When Swedish photojournalist Johan Bävman‘s son Viggo was born three years ago, it was a given that Bävman would take full advantage of Sweden’s paid paternity leave benefits and stay home to help raise his newborn.
After all, Sweden—the same country that brought us IKEA, ABBA, and the Nobel Prize—provides for new parents to receive 480 days’ worth of paid benefits, up to 240 days for each parent, to use before their child turns 8 years old. The majority of those days are paid at 80% of salary. The stipulation: At least 60 days must be taken by the father, or the total days the couple receives drops to 420. If the parents choose to divide their paid benefits equally, they receive an additional “equality bonus.” Contrast that with the United States, where, as Money’s Taylor Tepper has noted, there is no federally mandated maternity leave (though the Family and Medical Leave Act provides for up to 12 weeks unpaid leave at companies with more than 50 employees). And time off for new dads? Forget about it.
But even with Sweden’s generous policies, Bavman had a hard time meeting men who stayed home for more than the 60-day minimum. So he decided to look for and photograph fathers like him, who chose to stay home for longer, as a way of finding positive role models. Thus far, for his “Swedish Dads” project, he has photographed 45 fathers he met through Sweden’s open daycares and special parent groups. Along the way he discovered that only about 12% of couples shared the allotment of days equally, and a quarter of dads returned to work before the end of the 60-day period.
In the images, Bävman doesn’t try to heroize the fathers. Instead, he captures intimate scenes of their everyday life—bathing, feeding, sleeping, shopping, cleaning. The sensitivity with which he approaches them, using minimal equipment and no external lighting, and his own identification with their daily routines comes through in the photographs. Bävman explains his view on the bond he developed with his son while on leave:
It feels a bit too easy to say that a bond is purely maternal. A bond is something you gain by taking your time, something that you grow by being with someone. You have to put in the time to gain trust and confidence. You start something in the beginning of a child’s life which is really important in the future, in the relationship. What I got is priceless, the ties, the understanding of his needs, the understanding of my partner.
Many could argue that the reasoning behind parents returning to work so early is due to financial necessity. But when Bävman delved deeper into the stories of those who chose to pass up the benefits, he found that the driving force wasn’t purely economical.
I see that as more of a reason people hide behind. I think it’s more of a structural problem that we have to normalize, that we have to share the days equally. This is something we take for granted. We need to change the culture and get men to consider the benefits they would have being home. If you could change this small thing, the ground from which the whole society starts, it could make a big difference.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of parental insurance benefits in Sweden. When the law was first introduced in 1974, it set aside 180 days of paid leave for men and women to care for a newborn infant, or 90 days of paid leave per parent. The current policy may be getting another boost: As of May 29, 2015, Annika Strandhäll, the Swedish Minister for Social Security, announced a proposal for a third month of “reserved” parent time. At present, Strandhäll writes:
Women take considerably more days than men, which means spending more time away from the labour market. This can have consequences for women in terms of weaker wage development, fewer career opportunities and even a lower pension as a result of lower lifetime earnings. The proposal would therefore improve gender equality in several ways, in terms of both the situation of women in the labour market and the sharing of unpaid household work. It also strengthens the child’s right to both parents.
What better time than Father’s Day to think about how different America would be if we celebrated that same right, with policies that provided support to new parents to allow them to bond with their newborns and equal opportunity for both sexes in the workplace by reconsidering gender roles in parenthood. Bävman says:
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 more than six months. But also: What kind of society would we have in Sweden if everyone shared the parental days equally, and if this system was a reality in more countries?
Bävman is currently at work on a book of “Swedish Dads” and the images will be in a traveling exhibition opening at the Malmö Museum in February 2016.
This is part of The Photo Bank, a recurring feature on Money.com dedicated to conceptual photography on financial issues. Submissions are welcome and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for Money.com at firstname.lastname@example.org