By Louise Nordstrom
STOCKHOLM (AP) -- One of Henrik Holgersson's friends laughed in his face when he told him he was going to spend the better part of 2011 as a stay-at-home dad.
"What kind of a man are you?" the friend asked Holgersson, who works for an event management company. But just about everyone else was positive. His employer and co-workers patted him on the back and wished him luck.
Holgersson took out 240 days of parental leave paid for by the government while his girlfriend, Jenny Karlsson, went back to her job as a real estate agent, after eight months at home with their son Arvid.
"To take care of Arvid is a real fatherly thing to do. I think that's very masculine," said Holgersson, 34, gently rocking his 1-year-old son's stroller on a walk around the block near his apartment in southern Stockholm.
Holgersson's experience isn't unusual here, largely because Sweden encourages dads to stay at home with their newborn through a parental leave policy that is among the most generous in the world.
While more than a dozen countries now offer paid paternity leave, usually for a couple of weeks, Sweden subsidizes such leave for up to 14 months.
In Sweden, men pushing strollers - sometimes in twos or threes - have become part of the landscape. Baby changing stations are typically found in both men's and women's restrooms. Brawny men with Viking tattoos can be overheard discussing their "pappaledighet," Swedish for daddy leave, over a pint in the pub.
Parents share 480 days of paid parental leave for each child, courtesy of the government. The benefits amount to 80 percent of the stay at home parent's salary for the first 390 days, but no more than 910 kronor ($135) a day. Thereafter the amount drops to 180 kronor ($30) a day for the remaining period.
Mothers are still taking more leave than fathers, but things are changing. In 2000, Swedish men took out only 12.4 percent of the parental leave; by last year their share had nearly doubled to 23.1 percent, according to government statistics.
Though there is widespread agreement that the gap should close even more, Swedes so far have resisted calls by women's rights activists for a compulsory 50-50 split.
However, Sweden has introduced incentives and rules to encourage men to take more time off with their babies.
To qualify for the maximum benefits, couples must split the parental leave so that one of them takes at least 60 days. (Single parents - male or female - can take out the full 480 days on their own.)
In addition, the government awards an "equality bonus" in the form of tax breaks that are proportional to how evenly couples split the parental leave. A household with a 50-50 division qualifies for a maximum deduction of 13,500 kronor ($2,000).
Even at a time when Europe's debt crisis is leading to painful austerity cuts across the continent, Sweden's parental leave benefits appear safe. The economy is in relatively good shape, the budget is balanced and the government would commit political suicide if it scaled back on a program embraced by Swedes across all income brackets.
Foreigners often grow to appreciate it, too.
"I think it's great, I'm a huge fan of it. Here is the Swedish state subsidsdizing it for both parents. It's almost too good to be true," said Joel Sherwood, a 35-year-old American living in Sweden.
He took more than six months off work to stay home with his daughter, Mary Lee. When he told his friends back home, they were flabbergasted that his employer was OK with it, and that the government would foot the bill.
"The more you get into the details of it, the more floored they get," Sherwood said.
In the U.S. there is no nationwide policy for government-subsidized parental leave. Some states, including California and New Jersey, have begun adopting such policies, but most parents are instead offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Some companies offer paid leave to their employees.
When state-subsidized parental leave was introduced in Sweden in 1974, women took nearly all of the parental leave. Men would wash dishes and fold the laundry, but child-rearing was considered a female domain.
Four years later, the government launched an advertising campaign featuring national weightlifting champion Lennart Dahlgren to convince fathers you could stay home with a child and still be a real man. The poster of a smiling Dahlgren cradling a baby in his muscular arms remains an iconic image in Sweden.
A milestone was crossed in 1995 when the government started earmarking one month of parental leave benefits for each parent. Seven years later it was increased to two months. Then came the equality bonus that further encouraged men to take daddy leave.
Roger Klinth, a researcher on gender issues at Linkoping University, said the legislative changes have helped normalize the idea of men taking care of children in Sweden.
"You're not different anymore ... you're a part of the political system," he said.
There is widespread agreement in Sweden that it doesn't matter for a child's development whether the primary caretaker is a man or a woman. Suggesting the contrary, especially in this gender-equality conscious country, can be highly controversial.
Child psychologist Eva Sternberg provoked an outcry last year when she blamed an increase in accidents involving toddlers on the growing numbers of stay-at-home dads. Men are preconditioned through evolution to hunt and are not fit to replace women as caretakers, especially in the first year of a baby's life, she argued in a newspaper column that drew a flood of angry responses.
"There is no special gene that makes women more suited to provide comfort and care than men, just like men are no better equipped to drive a car or lead a company," replied Lars Ohly, leader of Sweden's opposition Left Party.
Such attitudes can seem foreign to the growing number of immigrants in Sweden, who represent about 14 percent of the population.
Jafar Feili, an Iraqi who has been living in Sweden since 1998, said his wife took as much parental leave as possible, while he chose to forgo the two months that were earmarked for him.
Although he supports the Swedish system, Feili said it would have been difficult to explain to friends and family in Iraq if he had chosen to stay at home with the children.
"There's no question about it. They would laugh and make fun of me," he said. "Most men down there are pretty macho and they would say things like 'he's scared of his wife and doesn't dare to open his mouth.' They would think that it was the wife who had decided on something like that."
Half-way through his leave, Holgersson noted a shift in his son's behavior. When both parents were around, Arvid no longer ran to his mother when he hurt himself, but to his father. Holgersson felt as if he had become the caretaker parent, while Karlsson was the "fun" parent that Arvid liked to play with in the evening.
Toward the end of his parental leave, Holgersson had mixed feelings about going back to his job. Though he looked forward to seeing his work colleagues, he knew he would miss the long days of casually playing with Arvid in the playground behind the apartment block.
Holgersson said he had forged an unbreakable bond with his son, learning to recognize Arvid's huffs, snivels and snorts, and what they say about his mood - or the content of his diaper.
"How could you not want to spend time with this little one?" he said, sharing a hammock with Arvid in the playground. "Yes, I could imagine having another one, too."
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