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The Swedish paternity leave system

I was lucky enough to be invited to Sweden recently by Baby Bjorn (you know - the guys who make those baby carriers). They love dads (they've always designed their products to appeal to men as well as women), and they wanted to show off the Swedish attitude towards fathers that is reflected in their parental and paternity leave system.

Here I look at the swedish system, and the insights I gained into what makes their paternity leave system work for dads, mums, children and society.

As well as Dad Info, Baby Bjorn had invited FQ magazine (from both the UK and Japan) and DadLabs - a team from Austin, Texas, who are running a kind of online TV channel for dads (here at Dad Info, we've put their videos onto our homepage so you can watch them anytime you visit). Dadlabs documented the trip for their video channel, so I've included a few of their videos here.

The Swedish Paternity Leave system

The Dadlabs guys explain the system in this video:

It's not so much a Paternity leave system as a Parental Leave system. When a baby is born, the couple is given 16 months of leave from work, which starts as being paid at 80% of the worker's wage, and steps down over time. The couple can divide up the leave between the mum and dad as they want, but two months can only be taken by mum, and two months can only be taken by dad.

The system has a built in motivation for families to get dad to take time off to look after the baby on his own.

Why it works

And the results are great. Here are the insights I gained from the system - the things I feel are important for any paternity/parental leave system... that is if it's going to get dads more involved in family life.

  1. When dads take over full time for a while, they step into the parenting role in the same way as mums. They take full responsibillity for their kids because they're doing it all while mum's at work. The UK system (2 weeks just after the birth) tends to mean  dads are taking time off to help mum, who is doing the lion's share of the early  feeding and care. For all those who moan about dads not taking responsibility for their children, ask yourself this: does our system actually provide realistic opportunities for dads to actually take those responsibilities on? The Swedish system does.
  2. The system works because it makes economic sense for families to use it. There's no serious short term penalty for guys who take the time off. Indeed, there's a financial penalty if you don't - if dad doesn't use at least his two months, the family loses the benefit. An additional factor is that Swedish employers have now become used to the system, accept it, and don't penalise dads who use it - this takes time. For the system to make economic sense for families, they have to feel that they're not going to lose out in the long term too - guys in particular will run away from taking anything that damages their career prospects.
  3. The system benefits women. Swedish dads can take up to 14 months off work when their baby is born. We spoke to a couple who were both lawyers. She had taken 8 months off after the birth, then he took over for the next 8 months. Swedish women told us that they don't experience as much discrimination from employers, because they know that mums are not the only ones to take time off for their family. Nicola Brewer, take note.
  4. The system benefits children. While I was visiting the home of one of the dads who had taken paternity leave, one of the toddlers fell over a few times. What happened was fascinating. The little boy didn't go running to mummy... or daddy. He went running to whoever was closest. This little boy was confident that either could comfort him - he was closely bonded to both. This is in contrast to the UK, where you often to see children always running to mummy (who feels like she has to do everything)... and not to daddy (who feels like a spare part). Having a strong bond to both parents can only be good for kids.
  5. The system benefits couples. While we were there, the staff from Baby Bjorn told us that new research has shown that in families where the dad has taken paternity leave, the couples had a 30% lower divorce rate. While there may be a slight "selection effect", this is an incredible statistic - 30%! For politicians looking to increase couple stability and reduce divorce rates, this is surely a major piece of news - whie politicians would love to stabilise families, there are very few policy measure that have been proven to achieve this. David Cameron and Gordon Brown should sit up and take notice.

Dadlabs did another little video of myself, Rob Kemp from FQ magazine and Clay and Troy from Dadlabs discussing the system and what we could learn from it. Here it is:

What do you think of the Swedish approach? Your comments below please!

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Dad Partners

Family Matters Institute Dept. for Education Step Change Children's Legal Centre
DWP National Family Mediation CMEC Memset
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