In the United States, we talk a lot about maternity leave—what in Norway is called “mammaperm.” This is not surprising given that many women in the U.S. are not entitled to any maternity leave, and those who are, are only statutorily entitled to twelve weeks unpaid—which means that as a practical matter, many of them won’t be able to take it. Even women with “cushy” white-collared jobs whose employers provide leave may be limited to three months paid, half of which is covered by disability insurance. (Because recovering from giving birth is NOT easy, making it shocking to me that 23% of women in the U.S. are back at work within two weeks of giving birth.)
When Norwegians lament parental leave policies, in contrast, they are more likely to focus on “pappaperm”—i.e., paternity leave. Because while it is provided (and indeed mandated) in many cases, it just isn’t long enough. At least that was the feeling of the fathers at a birthday party that we attended shortly after arriving in Oslo.
Overview of Parental Leave in Norway
In most circumstances, mothers and fathers in Norway are each entitled to parental leave of ten weeks. In addition, they “share” 26-36 additional weeks. As a result, one parent should be home until the child is almost one year of age. At that point, she is legally entitled to a barnehage spot. Alternatively, the family may be entitled to financial assistance until the child turns two.
But if you ask a father in Norway, the shared portion is rarely truly shared. In addition to legal restrictions on men taking the “shared” portion, the culture hasn’t caught up with the law. As a result, while a man might be legally entitled to the shared portion of the parental leave, exercising his right to it may be viewed negatively by his employer. And while he might not be fired for taking it, doing so can have a negative impact on his future opportunities.
My gripe: Some fathers in Norway don’t get any paternity leave
One of the “rudest awakenings,” about our move to Oslo was the realization that while the benefits here are significantly better than what the vast majority of people in the U.S. are entitled to, many weren’t as good for us. Case in point: paternity leave.
In the U.S., where individual companies determine parental leave policies, there are significant differences between the haves and have-nots. The haves are for the most part white-collar workers. And the subset of white-collar workers with the best benefits? Tech workers, who commonly are entitled to three months of parental leave. And they are entitled to it even if their partner is an uncompensated homemaker.
In Norway, on the other hand, the government provides parental leave benefits, and if the mother is not employed, the father is not entitled to paternity leave. (Although I’ve heard that he is entitled to two weeks off.)
The result? Since I’m a trailing spouse who is unlikely to obtain employment in Norway, if we have another child my husband won’t be entitled to any paternity leave, in contrast to the three months paid leave he would receive if we were still in the United States.
What does this mean for children and families?
First the good news:
Paternity leave is not only good for fathers and babies, it is also good for moms! Around the time we moved to Norway, a comic about the “mental load” that mothers typically bear (since it is usually mothers, not fathers, who are responsible for setting up doctor’s appointments, cleaning the house, etc.) was circulating on Facebook. The general sense in an international mothers group I’m part of was that while the problem exists here to some extent, it is not nearly as pronounced as it is elsewhere. And that one of the big reasons for that is pappaperm.
You see, not only does pappaperm help women get back to work, it provides fathers with the “opportunity” to manage most aspects of household and family management for a (short) period. With the mother at work all day, the father usually will be expected to cook dinner and (try to) keep the house tidy. In many cases, this will make “helping” after they return to work more natural, with the more equitable division of labor easing marital tensions and increasing mothers’ satisfaction. At a minimum, it lets fathers experience what their spouses “do all day” when they aren’t at work. Suddenly, the fact that the laundry hasn’t been hung to dry and there are dishes in the sink makes more sense than it would if they had never had the experience of caring for an infant while also trying to maintain the house.
Now the not-so-good news:
As the complaints of those fathers at the birthday party made clear, many (perhaps most) fathers want to spend more time with their young children. For these fathers, the system is preventing them from fully participating in the care and nurturing of their babies. This is true whether they get ten weeks of leave, or zero.
But perhaps more importantly, the policy is not very sensitive to the needs of babies. As one book I recently read emphatically argued, fathers matter. Babies benefit from having a close bond with their fathers, and fathers even play a unique role in child development. For example? Fathers have a greater impact on a baby’s language development than mothers. (This does not surprise me one bit. As a general matter, Fernando speaks to L in Spanish, while I talk to L in English. But despite not hearing more Spanish than English on a weekly basis, when L was 18 months old, his Spanish was significantly stronger than his English.) And they are more likely than mothers to encourage their kids to take risks, which helps ease the transition to school and minimize behavioral problems (even when their kids reach adolescence).
So, what does this mean?
It means that those fathers at the party were right to be concerned. While the Norwegian system seems glorious for us from the United States, there’s room for improvement. Especially if the government’s concerns extend beyond women’s participation in the workforce to include the development of the next generation.
That said, as irritating as it is to me that Fernando probably wouldn’t be entitled to parental leave in Norway, moving back to the United States isn’t really the answer. Yes, he might get paternity leave there, but we’d miss out on plenty more, including high-quality and inexpensive childcare. So maybe in the long-run, even the über-privileged among us come out ahead in this more egalitarian system.
If you are in a two-parent household, did both of you take parental leave? If not, why not?