Child care – a site of struggle and compromise

How should we interpret and understand various stances towards pre-school child care? What effects have women’s movements had on how child care and parental leave policies were devised? What political demands have been launched, and backed by what lines of arguments? Who have conquered the right to define what counts as “good child care”? These are some of the central research questions in the project which NIKK conducted as part of the EU-funded research programme FEMCIT. We focused on women’s movements and other gender- or gender-aware actors’ significance to the shaping of child care and shared parenthood in Finland and Norway. Our point of departure was that parents’ and children’s right to good child care is among the most important aspects of social citizenship as seen from a gender and equality perspective. Citizenship is not only about rights and obligations between citizens and the state, but is also practised within social movements, political organisations and grassroots movements.

In both Finland and Norway, organised child care has emerged as a consequence of political struggle as one of the new women’s movement’s major demands.

A Nordic child care model?

Compared to that of other countries, the employment rate of Finnish women has been high since the 1950s, and for a long time married women working full time was more common than in other Western countries.

In Norway a single-provider model with a male breadwinner and a full-time or part-time housewife prevailed until the 1980s. Normatively and ideologically speaking, the ideal of the housewife reigned for longer in Norway than in Finland and the other Nordic countries, despite the fact that the proportion of the Norwegian workforce made up by women started to increase from 1970 onwards. Similarly, the social provision of child care to particularly infants and toddlers remained less obtainable in Norway compared to Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

All that has changed. The employment rate of Norwegian women surpasses that of Finnish women, and day care is much more widespread among Norwegian children than among their Finnish counterparts. Nordic statistics show that in all other Nordic countries but Finland, 70–90 per cent of all children start day care during their second year of life at the latest. In Finland, only 42 per cent of the children aged 1–2 are in day care. Finland also accounts for a lower share among the 3–5-year-olds: 73 per cent are in day care in Finland, compared to 95–97 per cent in the neighbouring countries. These numbers are from 2008. See Gislason, I.V. & Eydal, G.B. (eds.): Föräldraledighet, omsorgspolitik och jämställdhet i Norden (Parental leave, care policies and gender equality in the Nordic region). TemaNord 2010:595, p. 80).

To an exceptionally high extent compared to other Nordic countries, Finnish infants and toddlers are looked after at home – most often by their mothers. During the past 20 years, Finland has had a pronounced familistic turn, and a so-called temporary home motherhood during infancy has become the norm. This rapid change since the 1990s is connected to the implementation of public support of child care in the home. Today, approximately one third of the mothers on maternity leave choose the option to care for their child at home (in Sweden the applicable term is “vårdnadsbidrag” which means “care allowance”) until the child is three years old. This is despite the fact that all pre-school children have a statutory and universal right to day care.

Finland and Norway have introduced comprehensive rights pertaining to parental leave and child care, which enables a family model based on “shared breadwinning” and “shared care provision”. The parental leave system guarantees that a child is cared for in the home during the first year, and that parents are compensated for loss of income. Both countries have introduced improved rights for fathers, including reserving part of the leave for them.

The amount of men going on parental leave has increased – faster in Norway than in Finland – but women continue to take the by far bigger portion in both countries. In Finland the child is 10–11 months old by the time parental leave terminates. In Norway parental leave amounts to 46 or 56 weeks, depending on wage compensation. After the parental leave period ends, both Finland and Norway have introduced a system of financial support for families who do not avail themselves of publicly subsidised day care. Far more than 90 per cent of the mothers make use of this option.

In Finland, the child home care allowance (introduced in 1984) is very popular. It has become somewhat the social norm for larger groups of mothers to extend the parental leave period by way of this measure. In Norway, the introduction of cash benefits (1998) neither led to major changes in women’s employment rate nor decreased the demand for day care. It has most definitely not become a social norm to extend parental leave by staying at home supported by this subsidy. To begin with, this allowance was also popular in Norway – principally because the day care supply did not match the corresponding demand. Cash benefits enabled families to seek out other alternatives, such as market-based care services (nannies, au pairs, etc.). As day care provision has been expanded in recent years, the allowance has lost popularity, and the share of children in day care outside the home has increased dramatically. Also the Finnish population is now making less use of the child home care allowance in the wake of improved employment rates. However, it remains prevalent.

