The joys of parental equality


Sweden’s system of parental leave means both parents can care for their children on a full-time basis, writes ISABEL CONWAY

IT WOULD have been unthinkable for Erik Wall to pass up the chance of becoming a full-time stay-at-home father, caring for his baby daughter and managing the household in his native Sweden, he says. The 33-year-old first-time father is availing of one of the world’s most equality-conscious parental leave systems – enabling parents to be off work for up to 480 days for each child, with a compulsory 60 days which each partner must take or lose all of the paid leave comparable to more than 80 per cent of their salaries while they are home.

Eased into his current role as full-time carer for 10-month-old Flora , having taken snatches of time off from his job as a physiotherapist to care for the baby since her birth, Wall (33) says he feels lucky to live in a society where equality of the sexes in relation to parenthood and shared responsibility looking after very young children is so enshrined.

“Apart from breastfeeding, there is no reason why a mother should be more equipped or is a better parent than a father. You can only have equality anyway when responsibility and decisions about your kids are shared.”

Philip O’Connor (40), from Donnycarney, is the author of A Parish Far from Home, an account of how he started a GAA club in Stockholm. He says: “When I tried to explain to the guys in Ireland how Swedish society is geared to facilitating parenthood, it was completely alien to most of them.

“They were astonished that new fathers could stay home and not lose out financially or face any career penalty. Compare that with my brother who will get three days’ unpaid leave when their baby arrives in December.”

O’Connor stayed home for four months with his baby daughter Ingrid, now seven, and took six months’ parental leave to care full-time for the youngest Freia (5), then aged one and a half.

Swedish researchers predict that the division of parental leave will be 60 per cent claimed by mothers and 40 per cent by fathers by 2025. But there is some way to go yet.

One in five fathers rejects parental leave, with almost 20 per cent not taking a single day during the first four years of their children’s life, according to the latest figures from Sweden’s social insurance agency Försäkringskassan. As parental leave may be taken (the total of 480 days, apart from the mandatory 60 days each is obliged to take, are carved up between the parents as they wish ) until a child reaches the age of eight, there is evidence that some men opt to be home when their children are well beyond babyhood.

A noticeable rise in the number of fathers taking parental leave during international sports tournaments and the Olympic Games has been frowned upon by a lobby who want laws so men and women share time away from jobs to care for children equally.

Fathers not born in Sweden are over-represented among those who don’t avail of parental leave and researchers also found a strong link between a lower level of education and the choice not to take parental leave within the male group.

Studies in Sweden have shown that in families where the dad has taken paternity leave, couples had a 30 per cent lower divorce rate. Swedish women, meanwhile, have said that they don’t experience discrimination from employers because they know that mums are not the only ones taking time off for their family.

Arriving at Erik Wall’s pretty home, painted traditional Swedish red in the lakeside town of Sunne in central Sweden, you can’t help noticing a couple of sheets of perspex roofing laid out on the front lawn.

“I thought that I could tackle all the jobs that needed doing while home with Flora, but minding a baby is so time consuming,” he explains, whipping up her lunch, answering the telephone and gently rocking a sleepy Flora, surprising himself with his newfound multi-tasking skills.

Their day usually starts before 7am after his partner, Jenny, has already left for work. Wall is kept going nonstop until she arrives home in the late afternoon.

“I was looking forward to being home, having the chance to be with Flora, but also to have ‘me’ time. But I soon learnt not to even think about having any projects or plans because she calls the shots and when she sleeps I barely have time for cleaning, cooking and tidying up.”

His housekeeping skills – or lack of them – were called into question early on, he confesses. “Jenny and I had some arguments because she came home from work and got all stressed because the house was so messy.

“I thought it was fine but she was upset; it was not apparently up to her standards. After a few rows, we found a middle ground – I promised to tidy up and clean more, she promised not to nag me.”

As stay-at-home dads, both Wall and Stockholm-based O’Connor soon discovered the importance of parent and toddler groups, state run in Sweden and aimed at connecting those who might otherwise feel isolated at home.

“We don’t sit around talking about diapers and teething all the time,” says Wall. “It is great to have adult conversations at the ‘baby cafe’. Other guys I know are also at home with babies and we visit each other’s houses for coffee and take turns watching the babies and toddlers. So someone else’s house gets messed for a change which is nice.”

O’Connor says: “Your career can’t suffer while you are home being a full-time carer because support of parental leave is so enshrined in Swedish society and is fully protected by law.

“I felt that I truly got to know my children and bonded with them by being home all the time while they were so young. In Ireland, you will see a small child run to their mammy for comfort when they fall, instead of to daddy.

“Equal parenting in Sweden means that they have the trust and confidence to go to which ever parent happens to be nearest and that’s how it should be.”

He describes himself as “privileged” to have had the opportunity to stay home and care and bond with his two young daughters at such an early stage of their development; it also gave him space to think about a career change.

“I decided to set up my own company after working for years for the Reuters organisation in communications and marketing. I wanted more flexibility for family life.

“I also got the idea for writing my book while looking after our youngest daughter – not that I could have written it then, life was far too hectic, but I enjoyed every minute of that special time together.”

“Apart from breastfeeding, there is no reason why a mother should be more equipped or is a better parent than a father. You can only have equality when responsibility and decisions about your kids are shared