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'Not taking out maternity leave is taboo in Sweden'

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'Not taking out maternity leave is taboo in Sweden'
08:05 CET+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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