That’s right, lots of dads in Sweden take 60 days of paternity leave.
This type of parental leave policy – one that actually, legitimately encourages new dads to take time off – is important for several reasons, and here are three of the big ones:
1. Dads who take solo leave with their babies become (and remain) more actively-involved parents.
This isn’t anecdotal, there’s research to back it up. Brigid Schulte discusses the phenomenon in her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, citing a series of time studies conducted in the Nordic countries. These studies found that “fathers who took solo parental leave were more likely to spend more time with their children and have close relationships with them when they grew.”
The evidence is visible in Denmark and Sweden. Schulte says: “I was struck by the sheer number of fathers in business suits pushing enormous prams through the streets in both Denmark and Sweden. Fathers traveling alone on trains, buses, and bikes with their kids. Fathers dominating sunny playgrounds on lazy weekday afternoons with their children.”
In other words, more involved parenting during infancy equals more involved parenting throughout childhood.
When you think it through, this isn’t surprising. Most couples settle into roles where one is the primary parent. It will shock exactly zero people to learn that this primary parent is usually the mom. Imagine, for a moment, the impact of the secondary parent spending three to four months alone with an infant. Imagine that parent handling the daily routine solo, including events like pediatrician appointments, Gymboree class, and packing the diaper bag with snacks for the park. Imagine how much confidence it would create and the nuances that would be learned.
Next, think about the impact as the child gets a little older. It would mean the secondary parent becomes more likely take the child to the doctor for the 7-year-old well child visit, or attend the parent-teacher conference in the middle of the afternoon, or trade off staying home from work when the child is sick and has to miss school.
2. Normalizing paternity leave removes the stigma from maternity leave.
Don’t try and tell me there’s no career penalty for taking maternity leave. It just isn’t true. In fact, the single biggest predictor of whether a woman experiences the wage gap is if she’s a mother.
Having a child and taking even a brief leave means that a woman is likely to be viewed as less serious about her career. I’ve experienced this personally. While I was out on maternity leave after I had my first child, my then-coworkers (who I respect and genuinely loved working with) had an office pool going on whether I was coming back to work or not. I have never heard of any such pool for new dads.
The brilliant Susan Estrich agrees; she has this to say about maternity leave and the decision to have children: “The assumption is that a man with children will work harder to support his family, while a woman with children will work less to be with her family.”
Arlene Johnson of the Families and Work Institute states it like this:
“There are several key points when a woman’s career is jeopardized – when they get married, when they get pregnant, when they take a maternity leave. At those critical points, it’s a good idea to make it clear that you’re going to return and what your goals are. Often, to compete with makes, women have to forgo, or camouflage, their family interest to show their commitment.”
How do we remove the jeopardy? One way is to de-stigmatize parental leave by having dads take it, too.
If new dads were offered paid parental leave, and incentivized to actually take it, a lot of them would do it. Dads love their kids; they want to spend time with their kids. And if they got to really do it, you’d start to see the assumptions and the sideways glances and the office pools slowly drop away.
Let’s go back to Overwhelmed for a moment. Brigid tells the story of one father who took four months of parental leave to care for his twins after his wife’s leave ended and she went back to work. He admitted to being worried that the long leave would hurt his career, but “Instead, he was promoted within a few months after he returned from work.”
In this dad’s own words: “It’s become so common for men to take leave, it doesn’t tend to affect their careers. And we get the opportunity to be with our kids when they’re young that we’d never get again.” [Emphasis mine.] The effects of this attitude show in the statics about working moms in the Nordics, too: Denmark has one of the highest maternal employment rates in the world, with more than 80 percent of mothers with children under fifteen in the workforce.
3. Parental leave policies that encourage dads to parent reflect real life.