The Swedish find it strange if dads don't stay home with the child

In his spare time, Mr Viktor Wallstrom, 29, grabs his hiking boots, windbreaker and hunting gear and sets off for his cabin in the woods north of Stockholm for a week. He also packs lots of diapers for his 14-month-old son Henry.

Bundled in warm clothing, the toddler gets a ride on dad's back, snug in a modified baby seat. Mr Wallstrom packs light for these father-and-son trips: no baby bottles, no baby toys, and no prams.

Though this might seem like a scene out of Survivor: Baby Edition, he is doing what many Swedish fathers do - he is on long parental leave to look after his child while his wife is at work.

"I'm the outdoorsy one, and my wife is the musical one. I like going into the woods, hiking and plucking mushrooms. So I usually take Henry on these expeditions since I'm the one on parental leave now," he says.

He is part of a growing tribe known in Sweden as "latte papas" - men who go on state-funded leave to be their children's primary caregivers, a role still associated mainly with mothers. While their wives or partners are at their jobs, the men do everything for their babies and toddlers, mostly still bottle-fed and in diapers.

Latte papas can be seen everywhere in public, one hand on a stroller and the other holding a mug of coffee. You see them in parks, or chilling with fellow dads and kids in cafes.

Mr Wallstrom, into his fourth month of parental leave, took time off from his public relations job in a telecommunications firm to stay home, look after Henry and handle the cooking, washing and cleaning up.

He plans to stay at home for six months until Christmas. His wife Linnea, 31, stayed home for almost a year after Henry's birth before returning to her job as an international coordinator with the Stockholm police.

"Taking parental leave is good for everyone. My wife gets to go to work, it's a good thing for her career. Henry gets to spend time with two parents who are active in his life. I get to bond with him during this stage of his life, so I think being on parental leave is fantastic," says Mr Wallstrom.

Experts in Sweden say that when fathers take more parental leave, it benefits not only their own families but can also enrich the labour market and reduce gender discrimination.

Forty years ago, Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce parental leave, giving both parents an equal chance to stay at home with the child.

The state grants couples 480 days of paid benefits, with 60 days for each parent that cannot be transferred between them. If either does not take the 60 days of non-transferable leave, it is forfeited. The remaining 360 days can be shared equally or transferred between parents.

Like the Wallstroms, many couples combine their parental leave entitlement with leave benefits from their jobs to extend their combined time off to a total of about 18 months.

Parents on paid leave are entitled to 80 per cent of their monthly salary for the first 390 days, with an earnings cap of 37,083 Swedish krona (about S$6,500). The remaining 90 days are paid out at a flat rate. Those who are unemployed are also given paid parental leave.

The generous benefits given to Swedish parents appear to be working, as more couples are having babies now. According to the World Bank, Sweden's total fertility rate (TFR) edged closer to replacement levels in 2012 to reach 1.91, up from 1.65 in 2002.

In comparison, Singapore's TFR has declined steadily over the years to 1.19 last year, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

According to Statistics Sweden, mothers take an average of 75 per cent of parental leave, while fathers take just 25 per cent. But more fathers are taking more time off, splitting the parental leave more equally with their wives.

As a result, Sweden - a country already well known for its gender-egalitarian policies - is seeing rising expectations that fathers should bear some of the burden of unpaid work at home.

"Nowadays, people find it strange if fathers don't stay at home with the child," says doctoral student Ida Viklund, 30, of Stockholm University, who is specialising in parental leave.

Ten years ago, fewer than 5 per cent of couples shared parental leave equally. This has risen to about 15 per cent, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, the government body that manages parental leave.

That is a welcome increase, but Ms Viklund, who has a two-month-old daughter and is on parental leave, says that "from a mother's perspective, it isn't as much as we would hope for".

She and her management consultant husband will share the parental leave equally, but she notes that Swedish mothers continue to take the main responsibility for childcare.

To encourage parents to share leave more equally, the Swedish government introduced a Gender Equality Bonus in 2008. The more equally parental leave is divided, the more payouts a couple receive over and above their basic parental leave payouts.

But Ms Viklund says the bonus is less of a factor encouraging dads to take parental leave than the changing attitudes to parental roles in younger families.

