Swedish fathers enjoy one of the most generous paternity leaves in the world but few dads take advantage of the opportunity, with mothers in gender-equal Sweden still leading the charge in childcare.
Fathers take on average only 20 percent of the 16 months of paid parental leave offered in Sweden to either mums or dads, according to Statistics Sweden -- a skimpy average that has sparked a broad debate over how to encourage more fathers to take the paid time off and reduce inequalities in the home.
AdvertisementIn most cases it is mothers who invoke their legal right and stay home with the kids.
"You have to ask yourself what it is that pushes most women to stay at home, and one of the reasons is that the person who earns the most is often the one who is going to stay at work," Sweden's Gender Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni told AFP.
Women are over-represented in low-income jobs, such as teachers or nurses, and on average earn 84 percent of the average male salary, according to Statistics Sweden.
Charlotte Northman-Alm and Carl-Johan Alm are parents of two children aged seven and five.
Like many other couples, their professional and financial situation has prevented them from sharing the parental leave equally.
Carl-Johan runs his own architecture firm and was only able to stay home with his kids for 10 days each, both times just after the kids were born.
As a result Charlotte, a schoolteacher whose salary is significantly lower than her husband's, ended up taking the rest of the parental leave because of economic considerations, even though the couple were aware of how important it is for a father to bond with his child in the early stages of life.
"We were worried about the problems he would encounter, in terms of signing new clients, if he were to go back to work after being absent for a year," Charlotte said.
Carl-Johan often works from home and enjoys being close at hand as his children grow up, but he admitted that "it would obviously have been more fun to spend more time with them in the beginning."
Attitudes have also shifted in the past decade or so, making it easier for fathers to take several months off work to care for their children without being met by angry stares from their bosses.
In Sweden it is now a common sight to see daddies pushing strollers on the street, giving babies bottles in crowded cafes or meeting up for playtime in the park with their toddlers.
Paid parental leave is currently 16 months, in addition to 10 paid days right at the birth. Parents who stay home with their children receive 80 percent of their gross salary, with a ceiling of 307,500 kronor (50,000 dollars, 32,810 euros) for 2008.
Fathers in the Scandinavian country have been entitled to take paid parental leave since 1974. In 1995 the system was adapted to reserve a month of the leave specifically for fathers, weeks that could not be transferred to the mother. If they did not take their month, they lost it.
In 2002, the system was changed again, and now two months of the leave are reserved for each parent and are non-transferrable. The remaining 12 months can be divided as couples wish -- and that is one of the main criticisms of the system in the current debate.
"We can see that the father often transfers his days to the mother," the ombudswoman for gender equality, Anne-Marie Bergstroem, said.
"It's a question of values and behaviour," she explained.
One of the most hotly-contested proposals being tossed around in the debate is that of an entirely individualised parental leave, one where each parent must take their days or lose them, without the possibility of transferring them to their partner.
Bergstroem is in favour of the idea, saying it would promote more equality between men and women.
But Gender Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni said that was not the way to go.
"Some say we should legislate, others say introduce quotas ... but as a liberal, I want parents to be free to choose how they want to share" their parental leave, she said.
Opponents of an individualised leave often cite fears of a state that interferes with families' private lives.
And Charlotte agreed.
"I think each person should be able to decide on their own," she said.
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