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'Not taking out maternity leave is taboo in Sweden'

'Not taking out maternity leave is taboo in Sweden'

Published: 22 Mar 2013 08:05 GMT+01:00
Updated: 22 Mar 2013 08:05 GMT+01:00

Missing her daughter's "irretrievable" babyhood haunts photographer Linda M. Thompson on her 45-minute commute to and from university, but she says it's time to stop condemning Swedish mothers who don't take out all their parental leave.

I am waddling through a Swedish state-run liquor store, picking up beer for my husband when I get the feeling that I and my belly are being watched.

Several weeks earlier, I was scolded by my Swedish midwife after I confessed to sipping a half of a glass of red wine on one occasion.

"Foreign women have a hard time understanding this," the midwife said. "But in Sweden we have a zero tolerance attitude towards alcohol during pregnancy."

With this incident in mind, I go to the "alkoholfri" section and dramatically place a bottle of Nanny State IPA in my shopping basket. Now I am almost hoping I am being watched and I take two more just in case anyone in the store missed my act of compliance.

Being half-Swedish, half-American, and bilingual, I am at home in both countries, but still a perpetual foreigner.

We left our tight-knit community in Missoula, Montana, in 2011 to live near my family in northern Sweden. My husband began a master's degree and about halfway through his first semester I started my first trimester of pregnancy.

Soon after, I was accepted to a master's programme in photojournalism. Many of our dreams were falling into place.

Deciding to go to school and leave my daughter to pursue my own ambitions was a tough decision made easier by Sweden's generous safety net. After two months of parental leave, we would both be in school, my husband part-time and me full-time.

This set-up would have been financially impossible for us in the States. There are 178 countries worldwide that guarantee paid maternity leave. The United States is not one of them.

In Sweden, parental leave is as a basic right. The policy was established in 1974 to support women’s presence in the labour force and encourage men's participation in childrearing. It was also meant to encourage parent-baby bonding and infant health.

Upon birth or adoption, both parents (including same-sex couples) have the right to split 480 days of leave where 390 days are paid at about 80 percent of their wages (up to a ceiling of around $130 per day) and the remaining 90 days at a lower rate.

I avoid discussing this system with my friends back home in the States at the risk of alienating them. Many of them have had to make painful choices between work and baby.

Sweden in contrast is idyllic, but not perfect.

Mothers taking at least the first six months of parental leave is such a part of the fabric of the culture here that diverging from the norm is often met with scepticism.

Our daughter was two months old when I started school, leaving her in the more than capable hands of her father. When he is at school, our extended family steps in.

Many Swedes seem shocked at this arrangement and stare blankly at me when I explain that I am satisfied with the two months of leave I took. The blank stare continues when I say that I also like having something of my own, entirely unrelated to diapers or feeding schedules.

On one occasion, a middle-aged university colleague flatly told me:

"Well, I never could have done it... I mean left her so early... I just loved being with my daughter so much."

Oddly, no one questions my husband for pursuing his degree while in his new role as a father. A surprising detail for a country known for gender equality.

The hardest comment to shake was the urging of a well-meaning nurse from our pediatric clinic who during a routine weigh-in for Eva said:

"Embrace this time. You both seem so busy."

Her tone was kind but serious:

"Make sure you slow down and take it in, so you don’t miss it. It goes by so fast."

The idea that I am missing my daughter's irretrievable babyhood haunts me on my 45-minute commutes to and from school. I feel it especially when I catch her staring and smiling at me while I have been consumed in my own work at the computer.

For the time being, I live with a foot in each country. Back in America, mothers are engaging in what has been called the "Mommy Wars" - mothers arguing with each other about what it should mean to be a mother, instead of unifying to fight for parental leave.

Then you have Sweden, where your ability to support a family is not dependent on income level or employer, and where women do not risk their careers by starting a family.

But also where the universal pastime of judging mothers has crept into the daily discourse in a way that can only be described as anti-feminist.

