Thursday, 21 January 2016
Do it like the Swedes
The Swedish attitude to equality, parenthood and chocolate puts us to shame, says Lucy Mangan. OK, she made up the bit about chocolate.
Sweden has already given us so very much. The Billy bookcase. Daim bars and, in consequence, Daim bar cake. Alexander Skarsgård. Abba. Pippi Longstocking. Thank you. And for Alexander Skarsgård, thank you very much indeed.
But Sweden is not content just adding to the sum of our superficial happinesses. No, Sweden offers us a chance to go deeper. If you’re a parent, particularly a working parent, and particularly if you’re a working mother, Sweden looks like the promised land.
So, for all of us currently looking in disbelief and through a veil of tears at our diaries, responsibilities, bank statements, childcare bills and other assorted horrors, here’s what my manifesto would look like if we channelled the Swedish spirit of equality and liberation for ourselves.
Lashings of parental leave...
We in the UK can take up to 12 months of shared parental leave (minus any maternity leave already taken). The first six weeks are paid at 90 per cent of your average weekly earnings, the other 33 at £139.58 a week or 90 per cent of your average weekly earnings, whichever is lower. Swedes get 16 months, with nearly 80 per cent of their normal pay for 13 months. I will compromise on 15 and a half months at 78 per cent.
...to spread like Lingonberry jam
Beware. I am about to blow your mind. You know those 16 months I mentioned above? Well in Sweden they can be taken at any time over the first eight years of your child’s life. That’s right. Roll that idea around for a moment. You don’t have to stay at home for the whole first year if you find that’s the most difficult and unrewarding bit, or if you have plenty of willing grandparental or other hands happy to help out with a little baby but without the energy to deal with a toddler.
You are free to save it for whenever you think it’s going to be most needed. Or you can keep some of it in the bank for if and when a crisis strikes. Maybe you’ll have to cope with a bereavement. Maybe your child will freak out about starting school and you will need to stay at home to guide him through it. Maybe any one of a thousand million other things.
When I – and admittedly I’m a natural catastrophist, but then again, show me a mother who isn’t – look down the barrel of the next eight years of potential disasters, I would kill to know that a few months of paid leave still had my back.
...with no stigma about using it
D’you know when we got shared parental leave in the UK? April. April 2015. D’you know when Sweden got it? 1974 – as befits, perhaps, a country that introduced maternity leave way back in 1901.
Men only took 0.5 per cent of all parental leave in that first year, but instead of just throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Well, we did what we could! It is what it is,’ the Swedish government added ‘daddy quotas’ (allowances allocated specifically to fathers on a use-it-or-lose-it basis) and other incentives to help even things out. Now nearly 90 per cent of Swedish dads take it.
The sight of men hanging out in coffee shops looking after babies and young children during the working week is so common that they have their own name – latte papas. Equality, by thy generation of lighthearted nicknames shall we know thee.
Free Daim bars
Or Creme Eggs or Dairy Milk if you want to be a touch more patriotic (though they’re all ultimately owned by the USA’s Kraft).
Sweden doesn’t actually have this. Yet. But it should. And it will. A country that sees the sense of spreading maternity leave across eight years will inexorably embrace all possible markers of civilisation.
Those of you still reeling from points 1-3 should either sit down or skip this one until you’re feeling better. Childcare in Sweden is capped at three per cent of family income. Households rarely pay more than £113 a month. UK parents pay an average of £848, at least until their 15 hours of free childcare kicks in at (usually) three. Then it becomes slightly less completely crippling.
Sex with Mr. Skarsgård
Or professional lookalikes. Again, not quite introduced in Sweden yet, but see Free Daim Bars reasoning. Working mothers don’t have time to mess about. Just as they need swift, reliable recipes, washing machines and broadband via which to download extra Shaun the Sheep on a rainy day, so they need swift, reliable, effective penetration. Tall, blond, lightly muscled men shall provide.
And, while we’re at it, why not saunas as well? Ta.
Anti-sexism training from preschool
No, really. This is not a wind-up. I checked. It’s what they have in Sweden, along with gender advisers in schools, ready to leap on wayward pronouns and embedded biases. It’s like Baa Baa Green Sheep and chalkboards but for social constructions associated with our biological sex. Yeah?
You can go too far with this kind of stuff, obviously. But I’ve put it in because I’m fed up with being surrounded by sexist pigs on the street, the train, in the office and beyond. Clearly we need to be hitting harder, faster and younger. So bring me your hippy nonsense. It’s all the hope we have left.
An IKEA on every corner
I bloody love Ikea. I love it as a self-employed freelance writer – I can wander round, be in a crowd yet not have to speak to anyone and break the working/thinking mood, have coffee and a slice of delicious apple and cinnamon cake that won’t cost as much as I’ll earn scribbling at the table while I eat it.
I loved it as a new mum: it has everything you need for warming bottles, changing nappies etc when you’ve forgotten half the basics because you don’t yet know they are the basics.
And I love it as the mother of a toddler because of the space, the calmness (which works on him like a drug) and the cup of coffee, glass of milk and slice of delicious apple and cinnamon cake between us at the end which won’t cost half the fee I didn’t earn because I was looking after him instead of working.
More women in power
At one point our Cabinet had more men from a single college of a single university than it did women in total. What’s the Swedish for ‘Piss-poor effort all round,’ I wonder? Sweden has 24 government ministers and 13 of them are women. Of course it’s no guarantee that, therefore, the views of working mothers or any other section of the female demographic will be represented, but... I know which odds I’d like to play. And who I’d feel happier about handing my taxes to.
Knowing what is important...
...and what isn’t. Sweden seems to have an enviable ability to keep the good and discard the bad. Take the Viking heritage. ‘I have seen the Norsemen as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itl,’ said one medieval Arab traveller to the Scandinavian land. ‘I have never seen such perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy.’
They kept the looks, and packed in all the pillaging and marauding. Went in for high taxation and standard of living instead. Gave the world Pippi Longstocking instead of Peppa flipping Pig. Came fourth instead of 26th (the UK’s pathetic position) in last year’s World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap survey of women’s participation in the workplace, pay, political employment, health and education.
Nice. Very nice. Let’s have a bit of that.