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“The Swedish Social Insurance Agency has decided that you will not receive child benefit for Finn from December 24th to January 8th,” read the letter that dropped into my secure digital mailbox over Christmas.
My son turned eight on December 23rd, and as he was born just a week before a new more generous policy became valid in Sweden, that marked the end of our eligibility for child leave.
And just as had happened with his elder sister, we had let his leave expire with more than a month of leave yet to claim.
It turns out, we are far from alone.
The parents of fully 72 percent of the children born in Sweden in 2010 failed to claim all of their shared 480 days of parental leave by the time they expired in 2018, according to the latest statistics from the Social Insurance Agency. On average, parents in Sweden failed to claim about a month, but 21 percent of parents had, like us, failed to claim more than 60 days.
In total, that amounted to 1.4 billion kronor ($154.4 million) in unclaimed benefits, and according to an analysis by the agency, it was those with the lowest incomes who had the most days left over.
A change in the rules since my son was born has made using your days quite a bit easier. Parents of children born after January 1st in 2014 (a week after my son), can now continue to take out leave until their children’s 12th birthday.
But be aware that all but 96 of these days expire when the child turns four, so the race is still on.
If you want to understand how parental leave in Sweden works, here’s The Local’s detailed guide to how the system works.
But to avoid other foreigners in Sweden suffering the same disappointment as I did, keep scrolling for some tips for how to make sure you use all that leave.
Take leave together
Swedish rules allow both parents to take leave at the same time. In the first few months, this can really take the pressure off the mother, allowing her partner to take over while she makes up for lost sleep, or takes a precious hour or so to herself.
The rules allow each couple to claim a maximum of 30 of these so-called dubbeldagar or “double days”, which taken together will use up 60 days of leave.
These days cannot be taken from the 90 reservdagar, or “reserve days”, which are tied to each parent to prevent fathers from taking out days at the same time as leaving the mother to do all the actual childcare. They also can only be taken before the child is one year old.
Claim leave for ordinary holidays
My mistake was to see parental leave as something to take only when I was off work specifically to look after my children. In fact, you can take it out any time you are not actually working: when you take time off over Christmas, Easter, during the sportlov or höstlov school holidays, or over the long Swedish summer.
“My husband takes all of the school holidays and the summers off so we can travel and all be together,” says Martha Moore in Malmö. “I’m a teacher, so I will probably give all of my days to him, since I get to be off when my kids are off anyway.”
You can even claim for days which you are also claiming as holiday from your work, or days which are public holidays in Sweden, but you can only claim parental leave for these days at the so-called lägstanivå, or base level of 180 kronor a day.
Take a very long holiday
One Australian living in Stockholm said she was off to Thailand for two and a half months this February in order to use up some of the days from her second child, which are due to expire when she turns four later in the year.
She recommends planning one long holiday to use up any of the 384 days that will expire when your child turns four, and then saving up the other 96 days for a second long holiday before they turn 12.
She is putting her eldest child into a Swedish school in Thailand while they are there, using one of the chain of Swedish schools set up in Thailand, primarily for parents holidaying on their parental leave.
She deliberately didn’t use as many days as she could have in the first 12 months, so that she and her husband could do this. “My tip is to not use many days at all paid that first 12 months, and to burn your savings instead,” she says.
As her child is more than one year old, she and her husband cannot take leave simultaneously, however, so he is using holiday time he has saved up.
Take leave before the birth
The pregnant parent can start taking parental leave and collecting benefits up to 60 days before the due date. It’s actually compulsory for the mother to take two weeks of leave in connection with the birth, which can either be before or after. New fathers or secondary caregivers can also start taking leave up to ten days before the birth.
This could be a waste of days, however, as if a difficult (or, let’s face it, even fairly normal) pregnancy makes it impossible to do your job, you can claim sickness benefits instead of parental leave, and get the same level of benefits without using up any of your 480 days.
This does not apply, however, to “normal pregnancy difficulties such as back pain and fatigue”, so to claim sickness benefits, you will have to convince your doctor to certify that you have pregnancy difficulties that are “unusually severe”.
Take a chunk out to do private projects
People less good at forward planning sometimes take a chunk of leave just before their child turns four or twelve (or eight if they were born before January 1st, 2014), even if they don’t have anything planned in particular.
You can use this time to do the sort of home chores that it is so hard to find time to do once you have children.
“I had a colleague who took two months’ maternity leave when her daughter was seven years old,” says one woman in Malmö. “She took it as a vacation in the summer to fix her apartment.”
Use parental leave to work a short week
Once the child is in preschool (dagis or förskola) many people, including Moore’s husband, use parental leave to take Friday and/or Monday off work for six months or more, allowing them to spend more time with their child.
This is obviously something you have to square with your employer, but in Sweden most employers are more than willing to put employees on 80 percent.
You can either use this time to take some of the pressure off your partner during their parental leave, or to reduce the amount of time your child spends in preschool.
Use parental leave to work short days
You don’t need to take each allotted day as a full day, you can also reduce your working day by three quarters, a half, one quarter or one eighth, and receive proportional parental benefit for the time not worked.
Parents of a child under the age of eight can reduce their working hours by up to 25 percent, whether or not they decide to take parental benefit for the remaining 25 percent.
This can be extremely helpful in making combining childcare and work a little less stressful.
Claim leave for weekends
You can claim parental leave on weekends as well as on normal weekdays, but unless you normally work on the weekend, you can only claim these at the lowest base level of 180 kronor.