Finland is moving to catch up with its Nordic peers and even the parental leave playing field by encouraging more fathers to stay at home with their kids. The policy has been framed as a victory for egalitarian principles and a much-needed shot in the arm for falling birth rates.
But what's it like to stay home if you are not Finnish and know few Dads like you nearby? This week Yle News' the All Points North podcast spoke to some migrant fathers who are living the ideal as stay-at-home dads caring for their youngsters, but who say they feel isolated in their roles.
Finding support in online dad communities
James Cramer first visited Finland during summer.
"My wife convinced me that Finland isn’t as cold and dark as it’s made out to be," he laughs. Seven years on he knows better. More than the cold and darkness though, it was the loneliness Cramer experienced during paternity leave as a new dad in Finland that took him by surprise.
"I had work colleagues, but my friends network in Finland, even after seven years, is pathetic. As I started to freelance, that network thinned further. So when I was on parental leave, I had no friends to reach out to or even anyone to socially connect with," Cramer says.
The final straw for Cramer was at the end of three months at home. He had had minimal adult social contact, and when his toddler went about the house tossing freshly-washed laundry into the dog’s water bowl and throwing his toys around, Cramer lost his cool. With no one to turn to for advice, he reached out to the Expat Dads fathers’ group on Facebook.
"When I wrote the post on the dads' group I was emotional, I knew my reaction was wrong and I needed feedback. I was surprised by the responses; my friends would have pulled my leg," he comments.
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Within seconds of publishing the post support poured in, comforting responses lauding him for his honesty, acknowledging parental leave is tough and gets the better of most, urging him to ditch the self-doubt of whether he was a good enough dad, and that it is not possible to achieve everything in a day — from laundry to preparing a business plan — while taking care of a child.
Comprising mainly foreign men, most of whom are in Finland because of a Finnish partner, the nearly 600-member group serves as a peer support network for all things dad. The group’s activities range from monthly 'pressure relief' meetups, where they socialise and discuss fatherhood experiences, to offering parental advice to cleaning hacks to trading ideas for activities to do with their children.
For many dads it also helps to relieve social isolation in a country where few may have families or friends, often not even a job or a solid grasp of the language.
Carrots and sticks for stay-at-home-dads
The Finnish government plans to nearly double paternity leave to encourage more men to care for their kids at home. The proposed reform aims to increase earnings-related maternity and paternity leave to five months each. Both five-month options would be non-transferable between parents, in order to encourage more fathers to take time out to look after their kids. An additional five-month period would be available for both parents to share as they see fit.
As Finland’s birth rate continues to drop, public discourse has raised the issue of providing more support for families, increasing paternity leave and encouraging fathers to use the maximum amount of leave.
Political commentator Sini Korpinen tells Yle News that the government’s proposed 5+5+5 model will effectively push more fathers to take paternity leave.
"The 5+5+5 model ensures more equality, provided the home care allowance doesn’t stay as it is. Otherwise, it is mothers who will end up using this allowance after 10 months. As is the case now," Korpinen suggests.
For Korpinen, legislative reform is key to changing parental leave practices.
"Our attitudes towards gender roles in Finland are still not on par with the other Nordic countries. The attitudes may change gradually, but the legislation may bring quicker results," she continues.
Language can connect -- or divide
In 2018 Oliver Lillie started the expat fathers' group on Facebook, precisely to address that social void and to connect dads and dads-to-be.
For fathers like Lillie the group is also a way to connect with other dads on playdates and encourage his children’s engagement with the English language. "Finnish is my children’s primary language, but I want them to interact and play with other kids in my mother tongue," says Lillie.
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Bilingualism is a concern for many immigrant fathers. Familia ry, a non-profit organisation that works to enable a two-way integration of immigrants in Finland, runs a different fathers’ group to connect foreign fathers and combat social isolation. It also addresses a recurring concern among immigrant fathers of raising bicultural children.
Familia meetings encourage dads to talk about everything from being an immigrant in Finland to how to be an intercultural family to masculinity to the kind of fathers they want to be. This often leads to discussions on their own childhoods and fathers.
"We want to make sure fathers don’t feel alienated when their child only speaks Finnish at home," says Fabrizio Turci, who works as the organisation's peer-support group facilitator.
Fathers' changing roles
The growing number of fathers' groups point to the increasing importance of fathers as primary caregivers, especially in the Nordics where paternity leave and staying at home alone with a child as mothers return to work is encouraged. Finland has a reputation for gender equality. A 2017 OECD gender equality report lauded Finland for being the only country in the developed world where fathers spend a total of eight minutes more with school-aged children than mothers, but Cramer argues that the state needs to encourage more fathers to take paternity leave.
"When I was at home with my son for three months, I thought I would meet and connect with other fathers in our neighbourhood park, but there were only mums. My wife in her maternity leave used momzie, which is like tinder for mothers, where she would connect with other mothers who were similarly wired. Those women are still my wife’s friends two years on. There’s no such thing for dads," he adds, suggesting that maybe someone should make a similar dad link-up app.
According to Siru keskinen, a statistical analyst with national benefits agency Kela, in 2017, fathers on an average took 37 days of parental leave and the average for mothers was 261 days. Available data suggest that the number of men staying at home with children increased after paternity leave was increased in 2003 in Finland. Research has also shown that fatherhood has become central to men’s identity, as more men are no longer primary earners.
"Fathers want to play an active role instead of being purely breadwinners and those who enforce discipline. Finland gives them that chance. Also, some foreign men have secondary jobs, and their wives are primary earners. So, they see the value in taking paternity leave," Turci explains.
Finnish dads lack support too
Though the need to equally participate in parental care, find networks and connections with other dads is growing, parental support, even in egalitarian Finland, is geared towards mothers. Turci admits that social isolation is a problem for many immigrant fathers.. Finnish fathers who are not from Helsinki may face the same problem, but they have a linguistic and cultural advantage.
Miessakit, a non-profit organisation that works for men’s wellbeing, runs a project 'Looks like dad' (Isän näköinen) in collaboration with the Finnish Federation of Settlement Houses (FFSH). The project provides men with a platform to talk about fatherhood and encourages them to be active parents so as to upend the still-widespread belief: that only women are suited to being primary parents.
According to Ismo Pitkänen, a project coordinator at Miessakit, while Finnish fathers may not face as much social isolation during paternity leave as immigrant fathers, they often lack networks as well. To Pitkänen peer support as well as sharing and learning from each other’s experiences are key to men’s well-being as fathers.
Immigrant dad Edgar Roberts* agrees with Pitkänen’s assessment. "What I missed most during my paternity leave was not just someone to talk to, but just the lack of male role models who, like me, stayed at home with their child. Someone I could learn from."
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
What do you think? What's it like to be a stay-at-home Dad in Finland?
James Cramer and Fabrizio Turci will be joining us on this week’s All Points North podcast to discuss the problem from the ground up: what does it take to convince people to move to Finland? You can send comments or questions via WhatsApp on +358 44 421 0909, on our Facebook or Twitter accounts, or at email@example.com.