I’m a little hesitant to admit that I was slightly oblivious to the fight for women’s equality that has come before me. It could be because I had no sense of injustice growing up, I never felt that my choices were restricted because I was a girl. It’s only since becoming a parent, specifically a mum, that my eyes have been opened to how much a woman’s choice can be affected by cultural expectations.
I have experienced being a mother in three countries. I became a mum in Norway, one of the world’s most progressive countries for women. Now, just a short distance away, I am experiencing motherhood in Switzerland, a country holding onto its traditional values.
The differences between how Norway and Switzerland view a mother’s role in society are striking and thought provoking. I have been surprised by cultural expectations and the acceptance of these. The Norwegian and me first became parents nine years ago. Since then, he has worked full-time whereas I have worked part-time, full-time, been a stay at home mum and a Hausfrau.
Of the countries I have lived, Australia led the way for equal rights being the first to grant women the vote. By 1908, women in all states had the right to vote in state and federal elections. Indigenous women however had to wait until 1962. Norwegian women were given the right to vote in 1913, and British women in 1928. Swiss women were not able to vote until 1971.
I had my first baby in Norway, ranked second in the Save the Children State of the World’s Mothers Report 2014, based on factors such as welfare support, maternity leave, childcare provision, and gender equality.
Norway is considered to be one of the most gender equal countries in the world. It ranks 3rd in the world for overall equality and 2nd for economic participation and opportunity.
Equality is a major topic in Norway and the resulting political model has been one aimed at achieving gender equality by encouraging women to work by giving them clear incentives to be in employment. The combination of parental leave and subsidised childcare has been largely credited for helping to close the gender gap.
Around 83% of mothers with small children are employed, of these, just under 61% work full-time, while 36% work part-time. Stay at home mums are considered rare.
In Norway, paid parental leave is 13 months at 80% pay, or 10 months at 100% pay. Nine weeks are dedicated to the mother around the time of birth, and 12 weeks are dedicated to the father. The rest can be divided between both parents as they see fit. Once a child reaches 12 months they are eligible for full-time state subsidised day care. In 2013, 90% of all children aged one to five were in day care, of these, 92% were there more than 41 hours per week.
It’s widely accepted that after having a baby, a mother would have up to a year off, then go back to work full-time when the child started day care around the age of one. Fairly recently though, a discussion has been emerging about family life in the equality debate.
It has been suggested that the eagerness for Norway to be the world’s most equal country has been at the expense of giving parents the opportunity to choose how to raise their family. Some find it troubling that feminism and gender equality should mean only one thing, which is that everyone should work and be the same.
In 2013, Inga Marte Thorkildsen, of the Socialist Left Party (SV), then Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, said that she didn’t believe that staying at home to look after children was as valuable as it was to be employed. She asserted that power, status and equality came with working, and that freedom of choice was related to economy. She argued that choosing to work part-time would negatively influence a woman’s financial independence way into retirement, and in doing so restrict their freedom.
The current minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, Solveig Horne, from the Progress Party (FRP), has highlighted how women who stay at home have been discriminated against with politically correct ‘universal equality’. She questioned the socialist definition of equality and suggested that equality could also be considered as giving families choice. When questioned about her ideals, she identified herself as a feminist by being engaged in having freedom of choice and equal opportunities.
Cash-for-care, kontantstøtte, is a universal payment for parents of children between the age of one and three if their child doesn’t attend day care. The cash-for-care scheme has proved to be a controversial issue as some believe it hinders equality by offering a financial incentive for mothers to stay at home with children under the age of three. Researchers have argued that in doing so, it allows the notion that spending time with their mother is the most important thing for a child.
Norwegians struggle to find the meaning in being a stay at home parent. There is a disagreement to what status a stay at home mum should have and what it actually entails. Some claim that it contributes to a calmer family life, and has an important role in society. Others see it as a luxury phenomenon, where mothers are more concerned with their own wellbeing than that of their family.
There is an area in the south of Norway where the incidence of stay at home mums is higher than the rest of Norway. Using this area as an example, researchers have suggested that not going to day care, and growing up without both parents taking equal responsibility, could increase the chances of children dropping out of school, becoming juvenile delinquents and receiving disability benefit. They concluded that it was better for a child to be at day care than to stay at home with their mother.
Some say that the experience of modern equality in Norway is that you are considered an outsider if you prioritise your kids rather than a career, and that wanting to spend time with your children is not valued in todays culture.
So what do I think? Well for the record, my point of view is that women and families should be able to choose what suits them best. People are different and what is right for one family may not be for another. Even within the same family, needs can change as time goes by.
I lived in Norway when my children were very small and the Norwegian model made me uncomfortable. My daughter went to day care full-time when she was one, and I worked full-time. It was just what you did. Later, when I had maternity leave for my son, I would bring her to day care around 10 am, but that was frowned upon, she was late. I tried to keep her home on Friday’s, but again, I was clearly the foreigner who didn’t know how things were done. All I wanted was to spend time with her. I missed her and she missed me.
I had a real sense of getting my children back when we moved to Australia, especially the eldest, then two. She had been lost to me for a while, the Norwegian state assuming responsibility for her. It’s hard not to feel emotional at the relief I felt at being able to follow my instincts again. I hadn’t been able to do that in Norway. It was much better for her to be in day care they said, she might never have any friends otherwise, ever. When we told people in Norway she went to day care two days a week in Sydney, they felt sorry for her, poor child wasn’t socialising enough. They couldn’t grasp the fact that we socialised every single day. There were loads of kids around, but now she had her baby brother and her mum with her too. In Norway during the week, the playgrounds are empty, the kids are all at day care. In Australia the parks are bustling with kids of all ages before they start school.
I’m not sure that choice should be the price that is paid in the name of equality. Can equality, social justice and diversity be compatible with a real life society? I hope so. I do believe that Norway will continue to lead the way as there is a genuine commitment to do the best for its people. There is now talk about a six hour day to help balance family life with work. The question of choice within families has now been raised and I will continue to follow the ongoing discussion with interest.
Photo thanks to Susan Shain: http://susanshain.com