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‘Swedish Dads’ Pays Homage to Equal Parenting

By Jonas Meuleman

Sweden is famous for its progressive policies that promote gender equality. But the issue of women’s rights is not just a woman’s issue. It’s a man’s one as well — and that applies to the all-important issue of childcare and parental leave.

To highlight the role that men play in childrearing, the House of Sweden is hosting “Swedish Dads,” an internationally acclaimed photo series by Swedish photographer Johan Bävman. It is the first time the exhibition is being displayed in the U.S. in its entirety, and Bävman said he was delighted to work with the Swedish Embassy in D.C. to make that happen.

“It’s been a really good collaboration with them, and as I’ve imagined from the beginning, I’d like my photo series to be public, I’d like it to be out there, not only at fancy galleries and stuff, but also at big billboards in the street,” he told the Diplomatic Pouch.

Bävman portrays 45 fathers who belong to the relatively small percentage of fathers in Sweden who choose to stay at home with their children for at least six months. He examines the motivations behind their decision to be stay-at-home dads and the effects that decision has had on their partners and their children. The goal of the project is to offer insights into how gender equality impacts parenting, both on an individual and societal level.

Swedish Dads
Vicki Shabo, Dean Peacock, and Johan Bävman in a panel discussion on the current issues of gender equality and equal parenting in Sweden, the U.S. and the rest of the world. Photos: Embassy of Sweden

In 1974, Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with parental leave. Today, the Nordic nation has one of the most generous parental leave policies in the world, allowing parents to stay at home with their child for nearly 16 months while receiving an allowance from the state.

At the exhibition opening, Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter said her country’s progressive parental leave policies are part of a long tradition of promoting gender equality.

“In 2014, Sweden was the first in the world to have a government that is fully feminist, including then, of course, a feminist foreign policy. Female labor participation in Sweden is currently the highest ever recorded in the European Union — 80% of women work. And fertility rates are also relatively high in Sweden. If we compare this to the United States, female labor participation in the U.S. is about 62% to 63% [with] an equal fertility rate. So, just the fact that women work does not mean that we will have a lower fertility rate. We have proven that this not so.”

The exhibition opening included a panel discussion featuring Bävman and Dean Peacock of Promundo, a D.C.-based organization that engages men and boys to promote gender equality and prevent domestic violence. Moderating the discussion was Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at New America’s Better Life Lab, which works toward paid family and medical leave for every working American.

Swedish Dads
Dean Peacock of Promundo, Vicki Shabo of New America’s Better Life Lab, Ambassador of Sweden to the United States Karin Olofsdotter, and photographer Johan Bävman all join for a photo after the panel discussion.

The theme of depicting men as caregivers in Bävman’s photography challenges traditional notions of masculinity. This is particularly evident in one image of a man holding his child close to his chest as if he were breastfeeding it. The emotion on the father’s face speaks volumes. It is one of the most intimate moments in the collection, unparalleled in its natural beauty.

Bävman believes this is the most controversial photo he has ever taken. “All the way back to Rembrandt, men have been portrayed in their traditional role, with swords and stuff, and this photo, he looks as if he’s pregnant. So I think out of all my photographs, this is the most provocative one. He’s vulnerable. It’s almost like he’s taking over the woman’s role.”

Bävman told us that he first got the inspiration for his photo series by taking a portrait of himself and his son at home. “I was taking a self-portrait while being on parental leave for the first time. That was back in 2013 and I was afraid of doing mistakes as a parent. The picture that was always presented to me was a glamourous picture of this constant ‘super dad’ — someone that could never make mistakes and an all-present dad. I had a hard time relating to that, so I wanted to create role models that others and I could relate to.”

The photo exhibition quickly went viral, both nationally and internationally, thanks to a post on Buzzfeed. Since then, “Swedish Dads” has been shown in more than 65 countries.

Swedish Dads
Ambassador of Sweden Karin Olofsdotter talks in her opening speech about the history of Swedish parental leave.

“Parental leave is something everyone can talk about,” said Bävman. “It’s something international. Being at home with your children is something universal. Whether you’re in Bangladesh in a slum or in Sweden, it’s about providing food for your child, being the sole caregiver and being responsible for someone else.”

