NATO for nappies as Finland's defence minister goes on paternity leave

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By David Mac Dougall
FILE: Finnish Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen meets troops, 2022
FILE: Finnish Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen meets troops, 2022   -   Copyright  Finland Ministry of Defence

Finland's defence minister is swapping one of the most demanding jobs in politics, for an even tougher assignment changing nappies and wiping up sick.

Despite a warmongering neighbour to the east, a tortuous NATO accession process and the start of a general election campaign, Antti Kaikkonen has become the first male minister in the Nordic nation to announce he's taking an extended paternity leave: and he's being applauded for it. 

"The office of Minister of Defence is an important one. However, for me it has also meant lots of travel and time away from home, especially during this year," said 48-year-old Kaikkonen.

"Sometimes you have to put your family first. I have two small children, a two-year-old and a baby boy who is six months old. I want to have memories of this time, and not only in photographs," he told Euronews. 

Kaikkonen, from the Centre Party, is the latest minister in Sanna Marin's government to take parental leave -- there have been at least four other ministers, all women, who took time off after having children. And while parental leave for fathers is quite routine in Finland, it seems to be less common in politics. 

"Several ministers of the current government are parents to small kids and have had their maternity leave during these years. In the past, some male ministers in Finland have gone on to have their parental leave, but to my knowledge, there has not been a male minister who’s taken a longer parental leave," he explained.

Kela
FILE: Items in Finland's 2023 baby box which is offered to all expectant mothersKela

Parents in Finland are entitled to 158 working days of parental leave -- which is available in addition to maternity leave -- and can be taken by either mothers or fathers.

Fathers can also take separate paternity leave of up to 54 working days, and receive a daily allowance called "isyysraha" during this time.

Kaikkonen says there's never a "right" moment to take paternity leave because of the nature of his job, but notes that "no one, even a minister, is irreplaceable at their jobs. However, for our children, parents are irreplaceable." 

News of Kaikkonen's decision to take extended paternity leave comes the same week as Finland's social security service Kela unveiled its latest baby box, which has been offered free to expectant mothers for the last 85 years. 

The new 2023 edition of the box has been hit by rising production costs, and contains fewer items than before, but has an emphasis on sustainability and using recycled materials where possible. 

Attention has also been paid to ensure the longevity and practicality of individual items like a snowsuit, a sleeping bag that converts into a blanket, bodysuit, trousers, hat and mittens -- as well as hygiene products, baby care items and a mattress and crib made from the box itself. 

Finland Ministry of Defence
FILE: Finnish Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen meets troops, 2022Finland Ministry of Defence

What is the reaction to the minister's paternity leave?

Reaction to Antti Kaikkonen's extended paternity leave announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, from political friends and foes alike.

A former minister from the opposition National Coalition Party called it a "great solution" noting it showed "appreciation for your wife's career and priority for the children." 

Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a security policy researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs  said that Kaikkonen was "leading by example in a way that also oozes trust in the Ministry of Defence's civil servants." 

"Bonus," said Salonius-Pasternak, "makes it hard for others to argue that they cannot do the same because of an important job." 

While Minister Kiakkonen is on leave another Centre Party politician will fill in for him: "Finland's security and our NATO accession process will be in good hands during this time," he told Euronews. 

And does he have a message for other European government ministers who find themselves wondering about whether they should take advantage of the parental leave rights in their country?

"Every family makes their own decisions, and this was ours," said Kaikkonen.

"However, I hope that my decision could maybe even encourage some fathers to use this right. Children also bring a lot of joy and being home with kids can bring some welcome balance to a hectic working life."