It’s funny. When most people think gender equality, they think Finland. Well, ok, that’s not exactly true. The truth is, nothing really makes most people (at least American people) think Finland. I’ve been living here for 25 years and the last time I spoke to my aunt Karen she said: “So how are things in Norway?” Thanks so much for asking, things in Norway are fine, as far as I know.
That aside, if you happened to be born with a cervix, Finland is a great place to live. Finnish women were the first in Europe to vote and forerunners in running for public office. And we’re always right at the very top of the World Gender Gap Index. Most dudes I know vacuum and most women I know can drink most (non-Finnish) dudes right under the table.
Visit most offices and you’ll find a pretty equal ratio of men to women, which is great because that makes the company Christmas parties way more fun. (Now that’s what I call a human right!) And many of the women in those offices are mothers. In fact, over 80% of Finnish women work.
One of the reasons for this, of course, is the fabulous public childcare system, which makes it easy for both parents to work full time. It’s low-cost, high quality and accessible to everyone.
And before most kids go to daycare, there’s the paid maternity leave, followed by the paid parental leave. Altogether, you get paid (a lot of money) to stay home and take care of your child for around the first year of his or her life. Most women I know stay home for even longer.
And it’s during this time in a woman’s life something amazing happens. And no, when I say “something amazing” I’m not talking about the “miracle” of childbirth or the sweet smell of those first few adorable poops. Ironically, it’s during the period when our legislation protects our right to stay home and care for our children that our society judges us if we choose to go back to work.
I’ve seen this up close. A very good friend of mine chose to work literally right up until she had her daughter and she went back to work full time about two weeks after her birth. Although that’s the norm in cities like New York, it’s literally unheard of here. Why work when you can get paid to spend a year (or three) at home, going to baby yoga or sitting with other new mommies at baby friendly cafes?
Of course, I support her decision. It seems normal to me. But nine times out of ten, when she tells people she’s back at work and that little Sofia is with the nanny, she’s met with confusion at best and downright criticism at worst. She even told me that her husband lied to his parents about her returning to work so soon. Instead of being proud of her for loving her new daughter and her old job, he’s ashamed.
I guess the main reason so many people react to her like this is because the maternity and parental support system is seen as a great gift. And it is. Having the financial freedom to stay home and bond with your child is a wonderful gift. And if you choose a different path for yourself, people see you as looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Or maybe it’s something else. I can’t help but wonder if at least some of the frowns my friend gets when she tells other women she’s the working mother of a 5-month-old come from their own sense of guilt. After all, it’s only been 108 years since Finnish women made history by winning the right to go to the polls. You’ve got to admit there’s an interesting contradiction when some of the most gender equal people in the world suddenly find themselves full-time housewives when they choose to have a child.
Personally, I’ve found that once you have kids you feel guilty no matter what you do. Work outside the home when your kids are little and they won’t bond with you like they should. Stay home for too long and they’ll be too attached and want to breastfeed until they’re 12. And of course they say one of the absolute worst things you can do is try to get your child to go to sleep while you’re next to them on the comp…. Oh no…. Um, ok, I have to go now.