Parental Leave: The Swedes Are The Most Generous



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Besides what the sex of the baby is, one thing that I'm constantly asked is how much time I'm taking off when I give birth to my baby. I'm due at the end of November.

In the U.S., federal law allows men and women to take three months. Some work places will allow for more, unpaid. But the law doesn't mandate that companies pay anyone time to spend with their babies — and many people simply can't afford to take time off.

So I was surprised to find out that almost every other country in the world — except for a few like Papua New Guinea and Lesotho — pays for either full maternity leave or a portion of it. It's either mandated that companies pay, or social security will dish it out (or it's a combination of both). Of course, the time allotted varies country to country. Some places, like the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia, give new moms 45 days or fewer.

As NPR's Phil Reeves reports tonight on All Things Considered, Sweden has some of the most generous parental leave laws in the world — and the government not only considers the mother, but also the father.

Parents are allocated a total of 480 days per child, which they can take any time until the child is 8 years old. They can share these days, although 60 are allocated specifically to the father. And they are entitled to receive 80 percent of their wages, although this is capped at a certain level.

Paternity leave around the world is harder to chart than maternity leave. In some cases, fathers can tap into the same benefits that mothers get. In other cases — such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland — they have time specifically dedicated to them. Yet in many countries, fathers don't have any time allotted to them at all. A few examples of paternity policies are listed by the International Labour Organization (see page 46).

In Sweden, Reeves reports that dads seem happy. He spoke to men who say the law has really helped them bond with their kids.

One of the benefits of this law, say Swedes, is that employers have no disincentive when it comes to hiring women who may have children and need lots of time off. Occasionally, it is the man who takes the majority of the days off. Still, Swedish men still tend to be better paid than women; this means the family loses more income if fathers take the leave. This helps explain why, according to Swedish government figures, women still take 75 percent of the allocation.

To see how various countries stack up, take a look at our map.

Hear Phil Reeves' full story on All Things Considered, or click on the audio link above.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

For our series Beginnings, we've been talking mostly about how life begins. But today, we look down the road to the challenges of childcare.

NORRIS: In a moment, we'll have a conversation with a group of parents here in the U.S. about finding help to look after your children.

But first, we go to Sweden. On a recent visit to Stockholm, NPR's Philip Reeves discovered parental leave policies so generous, many American parents would be green with envy.

PHILIP REEVES: Sweden is basking in the summer sun. Gustaf Upmark is sitting outside a cafe in a quiet wooded suburb of Stockholm near the Baltic Sea. His daughter, Elisabeth, is at his side. He's 35. She is one.

GUSTAF UPMARK: She's a really happy little child. And - yes, exactly. And she's curious about life and I'm trying to show her the way things go. Now she's throwing things everywhere.


REEVES: It's a weekday. Most of the city's at work, including Upmark's wife. He's doing the parenting alone today, as he has been for two months now.

UPMARK: She just gained three teeth last week, so it was just - seeing just how she evolves is just great.

REEVES: Upmark is a sales engineer. He's been able to spend so much time with Elisabeth because of Sweden's unusual parental leave laws. He's says these have really helped them bond.

UPMARK: I think you gain a lot of trust and confidence from your child when you get this opportunity. A lot of trust in there. I mean, she'd trust me with anything.

JAMES SAVAGE: Gender equality is so much more advanced in Sweden.

REEVES: James Savage is managing editor of The Local, an English language news outlet based in Stockholm.

SAVAGE: The proportion of women going out to work in Sweden is higher than in many, many, many - most other countries. Wage differentials are smaller in Sweden than in many, many other countries.

REEVES: Sweden's parental leave laws are especially progressive. Here's the deal. Working parents are entitled to 480 days leave per child. These days can be taken anytime before the child turns eight. Parents can share these days if they like, though two months are allocated to fathers. These are two months dads must use or lose. A parent's entitled to 80 percent of his or her salary with a cap of $143 a day, though some employers top this up.

Savage says most Swedes are happy with these arrangements.

SAVAGE: Small business leaders would say: Yes, it is tough. But there's nobody serious who's making steps to change it. It's an incredibly popular system.

REEVES: The policy's an attempt to level the playing field. Here, as almost everywhere else, employers were reluctant to hire women for fear they'd become mothers, and need a lot of time off. Now, in theory, it's no different for fathers. In practice, though, Swedish moms still use far more of the parental leave allocation than dads. Swedish government statistics show that last year, women used three quarters of the entitlement.

James Savage, again.

SAVAGE: The takeup is so low because Swedish men are still higher earners than Swedish women, on average, which means that the family takes a bigger financial whack. Also, there is plenty of evidence that women want to take more of the leave. It is often women saying, I want to be at home with my children.

REEVES: Feminist author and journalist Maria Sveland has a slightly different explanation.

MARIA SVELAND: Actually I think basically why men doesn't stay at home with the kids is because they lose money. Staying at home with a small child is really, really hard work.

REEVES: Sveland wants the system changed to pressure parents into sharing leave more evenly. She'd like to raise the amount of leave allocated specifically to fathers from two months to six.

SVELAND: And if you as a man don't use your six months, then it will just vanish.

REEVES: Sveland was one of the few mothers in Sweden who divided parental leave equally with her husband when their first child was born. It was tough, she says. Her husband got some important work out of town, so she wound up doing the first seven months alone. He took the next seven and the tables were turned.

SVELAND: He would say in the morning, when do you get home tonight? And I would say, well, I think I will be home at six. And then maybe I came 6:15, and then I had him on the phone saying, where are you? You were supposed to be here at six.

IAN BALD: You get to understand what the ladies have been putting up with for eons. Taking care of kids, multi-tasking, fixing the home, cleaning the home, doing the laundry.

REEVES: Ian Bald was born of an American father and a Swedish mother. He works in Stockholm in media and PR. His wife is a child psychologist. Sweden's parental leave was a big factor in deciding where to raise their two kids.

BALD: You know, I do hold the passport, and I'm very proud to hold a U.S. passport. But when it comes to this, when it comes to this kind of lifestyle, no, I wouldn't have had it in the States and that was a big consideration for me.

REEVES: Bald has no regrets about choosing Sweden.

BALD: I mean I was able to see my daughter's first steps. I was the one who caught her at home. And that - there's no way to equal that.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.