Families Come First in Sweden

By Brittany Shahmehri
Issue 109, November/December 2001

Street scene in SwedenRecently, my husband’s laptop needed repair, and he called technical support to arrange for service. When he explained the problem, the phone representative at the multinational computer company said, “I’m going to recommend level-two support, but the technician will have to call you tomorrow to schedule an appointment. Today he’s home with his sick kid.”

When we still lived in the US, my husband might have wondered what a sick child had to do with his laptop. But last year we moved to Sweden, where parents not only are legally entitled to stay home with their sick children, but also get paid for doing so. Most amazing is that there’s no shame in it. For fathers as well as mothers, it’s assumed that when your child is sick, you are going to take care of him or her. That’s more important than fixing someone’s laptop on the spot. The computer company knows it and my husband’s employer knows it. In almost every circumstance, the laptop can wait a day.

Even visiting tourists can see that Sweden has a child-friendly culture. A stroller logo is as common as the wheelchair logo in public restrooms and elevators. Buses accommodate strollers, and trains have places for children to play. (By the way, the children ride free.) Gas stations often have tiny working toilets as well as the standard toilets, as do zoos and other places that cater to children. Amazing, I thought, the first time I visited.

But on closer examination, all of this is just window dressing. Sweden has one of the most generous parental leave policies in the world. Parents of each newborn or newly adopted child share 450 paid days to care for that child. The childcare system is of extremely high quality, offers a wide range of options, and is subsidized for all families. Parents are legally entitled to work reduced hours at their current jobs until their children reach the age of eight (when they formally enter school), and can take up to 60 paid days to care for sick children. Toss in protected time to nurse a baby on the job and tuition-free universities, and to an American working parent, it sounds like utopia!

Why Such Widespread Support?
According to Dr. Irene Wennemo, a Swedish family policy expert, the question of supporting families in Sweden is generally framed in terms of how the state should implement policies and what level of resources should be invested. “It’s very accepted here that the state should be responsible for the living standard of children,” Wennemo told me. “Children aren’t a private thing; society has a responsibility for part of the cost.”

Most of the reasons for this are self-evident. Children are members of society. It’s not good for people, especially children, to live in poverty. Children should have equal opportunities. It’s necessary for society that people have children so it should be easy to combine working and having children. It’s good for men and women to have equal access to both work and family.

“If you want a society in which it is accepted that both partners go out and work, then you have to take people’s needs seriously,” says Gunnar Andersson, a sociologist at Lund University. “Both school and child care must be really good, and there must be much more flexibility for all.”1

“This is what our parents worked for,” explains Anneli Elfwén, a Swedish midwife with two young sons. In the 1950s most Swedish women stayed home with the children. When women began to enter the workforce in the late 1960s, the need for stronger family policy became clear. The modern versions of parental leave policy and subsidized child care were implemented in the early 1970s and met with wide popular support. When I asked Elfwén why support for family policy was so widespread, she laughed, “Maybe we get it in the breastmilk. It’s very natural for us.”

How It Works
When Elfwén’s first son, Simon, was born in 1995, Elfwén was entitled to the same parental leave benefits that are offered to all Swedish families. She and her husband could share the 450 days of leave as they pleased, though one month was reserved for her, and one for her husband; and if either of them chose not to take their individual time, they would forfeit it.

One of the most unique aspects of Swedish parental leave is that it can be taken part time. Elfwén and her husband used the flexibility in their schedules to extend the time Simon spent at home with one of his parents. Between paid leave, flexible jobs, and the help of grandparents, the Elfwéns juggled a two-career, two-parent family. When their second son, Olle, was born in 1998, he too was entitled to 450 days of his parents’ time. This made it possible for Elfwén to maintain the career that she loves, while keeping her children home until they were about three. The parental leave made all the difference.

Parents can continue to work reduced hours until their children reach the age of eight. This option was chosen by a couple I know, both schoolteachers. The mother took one day a week off, the father one day, and they staggered their hours on remaining days, so that their children spent less time in child care. Both parents were able to maintain professional lives while sharing the responsibility for raising their children.

