In my first post about having kids in Sweden, I laid out the basic benefits of having babies in Sweden: generous parental leave; chances for social connection while home with a baby; affordable, high-quality daycare, and more. Now, I want to lay out a theory I’m developing about the benefits of the generous parental leave policy.
Here in Sweden, parents split 480 days of parental leave. For the first year to year-and-a-half, a baby is usually in the care of one of his parents. What I am most interested in, however, are the early weeks, from birth to about six months. While we know this is great for babies (assuming a loving, supportive, and supported mother), I think we tend to undervalue how important this time is for the mother. I think being able to spend the early months with a new baby, without the pressure of returning to work within weeks, allows a woman to orient more deeply to herself as a mother, allows her to orient to the new size and shape of her family, and allows her to orient herself as a valid and valued member of society. In contrast, I think that in the US, when a woman has to return to work within weeks of having a baby—whether she wants to or not—a woman disorients from her role as a mother, disorients from the new configuration of the family, and disorients from her role as a valued member of society.
Maternity Leave in the United States
It’s well-known that the US has the worst maternity leave policy in the world (for some great graphics illustrating this, see here and here). With no national maternity leave policy, women are usually left at the mercy of their employers, some of whom offer a maternity policy, most of whom do not. Those who do are often granted only about twelve weeks (or less), meaning the baby has to be left at daycare at the vulnerable age of three months. This is when the first major disorientation of a new mother’s life occurs: while she is recovering from birth, figuring out the intricacies of breastfeeding, trying to bond with her baby, and often run a household while her partner is out of the house more than forty hours per week, she must also figure out how to pump breastmilk (in addition to nursing around the clock), and arrange care for her child. When she returns to work, she has to manage being productive (and awake) despite the likelihood of suffering sleep deprivation.
Instead of having the time and space to orient herself to her new role as a mother, a woman hands off her baby to someone else for care, and, if she is still nursing, attaches herself to a mechanical pump to extract milk from her breasts at regular intervals. This process can be extremely disorienting, as she is forced into a split role—mother on the one hand, professional on the other—before she has had the ability to establish herself firmly in the mother role. I have heard many women say that those early weeks of dropping off the baby and going to work were incredibly harrowing emotionally. They’ve sat at their desks, or in the bathroom, in tears, feeling torn apart by leaving the baby when they’d rather be home with him/her.
(Of course, it must be said that some women experience no conflict with this and are thrilled to go back to work at this stage, either missing their professional identity or have tired of the drudgery of caring for a newborn. I’ve spoken with a number of women who felt this way, and they were happy to return to work but then come home to their role as mother. While I haven’t read any statistics on this, I sense that this is more the exception than the rule.)
The second disorientation occurs as the family transitions from utilizing energy to bond and function as a family and meet each member’s new needs, to being a logistical machine with rather unwieldy cogs (car seats, anyone?) that schedules drop-off and pick-up, that washes and fills bottles and packs them up, that lives not necessarily on bodily time but on corporate time. Rather than the family focusing inward on its new formation and figuring out what that looks like and how it functions, the comings and goings and interactions of the family are determined largely by the logistics of getting everyone clean, fed, and to and from the appropriate daytime locations at the appropriate times.
The final disorientation comes as the mother attempts to orient herself back into society as a valued and productive member. If she goes back to work, she is often viewed as an unloving mother who doesn’t understand (or care about) what is best for her children; if she quits her job to stay at home with a baby, she is often viewed as either a martyr or a woman with no personal identity or internal locus of self-worth. In the US, whether a woman returns to work or stays at home, it is often viewed as a political statement, as well as a statement against all mothers who made the other choice. American society just doesn’t quite know what to do with mothers, be they working mothers or stay-at-home mothers: whether to praise or berate them for their choices. So it usually does a lot of both.
Parental Leave in Sweden
Parental leave in Sweden (as outlined above and here) is a different matter altogether. With well over a year of paid time off (and the guarantee of the same (or a better) job at the end of leave), women (and men) are given the time, space, and support necessary to orient fully into their role as mother.
The early weeks with a newborn are always hard, but in Sweden a mother has more opportunity to ease (maybe that’s not quite the right word =) ) into her role. She’s not worried about pumping and bottle feeding, about fitting into her work wardrobe within a small number of weeks, about getting the baby immediately onto an optimum sleep schedule so that she can be rested for work. Rather, she’s more able to attend to her baby’s needs—and her own—without these outside worries. She’s more able to sink into her own routine with the baby, something that feels right for her and her child. She can be more present and available to her baby—and again, to herself—because she’s less likely to be worried about the logistics of returning to work. In Sweden it is common to take long walks with the baby in the stroller, in all seasons, which allow the baby nap and the mother to get exercise and time outside, both of which are crucial to mental health.
Secondly, a new mother can orient to her family when she has generous leave. With the family not focused on getting everyone out of the house every morning and being separated all day, more time and energy are available for the family to simply be together. A family has more time to figure out how it works together, how the new or changed parts fit in with the old, how the rhythms and routines of daily life change, and with them, each member’s relationship with the other members. Parents have more time to figure this out, and to orient to their new status with each other (there’s mounting evidence that the first year after a new baby is a time of great conflict for spouses). Not that there aren’t difficulties or this isn’t a stressful time in Sweden, but I’d argue that it is significantly less so than in the US.
In Sweden, a woman rarely has to choose between being a working mother or a stay-at-home mother. The job she left will be waiting for her after her maternity leave. Even while she’s a mom, she’s still a professional; she’s just taking a break from the job to be with her baby, and then when she returns to work, she is usually respected as both a mother and a professional. She’s not expected to prioritize work before her kids—and in fact, neither are fathers.
As I wrote in this post, parents often pick up their kids from daycare around 3pm, and by law employees can request to work only 75% while their children are young, so that parents can be more available for and spend more time with their kids. It’s not uncommon for parents to bring babies to work and even to meetings if necessary. Society generally accepts that parents must be available to take care of their kids, and that families ought to spend time together. Thus, a woman can more comfortably hold her role as both mother and professional, a valued and productive member of a family as well as a valued and productive member of society.
The parental leave system in Sweden is ultimately one that orients women into their new role as mother, situated in a family and in society. Conversely, the lack of a cohesive and extended parental leave policy in the US often creates a deeply disorienting experience for a new mother as she struggles to adjust to her new role before rushing back to work—if she is allowed maternity leave at all.
And yes, the respective leave policies of these countries have great impacts on fathers, too—a post for the future. =)
I’m curious about your experience. Where did you give birth? How much time did you have for maternity leave, if any? Was it enough? Were you eager to get back to work or did you want to stay home longer?