Real men share the housework: what Britain can learn from the domestic bliss of Scandinavia | Helen Russell

A new survey shows UK men are shirking the chores. Not so in Nordic nations, where family-friendly policies have changed the landscape

And lo! As we all return to school it turns out that women in Britain are still doing more housework than men. The new British social attitudes survey has just been published, and it reveals that although a majority of Britons agree that adult couples sharing a home should do equal amounts of housework, two-thirds of them admitted that women ended up doing much more. Italian and Spanish women have it worse (Mi dispiace/Lo siento). But my adopted Nordic homeland is – apparently – winning, and there’s much that Brits can learn from the way things are done here.

Since moving to Denmark in 2013, I’ve noticed a rhythm to Danish life that’s more conducive to the equal division of labour. Both sexes work and get paid a decent wage. And from the age of 10 months, all children go to tax-subsidised, state-run daycare. Most daycare institutions and offices are open from 8am until 4pm, and this has defined the way Danes work. So even the CEO of a company is allowed to say in a meeting at 4pm, “I have to leave to pick up the kids and make dinner.” And they go home to eat as a family.

Meals are something you have together in Denmark, and we would never, ever eat in front of the TV. Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes also prioritise family mealtimes. In my old life in London, my husband and I would regularly be shovelling a takeaway with one hand while clutching the remote or a phone with the other. Dinnertime conversations would run along the lines of: “Want food?” “No thanks, I ate earlier. At the fridge …” But in Denmark, “life around the table” is prized.

Most Danish men have a signature bake up their sleeves and the Danish equivalent of Jamie Oliver is Timm Vladimir, a tattooed Viking in a leather apron. Inspired by the notion that “real men cook”, my husband now makes a mean cinnamon bun, and his apple-chip salmon was recently reviewed as “to die for”. Most Danes also take huge pride in their homes, so don’t mind doing a whiz round with a vacuum cleaner. The weekend living supplements have not been lying: Danes love a chic minimalist home, so no one puts up with clutter or cobwebs.

Researching Nordic childhoods for my new book, I’ve discovered that Vikings learn their way around a kitchen from an early age. My five-year-old twins learned to bake bread at kindergarten. Their big brother attends a weekly “food lab” at school where he has learned to rustle up messy yet edible scrambled eggs and porridge. In Denmark, a quarter of all teenagers attend a subsidised residential boarding school or efterskole for a year or more from the age of 14 where they learn to cook, clean and launder for themselves. (At 16! I once knew a 30-year-old who couldn’t operate a washing machine, so this sounds brilliant.) Although they offer general education, the primary task of efterskole is to prepare you for life. A teacher friend tells me she can spot efterskole alumni a mile away in her equivalent of A-level classes: “They’re much more grounded and mature.”

The Nordics aren’t nailing it because they live in a magical fairyland where everyone loafs around enjoying hot drinks and hygge. They’re nailing it because governments have implemented family-friendly policies to make equality happen. The generous parental leave and subsidised daycare, funded by taxes, mean Nordic women are better supported. Dads throughout the Nordic countries change nappies, cook and do the daycare run – so much so that any dad who doesn’t is not regarded as a real man. Sweden was the first country to introduce shared parental leave, in 1974, and Swedish fathers use the most parental leave in the world. In the late 1950s there were a million “housewives” in Sweden, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency. Now the term is practically obsolete – and there’s no desire from women to go back there.

Almost every father spends time at home now. If you don’t, it’s thought of as a bit strange. There’s even a nickname, latte papas, used to describe the well turned out dads hanging out in coffee shops with a baby in tow. This was not a change driven by fathers. The change happened because politicians dared to push for it.

Brave politicians making unpopular decisions for the greater good: now there’s a thought. There’s an economic imperative, too. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Union and the World Economic Forum all encourage member nations to guarantee their workers paid parental leave and subsidised daycare because shared parental leave has been shown to be good for economic growth (let’s get T-shirts printed! Or tattoos! Who’s in?).

Equality is now ingrained in Nordic culture – no wonder these countries are the happiest in the world. Equality works. And nothing’s sexier than a man in Marigolds. So, let’s teach our sons to mop, iron, clean and do laundry. Future employers, partners, flatmates and the world at large will thank us for it. And, if they don’t learn – well, you could send them to Denmark.

  • Helen Russell is a writer living in Jutland, Denmark, and the author of The Year of Living Danishly and the upcoming How to Raise A Viking


Helen Russell

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