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Now U.S. Dads Can Have Swedish Envy

By Madeline Holler |

American mothers have long had Sweden to remind us of everything we don’t have: paid maternity leave, high breast-feeding rates, excellent medical care for all, highly subsidized childcare and preschool, and paid maternity leave. Also, did I mention paid maternity leave?

Today, the New York Times is rubbing American fathers’ noses in the glory that is Swedish parenthood in an article headlined, “In Sweden, Men Can Have it All.”


Some 85 percent of all Swedish father’s take their government-given right to parental leave. Those who don’t get tsk-tsked and grilled by parents, friends and (non-bitter?) co-workers. What’s even better is that the governments attention over the past few decades has begun to change the way they automatically look at gender roles — and not just in terms of parenting. The country, which still has manly men hunters (who, PS, take paternity leave … paid paternity leave!), is positioning itself as feminist and equal.

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, ads 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.

By law, two months of the 390-day (paid!) leave for mother or father (or both) is there just for the father. Lawmakers are considering doubling it to four months, incidentally. The leave set aside for fathers is use-it-or-lose it. If they don’t take the time off, it can’t be transferred to the mother. Also, men aren’t penalized when it comes to promotions, etc.

Everybody’s’ winning, the piece reports. Divorce rates are down, women’s paychecks are up, joint custody is more common, and, as a society, men are identifying more with their parental status than singularly focusing their identity on their jobs. Plus? They’re scoring — like, yeah, I mean getting some for all their daddying.

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.”


It hasn’t been easy, the fascinating article explains. And it has taken decades to even get where they are. It wasn’t until they introduced “daddy leave” that maternity leave (even paid) stopped penalizing women. Sweden seems to have figured out what many other countries are just now cluing into — issues of maternity are actually family issues and bringing men into the picture will benefit everyone — mother, father and child. To get equity in society, as one former lawmaker tells the Times, there has to be equity in the home.

I know, I know … taxes! But let’s skip that discussion for now and just admit: this setup in Sweden sounds incredibly fabulous, doesn’t it?

[Also, here's an interesting read about War on Moms]

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Photo: Casper Hedberg for the International Herald Tribune [view more Swedish dads here]

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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24 thoughts on “Now U.S. Dads Can Have Swedish Envy

  1. anon says:

    I does sound fabulous. But, you really can’t have an honest discussion and leave taxes out of it…or the homogeneity of the population relative to that of the U.S…nothing ever comes without a cost of some kind.

  2. Laure68 says:

    I have to agree with anon. There is no point in having this discussion without raising the issue of taxes. I know lots of people who complain about our maternity leave here, but also freak out at the idea of paying more taxes. You really can’t have it all.

    That being said, I do like the idea that men are expected to spend time with their kids.

  3. cheri says:

    I will be happy to pay the taxes. bring it on.

  4. Comstock says:

    They forget to mention that Sweden doesn’t value freedom, the freedom for people to become obscenely wealthy and dodge taxes, and the freedom to be desperately poor. In America, we cherish those freedoms.

  5. Voice of Reason says:

    Cornstock, you are a genius! (Let freedom reign? Ummm, no thanks.)

  6. Cheree says:

    all these wonderful things and a country with a government desperate for its citizens to have more babies (currently below replacement rate) so they to can be taxed for all these programs.

  7. Laure68 says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I see a lot of advantages in paying those taxes and getting those benefits. Americans have a hard time with this, though. Admittedly I am middle-class, so I know this won’t work for everyone, but I knew I would want to take some time off when I had my child, so early on I started saving money for this. It was basically like my own personal tax. Again, someone with a lower income would not be able to do this, and this is where the Swedish system works much better.

    Again, I know so many people who tell me they’d love to have the Swedish system, but think they need expensive things in their life to make them happy. You really cannot have it both ways.

  8. L says:

    It would probably cost you less if you save the money to have mom or dad stay home for a time with the babies than it would over a lifetime to pay the taxes for everyone else to do the same.

  9. anon says:

    I just read the article, and yes, in many ways it sounds lovely, however, it really demands that you go back after 1 year, with the preschools starting at 12 months and everyone expecting to go. I personally think that is too young. I could live with 3 y.o., but not 1 y.o. They’re just not ready to be thrown into the fray all day every day at that age.”L” had an interesting observation, too, that I would tend to agree with, especially given that we are specifically choosing to have ONE child, where others have many, and we specifically choose to live within certain means in order for me to be home with her for 3-5 years, while other do not put similar limitations on themselves. What I DO like about it is the getting men more involved and the overall move to equalization of salaries. Maybe if they taxed people at 60%, they could extend it to age 3 ;)

  10. jenny tries too hard says:

    It is silly to have this discussion without considering taxes. Another pertinent question is this: What’s it like to start and run a business in Sweden, with the requirements for paid maternity/paternity leave? It’s not a cakewalk here in the US, but it can be done, and that’s one of things I love here. If a problem in the market exists—funerals are too expensive, women’s magazines suck, ads for cleaning products are offensive,, there’s no good place to get Chinese food or tacos in your town, whatever, someone who isn’t filthy rich can get in there and try to offer a solution. A TON of the things we take for granted in the US are a direct result of how competitive our businesses have to be, though the fact that we have relatively low taxes is another reason for our advantages.

