Helsinki – In the midst of the biggest regional security crisis in decades, while Finland waits to join NATO, the defense minister has chosen to claim almost two months of parental leave from her job.
And the Finns don’t bat an eyelid. Ditto their Nordic neighbors, who are used to family-oriented social policies and work-life balance.
Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen, a 48-year-old father of two, makes a moving argument for taking parental leave starting January 6 to devote himself primarily to his six-month-old son.
“Kids stay small just for a moment, and I want to remember it in ways other than just photos,” Kaikkonen tweeted, assuring that Finland’s safety “will be in good hands.”
He later told Finnish news agency STT that “even though ministerial duties are very important to me, you have to be able to put family first at some point.”
The five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden – have made gender equality a top priority in their policies, and that includes encouraging fathers to spend more time with their children.
In Sweden, both parents get a combined 480 days of parental leave per child, where each parent can use half – 240 – of these days, which are also transferable. In the case of multiple births, an additional 180 days is granted for each additional child.
In September, Finland launched a gender-neutral parental leave system that allows both parents to take 160 days of paid leave each and to transfer a certain number of days between them.
Top male politicians in the Nordic states have used their paternity leave rights to some extent, but it is still not common.
In Denmark, Finance Minister Nicolai Wammen began a two-month paternity leave at the end of 2020, saying his son “has mostly seen his father on TV.” Others in Denmark who do so are former immigration ministers Mattias Tesfaye and culture Joy Mogensen.
In Finland, former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, a pioneer in combining politics and fatherhood, took paternity leave in the distant 1998, albeit for a much shorter period. Lipponen, now 81, received much positive coverage in the international media for his family arrangements.
In addition to the Ukraine war and rumblings from neighboring Russia, the Finnish defense minister’s move also comes at a politically sensitive time: Finland faces a general election in early April, and its NATO membership is in limbo, mainly due to opposition from alliance member Turkey – which claims Finland and neighboring NATO candidate Sweden must first address their concerns over alleged activities by Kurdish militants in the two countries.
The parliaments of Turkey and Hungary have not yet ratified Finland’s and Sweden’s applications. The 28 other NATO states have already done so.
Finland’s leading newspaper Helsingin Sanomat said in an editorial that the country is likely to join NATO only after the new government takes office, and took a positive note of Kaikkonen’s leave, saying it contained “a message to society”.
“Observers outside of Finland may not only be surprised but also sympathetic that the defense minister can take paternity leave right now. At least it shows that there is no panic in Finland,” Helsingin Sanomat said.
Emilia Kangas, researcher in equality, work and family issues at Seinajoki University of Applied Sciences, said that Finland has seen a significant change in attitudes both in the business world and in politics over the past decade towards favoring parenthood that is equally divided between father and mother.
Kaikkonen’s paternity leave “says a lot about our (Nordic) values and welfare society,” Kangas said.
Paternity leave has become common in the Nordic corporate world.
“I encourage everyone in the effort to take time off when the children are small,” says Antti Hakkarainen, a partner at financial consulting firm KPMG Advisory Services in Helsinki. He was the father of three boys and took eight months off in 2007.
“That time has been one of the highlights of my life so far,” he said.