#14 Latte Pappa: On Swedish Parental Leave

I’m currently on parental leave. Two months at home over the summer to help care for my two-year-old and newborn baby.

English friends think this is incredible: taking two months off to look after your kids is almost unheard of for dads in the UK.

Swedish friends, by contrast, think that two months is suspiciously short: “Only two months? Do you hate your kids?”.

‘Latte pappa’ describes a certain kind of Swedish dad on parental leave. They are easily recognisable. Sunglasses, casual shirt, cargo shorts, one hand pushing the toddler’s buggy and the other carrying coffee. Meeting friends for lunch, and working hard through the summer on that golden pram tan.

As a Brit I am faking it completely – for starters, I don’t drink coffee. In any case there are several excellent ‘English dad does Swedish parental leave’ (like this one from The Guardian), so I won’t rehash those here.

Instead I want to explain how the famous Swedish parental leave is part of a broader system, and what that system means.

The system has three parts:

  1. Parental leave is generous (480 days)
  2. Sharing the leave between both parents is expected
  3. Childcare is very cheap (£6/day for us at present)

This combination makes Sweden more parent-friendly than the UK.

Why? Primarily because it means that mothers have more choice. Swedish mums can more easily go back to work after having children, if they wish to do so. In the UK none of these factors exist, and childcare in particular is substantially more expensive.

Among our UK friends, high childcare fees are preventing even corporate lawyers and accountants from returning to work full-time. Childcare costs for under-2s rose by 33% from 2010 to 2015. For some British mothers it is better financially to stay home than to return to work, especially those with multiple kids. This restricts options and, in combination with less generous and less shared parental leave, means that it is often the mother whose choices are most constrained.

Sweden’s extended parental leave and accessible childcare do not come for free. They are subsidised by the state – in other words by taxation. The top rate of income tax in Sweden is 56% vs. 45% in the UK, and taxation levies account for 43% of GDP in Sweden vs. 35% in the UK.

Taxation is a societal, or at least governmental, choice. When you read about the Swedish system in the press, you’re seeing a deliberate choice that Sweden has made to privilege parents and childcare over many other worthy causes.

We are fortunate that it works out well for us – now with two small kids – but those without kids pay the roughly same, and benefit much less. Moreover, the Swedish system is not perfect. Soon we’ll post a reality check that contrasts sharply with the idyllic Scandimania that is widespread in the UK.

But there’s one final benefit of the Swedish system which does not show up in the statistics, nor in most of the latte pappa accounts I have read to date.

Parental leave has given me a much greater appreciation of how hard it is to care for children full-time. It is just as rewarding as I hoped, but much more relentless.

I am grateful for that realisation. I am doing this for two months; Emma will do it for a year. She’s the hero of this story.