Getting Paid for Parenting
When my Norwegian wife became pregnant with our first child, we sat down and sketched out the pros and cons of staying to raise our family in this cold, dark land of fiords and steep taxes or returning to California. As we compared the two, the choice became clear: Norway.
The list of benefits offered to Norwegian families reads like a parent's fantasy. Fifty-three weeks of maternity leave at 80 percent pay with a guaranteed job to return to, five weeks (legislation has been introduced to raise it to 10 weeks) of paid paternity leave, a national standard of five weeks of vacation, extensive day-care options, a 37.5-hour workweek, and even an extra government grant should one of the parents decide to stay at home with the child from age 1 to 2.
"They really value the relationship between parent and child here," says Emily Moss, an American expat and mother of two. In Norway, parents might actually have enough time to spend with their small children.
Costly. Creating family-friendly social policy doesn't come cheaply, though. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Norway is a world leader in spending on social programs like supporting families with small children, committing just over 1 percent of its gross domestic product. But the spending arguably produces results. Norway performs far better in child wellness ratings than the United States. A UNICEF study of child well-being in 21 industrialized nations placed Norway seventh on the list, while the United States placed next to last, in 20th place.
Norwegian policymakers are sold on the idea that relieving the time and economic pressure on parents yields long-term benefits. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said the long maternity leave, in particular, just makes good economic sense. "It gives Norway a competitive advantage when young families do not have to choose between having a career and having children," Stoltenberg says. "They can have both. ... The benefit of giving parents paid maternity leave for a year is that they don't leave the workforce for several years."
All this hardly turns Norway into paradise, though the divorce rate has dropped 6 percent in the past decade. But maybe that's not the best indicator of how a deeper commitment to children is integrated into national customs. Perhaps that dedication shows itself here in the way the most important national holiday is given over to elementary school students. On Norwegian Independence Day, there are no fireworks, just slightly disorganized troops of kids strolling through Oslo's downtown, headed to the palace to be greeted by the king. It's the children's day. It's the nation's day.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.