In Stockholm, men and their babies dominate the cityscape: strolling down sidewalks with take-out coffee in hand, tilting strollers onto buses, pushing swing sets, and doling out snacks.
As a non-Swede, unaccustomed to the generous Nordic paternity leave of two months or more, I’ve looked on with a degree of envy. My daughter, born in Mexico, got two days with her father before he had to return to work. Other foreigners visiting Sweden have apparently been so surprised they’ve failed to wrap their heads around it at all.
One Swedish technology executive who I interviewed for an upcoming magazine story on the "Nordic model" said a confused American colleague turned to him on a visit to the Swedish capital and asked, “What’s up with all the gay nannies?”
The question definitely earns its place in the annals of cultural assumptions and misunderstandings. But he’s not alone. The “Swedish gay nanny” theme (accompanied with the hashtag #ignorantAmericans) has made an appearance on Twitter. For Americans, who have some of the paltriest parental policies on the planet, it is apparently more logical that nannies – gay at that – would flock to northern Europe than that fathers doing what they are biologically intended to do: care for their young children.
“I think it says a lot more about Americans than it does Swedes,” says Richard Hall, a young Swede holding his 13-month-old daughter Martha in one hand, a coffee in the other, at a funky cafe in central Stockholm. He’s in the third month of the six-month leave he’s taken from his job as a development officer with the Swedish Air Force.
Mr. Hall’s partner stayed home for a year before returning to her work in retail. Now it's his turn, trading in his office desk for cafes, parks, swimming classes, and Kindermusik, until his daughter is a year and a half.
Swedish parents are entitled to a total of 480 days of paid parental leave between the two of them, which can be taken by the month, week, day, or even hour. Women take most of it, according to Swedish official figures (men took 24 percent of it in 2012). But 60 days are allocated specifically to each parent and are nontransferable, in large part as a push for gender equality.
Sweden, and the Nordic countries generally, are trailblazers on paternity leave, but the rest of the world is catching up. In France, as part of a new gender equality law debated in January, lawmakers have incentivized fathers to take more time off by implementing a use-it-or-lose-it policy that prevents those days from being transferred to mothers. Today, of the 540,000 French parents who take parental leave, only 18,000 are men.
Hall says baby activities in Stockholm are still dominated by moms: the makeup of a Kindermusik class is typically two-thirds women. But that beats France. We joined a parents' club in Paris that organizes mid-week activities for parents and children, but my husband, who stayed at home with our daughter until preschool started, eventually stopped going to events because he was literally the only dad, every time. We faced all kinds of immediate assumptions in Paris, when meeting new Americans and French alike, that we moved for his job and that I was staying home (though nobody assumed he was a gay nanny, as far as we know).
For Hall, the welfare benefit is a good solution to the childcare conundrum. But the real benefit is the bonding time with his daughter: seeing her first steps, hearing her first words, and myriad other firsts.
“I felt a strong connection to her before, but now it’s every day,” Hall says. The only downside: “She used to be so excited when I got home. Now I’m boring because I’m with her all the time.”
But she seems pretty content in his presence as he puts on her white knitted hat and tucks her into the brown sleeping bag zipped into her stroller. He blends into Stockholm’s wintry masses of men with child.