While the theme of childcare is universal, the nuances of it vary greatly in different countries, as Bävman discovered during an exhibition tour.

“In my stupidity, I thought this project was something you could adapt to wherever you are. But one time I was in Tehran and a woman came up to me and said, ‘By doing this project, you’re taking away the only thing that you men believe I am better at than you are. What else is there left for me to do?’ And I didn’t expect that comment, but it’s so important to know that in some countries, it’s not even an option of going back to work as a woman. It’s a complex issue.”

The Swedish government, however, encourages women (and men) to go back to work after having children — in part by giving them generous paid leave to prevent the kind of financial hardship that can force many mothers to drop out of the workforce.

Swedish Dads
Johan Bävman talking to a guest in front of the photo exhibition.

Swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave, out of which at least 90 are exclusively reserved for each parent and cannot be transferred. Out of those 480 days, parents are paid nearly 80% of their salary for 390 days. In addition, Sweden offers special care for expectant and new mothers, including monthly allowances per child that increase with each child and the ability to stay home with sick children or dependents while still receiving 80% of their pay.

Nevertheless, there is still room for progress, both Bävman and Olofsdotter emphasized. “We’re not perfect — far from it,” the ambassador said. “Women still assume the primary care for children and elderly and take up more parental leave time than men. Swedish men take up only 30 percent of parental leave, far from the 50 percent where we would like to be.”

“To change a pattern, it takes time,” Bävman added. “[O]ur politicians must tell our citizens: ‘This is how we should do it, how we should progress in order to have a sustainable and gender-equal future.’ It’s this issue about feminism, which is not a female issue to me, but a human issue. You should involve men into that conversation,” he said. “It’s a cultural topic. You have to swim against the current. No one wants to be the first to change something. Therefore, it’s important to have more people talk about it.”

To that end, panel participants talked about the challenges of gender equality here in the U.S., where there is no federal law guaranteeing paid parental leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 does protect a new mother’s right to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, but fails to address parental leave, which has so far only been adopted in the states of California, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York.

Shabo of the Better Life Lab has worked on this issue for a long time. “Talking about paid leave here in the U.S. at this moment is a really important and exciting thing to be doing. We have seen a lot of successful new state policies — paid family and medical leave laws that will soon be in place in eight U.S. states — and I feel that there is a much more vivid conversation about this topic in Congress. I’m more optimistic than I have been in a long time.”

Meanwhile, Promundo fights for gender equality through its MenCare campaign, which is active in more than 50 countries on five continents and advocates for policies at the local and national levels that promote gender-equal caregiving. According to the group, Promundo has so far reached 250,000 individuals to prevent the spread of violence and creating a better connection between father and child.

“I worked with perpetrators of violence in San Francisco for many years and I had very similar experiences to some of the men that were often resistant to talk about their violence and their partners with a sense of agony and resentment,” Peacock explained. “All we had to do to shift the conversation in a more productive direction was to talk about the relationships with their children. They may not always have had the empathy and commitment to the partners they had abused, but the conversation changed dramatically when we started talking about their children. You could almost always certainly predict that when we brought the topic up, they were going to cry.”

Looking around at the photographs in the room, Shabo asked Peacock about the role that imagery plays in changing traditional social norms of masculinity.

“Very often when we see images of men, we see fathers doing the fun stuff — not the laundry, not any difficult childcare work — which of course brings out pleasure, but isn’t always easy. We try to correct this pervasive misunderstanding of existing social norms,” Peacock said, noting that Promundo uses these types of images in its work in Africa to challenge masculine stereotypes there.

Shabo asked both Peacock and Bävman what they’d like to see 20 years from now.

“To make sure that countries around the world adopt the MenCare pledge and sign onto five policies intended to get all of men to do 50 percent of the unpaid care work,” Peacock replied. “If we have those in place, by 2030, the end date of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, we will have made enormous progress. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

As for Bävman, he simply said: “I would like my work not to be relevant anymore.”

“Swedish Dads” is on display for free with a guide on site until Dec. 15 at the House of Sweden. For more information on Bävman’s photography, visit www.johanbavman.se/swedish-dads/. For more information on Promundo’s work, visit https://promundoglobal.org/programs/mencare/.


Jonas Meuleman is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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