A Swedish mother’s experience of world leading parenting policy in practice.
Tina says Sweden is a good place to be a parent, not a perfect one. She’s cradling a coffee, the official elixir of parents with small children everywhere. As we begin, she adjusts her desk to a standing position. It’s a dance she’s proficient in and considers routine when managing work from home. As a university teacher and PhD student, Tina approaches our discussion with an analytical lens. She’s a feminist, an academic, a migrant and a mother.
Tina came to Sweden as a 10-year-old, her Thai mother having partnered with a Swedish man. She says she isn’t “completely Swedish”, an interesting insight about her identity in a country that is no longer characterised by Björn and Agnetha. In 2019 Sweden welcomed 115,805 immigrants with the top three countries of origin being India, the Syrian Arab Republic and Poland.
Neither of her parents were university educated, her mother had to leave formal schooling after grade two. Tina’s mother saw study as the key to her daughter’s potential future success. “That’s why we moved because she wanted me to have a better future “, she says. “So, we moved to Sweden where the education is free, healthcare is free. You only have to pay a lot of tax, but you get so much for it.”
“I think that I became a mother not so much because I wanted to, like not so much because I felt I longed for children, for me it wasn’t like that. I knew I wanted a family, not particularly small children” says Tina. Ultimately, she says she didn’t want to be an “old mother”. Sweden’s average age for first time mothers is 29.1, compared to 30.5 in Australia.
Tina describes feeling well cared for during both her pregnancies. Sweden has a midwifery-led maternity care model and Uppsala, the university town where Tina lives, has a tertiary maternity hospital with a good reputation. It’s also the only maternity hospital in town, and there is no private maternity system.
An hour away in Stockholm, birth is not so relaxed. It has been reported that midwives are striking and resigning in large numbers, they have grave concerns with standards of care following county government funding cuts. These cuts threaten a long history of excellence, Sweden has long had one of the lowest rates of adverse outcomes for mothers and babies in the world.
While governed at a national level by the Social Democratic Party and having recently elected their first female Prime Minister, at a county–level, politics is more conservative. The Moderates, Christian Democrats, and far-right Sweden Democrats are gaining representation across Sweden.
Nationally, the government has funded paid parental leave since the 1970’s. Tina says, “I knew that in Sweden, we have a very good support structure in place, you can be off work, and be paid to be off work. So, I was not worried about these things, but I thought it was going to be easier”.
Sweden’s paid parental leave encourages fathers to care for their children – it’s called the ‘father’s quota’. In his book The Nordic Edge: Policy Possibilities for Australia, Deakin University academic and The Australia Institute’s Convenor of the Nordic Policy Centre, Professor Andrew Scott, said Sweden’s paid paternity leave system is a “use it or lose it model”. To get the full 16 months paid leave, each parent must take three months and the remaining 10 months is shared. A replacement wage set at 80 per cent is provided by the government. Australia’s Paid Parental Leave scheme provides 18 weeks at minimum wage, with two weeks at minimum wage for secondary carers (largely fathers).
Tina says, “mums in Sweden take off 12 months, then the dad takes off another six months, then the kid starts preschool at 18 months”. This wasn’t the case for Tina’s family, her husband runs a company, and he earns more. It was difficult and didn’t make financial sense for him to step away from work for an extended period.
“I was on leave for a year, and he didn’t at all, and in Sweden it’s quite common that dads stay at home at least half the time. But not in our relationship. But then as soon as they could go to preschool my husband has taken a lot of responsibilities for our children. He’s the one up with them in the morning. If they’re sick, he’s usually the one that looks after them”. Tina says she wants her daughters to see parenting as something that is done equally. She says a persistent gender pay gap in Sweden, although narrower than Australia’s, is a barrier to achieving this goal.
Scott says female workforce participation rates in Sweden are high, 81.1 per cent compared to 73.9 per cent in Australia, more women including mothers work fulltime. He says high rates of workforce participation both during the childbearing years and in later age, reduces women’s susceptibility to poverty and housing insecurity in retirement. This shift to greater full time work is recent, Statistics Sweden data shows that in 1987, 45 per cent of women worked part-time. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australian fathers still work on average 46 hours in paid work per week, compared to mothers at 20 hours.
In Sweden paid parental leave is flexible. Tina says, “you go into this website and fill in how many days of the week you would like to get compensated for. The more days you ask to get compensated for, the more salary you get from the government. But then your days quickly disappear. I know that some of my friends, they only take out two or three days a week, because they want to save the days to be with their children later, when they’re a bit older”.
After one year, parents need to make sure they maintain a full-time equivalent income, which can include combining paid work with remaining government leave days. Tina says having a full week of salary preserves government sickness benefits, so you have full coverage if you’re unable to work.
Sweden has a retirement pension. Like superannuation, it’s based on contribution to paid work. When on parental leave, the contribution stops and like in Australia, this gap is left to individual households to negotiate. During her first period of leave, Tina’s husband made voluntary contributions to her retirement fund. In her second, life was busy, and this transfer never happened. She concedes this means her retirement savings are less than her husband’s, but she qualifies this by saying their money is shared.
This confidence in a shared financial future proves to be a fallacy for many women who enter their retirement years in poverty or at least worse off than men, both in Sweden and Australia. The Australian Human Rights Commission reports the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness between 2011-2016 was women aged 55 and over, often after divorce. This is a surprising gap in Sweden’s policy response for mothers on parental leave.
Tina grapples with her new identity. She says, “I don’t think good parenting is equal to devoting your whole life to your children” and adds “I love working. I want to have a career. I want to have my own life”. However even in Sweden there are pervasive gender norms. “Because I’m a woman I know there’s a conflict between the expectations of what mothers should do and be, and my own aspirations”. When asked to describe what a good mother is, she pauses and says, “a good friend”.
Swedish workplaces provide flexibility to participate in children’s lives. Tina says, “At work we’re really like go, take your paternity leave, be with your children”. Tina has met many postgraduate students who come to study and stay to raise families. Generous government provisions make Sweden a competitive home base for highly educated people wanting work life balance. She says in becoming a parent she felt supported by public policies that paid her to parent, by a workplace culture that supported her to mother and continue her PhD studies. She also appreciated an early childhood care and education system that provides quality affordable support, so that both parents can continue to work outside the home.
Despite Swedes being some of the happiest and most relaxed people in the world according to the annual World Happiness Report, they are also rated as being the most individualist by the World Values Survey. Tina believes this makes Swedes more insular, she feels she lacks a “village”. Growing up in Thailand, her own mother had the support and companionship of her family when Tina was small. Tina longs for this. Reflecting now her children are two and four years old, on parenting she says “In reality, it’s much harder. I didn’t know that you wouldn’t get to sleep”.
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