The Nordic idea of a welfare society for everyone
(Lee la versión en español)
Finland is one of the most stable and safe countries in the world. It is not strange to find the name of this nation of about 5.5 million inhabitants among the first places in the rankings on education, press freedom and welfare policies.
When it comes to assessing the living conditions of mothers, Finland ranks second, right next to Norway, according to the report Save the Children The State of the World’s Mothers. It is a country that grants time paid to mothers and fathers to adapt to the arrival of a new member in the family.
To learn more about how the Finnish system works and how is to be a mother in Finland, we asked some questions to the Finnish journalist Maija Koski, who is editor-in-chief of Vauva and Meidän Perhe, Sanoma Media Finland in Helsinki. This is what she told us:
How would you describe your own experience as a working mother in Finland? Do you think this is a generally shared experience with Finnish moms?
In Finland the social norm is that women work whether they have kids or not. So it’s not common to first study and then make a decision to be a housewife or work just half-day. My own mother had four kids and worked full time as a dentist, so as a kid I never thought that it wouldn’t be possible to have a job and kids as well.
Of course women in Finland feel stressed combining full time work and parenting, but I guess many men feel the same way, not as much as women but still a bit. Besides the social norm, there are a few other things that make it easier to be a working mother in Finland.
First, we have a good daycare/preschool system that is tax funded and available and also affordable for every family.
Secondly, Finnish dads take a lot of responsibility for their kids and family life, at least nowadays.
Third thing is the paid parental leave for 9 months.
The first three of those nine months are for the mother, and the next six months can be taken either by the mother or the father. The compensation depends on your salary, and if you don’t have a job, then you will still have a small amount per month. After that, the mother or the father can stay at home until the child is 3 years old, but the compensation for that is small. In addition to these, every father can take five weeks of special “father leave” and three weeks of that can be taken at the same time with the mother. Usually dads take that straight after the birth.
When I had my first kid I spent the nine months’ parental leave with her at home. Then I went back to my work (I was working in a big daily newspaper then), and my husband stayed at home one whole year with our daughter. That was a super good decision: we didn’t have to put a year-old to a nursery yet, and my husband got a chance to develop a strong relationship with our daughter. It has also made our roles in the family more equal. It’s more and more common in Finland that young dads want to take some time with their kids at home, and that also changes the culture at the workplaces. When those dads go back to work, they don’t want to work over hours so much, because they share the responsibility of the kids with their wives. Like with my husband: we have always shared the shifts who will pick up the kids from daycare and take them there. And when kids are sick, we will take turns. That makes it easier at work as well.
So I’m lucky with many things, but of course it’s not that easy. We both work 8 hours a day plus commuting, and don’t have any help with the kids, so the schedules are packed all the time. Now when both kids (9 and 14) are at school, it is somewhat easier since they walk there and back by themselves. But my younger one has quite short school days, and he has to spend a lot of time by himself or with his friends. We have tried to find some hobbies for him nearby, so the afternoons wouldn’t be so long, but that is still something we struggle with like many other families. Holidays are quite long in Finland (from 5 to 6 weeks a year), so that makes it easier to take care of the kids during school holidays. We also get help from my parents during the school holidays. It’s quite common in Finland that school kids spend some part of their holiday with their grandparents.
What services are provided to women during pregnancy?
We have free (tax-funded) public healthcare in Finland, so every pregnant woman goes to the nearest health center, and gets checked every month, and later with their pregnancy more often. They also get two ultrasounds in the hospital, and some counseling for parents before the labor. Some mothers want to take extra 4D-ultrasounds in private clinics and pay them by themselves. Every pregnant women will also get a free maternity package aka “baby box” in Finland if they have been checked in a health center. It is full of clothes and accessories you will need with a baby, but the main point is that you have to get checked during your pregnancy.
That is a great benefit, and thanks to that Finland has long had one of the lowest levels of maternal mortality in the world.
How are births taken care of by the health system in Finland? Does every women have access to this services? How does it work?
Almost every woman in Finland will give birth in a public hospital, the nearest one that takes care of the births. Big cities all have their own hospitals, but for example in Northern Finland you may have to travel hundreds of miles to get to the hospital. Only few will
give birth at home, but it’s not at all common in Finland. We don’t have private hospitals to give birth. Even the first lady of Finland Jenni Haukio gave birth in a public hospital.
Normally, the mother will stay in the hospital from zero to three nights with the baby, and it will cost about 60 euros per day. You can also have a family room, so the father can also stay there. My two kids were both born by cesarean section, because they were coming feet first. My husband was with me both in the operation and after that in the family room for three nights.
Do you receive any service after having given birth?
The nurse from the nearest health center will visit the family at home during the first week, and after that parents will go to the health center every month to check the baby. Also, the mother will have her own after birth check in the health center.
For how long could a mother and a father take parental leave after having a baby? What was your experience?
With my first one I took a 9 month parental leave (3 months with a full salary, and 6 months with a compensation of 70% of my salary.) Then my husband stayed a year with our daughter. (The compensation for taking care of the kid at home after parental leave is 338 euros per month until the kid is 3 years old.) With my second one, I spent a bit over a year with him, and my husband stayed 6 weeks before our son went to daycare. My husband has also taken all the 3 weeks father’s leaves straight after the birth of our kids. It’s quite common, but there are still dads that don’t use their leaves at all, even if they would get paid for that.
What can you tell us about childcare and the early school years?
