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The smart economics of Norway’s parental leave, and why the U.S. should consider it

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An army, 40 strollers strong, grinds through the Norwegian forest. We are mamas uniformed in running tights and Technicolor tennis shoes (with a handful of papas thrown in), pushing all-terrain strollers down a hilly wooded path. This is a five mile stroller hike led by a yellow-vested guide, part of a weekly series organized by the Norwegian Trekking Association.

Enjoying nature with a sleeping babe wrapped in wool feels like a luxury. But the ultimate luxury is not having to worry about when I will go back to work, or who will take care of the baby: he will be home with either me or his papa until he is over 1-year-old. And all the while our monthly salary will be deposited into our bank account.

But is the Scandinavian model of ample paid parental leave too generous? The numbers say no, there is actually a benefit to the economy.

When I grew up in Wisconsin, “home economics” meant sewing pillows with crooked seams and baking lumpy biscuits. But Norway is a mastermind on the real implications of home economics. What the government subsidizes in parental leave and early childcare is more than offset by the increase in GDP created by mothers staying in the workforce.

Norway’s Ministry of Finance recently valued the contribution of additional working mothers to the country’s gross domestic product, and found it equivalent to the cumulative value of their pension fund since oil was discovered off the coast of Norway in the late 1960s. This is no small sum – the Norwegian oil fund is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, valued today at over $800 billion.

This modern take on home economics means that most mothers in Norway are working full-time. While this may mean that homemade birthday cakes suffer, the end result is a more productive society. For a small country like Norway, the participation of women in the labor force is essential. But larger countries like the U.S. should take note about women’s contributions to the economy.

As an American expat who had my first baby in France and my second in Norway, I am somewhat of a parental leave connoisseur. Despite having to dig through multiple layers of wool clothing to find my baby sleeping cozily in his stroller in the snow, Norway is doing something right when it comes to parental leave.

In Norway, parents are entitled to 46 weeks at full salary, or 56 weeks at 80 percent pay. In France, I had four months of paid maternity leave, plus an additional paid month for breastfeeding (not to mention the nice cheese selection in the maternity ward and the fully-covered ‘re-education’ sessions for my nether regions). Both Norway and France also offer highly-subsidized early child care.

Had I stayed at my federal government job in Washington, D.C., I would have had zero paid maternity leave. I would have had to apply for “disability” pay – capped at four weeks, and unpaid. What incentive did this provide for me to start my family in my mother country?

A report on the State of the World’s Mothers notes that the U.S. has the “least generous maternity leave policy of any wealthy nation.” American women are resigning in numbers that far outpace men, in part for reasons of motherhood. Where is the best place to be a mother? Not the U.S.

Paternity leave has created a culture for Norwegian fathers to be more active parents than just secondary caregivers. My colleagues, male and female alike, avoid scheduling late afternoon meetings in order to leave the office at a reasonable hour to pick up their children. During my first winter in Norway, a male colleague requested that a team meeting be moved forward an hour to begin at 10 a.m. so that he could attend his child’s parade at school. It was Fastelavn, the Nordic holiday for carnival. My colleague explained that on Fastelavn, the children dress in animal costumes and wake up their parents by swatting them with plant fronds. (Perhaps it would have been more pleasant to attend the work meeting?) After our first child was born in France, my husband took his two-week paternity leave but felt cheated while his friends in Norway were taking three and a half months of paid leave (far more than many mothers can take in the U.S.).

The paternity policy in Norway, which shortens the total parental leave if the father does not take his share, is not solely altruistic: It makes economic sense. Supporting early child development and bonding with the father allows the mother to get back to work.

As social acceptance of paternal leave is growing, the job market is viewing mothers and fathers more equally. In fact, Norway has the second highest ratio of female-to-male earned income, closing the gap on the “motherhood penalty.”

Being of a certain age when I was interviewing for jobs in Norway, one male interviewer asked me if I was thinking of having any more children. My politically incorrect warning signal sounded in my head. This question can be so thoroughly illegal in the U.S. that I was stunned into silence. The interviewer quickly followed with an explanation of the benefits for parents that came with the job. Selling me on the job’s generous parental leave and flexible working hours – this is modern home economics.

Christa Clapp is a climate change economist currently on maternity leave. She works as the Head of Climate Finance at CICERO, a climate change research center based in Norway (on twitter @CSClapp). She is an American expat living in Oslo with her husband and two children.

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