Outside, baby carriages are lined up in rows like cars in a pint-sized parking lot. Inside, it's controlled pandemonium as toddlers careen between scattered dolls, squishy cushions, a furry dragon on wooden wheels and dads. Lots of dads.
These are not just weekend fathers. It's a sunny Monday morning in the tidy Stockholm neighbourhood of Hammarby Sjöstad, and nearly everyone in the Solbackens preschool more than 18 months old is a father on extended parental leave.
When it comes to coping with the competing demands of work and family, Canadians already look to Sweden with envy. In recent years, the government has brought in a more flexible workday, made it easier for employees to take sabbaticals to pursue outside interests and launched a campaign to cut absenteeism in half by making the workplace far healthier.
But one measure rises above the others: a cutting-edge approach to paternity leave that is revolutionizing Sweden's drive to balance the professional and personal lives of its working couples.
Both parents here are given generous time off to care for young children, but men receive a bonus for trading the office for diaper duty - cash, if they take an equal share of the leave, plus two additional "daddy months" that only they can use.
Magnus Zimmerman, a first-time father sprawled on the preschool floor with son Line, 1, and a little orange truck, wouldn't have it any other way.
After Line was born, his mother stayed home for 12 months, two of which Mr. Zimmerman took off as well. She is now back on the job, but he doesn't plan to return to Polystar, the small telecom supplier where he works, for another four months.
His bosses didn't blink an eye. "The senior managers are all at home with their children. It would be unusual if I wasn't."
"Message to the workplace"
For couples trying to juggle careers and children, the father's role is vital. Last month, the European Union extended mandatory paternity leave for all its members to two weeks, which is how long David Cameron was off the job in September when he became Britain's first prime minister to stay home with a newborn.
Mr. Cameron's decision raised eyebrows, but "if men don't see themselves as equal or symmetrical or shared parties in that enterprise, it's very exhausting for women," says Andrea Doucet, who teaches sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa and has studied different models of parental leave.
As well as affecting the dynamics within a family, she explains, "the more that men can be involved … also sends a message to the workplace."
Back in the late 1960s, Sweden did not allow immigration and introduced paid parental leave with guaranteed job protection to increase its work force. As a result, between 1970 and 1995, the number of women employed outside the home rose by one-third to 80 per cent.
But there was a problem. It had been assumed that, as women started to work, men would assume more responsibility at home. Yet fathers rarely took parental leave, leaving women to shoulder most of the child-care and household responsibilities as well as hold down a job.
So the powerful trade unions, women's groups and successive governments looked for ways to tweak parental leave and change men's behaviour and employers' attitudes.
The thinking was that if men helped when babies were born, they'd keep it up afterward, says Ulrika Hagström, a social-benefits expert with the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees. And if employers realized men were just as likely to take time off, "they would have to adapt."
Again nothing happened. When couples were allowed to decide who stayed home, men almost always took a pass, often afraid that becoming Mr. Mom would endanger their careers. And that fear was real, Ms. Hagström says. "Some employers saw it as if they [men on leave]prioritized work less and the family more."
The magic bullet
So, in 1995, just as Sweden's fertility rate (the number of babies a mother has) was plunging, one month of parental leave was set aside exclusively for the father. If he didn't use it, the couple would lose it. Five years later, the male-only share was doubled (a move The Economist slammed as "forced fatherhood"), and today there is political pressure to raise it to three months.
That is now the average length of a paternal leave, which is less than one-quarter of what a man could take, but about 85 per cent of Swedish fathers spend at least some time home alone with their children.
Employer prejudice persists, however. "Some Swedish companies made it a priority to be friendly to parental leave," says Christian Celsing, a 39-year-old purchasing manager among the fathers at Solbackens, "but at others you probably do lose a couple of steps on the career ladder."
Even so, the participation rate continues to rise, and one father in five manages a 50-50 split with his partner, collecting an "equality" bonus of $2,050.
It helps that Swedes are entitled to 480 days of paid leave before a child's eighth birthday. For much of that time, the state pays 80 per cent of the parent's salary, up to $5,445 a month, which is topped up by many companies - including the government, which employs one worker in every three.
In sharp contrast, most Canadians are compensated for only 35 weeks, and payments max out at 55 per cent of annual salaries no higher than $43,200. Because women still tend to earn less, it frequently makes financial sense to have them stay home. Only 12 to 15 per cent of Canadian fathers take any time at all.
"If you leave the choice to the family," says Carleton's Prof. Doucet, "it's going to be a gender choice - with long-term effects on family and home."
One effect is stress. In a recent Nanos Research survey conducted for The Globe and Mail, men were just as likely to feel the pressure of child care. And if given the chance, they will stay home: In 2000, a year before Ottawa expanded employment-insurance benefits from 10 to 35 weeks, fathers used just 3 per cent of the time available. By last year, their portion had jumped to 33 per cent, and Statistics Canada says that, in 2007, men on average took 6.3 days off work for family reasons versus 1.8 days a decade earlier.
Yet Prof. Doucet has found that most men still take parental leave in spurts, immediately after a birth or tacked on to a summer vacation. Even those who stay home the longest often do so simply because they qualify for benefits and their partners do not.
Sweden allows much more flexibility. Leave time can be diced in just about any permutation imaginable - as days, half-days and even quarter-days. What can't be finessed is the gender dictum: Fathers must use the two months or they're lost.
As a result, "the working culture is changing," says Fredrik Rydahl, an engineer at truck manufacturer Scania who took more than six months off with both of his daughters, now 4 and 7. "When we hire a young guy, we count it as a given that this guy is going to be home with small children at some point."
According to his wife Maria, also an engineer, "You change so much when you're home and you're a parent. If only one of you does this journey, you risk going in different directions."
Question of balance
Fifteen years of tweaking parental leave has helped Swedes reverse their fading fertility rate and made them among the happiest of Europeans when it comes to work-life balance. According to one survey, only 18 per cent feel their jobs make it difficult to fulfill family obligations.
Having fathers become equal partners seems to enrich the lives of both parents - and the men in the Solbackens playroom say they are getting the balance right.
"I personally haven't had any fears of getting off track with my career," says Olav Fromm, a product marketing manager at a pharmaceutical company currently on a six-month leave with his year-old daughter.
"I think we do not define ourselves through work in the way our parents' generation did," the father of four explains, adding, "At the same time, now you have more professional women with demanding careers ... and the parental leave helps make that possible."
Being on leave has made him a better father and probably a better husband, Mr. Fromm says, but men out pushing strollers on a work day can still draw stares.
"I went with three other fathers to a museum," he recalls. "There were 40 Japanese tourists, all men, and they were taking photos of us."
Special to The Globe and Mail