Talking about the medium chill and leaving work early … but still paying the bills

I am always tempted to complain, because it is hard to admit that you have it almost perfect, but my work/life balance is almost perfect.  I work short days, with fairly interesting projects at my day job, and hours with my wife and kids and time to write at night.  Oh, and I get paid enough not to worry about repo men and foreclosure.

Thank you Sweden.  Now if only you would learn how to smile …

The medium chill: This is a story from Grist last year, and I love it.  It goes into all the difficulties humans have with stepping off the fast track, eliminating possibilities and walking away from prestige and money.  And it praises relationships and time with family, while being realistic about the annoyances of being a little short of cash.  Even here in Sweden, E and I reach for the medium chill – small apartment, summer cottage with no water, no car, old stroller, not working 100 percent.  And we gain so much.  A quote:

That’s what consumer culture forever tells us: more money/stuff/status means fewer constraints, more freedom, more choices, thus more happiness. The entire economy runs on spending and debt, and for that to work everyone needs to think they’re not happy but could be happy if they just had more sh*t or a better job or a better house. Every “consumer” needs to be running on the treadmill, working toward the next thing.

But social psychologists tell a different story. They point out that there’s very little evidence that, once a certain base level of material security is achieved, more money and stuff make us happier. Gilbert offers one explanation: having fewer choices is often more conducive to synthetic happiness.

Her Key to Efficiency, Arrive Late, Leave Early:  This story tells an expat tale from Paris of a woman who discovered that she was more efficient with shorter work days.  Yes!  Having only six hours to get my job done means I leave very little time for screwing around.  Of course, it puts the pressure on too, but I’ll take that if I can unwind in the sun with my kids every afternoon.  Plus, there was this interesting tidbit about Dads. Once again, I find I am not unique:

More interestingly, she found a third category of men, who were successful in terms of performance evaluations and compensation, but who actually worked fewer hours and were unavailable for the office on evenings, weekends and vacations. These men subtly and skillfully chose the projects and clients that would allow more flexibility – and surrounded themselves with kindred spirits who would cover for one another. But they had also learned that it was better for their careers to remain discreet about their strategy, and so they weren’t role models for the rest.

Bring Back the 40-Hour Workweek:  From Alternet, via Salon, this is a look at why we had the 40-hour workweek to begin with.  And guess what? It was not just labor being lazy.  It was business figuring out that workers work best when they have shorter days.  In the short run, we only get a little more done in hours 40-60, and over the long run, it’s a disaster. :

American workers don’t realize that for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot.

Money Is the Root of All Parenting:  But don’t get poor!  Which seems obvious, but is perhaps a good message in the face of all these earthy work less links.  Lisa Belkin at the Huffington Post talks about reports that show that parents lose it more when they are stressed and angry (of course).  And how to avoid that?  Don’t lose sleep about the car repair bill.  Don’t get frantic about bank overdraft fees.

Hard to pull that off if you are poor.  So how to help the poor, or more specifically, their children?

What, then, is the alternative? They start with a few suggestions: “stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be “parenting” programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be, they allow more traditional parental skills programs to be more successful.”

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Daddyland does not fade in February when Sweden gets sick

I finished my ”real” parental leave about 17 months ago now, which makes me melancholy to even express out loud. I still work part-time, and I take lots of parental leave days – all those long winter and summer breaks, all those long spring weekends up in the country – but I am far into the typical Swedish working parent path.

Note: this is the library, not our house

But it still pays off, those 18 months home with the kids.  They still echo through our daily life, and I hope they always will, even when the whole family gets sick for a week with a high fever then interminable ache and illness, like happened two weeks ago.  No, especially when the whole family gets sick for a week (or when your never-sick daughter gets four separate illnesses in a month – February is rough in Sweden).

