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Rethinking Paternity Leave

Disclaimer: Because this article considers gender differences in the traditionally heterosexual nuclear family, it contains more heteronormative and binary language than I would usually accept. Regarding the “father quota,” the legislation uses phrases like father, co-mother, or co-parent to designate the person who is not giving birth to the child. If the parents have the child through their own pregnancy, the paid leave conditions are the same regardless of the parents’ genders. If this is not the case, the conditions differ slightly depending on whether the parents had the child through adoption or surrogacy. Additionally, single parents have the right to use the entire leave period, all quotas removed.

In Norway, it is routine to see men pushing strollers down the street on any given weekday. However, just 25 years ago in Norway, a father taking time off from work to care for his newborn would have raised eyebrows. Now, politician Audun Lysbakken explains, “not taking paternity leave would be controversial.” Indeed, paternity leave has become a norm for the country, largely due to efforts by lawmakers to equalize childcare. 

Norway first initiated a leave quota in 1993, setting aside four weeks of paid, non-transferable parental leave for fathers. If a father did not take four weeks off, this paid leave would be lost to the family, thus incentivizing men to spend more time with their children. While the number of weeks in this father quota has seen increases and decreases since its inception, it was most recently updated in July 2018. The total duration of paid leave for a family has remained at a constant 46 weeks over the past decade, but the 2018 change raised the amount of leave time that each parent must take to receive monetary benefits from 10 weeks to 15. This revision limited a family’s ability to allocate their own time as they see fit, sparking a vigorous debate. Though there are substantial arguments on both sides of this discussion, the increased father quota will make it easier for men to spend formative time with their newborn children, while simultaneously allowing women to return to the workplace sooner after childbirth. This change will instigate positive progress in Norwegian society, altering norms that designate mothers as caregivers and fathers as breadwinners.

Critics of the 2018 amendment have made biological arguments against a lengthened paternity leave. Some experts believe that a mother’s absence can negatively impact a child in the early stages of development. The leader of the Norwegian Midwife’s Association warned against limiting the amount of leave a woman can take after birth, emphasizing the importance of breastfeeding on children’s long-term development. However, there is no consensus on the relationship between a child’s health and the father quota, and some experts reject the Norwegian Midwife’s Association’s claim. The Norwegian Directorate of Health, for example, recommends that mothers breastfeed babies for six months, at which time parents should begin introducing solid food to children’s diets. If a woman takes both her full quota and the shared period off, she can spend seven paid months with her baby, which satisfies this recommendation. 

Perhaps more important than critics’ biological concerns are questions of autonomy. Opponents have argued that today’s 15-week quota is an unnecessary infringement on the right to choose how to organize one’s family. More than 29,000 people have signed a petition titled “Allow Families to Take Back the Right of Parental Leave Distribution.” Also, the Progress Party’s youth wing leader argued that no family is the same and that parents should be given the freedom to decide how to divide up the allotted weeks according to their own needs. Indeed, one parent’s profession might more easily lend itself to missed time. For example, suppose the father of one family is a teacher and the mother is a writer. The father’s absence will impact others more substantially and would be considered a greater interruption, and thus, this family might wish to allocate all the leave time to the mother. However, under the quota, this freedom is limited. 

Although families are more restricted in how they can allocate time under the quota, they also have gained the ability to circumvent gender norms. Notably, employers cannot challenge a man’s decision to take an increased period of leave after the birth of his child. This normalizes paternity leave, giving men greater leeway to prioritize their families, and shifts the traditional gendering of family roles. Moreover, this change is welcomed by fathers: According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration (NAV), the majority of fathers support a 15-week father quota. This demonstrates that, contrary to conventional gender norms, Norwegian fathers want to play a more active role at home following the birth of their child. 

Without the quota, this pattern of more gender-equal parental leave would never occur. Based on statistics from NAV, few fathers are willing to take more time off than the quota requires, despite support for increased quota periods. This underscores the necessity and strength of this law to equalize care by giving fathers the flexibility and validation to be more active in their child’s development.

The quota also grants mothers greater freedom to return to work earlier with the reassurance that their babies are safe in the hands of their partners. Lars Jacob Hiim from the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise explains that longer maternity leave periods stall women’s careers. In the US, maternity leave is one of the main underlying causes of the wage gap. Longer paternity leave leads to greater female participation in the workplace, balancing the amount of interruption in each parent’s work. Since both parents, regardless of gender, are expected to take leave, employers are less likely to consider a woman’s childbearing plans or capacity when hiring new employees, thus reducing the potential for gender-based discrimination. 

In addition to gender roles being dismantles in the workplace, the father quota corresponds with a greater level of equality within families. Studies have shown that households in which fathers take leave yield more balanced distributions of housework between partners long after the birth of a child. More notable, however, was a 2013 study highlighting generational impacts of the increased quota. Researchers found a more even distribution of chores between male and female siblings born after the establishment of the father quota than between siblings born before its ratification. 

Norway’s updated quota system poses an interesting contradiction: It both restricts and promotes freedom, reducing flexibility in allocating leave time while simultaneously allowing both men and women to free themselves from stereotyped gender expectations. Men are able to take the leave they desire and not be confined by the traditional breadwinner role that had previously prevented them from spending meaningful time with their newborns. Conversely, the evolving gender norms remove the pressure for women to choose between child-rearing and a career. Ultimately, despite limited restrictions, families can still decide how to allocate the majority of their leave time, but the cultural shift incentivized by the quota increase will give rise to long-term benefits that make space for fathers to be fathers and allow mothers to be more than mothers.

Photo: Man Holding Newborn