With U.S. Divorce Rates Soaring and Families Falling Apart, Sweden Has a Solution

Much of women’s equality and rights around the world rests on one thing: Parental leave.

Mary Kate Sheridan’s recent Huffington Post piece “Why Men Need to Leave Now” makes some really excellent points about maternity and paternity leave. Namely:

— Men who requested leave to care for a child were more likely to be demoted or downsized.

— Lack of paternity leave puts more pressure on moms to make sacrifices in their careers.

— When men refuse to take leave, the idea that childcare is a woman’s job is reinforced in the professional world, and as a result, women may experience lower income potential, fewer promotion opportunities, and limited career options.

The whole article reminded me of a piece — and a quote — from a 2010 New York Times article about parental leave in Sweden. In it, they discuss how increasingly flexible paid leave is changing the way that Sweden thinks about parenting and the roles of women and men in the home. 

“Society is a mirror of the family,” Mr. [Bengt] Westerberg [who long opposed quotas but as deputy prime minister phased in a first month of paternity leave in 1995] said. “The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share the parental leave is an essential part of that.”

AMEN, Bengt. Since enacting these laws, Sweden has found that companies have now come to expect employees to take parental leave, don’t penalize fathers come promotion time, women’s paychecks are benefiting, and many believe that an increase in fathers’ roles is perceived as playing a part in lower divorce rates and increased joint custody.

In the United States, there is no requirement for paid paternity or maternity leave. Instead, 12 weeks of unpaid leave is all that is required — which can be a huge burden on families who depend heavily on each paycheck. Unlike Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! CEO who announced that she would take an abbreviated leave after giving birth, most mothers cannot telecommute and pregnant workers can often be pushed out of the workplace. Mothers in Iraq get more paid leave than we do.

The American paid leave system as it stands right now is not conducive to a happy family, and by default, a happy society. If Americans adopted paid parental leave, instead of differentiating between mothers and fathers — or at the very least, insisted on mandatory paid leave to both parents even of differentiating lengths — we might see changes like Sweden’s, where women make more, families are happier, and leave is expected and paid generously as opposed to frowned upon.