Monday, 5 May 2014

GUEST POST: The view from Norway

Bianca with her son

In the UK, we hold up Scandinavia as the shining light of gender equality, parental leave and quality childcare. Bianca Johansen, a working mum of two, tells us what it's really like having kids in Norway. The road to real equality has great benefits but also sacrifices...

Being pregnant, having a baby and caring for children poses many of the same challenges wherever you live. The total balance of how easy or hard it is also depends on how the society you live in facilitate having a family. In the extreme, it can be matter of life and death differences for women around the world. Or it can influence the number of children families decide to have, and at what time in their lives to have them. My society is Norway, and my experiences and reflections are my own. Even so, in discussing the subject of this text with fellow mothers, we tend to agree on the basic stuff.

The concept of Norwegian motherhood is like Norwegian fatherhood, equal. In general, equality is highly priced in Norway, and legislation is put in place to help promote that.  So what that means is,  no part of having a child should put women at a disadvantage in the workforce. The concept of government in Norway is a welfare state, we are a small but wealthy country, and the basic philosophy is that women are needed in the workforce to contribute to the value creation of the nation. Norway cannot afford to have highly educated women staying at home. At the same time, the government wants more children. With only five million people in the whole of the country, we need all the future hands and future taxpayers we can get.

For me, as a mother, that means that when going for a job interview, it is illegal to ask me whether I plan to have any more children. It is illegal to not give me the job on the grounds that I am pregnant. When I go into maternity leave, I do so in the knowledge that I am legally protected to get the same job and pay when I return. To promote and help women back to work, I am also allowed one hour a day paid “breastfeeding time”. This is an hour off to breastfeed my baby, as in Norway it is recommended that you breastfeed babies until they are 1 year old. 

Maternity and paternity leave is quite flexible. But basically, if you have had paid work for the last ten months before you are due leave, you can choose between 59 weeks joint leave with 80 % of your wages covered, or 49 weeks leave with 100 % covered. 14 weeks of the leave is for the mother, 14 weeks for the father, the rest they can share as they choose. The problem with this is that as they only cover wages until a fixed rate (currently about £51,000), which means that what happens is that the one who earns most goes to work. In most cases the Dad. So still working on that one. 

When that one year is up, there are two more choices. You go back to work and have the child in daycare/kindergarten or choose “cash support”. With 90 % of Norwegian children over 1 going to kindergarten, it is needless to say that “cash support “ (in which you can get about £500 a month from when the child is 1-2 years old to take care of the children at home) is something the government is trying to get rid of. As the quality of kindergartens is high in Norway, it is generally regarded as the best place for children to be. In addition to “learning through play”, learning difficulties are picked up on quickly, and as very few children are at home it is the best place for them to learn to socialize. 

Staying at home is no longer really an option for parents, by choice. Childcare is highly subsidized in Norway, and all kindergartens in Norway are run according to the Norwegian law on kindergartens and have a joint curriculum, whether they are public or private. All children in Norway are guaranteed a place form the year they turn 1. The kindergartens all have to have a certain amount of educational leaders (with a minimum of a BA degree in pre-school teaching), and they all cost the same, as they have a government set price maximum. (currently £270 a month). Working hours in Norway are 0800-1600, and kindergartens tend to open 0730-1630, so there is still time to be a family in the afternoons. In addition you get £100 a month per child in child support, regardless of how much you earn. It is not a cheap system, but that is what we pay taxes for. And we do so quite happily. 

Gender equality goes both ways. Which means men have an equal right as women to stay at home with the kids, for example, and women must "let" them. So having equal rights means giving as well as getting. My small contribution was sharing my 1 year maternity/paternity leave for our first son equally with my husband. I stayed home for six months, then he stayed home for six months.  Going back to work after six months wasn't easy for me, but neither was going back after 12, as I did with our second son. When I went back after six months, Dad and child visited 1-2 times a day as I was still breast feeding. Also, it was good to see how they bonded when I wasn't there. 

Equality is something you have to want. For a lot of mothers the freedom it offers is appreciated, but some find it hard to “give away” some of their “benefits” such as maternity leave to the fathers, and some still find it more “natural” that they are the main caregiver to the children when they are small. In addition, some claim they should be free to make their own personal choices on how to divide the joint leave. The challenge here is that personal choices quickly become structural differences in society. When everyone makes the same choice, the women stay at home. 

All in all, I find it is a small price to pay. Equality is both give and take, and for me personally it is important to show my two boys, that women work as much as men, and that fathers look after children just as much as mothers.

1 comment:

  1. I find this really interesting. On the one hand it's quite similar to my own experience as a child - I was in full time childcare as a baby and my parents shared responsibility for me. It didn't do me any harm and I had a very sociable childhood. I do think it is great to have the choice to take a longer career break though. In the UK, we have a thriving pre-school scene with church hall playgroups, 1 o'clock clubs, community centre activities and various classes and groups at children's centres.

    I guess the thing that really strikes me about the Norwegian way of doing things is that while it is more equal in terms of parenting, it is also a more equal start in life for children. At the moment there is a lot of concern in the UK about children starting school who are 18 months behind their peers developmentally because they have not received the stimulation they need at home. This in fact becomes worse as services at children's centres are cut as they support families in need of additional help.

    I guess if there is really good quality childcare universally available (and hey, you can't beat £270/month childcare fees!!), Norwegian families, parents and children alike, are starting from a fairer, more equal basis.