She believes that when men stay home, they make the "painful" discovery of just how tiring it is to be a full-time caregiver to a baby and manage the housework as well. That awareness helps men maintain a harmonious relationship with their wives and children even in the event that the couple break up in future.

What latte papas say they learn to appreciate most though is the opportunity to establish deeper bonds with their children.

Mr Johanochcissi Kristensson, 34, who took nine months of parental leave last year to care for his son Algot, now two years old, says: "I finally understand what it means to be a parent. It's tough work, trust me, and I've been in the military.

"Before, I didn't understand the importance of making sure that Algot was fed or rested at exact times. I thought my wife was being inflexible and unreasonable. Now I know if you don't follow these details, all hell breaks loose."

He has returned to his job as an analyst at a public management agency. "If you want to compare work and taking care of a child, I'd say that work is easier. But although caring for a child is much more taxing and demanding, I have no regrets."

Dr Sebastian Lantz, 30, stopped practising medicine to go on eight months' parental leave and care for son Ebbe, now 13 months old.

"I didn't need to learn to cook and clean because I'd been sharing those responsibilities with my wife since I first got married. But I had to learn how to change diapers or feed him, that was more challenging," he says.

Four months into being a latte papa, he says: "You feel so much closer to the child and are part of his life. My time now with Ebbe will hopefully translate into a better relationship when he grows older and enters the rebellious teenage stage. I'm also secretly proud that he says 'Daddy' a lot more than 'Mama' now."

Research in Sweden has shown that when the father is more involved in childcare, it can enhance the cognitive and social development of the child. It can also influence the child's future in terms of increased chances of higher education attainment and lower chances of criminal behaviour and delinquency.

Ms Viklund says: "In Sweden, we want to focus on the child's perspective, so one thing we stress is children's right to have both parents around them. They should be given the opportunity to be close to both parents and not just the traditional caregiver, usually the mother."

While more Swedish fathers are discovering the upside of caring for their children, the parental leave arrangements also allow women to go back to work after having babies and focus on advancing their careers.

Sociologist Marie Evertsson, 45, of Stockholm University, says: "In Swedish cities, it is uncommon for women to stay at home to be housewives and most families are dual-income households. Fathers on parental leave means that mothers can return to work earlier. This will help to minimise discrimination against mothers in the workplace. It's not just beneficial for mothers, but for all women."

Having spent almost a decade conducting research in gender equality and parental leave, she says parental leave enables both parents to achieve work-life balance, with equal opportunities to advance their careers and care for their child and home.

Having mothers and fathers spend roughly equal periods on parental leave means the labour market and employers will be less likely to discriminate based on gender, she believes.

Sweden is one of the top four countries in Europe with the narrowest gender gap, as reported in the Global Gender Index 2013. The report, which is published by the World Economic Forum, measures gender equality in areas of economics, politics, education and health.

Still, a gender wage gap persists in Sweden, with the average woman receiving 86 per cent of a male counterpart's total pay, according to official data.

Said Associate Professor Evertsson: "If men increase their share of parental leave, this changing social norm will make it difficult for employers to single out the 'riskier' gender. Right now, the assumption made is that women are the 'riskier' gender because they would stay at home much longer than men on parental leave.

"Once these assumptions are changed, gender equality in the labour market will increase and the gender wage gap will decrease."

Most Swedish employers have learnt to deal with employees going on parental leave by hiring temporary staff or moving employees around to step in for those who are away.

Mr Niklas Lofgren, a spokesman for the Social Insurance Agency, says: "Companies know that in the long run, parental leave is a good thing. It keeps companies running because in order to have a big labour force, you need more parents to work and have more children.

"To attract the best talent, companies have to offer good work-life benefits too. The system works, so companies benefit as well."

He said some companies even offer to top up 10 per cent of their employees' parental benefit payouts to attract top talent and retain valuable employees.

The company Mr Wallstrom works for, Tele2, is one of the few with such incentives. But he and his wife say they did not decide to split their parental leave for the benefits. Rather, they chose to take leave to spend time with Henry because they see themselves as "equals in this relationship".

Mr Wallstrom says: "Staying at home exceeds your expectations in both ways - it's tougher than you think, but it's also more satisfying than you would expect. But for my son, I would give up my work; in fact, I would give up anything and everything."

suntimes@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.