Sweden is discovering the cost of pushing mothers back into work

An article last week in the Telegraph stopped me in my tracks: entitled, “We’re just not ready to be Swedes, Dave” and subtitled, “The PM may want to copy Sweden’s ample child care benefits but they wouldn’t work here”, it was written by Tamzen Isacsson, an Oxford graduate now living in Sweden with her Swedish husband and baby. I settled down with a cup of coffee, anticipating that I would read a critique of Sweden’s wrap-around child care system and a plea to David Cameron to support mothers in this country who believe it is their task, not the state’s, to raise their children.

I anticipated wrongly. To my surprise and disquiet, Isacsson’s article praised the Swedish system unstintingly: she writes that “affordable (state-funded) child care makes it possible for many mothers to return to work” and asks the reader to “Imagine a country where full-time child care costs [only] £110 a month. Imagine a country where the state spends more on pre-school child care than on its defence budget… Imagine a country where stay-at-home mothers are discouraged. Welcome to Sweden.”

I am trying to imagine it, amazed that there was no hint of irony in the penultimate sentence. Isacsson can find nothing wrong with a system that puts babies in full-time nurseries as a matter of course by the time they are 18 months old and she thoroughly approves of the “Swedish work ethic” where mothers are expected to go back to work at that stage in their toddler’s life. Now pregnant with her second child, she admits she has not yet met a Swedish stay-at-home mother and concludes, again with no sense of irony, “I, for one, look forward to going back to work and contributing to a state that puts children at the very heart of society”.

At the heart of society perhaps, but not at the heart of the home and in the company of the person who, apart from their father, loves them best. As it happens, I am a member of Mothers At Home Matter (MAHM), formerly Full-Time Mothers, an organisation set up 20 years ago in Britain to provide a voice for mothers who want to have the choice (and thus the economic viability) to stay at home to raise their children rather than be forced by successive governments to return to the workforce as early as possible. MAHM is not lobbying for a return to the “1950s housewife”; it simply believes, with a wealth of solid research behind it, that “looking after young children at home is just as important a stage in the lifecycle as paid work”.

At the organisation’s AGM last November, by coincidence one of the speakers was Jonas Himmelstrand, an expert in Swedish family policy, who painted a not so rosy picture of Swedish family life, dominated as it is by government-planned childcare outside the home. He described the comprehensive day care system which began in 1975, with the result that today 92 per cent of all 18 months to five-year-olds in Sweden are in day care. The outcome of this policy is not the utopia expected: there has been an increase in psychological problems among young Swedes, an increase in disciplinary problems, a high rate of sick leave among women, deterioration in parents’ ability to raise their children and deterioration in the quality of the day care offered. Himmelstrand’s message is that the institution of the family needs support and respect from society and the government as the key institution for developing close relationships.

As over here, surveys show that the great majority of Swedes would like to spend more time with their children and children would like more time spent in the company of their parents. Apparently seven out of 10 Swedish mothers want to be able to stay at home longer. My response to this article is that we are not ready to be Swedes, Dave, not because of the massive costs such a package would entail, but because many of us value the role of motherhood and we know how essential the work – vocation is a better word – of mothers is.

In writing as she has Tamzen Isacsson has allowed herself to be a useful idiot for a dangerous and unsustainable social experiment.