According to World Health Organisation statistics from 2002, the average number of live births per 1000 in Scandinavia, among women aged 15 to 19, is 10.4. In Iceland, it’s 19. In fact, Iceland is edged out only by the UK (with 20 live births per 1000) as the western European country with the highest birth rate. This has been attributed to, among other things, the lack of stigma in Iceland regarding single motherhood and the relative safety from violent crime that the country enjoys. But the greatest single reason why the birth rate is so much higher here than in almost every other country in western Europe is how national, local, and volunteer organisations in Iceland help parents, providing them with assistance and resources from pregnancy until well into the teen years. News of Iceland’s child care has even travelled abroad, attracting parents from overseas.
To the newcomer, the number of resources available to parents can be confusing – if you aren’t friends with someone who already has children, it’s often hard to know what sort of child care is available and how to obtain it.
The Role of the State
On a national level, the Ministry of Social Affairs works closest with families in Iceland. Ingibjörg Broddadóttir, a case worker with an emphasis on immigrant affairs, who was present during the drafting of some of Iceland’s more recent family policies, explained the point at which the state begins assisting as “from the moment the mother thinks she might be pregnant.”
“You can go to any healthcare centre and receive a pregnancy test for free,” she told us. “The first health checkup is done at three months, then every month after that, then several times in the last month. All of these checkups are free.”
While it’s true that the checkups are free, additional tests are not. Sonograms can cost around 5,000 ISK, and more thorough blood tests can cost from around 6,000 up to 10,000 ISK. Mothers content with simple checkups pay very little or nothing, in other words, but more comprehensive testing costs.
The state enters the picture again once the child is born. Most mothers today will only stay in hospital for 36 hours, a practise unheard of only a generation ago.
“My generation had new mothers staying in hospital for up to five days,” Broddadóttir recalls. “The generation before that, maybe seven days.”
Once home, the state begins to focus on the child’s health more intensely. The new parents can expect a lot of visits. The family is visited by “home services” (who examine the general health of the child) two or three times a day for the first five to seven days, and then these visits decrease over the following six weeks. At the end of these six weeks, the child is brought in for its first medical checkup at a health centre. Vaccinations begin when the child is three months old, with additional vaccinations – and medical checkups – at five, six, eight, ten, twelve and eighteen months, culminating in even more comprehensive medical examinations when the child is three and a half, and again at age five.
Apart from the thoroughness with which the state provides for the child’s health, there are two aspects of state child care that truly stand out: maternity and paternity leave, and child welfare payments.
Paternity Leave and Day Mothers
With a new measure established in 2000, Iceland provides leave to both parents. Today, both parents are given a total of nine months’ leave: three months for the mother, three months for the father, and the remaining three months to be divided up however they see fit. All expectant parents need do is fill out an application at Tryggingastofnun. The payments awarded are based on 80% of the parents’ income over the last two years, although the payments never exceed 480,000 ISK per month. If neither parent has been working in the past two years, the payments are minimum wage – a little less than 100,000 ISK.
Broddadóttir contends that the creation of maternity and paternity leave was initiated by an interest in gender equality.
“The concept was created in thinking of the right of the child to be with both parents, and the rights of fathers,” she told us. “This is also a reflection of changing attitudes, or more people wanting equality between men and women.”
But what happens in the intervening time between the end of the leave and the beginning of play school, which most children begin attending at the age of two? For parents who will have to go back to work and don’t have a friend or relative who can watch their child during the day, Iceland has day mothers.
Day mothers will take care of up to four or five children in their homes, during working hours (during their first year after being certified). While not exactly employees of the state, day mothers go through a rigorous background check and must pass an examination to be certified by the state. They aren’t free, either, but single parents generally pay less for their services. Broddadóttir stresses the importance of parents screening each day mother they talk to personally.
“I strongly recommend that parents meet a prospective day mother and ask as many questions as they can think of,” she says. “Make an educated decision and be thorough – your child will be in the day mother’s care for eight hours a day, after all.”
Child Welfare and Child Support
Child welfare payments are simpler to obtain than maternity and paternity leave: they don’t even need to be applied for.
“All parents who are registered with the tax office receive child welfare payments,” says Broddadóttir.
Awarded monthly, they’re based on the parent’s income in a way opposite to paternity and maternity leave – in this case, the less you earn, the higher your payments will be. The maximum payment awarded, according to the Ministry of Justice, is 126,952 ISK for the first child, 115,114 ISK for each additional child, with an added 37,397 ISK for each child under seven. These payments continue until the child is sixteen years old.
The benefits to the average family are clear: the thorough healthcare, the paid leave, and the support payments that stretch well into the child’s teens all make life easier for obvious reasons. But what if the child is disabled, or is only being cared for by one parent?
Parents of children with disabilities, long-term illnesses, serious cognitive problems that don’t necessarily allow the child to qualify for disability, and for children with behavioural problems such as ADHD, there is a type of service called “umönnunargreiðslur.” In addition to payments of up to 87,970 ISK per month, depending on how low the income of the parents is, this service also provides counselling, special educational toys (which parents are taught how to use with their children), and even “away time” for both parents and children in the form of support families and visits from day mothers. In some cases, local authorities handle these services; in the north of Iceland, for example, these services are completely under the control of local authorities.
Single parents, in addition to the previously mentioned payments in services, also receive child support payments of no less than 16,586 ISK per month, which is supposed to be paid by the non-custodial parent. In the event he or she decides not to pay, the single parent will simply receive payments from Tryggingastofnun and, as Broddadóttir says, “The state will go after the non-custodial parent.”
