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An American dad in Sweden now has plenty of family time

"Here, it's not about work," said Tyler Reid, who moved his young family from New York. "It's about enjoying life."
by Alexander Smith and Vladimir Banic /  / Updated 
Image: Swedish paternity leave
American researcher Michael Wells walks with his son in Stockholm, Sweden.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

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STYRSÖ, Sweden — When Tyler Reid and his young family moved from New York to Sweden, the flight took around eight hours.

But in his journey as a father, Reid might as well have been beamed to another universe.

Sweden's progressive laws mean it is arguably the best place on the planet to be a new dad. The United States, on the other hand, at least in terms of paid family leave, may be the worst in the developed world.

Image: Swedish paternity leave
Tyler Reid and Bogart, his 14-month-old son.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

"Here, it's not about work," says the 33-year-old Reid, looking out on the wintry sunset from his home on the island of Styrsö. "It's about enjoying life."

For every child they have, Swedish parents are legally entitled to share 480 days off from work. During this break they are paid 80 percent of their salaries in the first 390 days and the equivalent of around $20 a day per parent thereafter.

But what really sets Sweden apart is its commitment to gender equality.

Three months of the 480 days must be taken by fathers. Last year Swedish dads took more than 27 percent of the total leave allotted to couples nationwide.

This cultural shift has become so ingrained in society that it is now frowned upon for new fathers not to take extended periods of time off. Areas of Stockholm are now rife with "latte dads" — typically youngish, bearded men carrying their babies in slings or hanging out with their toddlers.

But for the Swedish government, that's not enough.

Image: Sweden paternity leave
A government advertisement from when Swedish paternity leave started in the 1970s, featuring famous Swedish wrestler Lennart "Hoa-Hoa" Dahlgren.Ministry for Social Affairs and Health

The ruling Social Democrat-Green coalition is now pushing for fathers to take 50 percent of their share in paternal leave — "pappaledighet" in Swedish. This means they would spend as much time with their young children as moms, and get paid doing it.

"We say that we have the most progressive system in the world, but how do we also continue to be a forerunner in equality within our system?" says Victor Harju, a spokesman for Sweden's Ministry for Social Affairs and Health.

The comparison with the U.S. could not be more stark.

Americans are the only people in the developed world whose central government provides no paid family leave at all — for mothers or fathers.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, signed by President Bill Clinton 25 years ago in February, means some mothers are entitled to 12 weeks off after childbirth. But this is unpaid, and many people don't qualify, particularly if they work for companies with 50 employees or fewer.

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"I would come home and see my son for 30 minutes a day and then I'd be gone in the morning before he'd wake up."

Some American women do get benefits, of course, but it's up to individual states and private companies to make up the shortfall.

This legal and cultural divide is what, along with extraordinary luck and privilege, drew Reid and his family to Sweden.

Reid's wife, Agnes Asplund, 34, is Swedish. Before they moved in summer 2015, her father had just built a house on Styrsö, a craggy island in the Gothenburg archipelago, and asked if they wanted to live in it.

At the time, the couple were living in New York City. The dual pressures of stressful jobs and looking after their son, Hugo, then 1, had pushed them close to burnout.

"I would come home and see my son for 30 minutes a day, and then I'd be gone in the morning before he'd wake up," Reid says. "I just couldn't handle it. It was a grind with little payoff."

Asplund, a visual effects artist who met Reid while studying in the States, was also feeling the squeeze.

Image: Swedish paternity leave
Tyler Reid, his wife, Agnes Asplund, and their sons, Hugo and Bogart.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

"You are forced as a woman to choose between your child or your job," she says. "You can't have both. You can't have a career and children unless one of them suffers."

They were considering moving back to Reid's home state of Kentucky. But when Asplund's father gave them the option of renting out the home he built on his plot of land, they said it was a no-brainer.

Here, the life of these two attractive hipsters is something of a progressive nirvana.

Styrsö has 1,500 people, no cars and takes just 30 minutes to cross by foot. It's another half an hour by passenger ferry to Gothenburg, the city of half a million that’s home to the headquarters of Volvo.

Asplund works at a digital effects firm whose main client is the car giant.

"Everyone in Gothenburg does something for Volvo," she adds with a laugh.

Hugo, whose middle name is Danger, is now 4, and he now has a brother, 14-month-old Bogart, whose middle name is Riot.

