweden looks well balanced:
At 2.1 percent and 40 percent of GDP, respectively, public deficit and debt
levels are a fraction of those in most developed economies these days,
testimony perhaps to fiscal management born of a banking crisis and recession
in the 1990s. High productivity and political consensus keep the system going.

Children are guaranteed a place
in full-time preschool at a maximum cost of about $150 a month, and parental
leave is paid at 80 percent of salary up to $3,330 a month.
Parents may use their 390 days of paid leave however they want up to the
child’s eighth birthday – monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly – a schedule
that leaves particularly small private employers scrambling to adapt.
Tales of male staff members being discouraged from long leave are still not
uncommon, although it is not fashionable to say so. Boklund said his office
“was not happy” about his extended absence.

Bodil Sonesson Gallon, head of
sales at Axis Communications, a company that specializes in video surveillance,
admits that parental leave can be disruptive – for careers and companies. She
laments that with preschools starting at 12 months and little alternative child
care, there is huge pressure for parents to take at least a year off.

But
for many companies, a family-friendly work pattern has simply become a new way
of attracting talent.

“Graduates used to
look for big paychecks. Now they want work-life balance,” said Goran
Henriksson, head of human resources at cell phone giant Ericsson in Sweden,
where last year 28 percent of female employees took leave and 24 percent of
male staff did. “We have to adapt.”

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