Sweden: on the road to answers for working parents

Even if you have heard about it for years, it comes as a bit of a surprise to meet face to face with Scandinavian men and women who have shed the old roles that most of us find comfortable.

And so it was with Bengt, who is in his early 30s. He was traveling from Stockholm to a summer cottage in southern Sweden to take over over the care of his three- year- and 10-month old childnre while his wife returns to her job in Uppsala. He'll stay south until their new apartment is ready for them.

Not the taking care of toddlers is new to Bengt. When his little girl was born last August, hiw wife took a six-month leave from her teaching job. Come February, though, father took over and stayed home full time with his two youngsters until May.

"I liked the February to May time," he recalled as he sat in the cafe car of the Swedish train. "Exciting things happened every day with the children."

Bengt and his wife take full advantage of the Swedish national parents' insurance that provides for paying a child-care allowance for up to 12 months if either parent stays home.

Although he has been studying law part time as well as working half time, Bengt now has doubts about a law career, which he said would take too much work time. "I have my role in my family to fulfill," he explained.

Across the train's cafe table, Gunilla, also in her 30s, said that much like Bengt, she is headed south to where her husband has been tending to their two children, ages three and five, while she worked an additional week.

"the role of women has changed a lot in Sweden?" this reporter asked Gunilla.

"but the role of men has changed," Bengt interjected. "You can't compare the role I have with the role of my father."

Gunilla recalled that her father had decided that, at the age of about 16, she should stop going to school. "My father said it was enough education for me ," she said, laughing at the notion. She stayed in school and is now a physiotherapist in a Stockholm hospital where she works six hours a day under Swedish law, which allows parents of young children to work a shortened schedule. Her husband works full time.

"If both husband and wife work full time and have children, I don't think it would b good for family life," she said.

Bengt agreed, but he maintained that it's best if both parents work part time. "We have in Sweden the legal possibility for this, but in the mind it does not seem possible. The first step is having the legal possibility, though. If we didn't have that, there would be no chance at all to change attitudes."

To be sure, Swedes are far from satisfied with their progress toward sexual equality. Karin Andersson, minister for equality between men and women, told the United Nations World Conference on Women in Copenhange in July, "Nearly 75 percent of all Swedish women are gain- fully employed. But still the labor market remains sharply segregated."

Women make up the bulk of the work force in service and care jobs, while three- fourths of the workers in manufacturing are men. And although the leave is named "parental," officials point out that usually it's the woman who takes the time off work. Still, the numbers of fathers like Bengt is going up, said Ms. Andersson.

The Swedish official told the Monitor in an interview in Copenhagen that the advantage for society is that "both men and women are developing both sides of themselves," as women move into the work force and politics and men into child care.

However, she conceded that the equality movement has also created adjustment problems. "I have been very much aware of the children," she said. In its zest , the movement to put women into the jobs also put children into day-care programs for too much time -- as long as 12 hours a day, she said. "We know that isn't good." The mistake was trying to mold women into the old male positions instead of making both sexes changes, she explained.

So the Swedes have turned to the workplace to try to make it fit better with

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