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

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

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.

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.

The working world has adjusted accordingly. Most companies seem to fill parental-leave vacancies with short-term contracts, and these seem to function as good tryouts for permanent employment. It all feels pretty organic in a globalized world of flat organizations and gender equality, of employees who are not locked into one assignment or skill set.

But there are deeper societal processes at work here, a shift of the very notion of Swedish masculinity. In a 2008 article in the journal Fathering, Anna-Lena Almqvist wrote that Swedish men have developed a “child-oriented masculinity.” Almqvist compared the attitudes of a selection of Swedish fathers with their French counterparts and found that, among couples with similar incomes, Swedish men emphasized the importance of parental leave and helping to raise their children. They also negotiated explicitly with their partners on child care issues. The French men did neither of these things.

This means that, according to Almqvist, the rise in Swedish paternity leave can be seen as a “modest change” to Sweden’s “hegemonic masculinity,” which is an overarching masculine ideal that most men once aspired to—think physical prowess, the big job, and lots of women. What this ideal has not traditionally encompassed is the concept of the nurturing, involved father. Or much flexibility for the role of women. But also think of the way women fit into this system. “In hegemonic masculinity, fathers do not have the capacity or the skill or the need to care for children, especially for babies and infants, while the relationship between female parents and young children is seen as crucial,” wrote Mike Donaldson of the University of Wollongong in Australia in a 1993 article in Theory and Society. “Nurturant and care-giving behaviour is simply not manly.” This kind of attitude seems to be melting away in Sweden 2010.

 If you had asked me in, say, 2001, if I would ever take a long paternity leave, I would have answered, “Yeah, sure,” because I was a liberal guy—but then ignored my own answer because I was also an ambitious, career-driven type. Then I married a Swede, and we moved to a small town outside New York City that was close to no family or friends. Out of necessity, and my wife’s Swedish expectations, I got deeply involved in our upcoming baby’s life, though probably still no more than many American dads-to-be. We had a rough ride. My wife had bad doctors and a bad back, and we lived in a house covered with lead paint and infested with bats, rats, and bedbugs. It all began to seem overwhelming. In the end, almost more than my wife, I pushed for the move to Sweden, to the promise of parental leave, shorter work days, five weeks of vacation, and unlimited paid sick days if your kid falls ill.

Still, the prospect of telling my boss I wanted to take paternity leave paralyzed me for weeks. Surely I would get fired for taking six months off. Or I would return to a job cleaning the bathrooms with pencil erasers. I think I chickened out completely and just sent an e-mail. But my supervisors took my leave as a matter of course. I have small children; hence, I was likely to take paternity leave of some sort.

Even deep into my leave, I am not always so confident in my “child-oriented masculinity.” When I talk about my leave with non-Swedes, I often play up the midday naps and the freedom to blog. I don’t really let on that I sometimes sit on the kitchen floor near tears feeding melting frozen blueberries to a grumpy baby—and ruining his clothes—in a last-ditch effort to get him to stop crying.

But that doesn’t mean I consider myself a visitor to some mysterious feminine domain. My first rush of empowerment came on my very first day of my leave. We all got up, ate breakfast and my wife left for her first day of work. Then I sat there facing a 10-hour day alone in a still foreign country with my then-19-month-old daughter. And I felt, well, normal. It was almost a letdown.

But I truly owned my masculine parenting skills only after I had mastered the snack bag. Before my paternity leave, I had fed, co-slept, and worn slings, but never packed the snack bag. It turns out, though, that I have a knack for it. The bag might be a jumble. There might be crumbs littered on the bottom. But I can always pull out just the right snack to keep a kid’s blood sugar up—whether it’s hummus, an apple, or sunflower seeds. And I’m not ashamed to brag about it.

In fact, I have come to the conclusion that there is not enough macho bragging done by moms and dads alike. Now when I want to impress, I hold forth about pushing a three-wheeled stroller through a slushy snowstorm with one arm, with a screaming baby in the other arm and a crying toddler trying to climb out of the stroller. In fact, I now challenge all comers in the ultimate tests of parenting skill—the cross-town two-child bus trip after an all-day outing, the negotiations with a tired toddler who does not want to wear shoes in a snowstorm, and the race to soothe a crying baby to sleep in a crowded mall before the drowsiness disappears.

But it is precisely those moments that make my paternity leave so meaningful. Or, more precisely, it is the accumulation of those moments. This seems obvious when I type it—and it must be obvious to most mothers—but the chance to build that bond with my children is revolutionary to me as a working dad. I can’t quantify how I am closer to my children—and I would never claim that I’m closer to my kids than men who work. But there is a different quality to it—a nurturing one, perhaps. I can feel it when my son gets shy in public, and he climbs in my arms and molds his body around mine. And I can really feel it now that I have to send him to daycare.

Daddyland is not forever, and I must now return to the office just like so many American moms do. The thought of leaving my baby at daycare is sapping my spirit, even as I happily anticipate the challenges of my new position at work. I find myself thinking exactly what the moms think: My 18 months in Daddyland have simply not been all that long. Hopefully, this time will echo through my kids’ childhoods, as studies show that dads that take paternity leave stay more connected to their children. And I am not going to work full time, in order to cut the kids’ daycare time short. But right now I can only mourn the last days of naps and sandboxes, of crying over chewed crayons and bouncing to the Delta blues—and thank the Swedish welfare state for this chance to visit Daddyland.

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