Privileged fathers feel the squeeze

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Dads in Norway have never had it so good. Armed with paternity leave benefits that rank among the best in the world, and social acceptance for taking advantage of them, Norwegian fathers are expected to play far more active roles in their children’s upbringing, but now they’re feeling the same pressure in striking a work-life balance that women have felt for years.

It's become increasingly common for men in Norway to take the full amount of paid paternity leave to which they're entitled, but some are also having trouble striking the right balance between home and work. PHOTO: Barne-, likestillings- og inkluderings departementet/regjeringen.no

It’s become increasingly common for men in Norway to take the full amount of paid paternity leave to which they’re entitled, but some are also having trouble striking the right balance between fulfilling obligations at home and work. PHOTO: Barne-, likestillings- og inkluderings departementet/regjeringen.no

Fathers in Norway are now entitled to 12 weeks of fully paid paternity leave, often with two extra weeks to take off after the birth. It is now more accepted than ever for them to take the entire period of lengthy leave – even government ministers have done so – and their job is protected for up to one year should they choose to be at home for longer. When fathers and mothers, who jointly share as many as 14 months off, return to work, their child is guaranteed a place in heavily subsidized day care.

But still they are not happy. A recent survey conducted by the labour federation YS last fall reveals that fathers in Norway, particularly those with children under the age of three, are struggling more with the issue of striking a balance between work and the rest of their lives than mothers.

Fathers in Norway certainly seem to “have it all,” with not only generous paternity leave, but also one of the shortest working weeks in Europe and with many also able to work flexible hours. There’s also a proposal to reduce the working week even further for parents with children under age three. Some dads interviewed recently  in newspaper Aftenposten, however, said they struggled to keep up with the “superman” image. They feel they now are expected to give “110 percent” both at work and at home, and sometimes end up feeling that they don’t give enough time to either.

One father, with a top managerial job, felt pulled in two directions: ” Sometimes I feel like I should be at home more, and sometimes when I’m at home I feel like I should be spending more time at work,” he said. Another,  working in advertising and communications, could feel similarly conflicted: “I can have a guilty conscience sometimes for pursuing my career, but at the same time feel like I’m not always doing enough at work. I don’t feel fully present when I come home either”.

Living two lives
Norwegian men are spending an increasing amount of time on housework (including childcare), an average six more hours per week than they did 12 years ago. Most are not, however, spending any less time at work. While four out of 10 Norwegian women work part-time, only one in 10 men do the same.

The survey actually revealed that, if one adds together job and housework, it is men who are now doing the most. Psychologist Frode Thuen, who writes about relationships for Aftenposten’s magazine “A“, says that modern dads, particularly highly educated city-dwelling dads, try to live up to an ideal of being as equal as possible in their relationships. Whereas the time squeeze used to be discussed most in relation to women, it now affects men to a greater and greater extent. “When both parties want to be present both at home and at work, it is harder to get everything to fall into place and find a balance. It’s about managing to live two lives simultaneously,” Thuen said.

Some gender roles persist
Tore Eugen Kvalheim, leader of The Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS) that carried out the survey, believes fathers are under greater pressure to achieve in the workplace. “More is still demanded of the father at work, even if people are perhaps not consciously aware of it,” he told Aftenposten. It is still more acceptable for women to leave early for a parent’s meeting, or stay at home to look after a sick child, to work part-time and to take an extended period of parental leave.

In Sweden it has now been suggested that families with two working parents and one or more children under three, should be able to work a 35-hour week, at full pay, offset by the state, to enable them to spend more time at home. YS in Norway is now looking into the even more generous possibility of a six-hour day for this group. YS believes, as discussed on their website, that it could lead to fewer women working part-time, as well as preventing fathers from doing too much overtime.

