In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama concluded by saying: “I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on the earth.”
When he said that, I must admit to tearing up a little, and in my heart, I thought: “Yes! Right on, Mr. President!” But then I remembered: “Hey, wait a minute … what about the time when I wanted to be Swedish?”
Years ago, when we were on the cusp of becoming parents, my husband and I traveled to Sweden to visit friends. Because babies were on our minds, I was intrigued by how our Swedish friends were managing life as new parents. And while it’s been many years since that visit, and times and policies have surely changed, what I saw then is what I still long for today:
Good maternity leave benefits.
Out of 173 countries worldwide, the United States is one of only five that doesn’t guarantee paid leave to give birth and care for a newborn.
This is according to a FitPregnancy.com article that states:
Some argue that other countries can afford to be more generous because citizens pay more taxes. However, nearly all governments around the globe offer more protections than the United States, whether they’re high-tax, low-tax, progressive or conservative. “It’s also a myth that these countries have higher unemployment rates,” says researcher Jody Heymann, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill in Montreal, Quebec.
Here’s a quick look at some Scandinavian and European countries’ paid leave policies:
Sweden is one country which provides generous parental leave: all working parents are entitled to 16 months paid leave per child, the cost being shared between employer and the state. Norway also has similarly generous leave. In Estonia mothers are entitled to 18 months of paid leave, starting up to 70 days before the due date. Fathers are entitled to paid leave starting from the third month after birth (paid leave is however available to only one parent at a time).
In the UK, all female employees are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity (or adoption) leave, 39 weeks of which is paid, rising to 52 weeks paid from April 2010, with the first six weeks paid at 90% of full pay and the remainder at a fixed rate. Most employers offer a more generous policy. Annual leave continues to accrue throughout the maternity leave period. A spouse or partner of the woman (including same-sex relationships) may request a two week paid (at a fixed rate) paternity leave. Both the mother and her partner can additionally request non-paid parental leave, which can be for up to 4 weeks annually, with a current limit of 13 weeks. (Source: Wikipedia).
God, what a relief that would have been when we were having our babies! I wouldn’t have had to worry about going back to work just weeks after giving birth when I was still nursing around the clock and so so sleep deprived that I was basically a walking zombie. My family could have adjusted to having a new baby before plunging back into work, and my husband would have had the option to take more than a week off for paternity leave.
More Affordable Options for a Good College Education
According to Wikipedia, as of the autumn semester in 2011, higher education in Sweden is free of charge for Swedish, EU/EEA, and Swiss citizens. Yes, I realize that the citizens of these countries pay an exorbitant amount in taxes, so “free of charge” is a bit of a misnomer. Still, I can’t help but wonder: What if I didn’t have the burden of saving for college tuition looming ahead? What if no one in our family had to face the idea of paying back a mountain of debt in student loans? I mean, how many of us would choose to end—or begin—our adult lives with a mountain of debt, if we could find a better way?
Quality of Life for Families
Most American families I know are hard-pressed to find a week or two during the year that they can all spend together as a family. Here’s how the average 13 days of paid vacation in the U.S. compares to other countries, according to the World Tourism Organization:
- Italy: 42 days
France: 37 days
Germany: 35 days
Brazil: 34 days
United Kingdom: 28 days
Canada: 26 days
Korea: 25 days
Japan: 25 days
And here’s another take on why parenting Viking-style can look like a day at the best beach on earth.
Yes, I know I would pay a heck of a lot more in taxes if I lived in country like Sweden. Yes, I know that I would be granting the government a certain amount of input in my life. Yes, there are a thousand reasons why I am so thankful to be an American. I know that this is a politically contentious topic of debate, with valid arguments on every side. I know that there are comments coming that are going to beat me down—that will tell me why I am wrong and that I should definitely pack my bags and leave the United States. And I’m OK with that because as Americans, we all have a basic right to free speech. I’m proud to be an American for the very ideals for which we stand. I just can’t help but wish that I lived in an America that could find a way to be as family-friendly as a country like Sweden, in principle, as well as in practice.