Earlier this week I shared a personal essay on the feminist librarian reads by Nathan Hegedus, an American man living with his Swedish wife and two young children in Sweden. The essay describes the culture of parental leave and childcare in Sweden, his own changing relationship to the idea of family leave, and the way the Swedish economy has adapted to government-mandated leave time for parents with young children. While I don’t think top-down enforcement of new norms is always the best way to go, in this case the passing of legislation meant that the workplace was forced to adapt to the modern reality that workers do not exist in a vacuum, and that sometimes the needs of families require job flexibility. The fact that employers providing family leave time are actually following the law means that both employers and employees are supported in creating an environment in which workers are guaranteed leave (and their jobs upon return) and employers are encouraged to find solutions to the question of staffing while their regular employees are away caring for family members.
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.
. . . 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.
While Hegedus is focused here on the needs of parents with young children, and the social change providing these parents with support has wrought in Sweden, I think it’s important to think about how the lessons learned in Sweden (and other countries with strong social welfare policy) can be applied beyond the realm of parenting and care of young children. The elder-care of parents, for example, which will become an increasing issue as the baby boomer generation ages and the social safety net enjoyed by many of their parents no longer exists. The care of spouses and partners with mental or physical health issues, for another, is important to recognize.
The needs of parents and dependent children are (superficially, I would argue) an “easy sell” in a culture that pretends to champion young people and their caregivers. Yet the creation of an economic culture that successfully supports the well-being of workers (and, thus, increases productivity and the potential for innovation) needs to include all of us, whether we have the responsibility to care for dependents or not. Advocating such comprehensive change in the way we think about “work” vs. “life” as a society also puts an end to the parents-vs-non-parents friction that develops, in feminist circles at least, when we begin to talk about support for working parents. Single people and people with no children often feel like this conversation privileges the “choice” of people with children by allowing them extra time away from work that, as persons who will never have children, they are not offered. As parenting is increasingly seen as a freely-chosen lifestyle (rightly or wrongly), parental leave becomes yet one more policy issue dividing caregivers of the young from others.
Instead of running with this limited view of “parental leave,” we need to start talking more holistically about care and the needs of all human beings to give and recieve care, regardless of age, of physical or mental ability, or of their position within family systems. And we need to think about how that care can be incorporated into (and ultimately benefit, or at least not weaken) the modern work environment that dictates so much of the rhythm of our daily lives.