The benefits for Finnish parents are in stark contrast to parents in the United States. The differences begin before the child is even born. During pregnancy, mothers can apply for a maternity grant (known as äitiysavustus). All Finnish mothers (including adoptive mothers) can apply for the grant after 5 months of pregnancy. The only other requirement to apply is that you have received a medical exam by the end of your fourth month of pregnancy. Each mother can chose between receiving the grant in the form of a maternity package (äitiyspakkaus) or a tax free, lump sum of money, which is currently valued at 140 euros, (with additional funding and supplies available for parents of multiples.) The maternity package, known in other parts of the world as the Finnish Baby Box, includes baby clothing and care items that are used in the first year of life. I'll be writing more about the Baby Box in the next post (read it here).
In terms of amount of leave, maternity leave actually begins for mothers 30 days prior to the due date. Mothers are guaranteed 105 paid working days (about 4 months). Paternal leave is also encouraged, and fathers are covered for 54 working days (about 9 weeks). An additional paid parental leave period that can be split between both parents covers another 26 weeks. If you do the math, that means that most children can be home with parents for the first year of life. During this time period, there is also flexibility in how leave is taken. Partial parental leave can be taken by one or both parents and split. For example, "parents on partial parental leave may look after their child either on alternate days or in alternate weeks, or with one parent looking after the child in the mornings, and the other in the afternoons" (Ministry of Employment.)
If parents chose not to go back to work after maternity/paternity and parental leave is over, they are entitled to paid childcare leave that continues until the child is 3 years old. Parents are paid a care allowance and a care supplement. The amount of the allowance is not dependent on income, while the supplement is determined based on a combination of income and home municipality. Incredibly, this allowance is also paid if the child stays home with another relative (e.g. grandparent, aunt/uncle, cousin). The right to take this amount of leave from your job is covered by the Employment Contracts Act, which states that "parents are entitled to take childcare leave and still keep their job." After a child turns three, parents then have the option to take partial care leave in order to start back to work part time. Partial care leave allows parents to work part-time (less than 30 hours a week) and extends until a child is in their second year of schooling. In many cases, parents may work shortened days or chose to work only 4 days per week. Both parents cannot take this type of leave at the same time, but are free to split it in whatever way works for them and their places of employment.
So perhaps you're wondering where the funding comes from. Kela, the Finnish Social Insurance Institution is the organization responsible for funding "security for all persons resident in Finland through the different stages of their lives" (KELA, 2015). To understand more about the funding structure, the website states:
"Kela's operations are financed by statutory contributions from the insured and employers and with funding from the public sector. In 2015, the state's share of funding is about 69%, with contributions accounting for about 26% and local government payments for about 5%. Kela's total annual expenditure for 2014 is estimated to be about €14.5 billion. Benefits account for about 97% and operating costs for about 3% of the total expenditure. Each benefit fund accrues operating expenses, which are funded almost entirely by the state."
By Finnish standards, starting back to work when my daughter was only 6 months old was somewhat unusual. The culture however, supports mothers as they transition back to the workforce. As I noted above, starting back to work part-time is an option taken by many parents. While my work here requires that I be full time, I have found my workplace to be incredibly accommodating with my needs in caring for my daughter. The start and end times to my day have been flexible and can change daily based on my baby's needs. I am able to go home (lucky for me, a fast 9 minute walk) to feed her lunch each day. Without question, I was offered time and space to pump at work if needed. But even better, it is completely acceptable for my husband to bring the baby to the office in order for me to feed her there. As a worker, I find that this flexibility offers peace of mind that improves my productivity, efficiency, and overall mood. It's not surprising to note that studies are beginning to find that better access to leave (including family sick leave) is good for the health of mother and baby, but also for business. (For just a few examples, read more here, here, and here.)
For now, I'm happy to soak in all of the benefits that Finnish culture extends to parents, children and families, but it's hard to shake the feeling that we need to do something to encourage change in the United States. An article by Josephine Yurcaba highlights 6 ways to promote change, which I have summarized below (but please read the full article "Want Paid Maternity Leave in the United States? 6 Ways to Push Congress to Change the Laws" over at Bustle.)
- Contact Your Congressional Representative.
- Organize or sign petitions.
- Form a peaceful protest to engage others and garner media attention for your cause.
- Use your creativity to bring attention to the issue (think public art/viral video.)
- Study up on the leave policy at your own company to begin the discussion to enact change.
- Speak up and share your own story.
Let's keep the discussion going here:
What type of leave was available (or not available) to you and your family? How did you make the choice to take unpaid leave, return to work, or leave the workforce all together? How old was your child when you returned to work? What benefits did you note by staying with your child? What hardships did you face when you or your spouse returned to work?