After parents get back to work they can choose a nursery or a childminder. Some families also hire a “shared nanny” for three of four families. The nursery or daycare center is still the most popular choice.
Every family has a right to have a daycare place for their child, and the cost of the daycare depends on your income. For low-income families the daycare is free, and then it goes up along with your income: the highest price group is 290 euros per kid per month.
So in every case, it’s affordable for everyone. You don’t have to choose to stay home because of money.
There are public and private nurseries. Most of them are good, but there are problems as well. The biggest problem, from my point of view, are too many big groups with not enough adults. It stays in the law that you have to have 1 adult per every 4 children under 3 years old, and 1 adult per 8 children over 3 years old, but the groups can be very large. The pre-school year is when the kids turn 6, and that is mandatory and free for all. The school starts the year the kid turns 7, so it is later than almost in any other country. The school days are quite short, and the kids usually go after class to afternoon care. It’s available in most parts of Finland on first and somewhere on second grade, but after that kids have to manage by themselves. That’s not too nice. There is a lot of discussion in Finland about the need of more hobbies for kids after school so they wouldn’t have to spend so much time alone before their parents come back from work. Usually kids walk to school and back from the first grade.
Teachers in Finland are well educated and the schooling is known for its high standards, but the problems are the same in nurseries, pre-schools and schools: too many big groups and not enough special care for kids who would need it. There is also a huge problem in Finland with the school buildings that have mold and poor air quality. Kids and teachers have severe symptoms, but there is not enough money to repair the buildings. So all-in-all, the Finnish school system is good and of high standards, but the recent government in Finland has cut a lot on funding for schools (because of the economic situation), unfortunately, that shows in problems I mentioned.
In Helsinki and other big cities, there are also a lot of immigrant kids in schools, and they will need more special support with language than they do now.
What is required (if anything) from citizens to be able to have these protections?
You have to be a citizen of Finland or you have to have a residence permit.
What are the biggest issues or struggles about raising children in Finland?
Compared to many countries kids are a lot on their own after they start the school. They have a lot of freedom – that I find good – but also a lot of loneliness. One big problem nowadays are the smartphones. Every school kid has their own, because they go by themselves, and parents want to keep in touch. But kids also spend way too much time with their phones in social media and playing games. Also, families hang from their phones more and more, everyone with their own mobile device, and don’t spend time together. There is a lot of depression and anxiety among kids, especially teenage girls.
I was in a steering group of National Strategy for Children 2040 in Finland, and this is our vision:
- Every child and young person has safe adults in their lives who are close to them and act with their best interests at heart.
- Every child, young person and parent or guardian is a member of a community and feels that they belong to it and can make a difference
- Families spend more time together and feel the positive effects
- Children and young people have stronger friendships and feel less lonely
- Every child and young person has a pathway to growth and learning that acknowledges individual differences
- People can have as many or as few children as they wish
- Child poverty will be reduced
What is the Finnish philosophy that supports all the public politics in favor of motherhood? Why is it important for Finnish citizens?
Well, I think it’s more the idea of welfare society, that is good for everyone, not just men but women also. In Finland, people have understood that it’s better if everyone can be involved in society, and also women can use their full potential.
Just 100 years ago Finland was a poor nation with a high child and maternal mortality. It has been a miracle how fast Finland grew to be a welfare society, that takes care of everyone. That is a Nordic ideological choice, that has proved to be good in so many ways.
At the same time, there are more and more voices that say it’s too expensive and that it doesn’t work, because “people get lazy with all these benefits”. I think this is a part of the right wing politics that is popular all over the Europe. The people who’d like to cut the taxes and the benefits should live some time in a country where the gap between rich and poor is huge. I’m sure they would appreciate more the Finnish system after that. I pay taxes, pension contribution and other immediate payments over almost 40 percent of my salary, but I like what I get, and even more I like to live in a safe society that takes care of everyone.
Of course, we have to fix the system all the time to meet the new challenges like decreasing number of babies born every year and increasing number of retired people. It’s not easy, but absolutely worth trying.
Has any party or politician proposed to eliminate any of the benefits for mothers and children?
One benefit that has been under discussion is the right for early childhood education for kids whose parents are unemployed. The recent government in Finland decided they shouldn’t have that because their parents stay at home and can take care of them. But those are often the families with least resources for their kids, so that is a very bad decision. There is also a suggestion to cut the possibility to stay home from 2 to 3 years with kids. I think that is somewhat reasonable because we have the daycare system, and we also need tax-payers to pay all the benefits. Instead, there is a strong will to change the parental leave so that there would be 6 months for mothers, 6 months to choose between mom and dad and 6 months for dads only.
We just had election, and I hope the change will happen so dads can have their own – not mandatory but dedicated – leave. It would help so many things in society: womens’ employment, better careers and happier marriages, kids and dads as well.
What are the best practices in Finland in this area that other countries can learn from? What are some other issues you are still struggling with?
I think, the overall idea of strong women in our society. We had parliamentary elections in April, and now 46 percent of the members of the parliament are women. All those benefits, from baby box to parental leave and affordable daycare for kids support women to fulfill their potential and be active members of society.
The issue we are still struggling with is domestic violence: homes are still not safe for many women even though it’s slowly getting better. We could still have more dads taking more responsibility of their kids, but the younger the dad, the better the situation is. Then, Finland struggles with racism these days. Finland has long been a very homogenic country with not much diversity. Now when we have more and more immigrants (and still not very much), Finns should learn to live with that, welcome new people and together take care of this good system and society we have managed to build.