In Sweden, men can have it all
SPOLAND, Sweden— Mikael Karlsson owns a snowmobile, two hunting dogs and five guns. In his spare time, this soldier-turned-game warden shoots moose and trades potty-training tips with other fathers. Cradling 2-month-old Siri in his arms, he cannot imagine not taking baby leave. "Everyone does."
From trendy central Stockholm to this village in the rugged forest south of the Arctic Circle, 85 percent of Swedish fathers take parental leave. Those who do not face questions from family, friends and colleagues. As other countries still tinker with maternity leave and women's rights, Sweden may be a glimpse of the future.
In this land of Viking lore, men are at the heart of the gender-equality debate. The ponytailed center-right finance minister calls himself a feminist, advertisements for cleaning products rarely feature women as homemakers and preschools vet books for gender stereotypes in animal characters. For nearly four decades, governments of all political hues have legislated to give women equal rights at work — and men equal rights at home.
Swedish mothers still take more time off with children — almost four times as much as fathers. And some who thought they wanted their men to help raise the baby now find themselves coveting more time at home.
But laws reserving at least two months of the generously paid, 13-month parental leave exclusively for fathers — a quota that could well double if the Social Democrats win the September election — have set off profound social change.
Companies have come to expect employees to take leave irrespective of gender and not to penalize fathers at promotion time. Women's paychecks are benefiting and the shift in fathers' roles is perceived as playing a part both in lower divorce rates and increasing joint custody of children.
In perhaps the most striking example of social engineering, a new definition of masculinity is emerging.
''Many men no longer want to be identified just by their jobs," said Bengt Westerberg, who long opposed quotas but as deputy prime minister phased in a first month of paternity leave in 1995. "Many women now expect their husbands to take at least some time off with the children."
Birgitta Ohlsson, European affairs minister, put it this way: "Machos with dinosaur values don't make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women's magazines anymore."
Ohlsson, who has lobbied European Union governments to pay more attention to fathers, is eight months pregnant and her husband, a law professor, will take the leave when their child is born.
''Now men can have it all — a successful career and being a responsible daddy," she added. "It's a new kind of manly. It's more wholesome."
Back in Spoland, Sofia Karlsson, a police officer and the wife of Mikael Karlsson, said she found her husband most attractive "when he is in the forest with his rifle over his shoulder and the baby on his back."
In this new world of the sexes, some women complain that Swedish men are too politically correct even to flirt in a bar. And some men admit to occasional pangs of insecurity.
"I know my wife expects me to take parental leave," said a prominent radio journalist who recently took six months off with his third child and who preferred to remain anonymous. "But if I was on a lonely island with her and Tarzan, I hope she would still pick me."
Introducing "daddy leave" in 1995 had an immediate impact. No father was forced to stay home, but the family lost one month of subsidies if he did not. Soon more than 8 in 10 men took leave. 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 took.
Clearly, government money proved an incentive — and a strong argument with reluctant bosses.
As populations in Europe decline and new labor shortages loom, more countries have studied the Swedish model, said Peter Moss, an expert on leave policies at the University of London's Institute of Education.
The United States — with lower taxes and traditional wariness of state meddling in family affairs — is not among them. Portugal is the only country where paternity leave is mandatory — but only for a week. Iceland has arguably gone furthest, reserving three months for father, three months for mother and allowing parents to share another three months.
The trend is, however, no longer limited to small countries. Germany, with nearly 82 million people, in 2007 tweaked Sweden's model, reserving two out of 14 months of paid leave for fathers. Within two years, fathers taking parental leave surged from 3 percent to more than 20 percent.
Claes Boklund, a 35-year-old Web designer in Stockholm who is taking 10 months off with 19-month-old Harry, admits that he was scared at first: the baby, the cooking, the cleaning, the sleepless nights. Six months into his leave, he says, he is confident around Harry.
''It's both harder and easier than you think," he said.
Understanding what it is to be home with a child may help explain why divorce and separation rates in Sweden have dropped and shared custody has increased since 1995, according to the national statistics office.
Family-friendly policies do not come cheap. Taxes account for 47 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 27 percent in the United States and 40 percent in the E.U. overall. Family benefits cost 3.3 percent of GDP, the highest in the world along with Denmark and France, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Yet Sweden looks well balanced: At 2.1 percent and 40 percent of GDP, respectively, public deficit and debt levels are a fraction of those in most developed economies these days, testimony perhaps to fiscal management born of a banking crisis and recession in the 1990s. High productivity and political consensus keep the system going.
Children are guaranteed a place in full-time preschool at a maximum cost of about $150 a month, and parental leave is paid at 80 percent of salary up to $3,330 a month.
Parents may use their 390 days of paid leave however they want up to the child's eighth birthday — monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly — a schedule that leaves particularly small private employers scrambling to adapt.
Tales of male staff members being discouraged from long leave are still not uncommon, although it is not fashionable to say so. Boklund said his office "was not happy" about his extended absence.
Bodil Sonesson Gallon, head of sales at Axis Communications, a company that specializes in video surveillance, admits that parental leave can be disruptive — for careers and companies. She laments that with preschools starting at 12 months and little alternative child care, there is huge pressure for parents to take at least a year off.
But for many companies, a family-friendly work pattern has simply become a new way of attracting talent.
''Graduates used to look for big paychecks. Now they want work-life balance," said Goran Henriksson, head of human resources at cell-phone giant Ericsson in Sweden, where last year 28 percent of female employees took leave and 24 percent of male staff did. "We have to adapt."