I started telling friends I wanted to get pregnant about six months after my wedding.
“I’m just going off the pill. We’ll start rolling the dice.”
“Get ready to blow up your happy marriage,” came the near universal response from my friends with kids.
I briefly wondered if my friends knew this was a reference to a line from Nora Ephron’s Heartburn or if every new mother likened procreation to armed conflict.
I really like my happy marriage. I didn’t want to blow it up. This was part of what inspired me to try to find a better way to be married, one where we didn’t fall into the traditional marital pitfalls of disinterest, ennui and turmoil after the birth of a baby. I got so much advice that I was able to turn it into a book, How to Be Married: What Real Women On Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage.
And I think I found the answer to not being miserable as a couple after making small humans — thanks in large part to a bunch of Swedish stay-at-home dads. The problem is that it’s not that easy to pull off here in the states.
Kids making a marriage miserable is a uniquely American thing. Researchers recently looked at the happiness levels of parents versus nonparents in twenty-two countries. In places like Sweden, Norway, and Hungary, countries with more flexible work options, generous parental leave policies, and subsidies for daycare, parents tended to be happier than nonparents. Not so in the United States.
“The bad news is that of the 22 countries we studied, the U.S. has the largest happiness shortfall among parents compared to nonparents, significantly larger than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia,” wrote Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of the study. “What we found was astonishing. The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers.”
Hence my burst of inspiration from the Swedish stay-at-home dads. The Scandinavian birthplace of the BabyBjörn, IKEA, and ABBA has been dubbed the “Land of the Stay-at-Home-Dad” due to its government-funded parental leave policies, which are so generous they should make the American government feel ashamed.
Here’s how it works: New moms and dads in Sweden are allowed to split fourteen months of parental leave between them. During this time, 80 percent of their salaries are paid by the government. If fathers don’t spend at least two months at home with the baby on their own, the couple forfeits those two months. Around 85 percent of Swedish fathers take this “daddy leave.” Some fathers even take on the entire parental leave, allowing their wives to go right back to working full-time after they have a child.
How does this compare to America? The Department of Labor supports paternity leave . . . in theory. “Paternity leave — and especially longer leaves of several weeks or months — can promote parent-child bonding, improve outcomes for children, and even increase gender equity at home and at the workplace. Empowering more dads with paid parental leave means they can achieve their professional goals and be supportive, nurturing fathers and partners,” the department explained in a policy briefing from 2015.
But in the States, the burden of making sure that dads are still paid while on paternity leave falls on employers. The government won’t pay a dime.
Both Swedish dads and moms sing the praises of government funded parental leave as not just saving their marriages, but making them stronger and better and happier after they have children (which they should be!).
Here are six things Swedish stay-at-home dads told me about how parental leave made their marriages stronger.
1. “It’s not just about raising the children. It’s about learning how to do all of the unpaid work in the home. It’s about getting a better understanding of what women have traditionally been doing for the last several thousand years, all of that work that has been taken for granted.”
2. “We each share the work of the house and of the children, and it isn’t about asking for credit. She doesn’t have to tell me how good I am and I don’t have to tell her how good she is. We both know it.”
3. “We have less worries about money and that means we fight less. Fighting less means we still smile at each other.”
4. “I know my job will be there when I go back. That means I know my future will be secure. I can plan for things for my family and in my marriage instead of planning for my next career.”
5. “When my wife and I switch who takes care of the children full-time we get to appreciate both leaving the house and coming home to it.”
6. “I feel good that I can support my wife’s career. I would never want her to feel like she has to be left behind because she gave birth to our child.”