Given that America is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have any form of government mandated parental leave (despite numerous studies showing it is greatly beneficial to economies and corporations) this photo series by Swedish photographer Johan Bavman gives a compelling reason why paternity leave should be a priority for every government.
In the ‘Swedish Dads’ image series he shows numerous dads from Sweden who are either full-time stay-at-home-dads or are currently doing the SAHD thing temporarily.
Sweden is one of the most progressive in terms of parental leave, allowing parents to stay at home for 480 days in total. Added to that is the mandate that men MUST take 60 of those days to themselves or they forfeit the entire leave. The idea is that they want to encourage equal parenting and promote gender equality (note to self: move to Sweden to have a family).
In spite of the generous leave and added bonuses up to 1500 Euros for the more equal the parents split the leave, there is still only a fraction of dads that take advantage of this, according to a description on Johan’s site. The project came about from his own frustration as a SAHD wanting to find support from his community and not finding much.
“I had a hard time finding literature, blogs or anything that was written for me as a father. So I got the idea that I wanted to document fathers during their parent leave, to hear why they wanted to be home with their children and what they hoped to learn from it. Because of the unique Swedish parental insurance system, I thought it was going to be easy to find fathers who had shared the insurance days equally with their partners. It wasn´t, only 12 percent have taking this opportunity,” he writes.
“This does not fit into the image of Sweden as one of the world’s most equal countries. Therefore, I hope my project can plant a seed to dads in Sweden and in other countries to think of what impact it would mean for yourself, your child and for your relationship to stay home with your infant for a long period of time. But also: What kind of society would we have in Sweden if everyone shared the parental days equally, and if this system would be a reality in more countries? I hope my pictures can give rise to this kind of thoughts.”
The project is still in progress as Johan plans to photograph 60 dads altogether, as a nod to the mandated minimum 60 days of leave that a father must take.
He spoke to Cosmopolitan about this radical photo shoot and what it was like being a photographer who went from documenting oil extraction in the Amazon and albino people in Tanzania, to showcasing the daily life of SAHDs in Sweden.
“In Swedish society, though, we are lacking role models for men to connect to. In the beginning I thought it was an economic issue, why the parents don’t share days at home equally. But while I’ve been taking these pictures, I realized it was also a structural failure and a cultural failure,” he said, reiterating that a country which touts itself as “the most equal country in the world” shouldn’t be so cocky when only 12% of men take advantage of such great parental leave.
One of the aspects he wanted other dads to see was the great benefits they get from spending more time connecting and bonding with their children while they are young, something that women have done for centuries and which dads should also be beneficiaries of.
“Having a child is hard — you don’t get enough sleep, you can get exhausted and angry and frustrated. Being able to be home helps you understand your partner and have a better relationship. And you know more of your child when the child is growing up, and as they get older they can come to you if they are seeking advice, or if they have some questions about men or being a male, they can come to you as a father. And that’s something which is important,” he said.
What was interesting to see was the array of struggles and barriers men faced to taking time off from work to be at home with their kids and allow the wife to be the bread winner. The majority of men who didn’t have any trouble were middle-class educated men with educated backgrounds.
“I took a picture of a man called Said, a guy living in the suburb of Malmö, and he’s Arab and he was actually fighting for it. It was really hard because with his relatives and his next-door neighbors and his culture itself, it’s completely different. For him, taking leave was a bigger effort,” said Johan.
“There were a couple of dads that had other backgrounds, came from other countries. There was one guy from Spain and another from Iran. When they have told their mothers they would be on parental leave, their mothers were a little bit upset about it. In those cultures, that is a thing they see women as good at, and now the men are saying, ‘Hey, we can do this as well’.”
He also explained how men not feeling any stigma surrounding parenting helps women not feel pressured to stay at home if they have career aspirations.
“The dads gave a lot of reasons for wanting to take leave, but most of them said what I said before — wanting a better relationship with your children, understanding them better, knowing your child can come to you and not only the mother if they are seeking comfort. If they’re sad, the child can come to the father as well, and the father can go put the baby to bed. The mother is not so bound to be at home, and that makes it easier for women to become more successful in their jobs and to do the things they want to do — to have their career run well and do what they want to do in their lives.”
His photo series is already hitting some high notes with interest from the European Union wanting him to share his advice and knowledge on the issue of parental leave. His view is that no one should assume one parent is automatically more suited to a role than another simply based on gender. Our culture often perpetuates stereotypes that need to be un-learned, which is what ‘Swedish Dads’ aims to do.
“The ultimate goal is that it causes debate and discussion about being home with the children and what you gain from it. And to create role models. I got an email saying, from the European Union Commission, that they wanted me to come there and talk about the subject. I want to get it out there and get people talking about it, letting everyone know that everyone is capable of taking care of children. This is something you have in your genes. When you have a child, a mother is not better than a father to take care of the children. It’s not something biologically that the mother is better at. It’s not. It’s something you learn by trial and error.”
You can see all the images so far in the series by going to Johan’s website. To all the stay-at-home dads, we applaud you for not giving into the limiting definitions of masculinity which tell you what you are doing is not “manly”. You are setting great examples for your children and are every heroes of cultural change.