Swedish Dads: Photos capture the magic of family friendly policies

The photos that capture the magic of Sweden’s family friendly policies

Can you imagine being paid 80% of your salary for nine months after having a child? Can you now imagine your partner also being paid 80% of his or her salary for the second nine months of that child’s life?

Or, being entitled to take nine months off at any stage in the first 8 years of your child’s life and be paid 80% of your salary?

Can you imagine when you both return to work that you can spend $200 a month for your child to attend good quality childcare five days a week?

When you consider Australia offers 18 weeks’ paid parental leave to one carer at the minimum wage and that childcare costs upwards of $150 a day in capital cities it is impossible to consider without crying.

As far-fetched as it seems this imagined scenario is not hypothetical: it exists in the family friendly utopia that is Sweden.

Up to a monthly maximum, for 390 of the days, Swedish parents are entitled to nearly 80 per cent of their normal pay. The remaining 90 days are paid at a flat rate and those who are not in employment are also entitled to paid parental leave, which can be taken up until a child turns eight.

Outside 480 paid days of leave, Swedish parents have the legal right to reduce their normal working hours by up to 25 per cent until the child turns eight.

Can you even imagine?

Three months of Sweden’s paid parental leave is attached to the father so if he doesn’t take it, the family loses it. It means that unlike in Australia where 1 in 50 fathers take extended parental leave 77% of Swedish fathers do.

Part of the glory of these policies has been captured by a photographer Johan Bavman, in an exhibition called Swedish Dads. Bavman, who is a father of two who has just returned from his second long stint of parental leave, photographed 25 fathers in Sweden who chose to spend at least six months at home with their babies.

The exhibition is in Sydney this month as a joint undertaking between the Swedish Institute, the Embassy of Sweden in Canberra, Parents at Work and supporting partners.

A quick glance at the stunning portraits is enough to understand why Fairfax Media columnist Jess Irvine describes the images as “practically porn” for stressed working mothers.

The photos of men immersed in the mess of domesticity – feeding, cooking, laundering, shopping, toilet training with children and babies in tow – are divine and the fathers’ comments about parenthood are compelling.

“I’ve earned confidence as a father, understanding for my partner, and stronger ties to my children”: 38 year old Johan Ekengard, product developer.

“With me at home we lose money but on the other hand we gain time together which will be priceless in the future”: 33 year old John Wallin, mechanical engineer.

“Becoming a father is not something you do overnight”: 33 year old Marksu Bergqvist , musician. 

“If i can’t be with my kids now, when will i find the time to be with them?” 34 year old Murat Saglamoglu, Arts programmer. 

“It’s women who are the real fighters and i’ve really started to understand my own mother since being home with the kids”: 33 year old Said Mekahal, section manager.

What Bavman says is most striking, is that images of mothers in the same setting don’t evoke the same reaction: caring is the work mothers have been doing for hundreds of years and are still expected to fulfil.

Changing this dynamic is critical to the advancement of women and is the reason Bavman wanted to explore the experience of fathers staying home and how their relationships with their partners and their children has changed.

At an event in Sydney on Tuesday, Creating Family Friendly Workplaces of the Future, part of the Swedish Dads Photography Exhibition, I had the opportunity to interview three men about their work/life balance, fatherhood and leaning in at home. A panel with three men taking about “having it all”? Hold me! It happened.

Johan Bavman, the chief operating officer of Gilbert + Tobin Sam Nickless and the Executive Director of Research at WGEA, Andrew McMahon and the CEO of Parents at Work Emma Walsh formed the panel.

The men spoke about their own work and family arrangements: the mistakes they have made, the stuff they have got right,  what fatherhood means and how to lead a family friendly workplace.

McMahon took a year off when his daughter was born 10 years ago and so did his then-wife. “It seemed fair: why would she take a year off and I wouldn’t?”

“I wanted to be a parent as much as my partner did so we have shared it,” Bavman says.

Nickless was frank about the fact his first experience of fatherhood was very traditional: he went to work and his wife stayed at home with the kids. His marriage broke down and in his new relationship he and his partner share the caring more equally.

It has made him far more cognisant of the familial responsibilities that his team shoulder.

As refreshing as it was to hear men discuss the realities of blending work and family, – and it really was – it was hard to shake the realisation that without substantive structural change the dial won’t shift.

Bavman was quick to point out that Sweden isn’t perfect – that there is still a gender gap and work to do even there. But the backdrop to that is established policies that are so family friendly and progressive that it is fanciful for us to even dream of.

Swedish Dads is a reminder that there is chasm between Sweden and Australia that it is difficult to see us bridging.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox