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The Swedish Men Changing Fatherhood

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As Swedish-style shared parental leave hits the UK, Jimi Famurewa takes his son to Stockholm to meet the men changing fatherhood

No one ever tells you that being a parent may one day turn you into an inadvertent shoplifter. And yet, here I am, sprinting from a newsagent in Stockholm airport with a tin of biscuits in one hand and a banana in the other, forced to give chase as my two-year-old son, Dylan, gleefully pegs it into the crush of the terminal.

Add this to the afternoon’s other trials – a new level of tired delirium as he sobbingly demands “crisps” while holding a handful of crisps, wailing existential anguish when we check in our pram at the bag drop – and you could assume things aren’t going entirely to plan.

By now, inspired by half a week in the commanding glow of the planet’s most effortlessly capable dads (more on this shortly) we should be skipping contentedly to our gate, kindly Swedish ladies giving us admiring glances as we go. Toddler-prompted kleptomania is not the neat Hallmark ending I had in mind.

Eventually (sheen of sweat on my brow, forced ‘breezy parent’ smile on my lips) I collar him outside an incongruous Irish sports bar. We return to pay. I scoop up our bags, grip his hand and check our gate number. My free hand is already reaching for the crisps.

Jimi

A tantrum-free moment on the plane

Alpha papas

Three days earlier, Dylan and I are at Gatwick airport with the multiple bulky pieces of luggage that denote any sort of short break with a child. Having negotiated a strop-free train ride here, I already feel like I deserve a medal and my own public holiday. But this transit is only a small part of the ultimate aim. You see, the law around parental leave in the UK is changing.

From this Sunday, some of the zombified slave-people of babies born or placed for adoption in England, Scotland and Wales will be able to share up to 40 weeks of paid leave, meaning fathers could eschew the traditional fortnight of bewildered exhaustion for a prolonged period with their children. It has been the personal crusade of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who pushed the change through back in 2012, and is an admirable move to what could be termed ‘the Swedish way’.

Sweden, as adept at equality as grisly crime dramas and affordable furniture, has had a version of extended paternity leave since 1974, and today – thanks in no part to a fair bit of financial cajoling from the government – it’s not uncommon for a huge swathe of men to take months off as sole child carers while their wives return to work. This legislation, and its increasing popularity, has given rise to a curious modern phenomenon colloquially, and somewhat p*sstakingly, known as the ‘latte papa’.

Is this gender shift a vision of what’s in store for Britain? And, more to the point, what can we learn from these superdads? I decided to spend some time in Stockholm to find out and, in the spirit of full immersion, take my son for our first trip without his mother. Delegating parental responsibility to a CBeebies-filled iPad, I hopped on a plane to the progressive utopian future.

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg campaigned for shared parental leave changes

Oppen day

“My girlfriend was home for nine months and then I took over in November, so I’ll be home for the next nine months.” Simon Andren, a 32-year-old writer, is telling me about his move to latte papa-dom while also trying to stop his one-year-old son, Bjorn, from attempting a head-first manoeuvre down a miniature slide.

Dylan and I are at an Oppen Forskola (‘open preschool’ or playgroup, essentially) in the southwest of the city, having dumped our bags at a flash waterside place called Hotel J and jumped in a taxi. He has only napped fleetingly, so bears a familiar look of groggy dissatisfaction and is, perhaps understandably, thrown by the Swedish renditions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and abundance of strange dads.

There are definitely a lot of dads – 11 of them, just outnumbering the nine mums by my count. What’s more, Stina – the woman who has run this group for 10 years – tells me that some mornings there can be just five mums and as many as 50 dads changing nappies, tucking into cakes and mediating inevitable squabbles over toys. Simon maintains that it’s no big deal.

“It’s nothing unusual,” he says. “Why not take 50 per cent each, if it works for you? My colleagues had done the same thing, so that made it easier for me.” This shrugging pragmatism seems to be the response of most dads I meet that afternoon. And also, the idea of strength in numbers – a kind of ‘you first’ situation where dubious men are swept along by other new dads willing to take time out from high-powered careers – seems important. One 2014 survey taken around the announcement of the new British law found that, despite all the positive noises men make about spending more time with their families, only one in 10 of those polled would take the maximum amount of leave available, and just under half were perfectly happy with two weeks.

