Before I embarked on my travel and study in Europe as an American Marshall Memorial Fellow, I re-read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s controversial cover story “Why Women Can’t Have It All” from the July 2012 issue of the Atlantic. Slaughter—Professor of Political and International Affairs at Princeton University, former Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, and Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs—shared her thoughts on the current challenges facing working mothers and parents. While Slaughter acknowledges the substantial progress women have made since her mother’s (and grandmother’s) generations, she concludes that “we must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our [family] choices.”
I believe Sweden has done just that.
The cornerstone of Sweden’s progressive social contract is its parental leave policy. Many European countries have paid policies that are far more generous than the non-existent policy of the United States, but Sweden’s policy goes even further. In Sweden, paid leave is just the beginning of a solid foundation for mothers (and fathers) to balance work and parenthood. For each child, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid leave (ranging from 80-90% of one’s full salary). The days can be split among both parents, and can be used up until the child is eight years of age. During our MMF trip, we met with a member of the Swedish parliament. She shared that her husband decided to work a shortened work week when their son was age six to be able to spend more time with him before he entered formal school.
Such a luxury is almost impossible in the United States.
Beginning at age one, quality pre-school and day care opportunities are available to Swedish citizens. While there is a cost, it is greatly offset by the per child government stipend received by parents. This is compared to the cost of child care in the United States, which averages $972 per month, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. According to the Skolverket, the National Agency for Education in Sweden, the aims of early childcare are both to support children’s development and learning, and to enable parents to combine parenthood with employment or studies. More than 80% of all Swedish children are enrolled in pre-school or daycare. This allows Swedish parents to continue pursuing their careers and studies.
The result: in Sweden, parents do not fear being penalized for leaving the workplace while their children are young. They can leave with confidence, know that they can re-enter the workforce at a later date.
One of the many challenges faced by parents in the United States is that our current school day, created during a predominantly agrarian era does not match with today’s work day. This leaves working parents with a gap to fill each afternoon. In Sweden, however, social services do not end after infanthood. Once a child enters school, lunch is provided to each student regardless of socio-economic status, and after-school care is provided by leisure-time centers. Sweden has a low cost system in place to assist. In a meeting with Anna Ljungdell, the mayor of Nynäshamm, a small town utside of Stockholm, she shared with us MMFs that there was no way she would have been able to have her career without these systems in place.
In short, the citizens of Sweden believe they have the right to child care, education, and the ability to have a career. While I believe most Americans would passionately argue they have the same rights, our current system does not demonstrate these values. I agree with Slaughter: Americans must change our social and workplace policies to reflect a real commitment to families.
Mary Barr, Executive Director of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, is a Fall 2012 Marshall Memorial Fellow.