It is wonderful as a dad to be able to stay home and care for two sick kids and a sick wife and still get my work done (I could get paid to stay home with the kids but I find the process so bureaucratic that I would rather work – plus I kept thinking that they would get better the next day … they didn’t.) It is wonderful that after the apartment descended into chaos for three days, that it actually got cleaner the last three days, as I turned back into the midday tidying machine. It is wonderful that my wife and I can share household burdens, that we can switch kids and switch doctor trips and switch swim class pickup.

In very basic ways, I still feel like I am on parental leave. My priorities are unaltered, and I spend as much time with my children each day as I do at work. Like always, I know this is the reality of American moms, and I know more and more American dads are staying at home.  But I am a working dad.  And I still feel like this.  And this still seems like the way forward into the digital age – with everyone home at least sometime instead of no one home anytime.

“You’ll have to explain why you don’t spend time with your child.”

A very cool Radio Sweden story on changing notions of masculinity and a rise in paternity leave.  It is made all the cooler because I met the reporter, Gabe Stein, a former dad blogger, on paternity leave and we have playdates with our kids.

I can’t get the sound file to embed properly in the post, so here is the link to the story.

And here is the blurb:

Swedish men are taking out more paternity leave days than ever before. Experts say the development is having a major impact on the nature of the Swedish family.
“To be a father is now part of the masculinity in Sweden,” says Ann-Zofie Duvander, associate professor of Sociology at the University of Stockholm. “If you’re a man and you have a child, you’ll have to explain why you don’t spend time with your child.”

Paternity days now account for more than a quarter of the parental leave days taken out, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency. The agency predicts that if the pace continues, men and women will share parental leave equally by 2035.

It’s nice when the world catches up with you. I wasn’t hearing this stuff even here in Sweden when I started this blog.  And I noticed last week how many dads were home with sick kids.

It’s all good.

dreaming of bread, roses and joe hill in the stockholm subway

When we moved to Sweden three years ago, I stared every morning at a quote etched in the floor at the Näckrösen subway stop.  It was by Joe Hill, who I knew nothing about, but it was beautiful.  In English it goes something like this, “Give us not only bread, but roses too.”

It summed up everything I liked about Sweden, about the welfare state, about the reasons we more or less fled the New York City exurbs for a land of paid parental leave and universal healthcare.  I’ve meant to write about that quote for three years.  And yesterday I finally did at The Faster Times, where I am the news and politics editor and write the Big News column.

Here is the lede:

“Ninety-five years ago last week, the government of Utah murdered Joe Hill, lining him up and shooting him for a murder he might or might not have committed.

Hill was a labor activist and song writer, an immigrant with a checkered past, a fighter willing to dedicate his life to a cause – the kind of man the American left does not produce anymore, or if it does, the kind of man the American left ignores.

This is important with the rise of the passionate Tea Party and with the lack of a counterweight to the organized American right, with a president who wants to get things done, but seems to need to be led by the people, not to lead them.

Hill was born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, which happens to be my wife’s hometown.  His birthplace there is a museum, with a twisted tortured statue outside.  I visited the house years ago on a frigid February day, wracked with the flu on a failed travel book tryout.  The museum was closed, so I did not read then about the hard knock misery of 19th century Sweden, the kind of poverty that drove a quarter of the country to the United States.

But a Swedish February day was not a bad time to go – it helped me understand in a more visceral way why a man like Hill would wander into the American desert, fleeing all the darkness and illness that still drop like a veil over the country in the winter … with the world class safety net still decades away …”

You can finish the story here.

grandparents picking toddlers up early from daycare in sweden

I work part-time, and I work through lunch, all so I can cut my kids’ day at preschool short. I would not say I’m killing myself to do it, as I really like the work-kid balance to my day, but, still, we are making sacrifices.

So, feeling a bit self-satisfied, I show up at my son’s daycare … and find that he is one of only three or four kids left at 3:30 in the afternoon.

I casually ask the teachers about it. And they are surprised too by the answer.

Grandparents. Apparently, waves of grandparents show up to pick up kids in this group. And this makes me sigh. Because now that my paternity leave is over, the welfare state is not completely covering up for our lack of family network anymore.