    The bottom line is that there are advantages to both systems, but I prefer mine, warts and all. I think the Swedes have some things right, but mandatory paid leave and subsidized preschool aren’t on that list, in my book.

  11. Laure68 says:

    @Comstock – do you think there are no people in Europe who are desperately poor? I don’t know much about Sweden, but in France there are very poor people, often of Arabic background. Since there is no affirmative action in France, these people have a very difficult time getting jobs.

    I think sometimes people get moony-eyed thinking about Europe as some kind of utopia, which is just not the case. They do some things better than the US and some things worse.

  12. Comstock says:

    Of course there are poor people in Europe. There has to be a poor population for there to be a rich one; the richest countries just keep their poor “populations” conveniently overseas. France is no socialist utopia. I’d just like to live in a world in which the comfort of some is not bought with the exploitation of others, but I’m not sure that’s possible. Still, I’m sickened by the rhetoric of “Freedom” that is used to enforce the interests of the moneyed classes in the US.

  13. anon says:

    well, that “rhetoric” apparently has seeped into the brains of the non-moneyed classes in the U.S., too, since you had very average to low income people voting for George Bush for 2 rounds…and there are lots of poor white people (or working class white people) who still believe in the “American Dream” and want “freedom” and fear socialism…so…not sure how that all works together…

  14. jenny tries too hard says:

    Uh, my family IS the American dream, that’s why I believe in it. My grandparents came from Mexico as broke teenagers, and did agriculture work till they could buy their own farm, and they sent both my dad and my uncle to school and both are highly educated, and high-earning (a medical doctor and physicist). People can and absolutely do rise across classes in America. It’s called meritocracy. My husband and I, nine years ago, were flat broke. My dad kicked me out, his family never had money, and we worked our way into owning two small businesses and employing people. We couldn’t have done that if we had our hands tied behind our backs by taxes and European-style requirements. Freedom and capitalism in the US protect the ability of anyone to rise into the “moneyed classes” or step away from them if they choose. They also protect our wicked, wicked desires to innovate, take financial risk, and find a way to make things better, faster, and cheaper so that the poor can have access to them, too.

  15. Comstock says:

    Europeans have small businesses, too, as well as global corporations adept at raping and destroying the environment as well as the best American behemoths. Yet they manage to fund things like paid leave and health care without acting like they are infringing on basic human rights. The argument that collectively paying for something like health care is tyranny is what I’m against. (Wouldn’t many businesses be happy if the government took the responsibility of funding health care?) Any vibrant society should encourage and harness the initiative of entrepreneurs, but not everyone has the drive or the means, and I still think we should try to protect and provide for those people. I’m also skeptical that anyone can rise from poverty to wealth. Certainly everyone can’t. Reminds me of a joke: What’s the quickest way to make a million dollars? First, get a million dollars… The system is undeniably stacked in favor of those who already have plenty. I hold a position that is quite unpopular in America during our era: we should work to find ways to redistribute wealth.

  16. jenny tries too hard says:

    My grandfather died a millionaire (counting his home, shares of his farm, and other non-liquid assets) in 2002. I repeat—broke Mexican teenager with broken English when he came in 1940.

    And, yes, there ARE small businesses in Europe but they hardly hire outside the family. If you want to employ people in earnest you DO have to start out rich so you can afford this initially—the “first, start out with a million dollars…” you say is the scenario in the US is actually more suited to Europe, not less. And, it translates into a much-higher cost of living, where things taken for granted in the US are out of reach for much of Europe’s middle-and-lower classes. Of course, everywhere it’s easier to make money if you already have it…but, that’s because if you have more, you can risk more.

    It’s worth pointing out that Sweden is different from much of Europe, but take Laure’s example of France. They have great mandatory benefits for their workers—if you can find a job. Personally, I think the dirt-poor in the Arab-dominated ghettos would rather have a job with no paid leave or less than the current mandate than have no job at all, as their unemployment regularly hovers around 15%.

    Of course, you’re entitled to your view that we should find ways to redistribute wealth. But I respectfully ask you to consider the current mess in Greece where European-style democratic socialism has run out other people’s money.

    Also, consider the fact that if my wealth is forcibly redistributed from me, my husband and others, we’ll stop creating it. What would be the point to bust your tail working hard if you would get the same outcome as someone who doesn’t? Sure, people who love their careers will do them for whatever, but less-appealing work has to be better-paid or no one will do them.

  17. GP says:

    yes, I am “back” for this, and jenny, I am standing up and clapping…I agree with you on this…Comstock, when you say “Wouldn’t many businesses be happy if the government took the responsibility of funding health care?” you neglect to consider how the government will fund it. Governments are generally not money-making bodies, they don’t produce anything, they just kind of manage things. Yes, they are necessary and I am not anti-gov at all, but with arguments similar to yours the question always is WHO PAYS? When the government doles out entitlements, they don’t come from thin air.