An important distinction between the Finnish and the Norwegian allowance is that it is combinable with part-time care in Norway.

While Norway did not introduce a statutory and universal right to day care until 2009, Finnish parents have enjoyed a corresponding privilege since 1996. Moreover, Finnish parents of children under the age of three have had the option to choose between day care and child home care allowance since 1990. In Finland, it has become an institutionalised part of the child care policy that mothers extend their parental leave by means of the mentioned allowance even though day care is a readily available alternative. Parents in Norway, on the other hand, increasingly prefer day care for their 1–2-year-olds.

Parent preferences

Despite the fact that Finland and Norway have similar child care provision in place for infants and toddlers, societal attitudes and parents’ preferences differ. This is reflected in the families’ choice of care provision which again is influenced by external factors, e.g. employment, access to part-time work or flexible hours and the supply of adequate and cheap day care. Cultural and moral-normative considerations also play an important role, for instance what type of care is regarded as the most suitable for small children, or how old a child should ideally be before it starts in day care.

Care provision, particularly for the youngest children, has always been a contested issue because it is related to different cultural and political perceptions of what is in “the child’s best interest”, and what characterises “good” motherhood, fatherhood or parenthood. The view on the child’s best interest is culturally constructed and varies over time. It also emerges through political struggle. There is a relative Nordic consensus that day care is desirable for children aged three and above. Care for children below that age, however, is more contested. Since the mid-1990s, parents’ views – and well as those of the entire population – of child care have changed radically in Norway. Day care is seen as a natural part of a child’s upbringing from the age of approximately one, and the educational and social significance of day care is strongly emphasised. In Finland, only few parents want day care for children that young. Here, child home care is considered to be the best form of care for the youngest children. Practically all families in Finland make use of the child home care allowance and care leave to at least some extent. In two out of three families, one parent – usually the mother – stays on care leave even after the child is two years old. In this context it is important to mind the different work patterns of Finnish and Norwegian women respectively. While part-time work is quite common among Norwegian women, eight out of ten Finnish women of working age work full-time. The choice for many women with small children, then, is one between a full-time occupation or child home care allowance.

Political struggle

Both in Finland and Norway, the women’s movement has contributed to politicising the question of child care since the 1960s. Both countries saw an early division between on the one hand radical voices arguing that day care facilitates women’s financial independence and liberation, and traditional voices on the other wanting to empower women through due recognition of their care- and domestic work. In Finland, the prolonged controversy between proponents of home care and day care respectively culminated in a “historical compromise” in 1984 between the reigning political parties, i.e. the social democrats and the centre party. The competing ideas of child care were accepted as alternatives supplementing each other – in the name of the freedom of choice. This political compromise consolidated the bipartite child care model that continues to prevail. The discourse of freedom of choice was institutionalised in child care politics and has influenced the debate ever since.

In Norway, the frontlines were similar to those in Finland. However, a compromise was never reached. Many of the proponents of day care centres – kindergartens – employed extra-parliamentary methods, protest actions, campaigns and rallies in order to influence decision-makers. The question of child care was not channelled into parliamentary politics until the early 1980s, and the development of day care centres was slow. The disagreement between proponents of day care and home care respectively flared up again during the 1990s when the Norwegian Christian Democratic Party (KrF) included the demand for child home care allowance in their election campaign. This helped bring the party to victory, and cash benefits were introduced in 1998 as an alternative for families to whom publicly subsidised day care did not appeal.

As opposed to Finland where the criticism of the child home care allowance waned in the wake of the compromise, severe criticism from feminists, gender equality activists, scholars, trade unions and the political left lingered on in Norway after the introduction of cash benefits. The allowance is considered a menace to gender equality in the labour market as well as in the home. Moreover, educational arguments and criticism that the state subsidises citizens who do not otherwise avail themselves of public support have been launched. An important element in the criticism is the effects of cash benefits for immigrant families who are over-represented among its recipients. The critics emphasise the negative consequences to the integration of immigrant children as well as the risks of increased marginalisation and isolation among women. This aspect is dominant in the Norwegian debate, whereas it remains invisible in Finland.