Raising their children in such different environments — the U.S. and Sweden — has given Reid and Asplund a rare insight into the vast chasm between the two countries.

"I missed his first steps because I was away with work," Reid says, gesturing toward his eldest son playing on the floor of their open-plan living space.

"But when this one took his first steps," the video producer says, turning to the toddler sitting on his knee, "I f---ing just jumped around like a lunatic. I was on the ground like a cockroach just screaming, so happy. I was so ecstatic, like: 'That's what it looks like! That's what it's like!' I was so thrilled."

"Children have the right to spend time with both their parents."

The sea change has helped them grow as a couple, Asplund said.

"It puts more strain on the family as a whole when you're not able to share the responsibility of everything," she says. "Now, we both work, we both take care of the kids, we both take care of the house, there's not that rift or division. It was just a lot better."

Children spending more quality time with their fathers has a cascade of social benefits, according to the Swedish government, but it also allows women to pursue their careers and become more active members of the workforce.

In this sense, gender equality is a dispassionate economic goal; right now half of the population is unable to contribute as much as the other because of traditional family commitments.

Some conservative critics say this focus on dads means moms are pressured to abandon their children too soon. The Swedish government disagrees.

"One of the main discussions now is how do we make dads stay at home more," says Harju, the health ministry spokesman. "We are in firm belief that children have the right to spend time with both their parents, and we have to ensure that the system also covers that and pushes society toward that direction."

Another American father with experience in both worlds is Michael Wells, a Minnesota native and an expert on parental leave.

He moved to Sweden to study the country's unique parenting model but ended up meeting a Swedish woman, getting married and having a son.

Image: Swedish paternity leave
Michael Wells with his son.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

"When I originally came, I came to study it, not to live it," says Wells, who works as a researcher at the Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Stockholm.

For Wells, it's not just the family leave that sets Sweden apart but the raft of other social welfare benefits.

For example, parents don't have to take all of their 480 days at once. Some of that time can be deferred up until the child is 12 years old. In addition, the government pays every couple — whether they are janitors or CEOs — an allowance that equates to around $130 per child per month.

Swedes also get a whopping 120 days of "child sick leave" per year, when they can stay home if a child is ill without eating into their own already generous allowance.

"I think Americans would be really surprised by the system here," Wells says. "And the U.S. system would be unfathomable to a Swede."

How does Sweden pay for this? Part of the answer, very broadly, is that Swedes are prepared to pay more in taxes than Americans — much more.

If Sweden's tax system was applied in the U.S., everyone earning more than $75,000 would have to pay the top marginal tax rate of around 61 percent — one of the highest in the world. Currently, only Americans earning around $400,000 hit the top tax bracket of around 46 percent, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Many in the U.S. might argue this goes against the American spirit distilled by President Ronald Reagan's farewell address in 1989: "We the people tell the government what to do; it doesn't tell us."

Image: Map showing Sweden
At 61 percent, Sweden has one of the highest top marginal tax rates in the world.Bing Maps

But like many in Sweden, Wells says he is happy to pay extra because of the parental leave, subsidized health care, subsidized preschools and a slew of other benefits he gets in return.

"I get a lot from my taxes. I see what they provide," he says. "And as soon as you start having kids, you see all these other benefits that you get out of your taxes that I know I would have to pay for out of my own pocket in the U.S. That's a huge burden off my shoulders."

The Swedish government is now trying to modernize its family leave and update a policy that was devised in the 1970s so it better suits life in 2018.

"For instance, in the LGBT community, where two lesbians or gay people have kids together, how are they able to use the insurance in a sensible way so it's adjusted to different families?" says Harju at the health ministry.

Reid and Wells say they've already encountered an array of reactions from people in the U.S.

"We have a lot of friends who have kids and they all are pretty much asking: 'How do we get to Sweden? How do we live there?'" Reid says.

Asplund has had a different experience. "Yeah, they think it's all communist," she laughs.

Others might argue that the Swedish model — catering to a far more homogeneous population of 10 million than America's 326 million — could never work in the U.S.

Wells disagrees.

"If every other industrialized country in the world can have parental leave," he says, "I'm pretty sure the U.S. can manage to do it, too."

CORRECTION (April 4, 2018, 1:55 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the company that Agnes Asplund works for. She works for Rapid Images, a marketing firm whose main client is Volvo — not Volvo itself.

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