The bliss of an 18-month, paid, Swedish paternity leave.

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Aug. 31 2010 10:20 AM

Snack Bags and a Regular Paycheck: The Happy Life of a Swedish Dad

The bliss of an 18-month, paid, Swedish paternity leave.

Swedish dad. Click image to expand.
The author with his daughter

For nearly 18 months, I woke up at 4 a.m. with my all-too-alert toddler son. Three hours later, when my Swedish wife left for the day, I would set out a second breakfast and then dress the boy and his 4-year-old sister and walk them to her state-subsidized preschool. Then my boy and I would go build sand castles in one of five nearby neighborhood parks. I packed snack bags, changed diapers, and pretended to be a grumpy old troll. I sang "Itsy Bitsy Spider" more times than I want to think about.

I am not unemployed, and I am not a stay-at-home dad. I've got a "real" job; I just haven't gone to the office since last December. In total, I've spent 18 of the past 36 months on paternity leave here in Sweden, my adopted country, "off" work to care for my two kids. And, yes, I still get paid.

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Over the past 15 years, the streets of Stockholm have filled up with men pushing strollers. In 1995, dads took only 6 percent of Sweden's allotted 480 days of parental leave per child. Then the Swedish government set aside 30 leave days for fathers only. In 2002 the state doubled the "daddy only" days to 60 and later added an "equality bonus" for couples that split their leave. Now more than 80 percent of fathers take some leave, adding up to almost a quarter of all leave days. So in the middle of, say, a Monday afternoon in March, the daddies and their strollers come at you both singly and in waves, the men usually either striding fast and stone-faced or pushing the stroller nonchalantly with one hand, cell phone glued to their ear.

In my part of greater Stockholm, these dads are often on their way to the open preschools, especially through the dreary Swedish winter. These are municipal-run play-places, complete with cheap coffee, helpful teachers, and lots of balls and blocks. On some days, the open preschools are crammed with groups of too-cool dudes lounging on the floor in trucker hats, designer T-shirts, and capri-length pants. Then there are the mousey guys alone in the corner—the equivalent of shy moms, I suppose—and usually a tattooed man or two in the kitchen smushing a bit of banana onto a spoon for his baby.

But here is the funny part: The dads act exactly like the moms. They talk about poop, whether their babies sleep, how tired they are, when their kid started crawling or walking or throwing a ball or whatever.

"So how old is your child?"

"Nine months. She just started crawling yesterday."

"Yes, Oscar started at eight months. But now he is not sleeping well. His teeth are coming in. Oscar, you have to share that toy. Oscar, I said give the toy back."

"How long are you going to be on paternity leave?"

"Three more months. Isn't open preschool great? Now, Oscar …"

No sports. No politics. No cars. And no questions about your job. Think about that. When in America—outside of maybe a sports bar during a really huge game—will any group of men gather and never ask the question, "So, what do you do?"

 I had expected great physical comedy in Daddyland—fathers covered with diaper leakage, babies covered with motor oil, men forcing resentful toddlers into soccer matches. I realize now how insensitive to my Swedish brothers this was. Swedish dads of my generation and younger have been raised to feel competent at child-rearing. They simply expect to do it, just as their wives and partners expect it of them (even though women still do far more child-related work in general). It's eye-opening in a really boring way.