In Praise of Paternity Leave

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I should probably begin this post by making a few excuses for the number of months that have passed since I last posted. While this blog is, of course, only a place for me to occasionally flex my creative writing muscles and share my thoughts about Scandinavian living, I also realize that a small number of people out there do take the time to check in and see whether I have posted anything new. To those few of you, I apologize for the long hiatus. My primary excuse is the fact that I went back to work part-time in early February, which means that I have had less time to devote to formulating thoughts about the Danish lifestyle. However, this also provides a perfect segue into my topic of choice for this blog post: parental leave and, more specifically, paternity leave.

My baby was nearly 8-months-old when I started going into the office again a few days each week. By American standards, this would have been a pretty lengthy and luxurious amount of time to be exclusively at home with a new addition to the family. To say that I treasured those months of being with my sweet little girl around the clock would be a huge understatement. I look at those months as an incredible gift. But when I eventually did need to go back to work, it was pretty amazing that — thanks to Denmark’s generous parental leave policies — the end of my maternity leave did not mean the baby immediately had to go to vuggestue, the Danish word for daycare for children age 0-3 years. Instead, it marked the start of my husband’s paid paternity leave.

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Before I get any further, let me give you a very brief rundown on Danish parental leave laws (you can read a more complete description here). The most important thing to know is that Denmark has one of the most generous and flexible maternity/paternity leave systems in the world.  The parental leave benefits start even before the baby is born! Mothers are entitled to 4 weeks of maternity leave prior to their due date and then 14 weeks following the birth. Fathers are entitled to 2 weeks of leave within the first 14 weeks after the birth. Then…wait for it…each parent is entitled to 32 weeks of parental leave. 32 weeks!!!! People, that is more than half a year! To make matters even better, the government pays a parental leave benefit, which amounts to approximately $550 per week, for a total of 52 weeks. The parents can choose how to split up the 52 paid weeks, or they can also choose to take some unpaid weeks of leave. The benefits are similar for adoptive parents.

Many companies, particularly larger ones, will further enhance the system by paying either the employee’s full salary or a significant portion of it for some or all of the leave. I know one of the biggest companies in the country will actually pay its female employees’ entire salary for one full year, as long as they have been working at the company for a certain length of time (I believe it is at least three years). My husband is lucky enough to work for an outstanding company that offers some of the best benefits in the country…which is how he ended up taking three full weeks of paternity leave last summer, after our baby was born, and an additional 11 weeks starting when I went back to work part-time in February.*

I don’t think I need to take too many lines to extol the virtues of having a system that lets a mother stay home with her new baby for several months without putting the family into financial dire straits. Much has been written on the subject and there are many eloquent advocates for improving the United States’ abysmal maternity leave policies, which are truly embarrassingly bad. But I feel as though paternity leave has generally been more of an after-thought and considered far less vital to a well-functioning society. I can understand why maternity leave does and should take precedence, and I completely agree that this should be the priority when it comes to making big policy changes. But let me just take a moment to extol the virtues of paternity leave.

I want to be very clear about the fact that my husband was already an outstanding example of someone who is very much an equal partner when it comes to taking care of our children. Growing up, both his father and mother worked full-time, so I think he was raised with an example of parents who shared those responsibilities quite evenly. I am pretty certain that all of our time in Denmark, where it is delightfully common to see fathers out pushing a stroller or picking kids up from daycare, has also influenced him. Even so, I think his 11 weeks of being a full-time father and manager on the home front were extremely happy and also a bit instructive for him.

With our second daughter, also born in Denmark, he took the initial two weeks of paternity leave, but we moved before he could take advantage of the longer stretch. So this was uncharted territory for him, and I worried a bit that he would find it either boring, a bit overwhelming, a bit lonely or all of the above. I think that he did, in fact, feel some of those things at certain points. Stay-at-home parents will surely have experienced that range of emotions, as well. And there were definitely days when I came home from work and saw that frazzled, “I am about to go insane because of these kids” look in his eyes that most parents who have stayed home with their children have had at one time or another. But I also believe that he would say those feelings were generally quite fleeting and paled in comparison to the more meaningful experiences of his paternity leave.

Most importantly, I think my  husband gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation of how precious it is to be able to spend the greater part of your time with your children. In particular, spending this time with our children allowed him to forge a deeper, closer bond with our baby girl than he was able to with either of our two older children during their babyhood. He has really exulted in the fact that he has become the person she most craves when bedtime rolls around, that he understands her quirks and her particular likes or dislikes just as well as I do. He embraced the experience of being the last person the kids kissed in the morning before heading to school and the first person they saw when the school day ended. By the end of his 11 weeks of leave, he was sending me text messages at work that said things like, “Some men carry, but real men bjørn” (referring to the baby carrier, Baby Bjørn) with photos like the one below. In other words, he was pretty happy and entirely content with his super dad status.

By the same token, I think he became much more aware of just how much work goes into being the head honcho of a busy household. While I maintain that he is very much an equal partner in child-rearing, there is still no doubt that I have taken the leading role on the home front for most of our lives as parents, particularly when I have been working part-time from home. The experience of paternity leave gave my husband a deeper appreciation for how challenging it can be to juggle all the obligations related to taking care of kids, pets and keeping a home running smoothly. I might have reminded him a few times (or maybe more than a few) that I have often done all of this, and then worked 20 or more hours at the same time. In any case, I feel pretty confident that my husband came away from his paternity leave experience feeling more grateful for the way that women, by and large, pull extra weight vis-a-vis kids and the home — even in instances where there is a lot of equality between a couple in these areas. From my perspective, it was a nice benefit to have him experience this and come to the conclusion that moms are pretty darn amazing in all that they do and accomplish and handle every single day.

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It was a bittersweet day for us when paternity leave ended and our family went back to the hustle and bustle of having both parents working. Luckily, work-life balance in Denmark makes this a nicer and easier experience than it is in many parts of the world (but more about that in a future post). Mostly, however, we went back to work with a profound sense of gratitude for having the chance to live in a place that gives parents the incredible opportunity to focus almost exclusively on family during the first year after the arrival of a new baby. We realize that this a rare and precious gift, something that our friends in the States can really only dream about. It is my most sincere hope that one day our great country (which we joyfully celebrated yesterday on July 4th!) will get its act together in this particular area. Until then, paternity leave will give me yet another reason to praise the “scandisensibility” of the Nordic countries.

 

 

*He could have taken more than 20 weeks, but — in a sign that maybe paternity leave in Scandinavia is still somewhat influenced by gender roles — we both decided that taking the full amount of leave might not be the most advantageous thing for his career. We regretted this decision slightly when the 11 weeks came to an end 😉

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