The photos all show seemingly mundane moments of family life: A parent bathing an infant in a kitchen sink, another wrangling toddlers into a stroller, or coaxing a forkful of food into a daughter’s mouth.
The images are part of a photo exhibition called “Swedish Dads,” a series of portraits of 45 fathers on display through December at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington. The exhibition, by Swedish photographer Johan Bävman, has toured 65 countries, but this is its first time in the United States.
As he debuts his photo series for an American audience, Bävman hopes to tell a story of gender equality in parenting, of a new perception of masculinity and what a society could look like if it truly prioritized both.
“I wouldn’t be here if there were women in the pictures,” Bävman said as he unveiled the exhibition at the Swedish Embassy on Thursday night. “These dads aren’t super dads. This is just a discussion about why we see these men as special, not because they are special. They’re doing the work women have done for decades.”
While the United States is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee workers paid leave, Sweden has one of the most generous paid family leave policies in the world. It became the first country to introduce a gender-neutral paid parental leave benefit — in 1974. And today, parents are allowed to take 480 days of paid parental leave per child. For 13 of those months, they are entitled to 80 percent of income, up to a certain income level, and for three months, are given a flat rate of about $20 a day, according to the Swedish Embassy.
Sweden has also offered fathers incentives to take more of the paid leave. Three of the paid months are reserved for each parent and cannot be transferred. From 2008 until 2017, families were also eligible for an “equality bonus” determined by the number of days divided equally between parents.
And in recent years, Sweden has seen the impact of its policies on women. Economists at Stanford University recently examined the effects of paid leave reforms in Sweden and found that giving the father more work flexibility improved the mother’s health and reduced her risk of experiencing physical postpartum health complications.
Sweden is also a leader among advanced economies in female labor participation. As of last year, more than 88 percent of women ages 25 to 54 worked. But in the United States, that figure was 74 percent, according to a report from the International Monetary Fund. Still, both countries have a similar fertility rate — at about 1.7.
This, the Swedish ambassador to the United States said on Thursday night, is proof that more women working does not necessarily mean fewer births.
Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter spoke about her own division of parental leave. For example, when her first child was born, she took 10 months off work, and her husband took six months off. This shared caregiving has proved essential to her career, she said. And now, “I can be the first female ambassador to the United States, with the help of my husband, of course.”
But as Olofsdotter pointed out, Sweden is far from perfect. Despite all of the incentives for men to take leave, Swedish fathers still only use less than 30 percent of the total amount of parental leave days.
Even in this place considered a “utopia for gender equality,” men are not holding up their end of the bargain, Bävman said.
“The main reason is masculinity, the way men see themselves, and the way society sees men,” Bävman said. “That’s the biggest issue we have to change. That men believe in themselves in the caregiving role, that it can also be masculine.”
Bävman began the project when he was on parental leave with his oldest son, now age 7. As a new father, he was terrified, afraid of making mistakes and not being the kind of parent he wanted to be, Bävman said. He sought out role models of other new fathers taking on the primary caregiving roles, but all he saw were “glamorous pictures of dads on playgrounds” on Instagram, he said.
“I wanted to have role models that could express failures, frustration, tiredness,” he said. So he set out to make these images himself, first through selfies with his own son. He then began following the lives of men across Sweden, meeting some through posters he put up at day-care centers.
He wanted to capture fathers not only taking on the tasks that mothers are often known for — cooking, cleaning, potty training — but also fathers showing vulnerability. The image that stands out the most to Bävman shows a father looking out the window while a baby sleeps in a sling, against his chest. It’s a nurturing image, one often associated with maternity. It also shows the man’s fears, his uncertainties, Bävman said.
Bävman reflected on his own father, who spent more time at home than many other fathers of his generation. But as a young adult and even now, Bävman said he doesn’t feel that he can open up about his emotions to his father in the same way he could with his mother, who died seven years ago. He said he hopes that isn’t the case with his own two sons.
“I am trying to cry as much as I can in front of my children,” he said. “I think that’s really important, to show that I as a dad can be vulnerable, that I can be also afraid of something. I want them to feel comfortable crying in front of me.”
Following the lives of these Swedish families, Bävman said he also has seen women struggle to trust their husbands to take on more of the tasks at home.
As much as men need to confront their own uncertainties, Bävman said, “it’s also about women letting go.”
Walking around the exhibit on Thursday, Nya Alemayhu, a 31-year-old real estate agent, stopped to admire one image of a father vacuuming with an infant on his back.
“You don’t see a lot of men in this position,” she said, thinking of her childhood in Ethiopia. “My dad, my grandfather, my uncles would never be caught dead vacuuming with a baby on their back. That picture illustrates what women have been doing for so long.”
Patrick Gebhardt, a 49-year-old designer whose wife works for the Swedish Embassy, said he felt a pang of nostalgia while looking at a photo of a father watching his two children play. Gebhardt thought back to when he took his parental leave, in Sweden for his first son, Benjamin, and in Paris for his younger daughter, Charlotte. “It’s like looking back again. It was such a good time,” he said, smiling.
When he lived in Sweden, especially in a bigger city, it was more culturally expected that fathers take their parental leave. He was surrounded by a community of fathers who were also taking time off work to be with their children. But when he moved to Paris, he felt more isolated as a stay-at-home father. And when he went back to work, his male colleagues in France hardly ever talked about their children.
“In Sweden, people always talk about their children, like ‘Yesterday she threw up and I had to take care of that,’ ” he said.
As he walked around the photos on Thursday evening, he felt the urge to cry, he said. “I don’t really know why.”
“This is the most precious thing you can do, being with your child,” he said. “I just want to go home now and see them go to bed and maybe read for them.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that families in Sweden are eligible for an “equality bonus” determined by the number of days divided equally between parents. The program was discontinued in 2017.