Pihla Meskanen stayed at home for the first year after the birth of her only child, using her four months' maternity leave followed by six months' paid parental leave.
Then she and her husband, Olli Pursiainen, who are both architects, opted to use private day care for their daughter, Iiris, because they felt she was too young for a childcare centre. They clubbed together with two other families to share a nanny to look after three children.
As Kela, the social security institution of Finland, pays a cash allowance for private care, it didn't work out hugely more expensive for them, costing €500 a month, as opposed to the €290 a month they would have paid to put Iiris in public day care.
Olli took a month’s paternity leave and he has a home office so he also tried to spend more time working from home during the first year. Although he is self-employed, the calculation of what he was paid by Kela during his paternity leave was based on his income from a previous tax year, as is the case with employees – it usually works at about 70 per cent of salary, likewise for maternity leave.
Gender equality within families is a political aspiration in Finland and Pihla believes Olli plays an equal part in the practical care of their daughter outside working hours,
“I think I have the organising of all the schedules in my brain,” says Pihla. “When I am travelling because of my work, I have to send him lists!”
Although Iiris, now seven, is in second grade, she does not do the one-kilometre walk to school without one of her parents because some of the streets near their house have no traffic lights.
Like most families they pay 1-2 per cent of their earned income in tax to the Lutheran church, but it is not obligatory. Pihla says it is a “habit” to belong to the church among Finns, who are sometimes described as predominantly “cultural Christians”, with the emphasis being on community rather than religious observance.
We are talking in the splendid, recently renovated Toolo public library, one of Helsinki City Library's 37 branches. Libraries are a much-used community resource, with about 10 visits per capita being made each year in Helsinki – online visits are twice that again.
Indicative, perhaps, of how these institutions are valued in a country ranked “the world’s most literate nation” by a US study earlier this year, a new €90 million central library is being built as one of the projects to mark Finland’s 100 years of independence in 2017.
Apart from an extensive stock of books, the facilities in Toolo range from a huge study hall – the only silent area of the four-storey building – and a floor dedicated to children’s reading, to a well-stocked electronic lending section, meeting rooms and even a communal sewing machine.
Pihla and her friend Kirsi Sutton, the mother of Iiris's classmate Crissa (eight), are relaxed about their children's use of technology. Both their daughters have had smartphones since they started school at the age of seven and they believe that is quite usual.
“I wouldn’t want to argue against it because everybody else has one and it’s important to be the same as others,” says Pihla.
“It is very important to teach them to be wise phone users and wise internet users,” says Kirsi, “so it’s really good that they are starting rather small, so that we can teach them about them”.
They both agree that their children are in an excellent education system, “one of the best in the world”. They think the free food at school for all children is really important too. Traditionally, free schools meals in Finland are seen as playing a significant part in the promotion not only of public health but also good manners.
Both mothers, however, also acknowledge that education budgets are being cut. Sutton points out that the legal minimum staff:child ratio for early childhood educators working in the three to six years age range has recently been increased from 1:7 to 1:8.
Their daughters start school at either 8am or 9am, depending on the day of the week, and finish by noon or 1pm. They then go to a public after-school in a park across the road. It is free, although parents pay €36 a month for the food provided.
“We usually pick her up by 5pm,” says Pihla, who runs an after-school activity herself – a school of architecture for children aged four to 18, called Arkki. It is a non-profit organisation that specialises in using 3D methods to help children understand the built environment.
The Helsinki municipality funds one after-school activity a week for children in lower income families, she explains.
Pihla says they avoid scheduling organised activities for their daughter at the weekend. “Some families have hobbies at the weekend but I prefer not to because I think it is more relaxing.” During the week Iiris goes to dancing, music and scouts.
“Weekends are special – they are meeting their friends and we are meeting our friends,” she adds. “This weekend we have four birthday parties!”