Denmark, the birthplace of the Vikings, sweet and savory pastries and Legos, is often rated the happiest country on earth. It ranks as one of the best places to be a woman or a mother, with a national commitment to gender equality – indeed, there is even a Minister of Gender Equality in the cabinet. While certainly not perfect, it is also one of the most productive, its government the most transparent and the children among the most joyful.
But when I traveled to Denmark to research my book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time, about time pressure and modern life, I went because time studies showed that mothers had almost as much leisure time as fathers. In most countries, like Italy, Turkey, Spain, Japan and others, there’s an often significant gap. And mothers there had the most “pure” leisure, or time to themselves, than mothers in any other advanced economy studied. I wanted to understand why.
What happened was I soon found myself spending most of my time with dads. Dads in business suits pushing prams in the middle of the day in downtown Copenhagen. Dads traveling alone with kids on the train to Sweden. Dads dominating sunny playgrounds on weekday afternoons with their kids. Dads wrapped in Gortex, standing in the rain with their bikes with bike seats and trailers, waiting to pick their kids up from child care or kindergarten – at 3:30 in the afternoon. (The typical pick up time in Denmark, where work hours are short, by law, and intense, by culture. Where long hours, which are so rewarded in the United States, are seen as a sign of inefficiency.) Even the generic pedestrian signs showed the outlines of mothers and fathers holding a child’s hand.
A giant poster outside the popular Tiger retail stores read “The Apron Makes the Person” and showed a smiling man wearing a green and pink one. I watched one young father make homemade pizza for dinner – a favorite recipe he learned in his Home Ec class at 14. Yes, both boys and girls are required to take Home Ec in high school.
Women can’t have leisure time, much less time to develop a career, I was told again and again, the country can’t move toward true gender equality, unless workplaces reward performance, not long hours, unless caregiving, sacred family time and leisure is valued as much as work, and unless it becomes the norm for both women and men to more equally share the responsibilities of raising the next generation.
And in Denmark, they’ve discovered the only way for that more equal sharing to become the norm, it has to start right at the beginning. So Denmark has become one of a growing number of advanced economies that now splits paid parental leave between both mothers and fathers. It no longer allows families to “share” leave time, because they found that mothers kept taking the bulk of it. So they created “use it or lose it” programs: if a father doesn’t use his leave, the family loses the time entirely – and it’s paid time off! That, more than anything, academics said, is what has created a culture of involved fathers, which they’ve found is good for kids, promotes gender equality at home, and women’s advancement at work.
Because fathers becoming primary caregivers is still relatively new, many communities are forming and funding fathers’ groups, like the Fathers’ Playground I visited one afternoon in Copenhagen. (They call it a ‘playground,’ I was told, because the fathers didn’t respond as well to something that sounded like ‘playdate.’)
I watched as fathers rolled balls to their babies while lounging on colorful mats, pushed their babies on little swings or spun them – wildly and forcefully in my risk-averse mother eyes – in bright red plastic spinning discs. But that’s the point, organizers told me. Fathers need the time to become confident in how they parent, and that, while it will be different, is just as important as the way mothers parent.
I was surprised by how quiet it was. “Fathers don’t talk as much as mothers. The play is more physical,” John Broendum, one of the playground organizers, explained, shrugging. “This is the place to come, away from the mother and her routine, to figure that out, for fathers to find their own way to parent.”
Which, when one child fell backward with a loud THUNK on the wooden floor, apparently meant wandering over nonchalantly to make sure the child was okay. I expected startled screams to erupt out of the child at any moment. But, perhaps because the father didn’t rush over, freak out and hover, like I would have, neither did the baby.
Within minutes, father and child were happily – and quietly – playing again. Broendum smiled at me. “See?”
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