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David Freed writes about what an eye-opening experience it’s been moving to Stockholm and getting to grips with a Nordic style of parenting.
On coming to Sweden I expected there to be more dads out and about with their kids. Nearly all dads here take substantial chunks of parental leave, and cultural expectations dictate that men and women should be equal at home and in the workplace.
But I wasn’t prepared for just how different it would be to the UK.
In an attempt to make new friends and get my son playing with other kids, we’ve started going to ‘open pre-schools’ around Stockholm. These are similar to play groups in that they have pre-school activities, but each kid has a parent with them and you can just turn up (with coffee, tea and cakes included).
The thing that shocked me most about these open pre-schools was the distribution of mums and dads joining in at these coffee gatherings, full of chat, baby-songs and playdough.
In my book I wrote about the ‘paternity gap’ and showed how many dads in the UK want to spend more time with their babies, but they are pushed away from doing it in practice. There are still surprisingly few new dads in the UK taking parental leave (3%) and British dads are spending much less weekday time looking after their kids than they want to.
At one open pre-school I attended with my son, the singalong leader did something I wish had been done more when I was in London. He said that we should change the words of one of the songs a little because one sex of parents was a little under-represented and he wanted to make them feel more welcome.
There were 9 parents in the group. The happy singing guy leading the circle time swapped the word ‘pappa’ for ‘mamma’. There were only 2 mums in the room, and reminiscent of the reverse situation I’ve been in in the UK too many times, only 1 of the mums was there ‘on her own’, as the other one had a dad there ‘to look after the baby’.
And this isn’t unusual. Every time I go to open pre-schools or library story-times now dads outnumber mums.
Another feature of the small kid landscape of Stockholm are ‘parkleks’, which are essentially playgrounds with staff, bicycles and a hut for messy play (and free coffee and cakes inside – yes there is a theme of subsidised snacking for parents). At nearly every parklek you’ll notice again that at least a small majority of the parents will be dads.
In the book we found a lot of dads were put-off the weekday tot-social scene as being too full of sing-alongs and tea-time chats. ‘Stuff really for the mums’.
But here I am, in a cozy hut on the edge of a park in Stockholm drinking coffee, eating buns, and chatting to a bunch of other men about how hilarious it is when toddlers miserably fail in their attempts to play hide-and-seek (whilst stopping our kids from eating the playdough). Ain’t nothin’ unmanly about this.
And yet. There may be a lot more equality in the Nordic countries when it comes to parental responsibilities, but dads are still not in the lead when it comes to time with the kids.
Is it because dads just enjoy chasing their tiny people across trampolines and slides more than mums? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain the larger number of dads in the coffee chatting groups.
A Swedish friend of mine says the reason is simple. If you attend the baby-massage, breastfeeding and burping groups, there are a lot more mums. Because parents are likely to split their parental leave, the mums in most cases take the first chunk, and the dads the second, once the tots are on solids and crawling/walking.
I don’t know about anyone else, but when my son was first born, our lives were turned so upside-down, that we struggled to leave the house for weeks. My wife got out a lot less with the little guy because the shock, sleep deprivation and the knowledge that he wouldn’t appreciate really anyway all held her back from leaving the house.
But when it came to my six months, the boy was on the verge of crawling. He slept better and it was getting way more fun to watch him freak because a light changed colour or someone started strumming a guitar. In short, the older the babies are, the more you want to take them out and show them shit.
Naturally if dads are taking the second half of the parental leave, they’re going to be filling up the open pre-schools and parkleks.
So in answer to the question we ask in Sweden: where are all the mums? They’re either at the baby-massage courses, or they’re at work, providing for their family whilst their partner does his natural duty of raising the kid.