Choices in Child Care
When it was time for the Elfwéns to choose a preschool for Simon, they selected a Waldorf school with low student-teacher ratios and organic vegetarian meals. There are also traditional preschools, Montessori schools, cooperative schools, Christian schools, and even daycare centers that focus on gender equality. Families pay the county rather than the childcare center, and the amount depends on each family’s household income. This means that, with few exceptions, parents can send their child to any childcare center without consideration to finances. So a single mother studying at university might pay $30.00 a month for her child to attend a school, while a family with three children and a household income of $40,000 would pay around $240 a month to have their three children in the same school. As of 2002, there will be a cap of $115 a month for the first child, ramping down according to income.

Of course, things are not perfect. It can be difficult to find a spot in the middle of the year, so it’s necessary to plan ahead. The school we chose for my four year old did not suit him, so we kept him home while waiting for a place in a new school. In looking at the options, however, we were impressed with the low student-teacher ratios at all the preschools we visited, and the consistently high quality of care.

Separate Taxation and Child Allowances
A few other odds and ends round out the package. People are taxed individually in Sweden, so a woman’s income won’t fall into a high tax bracket just because the household income is high. In addition, cash payments take the place of tax deductions for children. Each month, about $95.00 per child is deposited into the account of every family with a child, from the unemployed to the royal family. Families with more than two children receive a small bonus, so for my three children, we get a cash payment of $300 a month. Many families turn the amount over to their children when they reach the age of 15 so they can learn to handle a checking account and manage their clothing and leisure purchases.

The Employer’s Role
In Sweden, creating balance between work and family life is not left solely to the government and individual families. Section five of the Swedish Equal Opportunity Act reads, “An employer shall facilitate the combination of gainful employment and parenthood with respect to both female and male employees.” Employers, in other words, are legally obligated to help employees combine parenthood and work. Employees who believe that an employer has directly violated this principle can take their case to the office of the Equal Opportunity Ombudsman (JämO).

Claes Lundkvist filed one of the eight cases registered with JämO last year regarding parenthood and employment. A broadcast journalist for Swedish Radio, Lundkvist generally took his children to daycare each morning, and his wife, a physiotherapist with her own business, picked them up at the end of the day. But a new contract required Lundkvist to transfer to a branch more than an hour away. And his working hours were inflexible. “My wife was very stressed taking all the responsibility,” Lundkvist says. “It didn’t work.” After he read JämO’s web page, he decided to pursue the issue.

Fathers’ involvement as parents should be encouraged, according to JämO: “Employers may have an old-fashioned view of parenthood, or think that ‘your wife can take care of that,’ when the husband wants to be free to care for sick children or asks for more flexible working hours in order to combine work and family.”2 Changing the attitude of such employers is one of JämO’s goals. JämO accepted Lundkvist’s case, recognizing that without some adjustment in his new situation, his ability to combine work and family would be seriously impaired. The case initially met with resistance from Lundkvist’s employers, and as he was a contract worker, JämO’s power was limited. Lundkvist has since, however, negotiated a solution that offers some flexibility.

With each case filed, the resulting publicity strengthens public debate about men’s rights and responsibilities as fathers. “It’s hard to change gender roles,” says Tommy Ferrarini, a PhD student at the Institute of Social Research in Stockholm who is currently doing research on family policy. But Ferrarini believes measures such as parental leave time allotted for the father shift social expectations. “It puts pressure on the employers when something becomes a right. It’s all very individualized…[This means] increased individual autonomy for the mother, the father, and the children. You give both parents the possibility of self-fulfillment.”

What Family Policy Means for Women
Swedish mothers don’t think they’re doing it all, and they don’t think the system is perfect. Some women have jobs that are more flexible than others; some are happier with their child care than others. While men are doing a larger share of the housework than in the past, couples still fight about who does the laundry. You’d be hard pressed to find a Swedish mom who would call herself a superwoman. Observing the situation, however, I see women who come pretty close to fulfilling the American “superwoman” myth. The vast majority of women have careers. With the help of their partners, they juggle children and work and birthday parties and still manage to make it to aerobics every week.