The Icelandic government also seems to have very strong convictions when it comes to corporal punishment – it’s illegal. In 2002, parliament passed the Child Protection Act. This law, among other things, makes it illegal for anyone to physically punish a child. In addition, if someone witnesses a child being physically abused, they are obliged to report the matter to the police. The law also puts a stronger responsibility on teachers, nurses and doctors to look for signs of abuse – if a child is brought into an emergency room, the medical staff are expected to look for and report indications of physical force.
The New Icelanders
The system might be relatively easy for Icelanders to operate in – many with whom the Grapevine spoke said that when they learned they were expecting, they simply asked their friends who already had children where to go and what to apply for.
Immigrants with legal residency are entitled to all the previously mentioned benefits provided to native citizens, but, even so, newly arrived families who have few contacts already often find the transition overwhelming. The Grapevine visited the Mum’s Club, which meets at the Intercultural Centre every Thursday afternoon from 15:00 to 17:00. The Mum’s Club was created in September 2004 by a group of foreign-born mothers who felt they needed a place where they could get together, share their experiences and exchange information. The Grapevine spoke to a couple of mothers there to get their impressions on what it’s been like being newly arrived parents in Iceland.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know what to expect,” says Laura, originally from Houston, Texas. “I wasn’t aware of what Icelanders did when they got pregnant, but we learned as we went.”
Laura arrived in Iceland three years ago with her husband, who’s originally from Germany. Her child, Angelina, was born a year and a half ago. Laura worked at Enskuskóli, teaching English, and it was here that she learned much of what she knows now about what the state provides families in Iceland.
“There were five or six other people I was working with who were pregnant,” she says, “which was very helpful. They gave me a lot of helpful information. Still, I didn’t know what a day mother was until Angelina was nine or ten months old.”
Another mother, who wished to remain anonymous, also had a rough time of it when she first arrived in Iceland.
“I tried to apply my son for kindergarten,” she explains, “but, as I didn’t have a residence permit, he couldn’t get in. Eventually I found him a place at a private kindergarten, but that was still hard to get into and more expensive.”
While she says that Iceland has a “refreshing and welcoming attitude” towards people with children (in particular, she mentioned the presence of child seats in nearly every restaurant and café), she had a few suggestions on how navigating Iceland’s social system could be made easier for foreigners.
“I think it would be a good idea if there were a list of addresses of playgrounds and cafés that have children’s toys, and other places friendly to children,” she says. “Also, I noticed that there isn’t a rating system for kindergartens. I think that might be helpful to all parents. And it would be really nice if there were a place with toys and coffee that was open during the day, someplace warm where you could take your children in the winter. For now, we just go to the mall.”
Virginia Thurston, originally from Ottawa, Canada, says that Iceland’s child care policy was a “major reason” for moving here.
“I’ve been drawn to Iceland since I was seven or eight years old,” she told us, “On my first trip to Iceland, I made a friend who had a child, who’d actually had a water birth in Keflavík. We wrote back and forth, and there’s a lot of things she told me in advance. In talking to her, I began to feel confident in the quality of care here, the fact that it’s a safe country, there’s universal health care – like home – and there’s no stigma towards single mothers.”
Thurston moved to Iceland last June with her husband Nathaniel and her son Orion, who was born in Brooklyn. Already Orion, who is two, is enrolled in a play school called Mánabrekka, a play school with an emphasis on foreign children.
“They have specialists there who help children integrate into Icelandic society,” Thurston explained, “They have 14 different nationalities there. For about 450 USD a month, Orion gets two meals a day, plus a snack, eight and a half hours of instruction, and he is exposed to nature and music. What I also like is that you can go to their playground after hours. I could never do that in the US.”
Despite all of Iceland’s benefits to families, Thurston does feel detached and lonely at times. As she explained, “It’s hard being away from my family. I need to give my child the love of someone I haven’t paid. On the other hand, the only regret I have is that I didn’t do this earlier.”
Apart from just asking people who already have children, there are a few resources to navigate Iceland’s social system. For those who can read Icelandic, www.fjolskylda.is is an excellent and thorough online resource, with links and information about every aspect of child care. For those who don’t understand Icelandic well enough yet, a visit or a phone call to the Intercultural Centre can answer most of your questions.
Iceland’s child care system is both generous and thorough. Learning how it operates may take some time.
The Intercultural Centre, Hverfisgata 18, 101 Reykjavík. Tel. 530 9300. For more information, visit: www.ahus.is or write to email@example.com.
Tryggingamiðstöðin, Aðalstræti 6, 101 Reykjavík. Tel. 515 2000. For more information, visit http://www.tryggingamidstodin.is/Forsida or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Reykjavík Healthcare Services, Barónsstígur 47, 101 Reykjavík. Tel. 585 1300. For more information, visit www.hr.is or write to email@example.com.
Ministry of Social Affairs, Tryggvagata 17 (Hafnarhúsið). 150 Reykjavík. Tel. 545 8100. For more information, visit http://eng.felagsmalaraduneyti.is/ or write to http://eng.felagsmalaraduneyti.is/enquires/.
The Domestic Debt Advisory Service, Hverfisgata 6, 2nd Floor, 101 Reykjavík. Tel. 551 4485. For more information, visit http://fjolskylda.is/fjarmal/radgjafarstofa/tungumal//nr/125 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Reykjavík City Council, Tjarnagata 11, 101 Reykjavík. Tel. 563 2000. For more information, visit http://www.reykjavik.is/displayer.asp?cat_id=295&lang=eng.
Mánabrekka Preschool. (Preschool with emphasis on foreign children.) Suðurströnd, 170 Seltjarnarnes. Tel. 595 9280. For more information, visit http://www.seltjarnarnes.is/manabrekka.
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