The red-green coalition in office in Norway has obliged itself to continue with the cash benefits, but the promise has been combined with the demand for “full kindergarten coverage”. After the latter demand has been met, even more people would like to see the allowance discontinued. Today, it seems that a majority of the government MPs wish to target the cash benefits at infants (1-year-olds).

Symptomatically, the child home care allowance in Finland is rarely criticised in itself. Rather, people object to the fact that women make up the overwhelming majority of the recipients, which may lead to the solidification of women as care givers. The silence of the women’s movement may owe to a reluctance to face the consequences of challenging the balance of the care-political “agreement of compromise”. The child home care allowance is connected to the right to day care. If parts of the agreement are questioned, it may upset the whole agreement.

Lately, however, critical voices are starting to be raised, particularly those of scholars. They point out the risk that a growing amount of poorly educated women, single providers, young women who lack working life anchorage and immigrant women are threatened by marginalisation. Ever more often, critics emphasise that the child home care allowance is a trap, not least because about half of the women who opt for it have no job to return to. It is now suggested that the child home care allowance be made more flexible to enable part-time day care similar to the Norwegian model.

The strong political support enjoyed by the child home care allowance, its popularity among families and its well-established position as an institutionalised part of the Finnish child care model preclude its abolition. Partially as a consequence of the 1990s recession and the current financial crisis, Finland is now witnessing a turn to new familism and an increased critique of the central role of wage labour, particularly among younger women. At the same time, critical and strong voices in a society dominated by two “holy cows”, namely child home care allowance for women and compulsory military service for men, are conspicuously absent.

By: Solveig Bergman is D.Soc.Sc. and Director of NIKK. Minna Rantalaiho is Master of Social Sciences and formerly employed at Norsk senter for barneforskning (the Norwegian Centre for Child Research, NOSEB) in Trondheim, now researcher at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Turku.


Bergman, Solveig (2004): Collective organizing and claim making on child care in Norden: blurring the boundaries between the inside and the outside. Social Politics, 11 (2): 217-246.

Rantalaiho, Minna (2009): Kvoter, valgfrihet, fleksibilitet: Indre spenninger i den nordiske familiepolitikken. NIKK Publikationer 2009:1.

Rantalaiho, Minna (2010): Rationalities of cash-for-childcare: the Nordic case. In Jorma Sipilä, Katja Repo & Tapio Rissanen (eds.): Cash for Child Care: the consequences for caring mothers. Cheltenham: Edgar Elgar.

Bergman, Solveig & Rantalaiho, Minna, with the assistance of Trine Rogg Korsvik (2011): Childcare as a Field of Claims-making and Political Mobilisation of Women’s Movements in Finland and Norway. FEMCIT report, submitted to the European Commission in February 2011.

Nordic outlook

Public support of child home care is available in all Nordic countries. This allowance is for parents who choose to stay at home with their infants after their parental leave (occasionally it may be used for other private care alternatives), usually until the child is three years old. In Finland and Norway this alternative has been around for quite some time, whereas corresponding support options in Denmark, Iceland and Sweden are a more recent invention. In Denmark and Sweden, municipalities are free to adopt the scheme or not. In Iceland, some municipalities have a corresponding support option, while the child home care allowance in Finland and cash benefits in Norway have been implemented on state level (in Finland with the option for municipal supplements). The scheme is not very popular in Denmark.

In Sweden, the care allowance was introduced in 2008, and it is thus too early to infer anything about its popularity. In Iceland, no comprehensive statistics on the prevalence of the support option exist. The Finnish and Norwegian schemes are discussed in Bergman’s and Rantalaiho’s article.

EU project about child care and parental leave

NIKK participated in FEMCIT, an EU-funded research programme with more than 40 European researchers from 12 countries (2007–2010): Gendered Citizenship in Multicultural Europe: the impact of contemporary women’s movements. NIKK’s director coordinated a sub-project about “social medborgarskap: barnomsorg och föräldraledigheter” (“Social citizenship: child care and parental leave”). NIKK’s contribution to the project focused on Finland and Norway. NIKK’s team of researchers consisted of: Solveig Bergman, Minna Rantalaiho, Trine Rogg Korsvik as well as (briefly) Ingrid Rusnes and Minna Seikkula. For more information about FEMCIT, see


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