I have a pet theory that, despite the difficulties – emotional, practical – of balancing work and home life with a new baby, when men compare a job in an office (commute-easing iPlayer downloads, nice lunches, interaction with other adults) to the often lonely, frequently maddening job of full-time childcare, they secretly think they’ve got a pretty good racket going. Returning to your desk is its own escape. Doesn’t Simon miss anything about work?

“No, I don’t miss it,” he insists. “I may have those moments later on, but it’s interesting to see how I will be in this situation. I’m not in the bar so much, I’ve stopped going out as much; it’s almost like a social experiment to see how I react and change.”

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Jimi and Dylan with Swedish fathers at the Oppen Forskola

Viking retreat

As for my own social experiment, Dylan – when not helpfully announcing “Daddy had a wee” to the nice ladies in the hotel reception – is having a blast. By day two we fall into a new pattern of naps, meatball-based meals and sightseeing, enacting our own strange buddy comedy. And I can’t help but think that for all the gruntwork that comes with tending to an incredibly needy lordling (and plenty of single parents do it on their own every day), spending an intense amount of time with your kid can, of course, just be lots and lots of fun.

That was certainly the case for Joel Sherwood, a 38-year-old US-born banker and father of three who took seven months of paternity leave for each of his children. “People say it’s not a vacation,” he says, when Dylan and I meet him for a coffee after work. “And it’s not. But it kind of is. Everybody likes free time and everybody likes to hang out with their kids. I think sometimes there’s some jealousy aimed at the dads. Like they’re not committed to work or something like that. But I wore the latte papa tag and I wore it proudly. You can make it your own and hold on to who you are.”

This brings us to the other obstacle any Brits wanting to take up the extended paternity leave mantle will have to overcome. Forget the specifics of each family’s financial situation – any man requesting a lengthy period of time off to look after a baby will be judged. Even in Sweden – where, in 2009, celebrity Anna Anka drew scorn after railing against Sweden’s “nappy changing… sissies” – it seems there’s still a minority ready to stigmatise men taking on what’s seen as a traditionally feminine role. Even the term latte papa (described to me as gently disparaging in a similar way to ‘champagne socialist’) alludes to gangs of shiftless irritants, blocking the pavement with their prams when they could be climbing the career ladder.

No one I speak to seems offended by the term (“I’m furious about it. I always drink my coffee black,” deadpans Simon) and, in fact, they seem to have embraced their status as a distinct tribe, forming papa networks and, as one dad tells me, racing radio-controlled cars in the park. They go back to work refreshed and re-energised with a closer connection to their children, and it’s hard not to speculate about the correlation between this set-up and all those statistics about Scandinavian happiness we’re constantly bombarded with.

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Men taking a childcare career gap is seen as the norm in Sweden

Generation game

For our part, Dylan and I spend our last morning in Stockholm making our way to the airport via various modes of toddler-pleasing transport (boat, bus, train), meandering towards the incident in the newsagents. We eventually board the plane and, as I break out yet more snacks and await take-off, I can’t help but wonder if I could handle life as a latte papa for real.

I’d like to think I’d consider it. That we all would. After all, beyond the Gosling-inspired feminist platitudes and #heforshe tweets, here is a real, practical way that men can strike a blow for equality. But I’m reminded that Stina from the Oppen Forskola had told me about her husband being the lone dad on the block when he took leave in 1985, and that Joel shrewdly surmised “It can take a generation for the cultural shift”.

Suddenly, another thought strikes me. A vision of a grown-up Dylan, sweat beading his brow and a muttered swearword on his lips, chasing his own runaway child through a playground while on extended parental leave. I manage a tired smile. Progressiveness and a sort of slow-burn parental revenge? I think that’s something we can all get behind.

To book a stay at the family-friendly Hotel J Stockholm, head to mrandmrssmith.com

(Images: Kristoffer Samuelsson/Jimi Famurewa/PA/BBC/Nick Jr)

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