My husband refuses to cut our baby daughter’s fingernails. I always end up doing it. So, I had to laugh when that very subject came up in this New York Times article on Swedish parental leave as an illustration of an imbalance that often arises in parenting roles—where the default is mom as “dominant” parent. It turns out that family-friendly policy can actually increase the number of dads who cut babies’ fingernails!
In my husband’s defense, he’s deathly afraid of cutting those tiny little nails. He’s actually a part-time stay-at-home dad. Too bad we’re in Seattle and not Stockholm!
Sweden appears to be a paradise for babies (and their families). For one thing they’re replacing the conventional culture of maternity leave with a culture of parental leave, and the ramifications are visible from gender pay equality to shared fingernail clipping!
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The Swedes make excellent (and pricey) high chairs and lovely wooden toys. They also seem to have a few things figured out about women’s equality and work-life balance for families. Since the seventies, Swedish children have had access to highly subsidized preschools from 12 months and grandparents are state-sponsored child care providers. Any parent on leave gets almost a full salary for a year before returning to a guaranteed job, and both moms and dads can work six-hour days until children have entered school.
Because of increasingly aggressive “daddy leave” laws that require that 2 months of the 13 months of generously-paid parental leave for families are used by fathers, a whopping 85 percent of Swedish fathers now take parental time off. In Sweden they found out that simply offering leave to fathers wasn’t enough—men didn’t take parental leave in significant numbers, women were still left in the primary childcare role, and as a result women’s pay remained lower—which in turn made men less likely to be the ones to put their career on hold to take up childcare. A vicious cycle.
So, Sweden built in these use ’em or lose ’em incentives. Since 1995, a family lost one month of subsidies if the dad didn’t take any parental leave. Soon more than eight in 10 men took leave—up from only 6 percent in 1991. 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 take.
Here are some of the enormous societal benefits they’ve reaped by encouraging moms as well as dads to take time off the job to do the work of parenting—and supporting them when they do:
- Swedish companies have come to expect employees to take leave irrespective of gender, and not to penalize fathers—or mothers—at promotion time.
- Women’s paychecks are benefiting. A study published by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation in March showed, for instance, that a mother’s future earnings increase on average 7 percent for every month the father takes leave.
- Female employment rates and birth rates had surged to be among the highest in the developed world.
- The shift in fathers’ roles is perceived as playing a part in lower divorce rates and increasing joint custody of children.
And I imagine that more dads are cutting kids’ fingernails! Gus, are you reading this?
Photo from morguefile