We don’t have grandparents or any other relatives close by. Sweden is a smaller community, with less mobility than the US, so it is more likely that grandparents live in the neighborhood, and I’m really happy they do, because it means a more vibrant kid community.

I was talking to someone about this in the US, and she said she had a sense it was changing there, becoming more Swedish, that grandparents there are more and more involved, as the pressures of modern life almost force them into a child care role.

Maybe it is changing here too, because I never saw anything like this with my older child, just two years ago. I could pick her up at 4 or even 4:30 and still walk into a huge crowd of little toddlers waiting for their parents.

So even in the warm embrace of the welfare state, we daydream of living around the corner from my sister and my parents, with a friendlier safety net, one without all these bureaucratic forms and with good company at a Sunday afternoon barbecue.

in sweden kids are free to swing and climb and break their arms

I took my kids to a renovated playground on Sunday morning, and two things stood out, other than the seeping chill of early October in Sweden:  the four dads and the fact that my daughter could have easily broken her arm.

I loved both.

I recently got a request from a Canadian journalist who wanted to find a park where dads meet.  I couldn’t answer it because that encompasses every park in Stockholm.  And there is no special time either – just when kids play.  So it was no surprise that there were three other dads and me at the playground, and it was no surprise that we ignored each other (ahhh, Sweden).

But the new playground equipment was amazing – this huge climbing thing, with rope steps and balancing paths 9 feet off the ground.  There are sliding poles that fall 10 feet and which my daughter refused to acknowledge (No!  This is where you jump!)

She is 4.  She is really too young for this playground, but her preschool comes here and she is a master of the jungle gym.

And then there are the swings.  Brand new swings.

I compare this with the US, where swings are disappearing, where anything fun and challenging is disappearing.  From an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily (not a socialist mouthpiece by any means):

Fearing lawsuits over injuries, a West Virginia county is removing swing sets from elementary schools. A minor, local issue? No. America’s litigious society has changed the way kids play …

A Massachusetts elementary school has told students they can’t play tag. One Boston school forbids handstands while another in Needham, Mass., doesn’t allow students to hang upside down from the monkey bars. A pool in Hazleton, Pa., closed some years ago after a swimmer sued for $100,000 because he cut his foot running and jumping into the pool, though he’d been warned not to.

“There is nothing left in playgrounds that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four,” Philip K. Howard, lawyer and author, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2008.

I fear that I oversell Sweden sometimes.  It is not paradise.  There are huge downsides to living here.  But, paradoxically, what the socialist Swedes have that supposedly so independent Americans lack is this:  common sense and a sense of personal responsibility.

As a country, Sweden takes care of people where they truly need it (as babies, by allowing parents to stay at home) and then does not overprotect them when they do not need it (as kids, who are allowed to jump off swings, and even break their arms).

I love that.  My kid feels safe because I got to be home with her.  And she can use that safety to play and push herself and find her boundaries.

And sure I cringe and stand beneath her and nag her to be careful.

But better that than my and the kids staring at an empty field.

watch my baby blossom on parental leave in sweden

My son walked down a subway platform on Saturday waving to everyone and saying, “Bye bye!”

This was charming.  This was cute.  This was totally unexpected.

Baby B has so far been a shy child, the child who does not want the stuffed monkey to say hello to him at song time at open preschool.

Then he walked and found freedom.  Then he got really sick.  Then he finally got better.  And now he is blossoming.

At least in public.  For we have seen the wild and crazy Baby B from the beginning.

But this is my point.  I am on paternity leave.  So I knew that private Baby B minute-by-minute, the way he goes from screams to laughs and back in about five seconds.  And I have been there for all those times he turned away from the monkey at song time.

And now I was there when he walked down the subway platform saying “Bye-bye” to strangers.

I can’t describe how it is different that I am the home parent.  I would never ever ever in a million years say that I was not as close to his big sister when she was this age (I was off with her when she was older).  I would never say that I am closer to my son than any other father is to his kids.

But still … it is special to be around this boy 24 hours a day and hold his hand while he comes into his toddler own.