Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Fatherhood redefined

Soon it becomes easier to be a father in Denmark - at least if the parliament passes a law proposal by the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats. The law would fundamentally change the Danish child care system, mainly by earmarking a 12-week chunk of the 32-week parental leave for the father. In the present system (see my earlier entry), parents can divide the 32 weeks between them, but statistics show that only a tiny minority of men actually use this opportunity. On average Danish fathers take only 3, 4 weeks parental leave, while the mother stays home for 42, 3 weeks. Social democrats and their parliamentary allies, The Radicals hope that the new system would trigger far-reaching demographic, social and cultural changes in society, as was the case in Norway and Iceland after similar legislation came into force.

The Icelandic system

As the first country in the world, Norway introduced the special paternal leave back in 1993, and Iceland followed steps in 2002. The latter system divides the 9 months parental leave into three equal parts, reserving 3 months for the mother and 3 months for the father, while the remaining 3 months can be used by either parent. The expectations toward the new system were fourfold: (1) to better integrate fathers into the life of their families, (2) to increase birth rates, (3), to improve the economic status of Icelandic families, and (4) to provide more equal opportunities for women on the labor market.

Daddy with a feeding bottle

The new law soon turned out to be an unqualified success. Already in the first year 82% of fathers took leave for the full 3 months reserved for them, and by last year the figure hit the 90 % mark. This has clearly had a positive influence on family dynamics. Fathers who took parental leave become much better integrated in their family, and take greater responsibility later on, for instance when their children are sick. Another positive outcome is the dramatic, 30% fall in the number of divorces in young families. This may have to do with the fact that 83% of fathers on parental leave reported a stronger emotional attachment to their children, and many feel that they understand their partner much better than before. Apparently, the key to these positive effects is whether fathers get a chance to spend a longer period (at least 2 months) alone with their children, without the mother looking over their shoulders.

New baby boom

As for the second area, the new legislation has resulted in a spectacular increase in birthrates which exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. In 6 years, the number of birth per woman increased from 1.8 to 2.1. With that figure Iceland, together with Turkey, can boast about the highest birth rates in Europe. Clearly, women are much more motivated to give birth to child number two and three, when the father was involved in the care of the first child. This finding is also strongly supported by an independent Danish study, which forecasts a 20 % increase in childbirths if the new system is introduced in Denmark.

Women on the job

The positive changes are also obvious where gender equality on the Icelandic job market is concerned. Employers no longer have the incitement to favour men over women, since men and women are equally likely to take parental leave at some point in their lives. Finally, the new law has also improved family finances. In the old system the economic compensation of parents was too low (often below the minimal wage). At present parents who are active on the labour market are paid 80% of their average salaries during the leave and the payments come from a specific fund, financed through an insurance levy. The unemployed or those on low income receive a minimum payment.

The modern father

And as if this was not enough, the new system seems to have triggered subtle but far-reaching changes in the way Icelanders look at gender roles and the traditional family model. More and more young men define themselves as a father before all else, and proud young men pushing prams have become an essential ingredient of the townscape all over the country.

Any hope for Danish fathers?

However, those young Danish men who become fathers in these weeks shouldn’t start clearing their desks yet. The law proposal meets considerable resistance among the governing liberal and conservative parties, who think that such a radical intervention into family life would go against the principal of personal choice. They also point to several unresolved issues around the financing of the proposed system. On the other hand, the law is warmly supported by the main employer organisations and the media, as well as the majority of voters, which might well force the government to reconsider its resistance.

Pictures: Icelandic children by Hiroshi Ichikawa, Icelandic flag: from the Internet

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