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After twins Parisa and Leia were born prematurely, their father, Samad Kohigoltapeh, spent some 10 months on parental leave with them.

When Dads and Moms Share Parental Leave

A father and photographer captured the lives of men like him, who split parental leave duties with their wives under Sweden’s generous policy.

This story appears in the January 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

When Johan Bävman’s son Viggo was born, so was a deeply personal photography project: a look at fathers using Sweden’s expansive parental-leave policy to stay home with their children.

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Johan Ekengård and his wife equally split the allowed parental leave. Here, he manages the morning routine with their children, from left, Tyra, Stina, and Ebbe.

Paid maternal leave around childbirth is commonplace throughout the world: It’s federal policy in 34 of the 35 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (all but the United States). About two-thirds of those nations also fund at least brief parental leaves for fathers—a benefit first extended by Sweden, in 1974.

Sweden’s program has allowed parents to split 480 days of subsidized leave to care for children and earn bonuses according to how evenly they split the leave. But despite those incentives, only about 14 percent of Sweden’s fathers “share the days equally with their partner,” Bävman says.

He joined the ranks of those dads in 2012 at Viggo’s birth—“I wanted to be at home by myself with him, to get to know his needs”—and is also using leave to stay home with Manfred, born in 2016. In his photo project (now a book), Bävman shows fathers in Sweden overseeing child and home care. “It’s gone unrecognized that this is really hard, full-time work,” he says, and “something that women have always been doing.”

Like most new mothers, Caroline Ihlström looked forward to cuddling and feeding her newborns. But premature twins Parisa and Leia were unable to nurse. When Bävman arrived to take photos shortly after the twins’ birth, their father, Samad Kohigoltapeh, had fed them formula by syringe and was warming them against his skin. A construction engineer, Kohigoltapeh took joint parental leave with Ihlström for the babies’ first four months—and then soloed with them for six more months.

So far Bävman has made portraits of 45 fathers on leave. He is happy to offer them as role models “so men can see the benefits of being on leave.” But he’s not as impressed with the nickname some Swedes apply: latte-pappor, or “latte dads,” as if the men perform childcare duties between coffee dates. Though he does drink coffee, Bävman says, “I don’t have time to sit.”

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Sweden’s leave system “seems like a utopia for many people,” says warehouse worker and musician Markus Bergqvist, who took six months off with older son Ted and eight months off with younger son Sigge.

Taking long leaves with his children has made him a better parent, Bävman says. He hopes his photography project will inspire more fathers—and more countries—to give the idea a try.