An American-in-Norway I know was coming back into Norway after traveling abroad and was nervous because her residency visa had expired. She had not yet received her new visa in the mail and was traveling with only a paper from her local police station attesting to her permanent residence. At customs, an official started questioning her about her paperwork. He appeared distracted and it worried her that he seemed to not really be listening to her answers. She was traveling with a small baby and feared what kind of hassle and delay might await her.
But her anxiety turned to relief when the customs official began, with more urgency, another line of questioning:
“Is that a Manduca baby carrier you’re using?”
When she replied that it was, he began to barrage her with questions about how she liked it, about the different ways of wearing it, and so on. He had just ordered one for himself and was glad to compare notes with someone who was already using one. With that, he welcomed a relieved, and slightly amused, mother and child back to Norway.
As anyone who’s taken BLS 385: American Motherhood knows, Scandinavian men are known for being more hands-on fathers than men are anywhere else in the world. Not to knock the participation of American dads (see own our Jay Parr’s baby-wearing profile picture), but thanks to the world’s most generous paternity and maternity benefits, Scandinavian men have a considerable advantage when it comes to being able to take time to bond with and care for their children in those critical early months of parenthood. According to studies discussed in Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, this bonding often means that Scandinavian fathers are more likely to be more actively involved throughout their children’s lives, even if the parents separate.
After leading discussions on the Crittenden readings every term, I was anxious to see how parenting in Scandinavia looked on the ground, firsthand. The first thing one notices is that the number of men pushing strollers on the city streets—alone or in pairs—is far greater than what you will see anywhere in the US. But less immediately visible is the difference greater paternal participation makes for Norwegian mothers. Does more equality necessarily mean radically better conditions for Norwegian mothers compared to their American counterparts, as we often assume in BLS 385?
There’s no question Norway’s generous leave benefits help families with small children, particularly in the first year of parenthood. One parent can receive either 100% of his/her salary for 47 weeks or 80% for 57 weeks after the birth of a child. Twelve of these weeks must be used by the father, but parents cannot use their leave at the same time (see more here). This system provides both parents the opportunity to bond with the child and develop parenting skills without the added stress of having to balance the demands of the workplace at the same time.
Yet, it’s also apparent to me that after this first year, the decision whether to become a stay-at-home parent or to put one’s child in daycare and return to work is no less controversial in Norway than it is in the US. Perhaps the only difference is how many men involve themselves in the debate.
Most childcare in Norway takes place in “barnehage” (which translates to kindergarten, but they are structured more like US daycare centers). It is not as common here, at least in the cities, for children to be cared for by family members or in a home daycare setup. Due in part to a push from the government to get more taxpaying Norwegians working, and working more hours, more Norwegian children are spending more time in barnehage at a younger age. 60,000 new barnehage slots have been added across the country in the last 8 years. While 44% of children under the age of two went to barnehage ten years ago, columnist Susanne Kaluza writes that now that number is 80%.
Because quality childcare is so widely available (and all parents are eligible to receive government stipends to help pay for it, regardless of income), there is considerable social pressure on mothers who would choose to stay home with their young children. Once your baby is over a year old, he or she belongs in barnehage, one argument goes, where he or she will learn the collective values of Norwegian society. In her most recent editorial, responding to criticism of stay-at-home mothers from the newly-elected leader of Norway’s largest labor organization, Kaluza writes that only 4% of Norwegian women between the ages of 20 and 66 stay at home. As she exposes the absurdity of the claim that mothers leaving the workforce to ‘bake and decorate’ is a worrying ‘trend’ in the Norwegian labor force, Kaluza insists that, in Norway, “the housewife is dead.” Compulsory working parenthood is clearly the recent dominant trend in Norway.
In the steady debate in the local newspaper since late February, editorials from both mothers and fathers argue that children start barnehage too young and are deprived of critical time at home as the state seeks to increase its income tax base, potentially at children’s expense. The barnehage, meanwhile, defensively argue that babies enjoy barnehage and proper methods are in place to help them adjust to the change from their parents’ care to public daycare.
Often the debate is framed as a matter of barnehage quality or child-caregiver ratios, but from where I sit, it is clearly a problem of choice. It seems the problem is the same here as it is in the American “Mommy Wars”: the need to push a ‘one solution fits all’ answer rather than giving parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their family.
Lastly, it bears asking: is Scandinavian culture really so different from our own when these debates are still framed around mothers’ participation in the workforce? As Kaluza points out, many of these Norwegian women are rushing back to jobs where they face the same gender gap in earnings that American women struggle to overcome. An abundance of stroller-pushing dads and a sweet maternity leave check are all well and good, but they can also distract from larger, persistent issues of gender equality and family choice.