The proposal is part of a package of reforms currently being drafted and related to allowing employees to give their best at home and at work. They are being looked into as an alternative to the cash payment (kontantstøtte) that was until recently given to parents who stayed at home with their children up until the age of three instead of sending them to subsidized day care centers. It is now only given until the child turns two.

Top politicians take full paternity leave
Many fathers can also find it an unrealistic or impossible demand to take the full three months off work, particularly in the private sector. The leave is earmarked for them, so if they don’t take it, neither can the mother. They must use it, or lose it.

Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left party (SV) and a former government minister, took his "papa permission" despite the demands of his jobs. Perhaps he was setting an example for other men, but he insists that spending more time with his young children made him a better politician. The sign to the right promotes more equality goals to be reached by 2014. PHOTO: Barne-, likestillings- og inkluderings departementet/regjeringen.no

Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left party (SV) and a former government minister, took his “papa permission” despite the demands of his jobs. Perhaps he was trying to set an example for other men, but he insists that spending more time with his young children makes him a better dad and a better politician. The sign to right in the photo promotes more equality goals to be reached by 2014. PHOTO: Barne-, likestillings- og inkluderings departementet/regjeringen.no

It is, however, becoming more common in public sector jobs, with some top politicians and ministers publicly taking long periods off work.  Audun Lysbakken, current leader of the Socialist Left Party (SV), took four months paternity leave from his position at the time as Minister of Children and Equality. It is his party that now wants to increase the so-called “father’s quota” from 12 to 14 weeks.

Lysbakken faced a lot of flak from commentators for taking out nine weeks of paternity leave again during his first six months as party leader, at a time when his party was going through a difficult period. He hit back at critics, however, saying that it was “completely out-of-date to think that young children didn’t need their fathers,” and that it would be “a huge step backwards if it was just men with stay-at-home partners, people over 50, or those without children, who could take up jobs as leaders.”

He even claims that taking the leave has made him a better politician. When he meets colleagues in other European countries and tells them that he took four months paternity leave, they either laugh or don’t believe him. He told the Norwegian magazine Parent and Child (Foreldre og Barn) “while the men often look astonished, the women are impressed”.

It may be hard for fathers from the rest of the world to understand or sympathize with the time squeeze experienced by Norwegian dads. Paid paternity leave is something that most dads can only dream about, if they choose to. Aftenposten interviewed fathers from the UK, Italy and Russia about the paternity leave and childcare arrangements in their respective countries. In the UK, fathers are usually entitled to just two weeks of paid leave, right after the birth, at the discretion of their employers. They also have to face crippling day care costs amounting to around NOK 10,000 to 20,000 per month for a full-time nursery place, as opposed to around NOK 2,330 per month in Norway.

In Italy, although there are arrangements in place for paternity leave, nobody ever takes them, according to Alberto D’Leo, an Italian father of three. There are also arrangements in place for extended maternity leave, but women who take it can forget about promotion. In Russia it is usual for men to be higher earners than women, according to first-time father Vladislav Rydenko, so it therefore makes more economic sense for women to be at home with the children. It is highly unusual, although theoretically possible, for men to take out paternity leave.

Supporting family harmony at Opera Software
A group of journalists from Taiwan and a delegation from South Korea recently visited Norwegian company Opera Software in Oslo, reported newspaper Dagsavisen, because Opera Software started offering two weeks of fully paid “papa permission” to its employees all over the world. “The average age at our company is 32-33 years and we have marked a papa-boom lately,” Opera’s personnel boss Tove Selnes told Dagsavisen. “We hope our program can help spread equality, and make it easier for couples to share responsibility for their children.”

Perhaps next time dads in Norway are feeling particularly pressed, they should spare a thought for their counterparts in counties like the US, Japan, China, Ireland and India, all of whom are entitled to paid paternity leave of exactly zero days.

“We have had debates in Norway, and we complain that there are too few day care spots, and over how parental leave should be shared,” Selnes said. “But when we look at the rest of the world, we are in fact incredibly spoiled.”

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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