Finnish defense chief to take advantage of paternity leave

Dec 18, 2022, 9:58 AM | Updated: Dec 19, 2022, 7:02 am
FILE - Finland's Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen answers to reporters as he arrives for a meeting ...

FILE - Finland's Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen answers to reporters as he arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Amid the biggest regional security crisis in decades, as Finland waits to join NATO, the country’s defense minister has chosen to claim nearly two months of parental leave from his job. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

(AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

HELSINKI (AP) — Finland’s defense minister made a stirring argument for his country’s new gender-neutral parental leave system when he announced he would be stepping aside in few weeks to take care of his 6-month-old son, reassuring the nation that it would be in good hands amid a regional security crisis.

While most Finns have shrugged off Antti Kaikkonen’s decision to take leave and the policy is in line with those in neighboring countries, it’s still not common for male politicians in Nordic states to make use of their parental leave.

“Children remain small only for a moment, and I want to remember it in ways other than just photos,” Kaikkonen, a 48-year-old father of two, said on Twitter last week in making the argument for two months of parental leave starting Jan. 6.

The news came as Finland waits to join NATO and amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which borders Finland.

But Finns are taking it in stride. Ditto their Nordic neighbors, who are used to family-oriented social policies and work-life balance. The five Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — have made gender equality a priority, and that includes encouraging dads to spend more time with their children.

Kaikkonen later told Finnish news agency STT that “although ministerial duties are very important to me, you’ve got to be able to put family first at some point.” A member of the Finnish Parliament’s defense committee was tapped to replace him. Mikko Savola belongs to the Center Party, one of the parties in the country’s coalition government.

In Sweden, both parents together receive 480 days of parental leave per child, with each parent able to use half — 240 — of those days, which are also transferable. In the case of multiple births, an extra 180 days are granted for each additional child.

In September, Finland launched a gender-neutral parental leave system allowing both parents to take 160 days of paid leave each and to transfer a certain amount of days between each other.

Top male politicians in the Nordic states have made use of their paternal leave rights to a certain extent but it’s still not common practice.

In Denmark, Finance Minister Nicolai Wammen began a two-month paternity leave in late 2020, saying that his son “has mostly seen his father on TV.” Others in Denmark to do so include the former ministers of immigration, Mattias Tesfaye, and culture, Joy Mogensen.

In Finland, former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, a trailblazer in combining politics and fatherhood, took paternal leave in the distant 1998, albeit for a much shorter period. Lipponen, now 81, received plenty of positive coverage in international media for his family arrangements.

Beyond the Ukraine war and rumblings from the eastern neighbor, the Finnish defense minister’s move also comes at a politically sensitive time: Finland faces a general election in early April, and its NATO accession is in limbo mainly due to resistance from alliance member Turkey — which claims Finland and neighboring NATO candidate Sweden must first address its concerns over alleged activities of Kurdish militants in the two countries.

The parliaments of Turkey and Hungary have yet to ratify Finland and Sweden’s applications. The 28 other NATO members 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 has taken office, and took a positive note on Kaikkonen’s leave, saying it contained “a message to society.”

“Observers outside Finland may not only be surprised but also sympathize with the fact that the defense minister can take paternity leave right now. At least it shows that there’s no panic in Finland,” Helsingin Sanomat said.

Emilia Kangas, a researcher on equality, work and family issues at Seinajoki University of Applied Sciences, said Finland has seen a substantial change in attitudes both in the corporate world and in politics over the past decade toward favoring parenthood that is equally divided between father and mother.

Kaikkonen’s paternity leave “tells much about our (Nordic) values and welfare society,” Kangas said.

Paternity leave has become common in the Nordic corporate world.

“I do encourage everyone in efforts to take time off when kids are small,” said Antti Hakkarainen, a partner at financial consultancy KPMG Advisory Services in Helsinki. A father of three boys, he took eight months of leave in 2007.

“That time has been one of the highlights of my life so far,” he said.

___

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.

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Finnish defense chief to take advantage of paternity leave