Proof that there are still some battles left to fight, even here.

Linda Thompson is a Swedish-American (or American-Swedish) photojournalist pursuing a master's degree in photojournalism at Mid Sweden University (Mittuniversitet). She and her husband became the proud parents of a baby girl in July 2012. Her work can be seen at www.lindamthompson.com.

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Your comments about this article

10:08 March 22, 2013 by Migga
Now just join the ranks and start improving peoples views. Not all Swedes will judge or react in the way you described, support them. If you raise the question you should be prepaired to do your part to improve the norms and make Sweden or it`s people better.
10:31 March 22, 2013 by Abe L
Typical Swedish / Local propaganda and full of sh*t.

My wife and I neither took out parental leave (any of it) as it would have caused a loss of income that we did not want to sacrifice. We where commended by our co-workers and employers by doing so as they did not have to hire a completely useless 3/4 year temp or put more work on the shoulders of the others in our teams.

If it's so important to take out parental leave, remove the financial limitations so people can still afford their mortgage and can pay their bills.
13:28 March 22, 2013 by ann2
Abe, that was my experience as well, except from the other side: I stayed home, partly because I hadn't learned Swedish yet and partly because I couldn't imagine letting someone else take care of my child. I started part time work when my youngest was 5, in fact.

I *felt* that most people thought it was ridiculous for me to stay home, and that I had no identity as a mother. I believe that both sides are easily found in Sweden, and whatever one feels sensitive about will be the reported attitude :-)

Can't please all the people all the time, and some people you can never please. If someone didn't agree with my choice, trust me, I had more than enough reasons to disagree with theirs.
13:46 March 22, 2013 by jess805
Stop whining about nothing. You are American and know how hard it is for us ( Americans) to leave our children when we get only a few weeks off after giving birth. You should be grateful. American woman are proud to work hard to support their family and wished they had 6 months off like Swedes do, damn!
14:25 March 22, 2013 by nibbler
Jess, firstly Swedish parents don't just get 6 months off they get 15 months off to split between themselves. The author isn't whining about nothing, or just getting time off, she is discussing the duality of opinions in Sweden to parental leave and the judgements that are being placed upon her for not opting to follow the social norm; i.e. take the full parental leave.

I do think the article is one sided and possibly should have touched on other experiences, but it is a discussion of her own personal experience; and as the comments posted above illustrate, there have been positive reactions to not taking parental leave and their have been negative reactions to not working. But I think that's just normal society and it illustrates the cultural differences that exist.
20:16 March 24, 2013 by caitnor
Yes, in Sweden you have to do it just right. Don't take a day under the full parental leave and don't stay home a day past it.
15:46 March 26, 2013 by ljtaylor88
As a childless person, I've been sitting on the fence observing the whole "stay-at-home mum" versus the "working mum" thing. And I have to say, both sides are as bad as each other when it comes to being sanctimonious!
22:07 March 26, 2013 by skogsbo
I think many folk are missing the point, you don't have to take anything you don't want to, perhaps the answer is work enough to pay the bills, then take the rest of the time off to be with the kid you 'chose' to have?

Plus, you have years to take the days and you can exchange a percentage of them, so why the rush? Use it to negotiate a shorter working week, every weekend, is a long weekend? That way you maintain an income, a CV, employment/network contacts, plus your child will build those early friendships in dagis for 2 or 3 days a week, win win? I think a child growing up observing the concept of a family working, instills a good future work ethic too, but doesn't sacrifice family time and missing out on all the elements of seeing your baby growing by palming them off for 40 hours a week. As they say, they'll only be babies once, enjoy it!!
17:33 May 8, 2013 by lvivien
Hi, im a hungarian living in Sweeden, with my sweedish husband. For me even the six months are strange, we are home with the child for three years, and actually i do this way here as well. Our son is 15 month, and we live from one sallary until. On the otherhand its always the parents who decide what is more important, for me being with my baby, even that i was a lawyer so had a good income.
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