Sweden's Bold Paternity Leave for Dads: An American Perspective

One U.S. father relates his own experience - and wishes other families could share the benefits

Sweden -- land of Garbo, long verdant coastlines and, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the world’s top functioning democracy. Now comes another reason to love this Scandinavian country: its fantastically generous paternity leave.

In 1995 the nation’s prime minister implemented new "daddy leave" laws that reserve at least two months of a family's state-paid, 13-month parental leave for the exclusive use of fathers. In other words, while dads are not forced to stay at home, their families will lose subsidies if pop chooses to opt out.

The impact on society has been profound. A full 85 percent of Swedish fathers take parental leave today up from 6 percent in 1991, according to a The New York Times report. And Sweden is not alone. Paternity leave is actually mandatory in Portugal, albeit for just one week. Iceland allots three months for each parent individually, and an additional shared three months. Germany reserves two out of 14 months of paid leave for fathers.

One can only hope -- if not outright assume -- that these progressive nations are on the winning side of history. As I point out in another article on this site, there's a growing body of research to indicate that the more actively a father is involved in raising his kids, the better off those kids will be. They fare better on cognitive tests and in language ability than children with less involved fathers. And a fathers’s interaction with his children -- engaging in cognitively stimulating activities, emotional warmth, and physical care, for example -- reduces an infant’s chance of cognitive delays, decreases behavioral problems in boys, and sets the foundation for better mental health in girls. The list goes on and on.

So it strikes me that it would be in the interest of the state -- any state -- to actively encourage fathers to stay home as early and often as possible. Yet the level of support parents get in this country is abysmal. In one 2008 study, the U.S. finished 20th out of 21 countries in terms of total length of leave guaranteed to a two-parent couple -- 24 weeks. The report, "Parental Leave Policies in 21 Countries: Assessing Generosity and Gender Equality," found that only Switzerland provides. And when it comes to providing paid leave, the U.S. finishes dead last. Under the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, about 40 percent of U.S. workers -- including those at smaller businesses and those who haven't been on the job for a full year -- don't qualify for coverage at all.

I was fortunate enough to have a progressive employer hold my job for me and a sugar-mama willing to bankroll my 9-month leave in 2005 when I stayed home with my first daughter. And I was fortunate a second time when my wife was able to keep us afloat when I was laid off shortly after our second daughter was born in 2008. Not everyone is as insanely lucky as I am. The time I spent home with my girls was far more rewarding than any career triumph I'm likely to ever have -- and the dividends will hopefully pay off long after I'm gone.

Certainly, progressive leave polices can put a strain on small businesses and send taxes skyrocketing. And anyone would be naive to think that mainstream America is ready for Big Government to meddle with family arrangements. But on a personal level, I like to think I'm playing a role in nurturing well-balanced and productive members of society. It's infuriating that it would be too much to ask for that society to chip in. There's nothing short of our own future at stake.

Do you think the U.S. could benefit from Swedish-style paternity leave? Chime in below!

Like this? Read these:
- The Benefits of Being a More Involved Father
- Poll: How Much Is Everyone Else Paying for Childcare?
- 11 Father's Day Gifts He's Been Hoping You'd Get Him

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