I think us Americans could take a few pages from the Norwegian playbook, especially when it comes to families.

When me and my boys spent three weeks in Norway, we got a good sense of what our life could be like if we lived there. We’ve long known the differences between the U.S. and Norway. For one, they’ve had wonderful universal healthcare for decades. In America the average worker gets two weeks vacation each year, and it’s not abnormal that some have to use their vacation days when they are sick.

In Norway, the workers generally get five weeks vacation. From what I understand, sick leave seems a bit unlimited as long as after four weeks you’ve got a doctor’s note and a treatment plan outlined. And yes, this includes needing time off to care for a sick family member.

Then there’s the maternity leave. In the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. In Norway, you can generally receive up to 100 percent of your salary for 47 weeks, or 80 percent of it for 57 weeks. (As long as you’re not some fat cat banker, pulling down millions upon millions of dollars each year.)

For paternity leave, dads generally get 12 weeks paid. That’s three months people. Thu-reeeeee. And it’s expected for you to take advantage of such leaves, if you don’t it can be frowned upon because you clearly don’t have your priorities straight.

Last week the Save the Children foundation released its 13th annual State of the World’s Mothers and it found Norway was the No. 1 country for moms. The U.S. came in 25th place, while an improvement from last year’s 31st spot, we’re still the lowest-ranked industrialized country. (You can view the report here.)

That’s largely because moms here have a 1 in 2,100 risk of pregnancy-related death. (In Norway it’s 1 in 7,600). Other factors that lower the U.S.’s placement include, the fact that many kids aren’t enrolled in preschools, women here have relatively low political status and we’re one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee working moms paid leave.

Over Christmas we got to see those Norwegian numbers in action. One family that really made an impression on us was where the mom was a journalist (like me) and the father worked in a field similar to Hubby’s. They have three delightful, well-behaved boys. She took off 48 weeks with each of her kids and received 80% of her salary. With her youngest, she took an extra six months off with no pay. Today she works 80 percent, which means she works four days a week and due to constructs of her company, her work day is seven hours. Seven.

Her husband had two weeks paid off after all three kids were born, then with the two oldest he had an additional six weeks off. All paid. Plus he works 7 to 9 hours a day. Just for clarity’s sake, this is all parental leave, it doesn’t include holiday or sick leave. They keep that separate.

Oh how envious we were!

I did have seven months maternity leave with both kids, with some of it paid, including use of my vacation. When I’d tell people the length of my leave, they’d always exclaim how lucky I was to be out of the workplace for so long. After my maternity leave with my oldest, I worked part-time for about four months and then returned full-time.

As many of you know, when I tried to do the part-time thing after my second kid, I had to quit my job because the company denied my request. In Norway, that denial would have been illegal.

So now I’m freelancing and I like the freedom it allows, but it was scary venturing out on my own. It’s kind of like starting your own business and I struggle with capping my hours at part-time so that I can be there for my family while keeping the career thing going.

With Hubby, he works 12 hours a day, five days a week and also spends four or so hours each Sunday on work.

Seeing our Norwegian friends’ lifestyle was eye-opening. They were still able to climb the ladder of success, but without sacrificing their families.

Not that they don’t have their stresses and challenges, but this was more than a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side revelation. It seemed like they have evolved to a higher mindset. Of course you must spend more time with your family because you work to live, not live to work. Anything different to them is backasswards.

When we returned to the states, it was interesting to contrast the daily life of the Norwegian journalist’s family with the frenetic pace of my American mommy friends. Many married, stay-at-home moms feel like single moms since their spouses are away so much. Then when both parents work, they’re wracked by guilt that daycare and nannies get to see their children more. They worry about missing out on first smiles, first steps, first words, first crushes. Also the marriage takes a hit because after work and the kids, there’s not much energy left for each other, making it easy to drift apart.

We’re told we can do it all and have it all, but without a significant culture change, let’s be honest, we can’t. Sacrifices have to be made. Not that the Norwegians have it all, but they’ve got the infrastructure to be much more satisfied with the parental juggling act than Americans.

As people, our families and friends are our foundation. In the race to be bigger, faster, stronger, we’ve lost sight of what makes us better: Time with each other.


*First image by Erica Lynn Photography



Culture Contrast: Norway’s support of working families and then there’s… U.S. — 8 Comments

  1. This to me would be a dream. I would love for us to switch our culture to this type of lifestyle, but unfortunately I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    • I’m with you, I don’t see it happening either. One could hope though, right? I do believe though that we’re changing. Especially with the long-lasting recession and people seeing that when they dedicate their lives to their jobs, there’s no guarantee that their jobs will take care of them. So we’re seeing more companies with family friendly flextime options and though the nation won’t change until it’s legislation, it’s good that there’s a grassroots vibe along those lines. We’ve got to start somewhere.

  2. LOVE this post Mel! I always struggle with the work/life balance and having worked for a Canadian company for almost 7 years many of my co-workers were shocked that I had to return to work after only a few short weeks of UNPAID mat leave (they received a year off with around 60% pay thanks to universal healthcare). I recently read the book “Off Balance” by Matthew Kelly and it had some wonderful strategies for achieving personal and professional satisfaction. It was very eye-opening to read up on his theory and realize some of the things I can improve upon.

    • Girl, I can only imagine what it’s like to run in your stilettos. You are an amazing mama and I find it stunning that with all you do, you have time/find time to read books. I’ll go read up on the Off Balance book, seems like there’s lessons in there I definitely need.

  3. Hi Mellie,
    Well, you know my viewpoint – I think it’s fantastic, although I have not benefitted from this myself not living at home but in the UK, (the benefits here are not anything like Norway, but still not too bad) I many times wish I could have.
    I think you are doing an amazing job doing what you do, which is even harder to do in such a pressurised business culture. You should be proud of everything you have done and are doing for your family and I really hope you can move to Norway soon and be able to experience the benefits first hand. That’s what mum has been paying all that tax for all these years – to see at least one of her children benefitting from the system us Norwegians are so proud of.

    Lots of love from your Norwegian sister-in-law

    • Thanks Toril. Sometimes we Americans need that perspective and especially us moms because this frenetic pace is quite the norm, so we don’t always feel proud or have time to step back and admire our accomplishments.

  4. I agree–there is something to be learned from the Norwegian system. I think that we are too focused on work–especially when measured by success and failure at work. It seems like we are all measured by the work that we do. I stayed home with my daughter for a year and was fortunate enough to find part time work that was flexible, paid well, and stimulating over the past 6 years. I think that there should be more jobs like these for parents. Parents can still contribute greatly while setting aside plenty of time for their children. There are times that I do think that I would have a great career had I worked full time. But, then, I realize how much I would have sacrificed. At the end of the day, what matters to me is my family.

    • I totally understand. Sometimes I’m consumed of thoughts that sound like shoulda, coulda, wouldas but I know at the end of the day I’m doing what’s right for me and my family. Some moms find that they are better moms if they work. I find that I’m a better mom and wife if I am working part-time. I need something that’s just me, all me. But I also want to be in the arena where I’m Logan and Ethan’s mom. So for me, a part time position that is flexible like what you had is totally up my alley.

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