  18. GP says:

    yeah, Sweden is very different…they are not even on the Euro…and it’s a very small country…what was interesting to note in the NYT article was that a much larger country, Germany, was doing it, too, and they are more on the hard-ass, worky, worky spectrum like Americans…I’d be more interested in knowing more about that model

  19. Comstock says:

    I’m no economist, but if the gov collected taxes from a variety of sources to pay for something like health care, they could reduce the burden placed on businesses to subsidize (to a smaller extent year after year) health plans for employees. Or, get this, we don’t have to fight extremely costly wars of choice and maintain a global military–there’s more money right there. This ties back in to the original comment stream, because I say if the rest of the industrialized world can fund progressive social programs, so can we. WHO PAYS? The last I’ll say on the matter is that we all pay because we should care about protecting people over accumulating personal wealth. I’ll happily pay more taxes to create a society with health care, child care, education, transportation, etc., for all.

  20. anon says:

    “we don’t have to fight extremely costly wars of choice and maintain a global military”

    yes, yes, yes…I DO have to agree with this! I’m no military strategist, but something just seems WRONG with what we’re doing in this capacity…see I am very mixed up in my beliefs!

  21. Bean's Mom says:

    I agree with Comstock. I don’t mind paying higher taxes if it means that we can get benefits that I value, such as universal health care, paid parental leave and even subsidized daycare. These arguments about freedom are BS. I’d like the freedom to stay home with my child longer than 16 weeks but doing so would get me fired, and I can’t afford to quit my job and lose my benefits. And forget Sweden, which like others mentioned has a relatively small and homogeneous population. India, Peru, Egypt, Algeria, Ivory Coast–all of those countries offer paid parental leave. I find it shameful that the US, a much wealthier nation, is one of only a handful of countries in the entire world that does not offer any paid parental leave to its citizens. It’s really a question of values and priorities. I don’t have any ambition to be filthy rich. Unlike Jenny tries to hard, paid parental leave is something I do value.

  22. jenny tries too hard says:

    Comstock, you’re right in theory that it would lift the burden off of some businesses, temporarily. But, in the long term businesses still carry the burden because increasing taxes from a variety of sources nearly always ends up hurting the economy. Increase taxes on individuals and they spend less; that hurts businesses, then the businesses have to tighten their belts, too, and lay off or freeze hiring. Increase taxes on businesses, that hurts businesses, and they pass the tax on to consumers through higher prices and/or lay off workers and stop hiring. I’d rather bear the costs of insurance as an employer than have no business at all. The only way you can really raise taxes without hurting the economy is to take something that was previously totally off the table and tax that—It worked when prohibition was ended and a tax levied on alcohol. I fully believe that we could do this, now, with marijuana and come out on top and just wish there was a credible politician (Ron Paul doesn’t count) who would get this already. But, anyway, most of the things I really object to the hardest here are mandates that employers provide paid leave, like Sweden does. If an employer must, from day one, provide paid leave to Sweden’s extent, he/she must start out with a MUCH bigger investment out of his/her own pocket, thus limiting business-ownership to the very rich.

    As far as how the rest of the industrialized world affords these social programs—Well, they really don’t. The recent financial crisis has hit plenty more countries than ours, because government spending has been insane lots of places. We have an allergy to cutting military spending; they have an allergy to cutting social spending. And, again, Greece. They’ve had to put in austerity measures because the country is flat busted and owes the rest of the EU everything, and the population has just about imploded. No, thank you.

    Also, the rest of the world is secure in dedicating more to social spending in part because the US is doing quite a bit more in the way of defense and diplomacy. We bear the brunt of the costs of the UN, and when there is a crisis, anywhere in the world, we are the ones expected to respond first and best. America could (possibly) afford to be more like Sweden in social areas if Sweden (and Germany, and Spain, and Italy and France…) were more like the US militarily.

  23. Nathan says:

    I’m on paternity leave in Sweden, and it is all you would think and more.

    And I can make comparisons. My wife and I spent the first year of my daughter’s life thrashing in the social quicksand of the New York City exurbs – invisible neighbors, abandoned playgrounds and evangelical Christian mothers’ groups for my wife, and little but work for me.

    Then we moved to Sweden, and now I am on nine months of paid paternity leave. Each morning I dress and feed my two kids, get my daughter to preschool, and build sand castles with her little brother. I pretend I am a grumpy old troll, and I sing “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” By now – my second tour of what I call Daddyland – it feels unremarkable, the life of any stay-at-home dad.

    But that very normality is what makes it remarkable – the fact that I stay home, the subsidized daycare for my daughter, my monthly paycheck from the state, the “open” preschool where my son and I play, and the job held open for me without penalty.

    In terms of taxes and the like, I think the question is not whether the US should have a Swedish system, but that it should have some system – it is one of only four countries with no maternity leave, much less paternity leave. And while I appreciate the opportunity in the US, don’t buy the business propaganda. You can have a safety net and still have capitalism. Sweden is a very competitive economy, albeit in a different way. And if the kids get a better start along the way, what’s the problem.

    My only real issue is the forced march to daycare. We stretched our leave to about two years for our daughter and 19 months for our son but it still feels too young.

    You can read my blog about at Dispatches from Daddyland at

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