In the US, in contrast, the superwoman myth operates in a male-dominated corporate culture, and society views accepting help as a weakness. If you are given a day off, you should be grateful. If your husband takes two unpaid weeks at the birth of a child, he should be grateful. If his company calls after a week and asks him to return early (as my husband’s company did), you should apologize when you say no, and then thank them for understanding.

In Sweden, you can certainly say “thank you” if you like, but no one has done you any favors. Among CEOs and entrepreneurs, you may see a more male-dominated culture, but even there, people are still likely to take a good portion of the five to eight weeks vacation they receive annually.

Swedish women face many of the same problems as their American counterparts. Career advancement slows while children are young. Juggling everything can be challenging. But women in Sweden don’t have to do it alone. Families are supported by society, both financially and culturally. This means that women also give back to society, and not just in tax dollars–though even there, their contribution is substantial. Having women in the workplace changes the culture. Today, 43 percent of representatives in the Swedish Parliament and half of all State Ministers are women. In the long run, that will have an effect on the tone of the government and the laws that are passed.

Children Are People, Too
Children in Sweden are not considered merely a lifestyle choice. They are members of society in their own right. Flexibility and support for families means that parents are better able to meet the needs of their children, something the children deserve. This approach offers myriad benefits to children, both emotionally and physically. Recent studies have suggested that “parental leave has favorable and possibly cost-effective impacts on pediatric health.”3 The same studies also indicate that with longer parental leaves, child and infant mortality rates go down.4

Respect for children is an important aspect of Swedish culture. Sweden has a Children’s Ombudsman who represents children and young people in public debates, the ultimate goal being that young people can make their voices heard and gain respect for their views. In line with this, corporal punishment of any kind is illegal. Though controversial when first proposed, a Parliamentary Minister put the issue into context. “In a free democracy like our own, we use words as arguments, not blows…If we can’t convince our children with words, we will never convince them with violence.”5

Children in Sweden are people, not property. Family policy is very much about creating a better situation for men and women who choose to have families, but at its core, family policy is all about children. A society that cherishes and respects children must make it possible for every child to be raised with certain minimal standards. Ensuring healthcare coverage, making sure that children have enough to eat, and keeping children free of the risks that inevitably accompany poverty are a few modest goals. In Sweden, every child is entitled to be home with his or her parents for the first year of life. That’s the minimum standard the society has chosen.

What that means is that any child you see on the street had access to her parents for the most important time in her development, and has access to free, high-quality medical and dental care. You know that she has enough food to eat, and that she likely attends a well-run preschool. That child has advocates in government and the support of society. Who will that child become? Right now it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that she lives in a society that values her just the way she is.

1. Kristina Hultman, “A Step Away from a Childless Society?” New Life: A Gender Equality Magazine for New Parents (Stockholm: Swedish Government Division for Gender Equality, 2001): 10.
2. “What is JämO?,” a brochure published by the Equal Opportunity Ombudsman’s office; see www.jamombud.se.
3. C. J. Ruhm, “Parental Leave and Child Health,” NBER Working Paper No. W6554 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1998): 27.
4. Sheila Kamerman, “Parental Leave Policies: An Essential Ingredient in Early Childhood Education and Care Policies,” Social Policy Report 14, no. 2 (2000): 10.
5. Louise Sylwander, “The Swedish Corporal Punishment Ban-More than Twenty Years of Experience,” Barnombudsmannen website, www.bo.se (choose the British flag for English).

For more information about Sweden, see the following article in a past issue of Mothering: “Swedish Parents Don’t Spank,” no. 63.

Brittany Shahmehri is an American journalist currently enjoying the many benefits of living and working in Linköping, Sweden. She and her husband, Dan Costello, have three sons, Deme (8), Tieren (4), and Sagan (3).

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