Reuters News

Sticking Up For Single Fathers

Updated 10:19 AM ET September 14, 1999
By Belinda Goldsmith
Reuter News

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Swedes came out in droves in support of single fathers Tuesday after a child expert said young children were better off living with their mothers.

The statement came from chief physician Torgny Gustavsson who is the government-appointed child expert on a committee investigating whether unmarried parents should automatically have joint custody of children, like married parents.

At present single mothers in Sweden automatically receive full custody of the child and it is only with the woman's permission -- or court intervention -- that the father can also take on some of the care.

Gustavsson's view that children under the age of five should live with their mothers has caused uproar in egalitarian Sweden where more than half of all children are born to unmarried parents.

"As long as there is no research that shows children are worse off by joint custody, men should be regarded as suitable parents as women," said an editorial in tabloid Expressen that set up a telephone line to hear readers' views.

"Giving automatic custody to the mothers is strengthening old gender roles."

Gustavsson, who is based at a child psychiatry clinic in Vaxjo, southern Sweden, came under fire from all quarters for saying it was harmful for the child to keep swapping homes.

"Of course there are fathers who can take good care of their small children and in many cases it could be as good for the children to live with their father as their mother," Gustavsson said in his advice to Justice Minister Laila Freivalds.

"But normally the best thing for children who are only a few years old is to live with their mother and see their father regularly, at least a few times a week."

Sociology professor Lars Tornstam was a vocal critic in tabloid Aftonbladet, saying research proved the opposite.

"Studies show unequivocally that it is better for children to have rotating homes," said Tornstam, 55, whose five-year-old son spends two days with him then two days with his mother.

"Children who lived alternately with their mother then father developed better than those living with just one parent."

Sweden's cradle-to-grave welfare system, financed by income tax of up to 56 percent, aims to give both mothers and fathers the chance to care for their children with one of the world's most generous parental leave benefits.

Parents can collect 80 percent of their salary up to a maximum limit of 23,000 Swedish crowns ($2,772) a month for maternity or paternity pay for a year.

However in 1997 men only claimed 10 percent of the total money paid out in parental cash benefits. ($1-8.296 Swedish Crown)