Well, when it comes to living in Sweden, many signs point to Yes. Unless of course we’re talking about actual grass because then it’s a firm No for roughly ten months of the year. But it was the metaphoric greenness that drew me to Stockholm, a city famous for its progressive approach to things that the rest of the western world seems to either ignore or give the bare minimum amount of fucks. As a mother who wanted to go back to university for a career-side-step, the idea of studying in Australia was out of reach financially – an accumulation of course debt and super high daycare fees, while not earning enough each day to break even. Nope, not possible. So, I Googled my way around the world looking for countries that marched to a more socialist song. *Cue Scandinavia*.
My mother is from Finland and I remember her saying that moving to Australia felt like going back in time. She was only the second woman in her government job to even get maternity leave (unpaid of course) and she described her office complete with pictures of naked women pinned up on her male colleagues’ cubical walls. So, what did she do? Made tiny paper clothes for them! But her male colleagues, lifting up the paper dresses, said ‘the reveal just makes it more exciting.’ Yep, that was the 80s. But having worked in advertising for my career thus far, I knew the behaviour was only slightly better thirty years on. However, our country’s maternity leave policy has certainly taken some steps in the right direction (I got 14 weeks’ pay at minimum wage and my job was held for one year) and raising young kids in Australia can be filled with endless summers on the beach, accessible healthcare and schooling, and mothers’ group meetings. But did Scandinavia have more to offer? And could anything outweigh the long, dark winters that every expat blogger warned new arrivals about?
It was time to see how it was done in a country that looked, like all intents and purposes, to be a young-parent-paradise. As Finnish citizens, my daughter and I undoubtedly entered the country in a privileged position. As we walked to the EU Citizen line at the airport, I watched the stamp come down on my passport and with that simple smudge, all university fees disappeared. The citizen smudge also meant that daycare was less than a third of what we paid at home! But wait, there’s more: free health care and dental until you’re 20 years old and free bus rides if you have a pram. Furthermore, if you’re a Swedish citizen you also get a monthly allowance of up to $175 AUD per child until they’re 16, not to mention free schooling across the country (private schooling is rare which helps avoid the breeding of generational privilege to some extent) with free three-course lunches each day. Okay okay, looking pretty green, right? I haven’t even told you about the maternity leave yet …
Swedes are not shy when it comes to telling you about one of their country’s famed public policies. Sure, my pre-departure Googling told me some, but the landlord of our first rental confirmed the findings over a cup of jet black coffee: ‘Parents in Sweden get one and a half years of PAID parental leave,’ she said. ‘Three months are for the mother and three months are reserved for the father, but the rest can be split as the family needs.’ She went on to tell us, while frantically packing up her house, that three months are paid at a standard rate but the remaining 15 months are paid at 80% of your usual wage.
So, does all this government policy actually change behaviour, shape national identity, and demand gender equality? Hell yes.
Thanks to the policy makers (arguably more famous here than the Kanelbulle), mothers have a much more secure place in the workforce, should they choose to take it. And there’s a lot less urgency to return to the daily grind when your government’s picking up the tab on life’s expenses. Back in the land of Oz, I had to go back to work when my daughter was just six months old (they say women experience ‘baby brain’ after giving birth, but I still remembered that rent had to be paid). I could only work for four hours at a time because I was still trying to breastfeed. I remember spending a whole week massaging a blocked milk duct at my desk with pads in my bra anticipating the next leak – even my boobs knew it was too early to be separated from my infant! Reflecting on it now, I’m actually a little mad. Mad that I wasn’t offered an alternative, mad that I didn’t say ‘no’ when my boss consistently asked me to stay late, and mad that I thought my career wouldn’t wait for me. Because of the extended parental leave payment in Sweden, it feels like these early years with your baby are more highly valued. It also appears that the whole society’s willing to help you protect and preserve them, including the work-force.
Then there’s the fathers, the Swedish parents who are in equal demand when their baby falls or fills their nappy. I can’t speak from the perspective of a father, so I won’t. But like me, I’m sure many mums have heard this one at 2am when the baby wakes: ‘She just wants you. She doesn’t stop crying for me.’ Yep, that was the baby daddy talking and he’s usually right. We do have wildly strong bonds with our babies and they do settle with us more often. Why though? I think it’s because the majority of parenting is still ours even after the ol’ breastfeeding card is out of play. I know this is a generalisation but the assumption here in Stockholm isn’t the same; the equality given through parental leave policy extends right down to a child’s behaviour, equally looking to mum or dad to get its needs met.
I was at playgroup yesterday – another free initiative by the Swedish government where fully-equipped playgroup centres are open for all kids aged 0 to 5 – and I was the only mother. There were at least 20 other parents there and they were all men. It was a Wednesday morning for the 9:15 – 11:30 session, and all the dads were on the ground (sometimes literally) talking about sleep routines, singing along for rhyme time, feeding pre-prepared snacks, and dealing with inevitable tantrums over the box of Pippi Longstocking figurines. It was actually a father I met at a grocery store who introduced me to these playgroups; I asked him if it was usual for there to be so many fathers and he said, ‘Of course. If you don’t take your paternity leave, you’re seen as less of a man. Why wouldn’t you want to spend this time with your child when the government pays you to?’
‘Less of a man’. This phrase really stuck with me. The only times I had encountered an equivalent of that phrase, men were anointed the status based on not living up to their archaic roles. They needed to provide, to work full-time and bring home the bacon. That’s what made them men after having a child. Most people of Gen X and beyond will feel that this is a totally outdated concept but it remains a common idea in my family and one that my dad’s an active distributor of.
‘He jus needs to find a feckin job Clare,’ my dad preached to me the last time he was in Stockholm. You see, my daughter’s father works in theatre and when we arrived, it wasn’t such an easy industry to break into. He was home a lot with our daughter while I worked and studied.
‘I jus can’t see how he’s happy wit himself,’ my dad continued. ‘Back in my day,’ here we go … ‘I couldn’t get da work I wanted when we frst arrived in Australia, so I washed windows in da day an stacked feckin shelves in da grocery store at night. Dats jus what men do ya know. Day get out der an provide for der families.’
Okay, this is clearly a generational difference too but when I reflected on all the young men in my life who are now fathers – my brother, my cousin, my friend’s husbands – they were all fitting into this manly mould: Working fulltime, bringing home the bacon, and raising their children in the evenings. The stark contract between that vision and the one for fathers in Sweden was certainly evident. I began to really feel (and live) that time warp my mother spoke about after her move in the opposite direction. And now, as I try to pinpoint the catalyst for such a huge shift in this societal narrative, I believe it stems from the globally glorified parental leave policy.
All this parental privilege and free money was seeming a little too perfect. It’s like when you stumble across the most delicious looking cake in a café window only to learn that it’s made of styrofoam and they only have stale doughnuts left (that example’s a little extreme – I take café confectionary very seriously – but you get the point). Of course there’s the high taxes to account for so much free-ness (we all know the money’s got to come from somewhere) but after having my daughter in the local daycare for over six months, it was time to start asking some questions. I approached a friend and fellow benefiter of this Swedish system, Anna, after dropping off our kiddies one morning. Anna is Swedish and has grown up with free lunches filling her belly every day at school. But she also had her first child in Australia and knows full-well the differences between mothering in the south vs the north. I told her about my article and began my one women show titled, The Joys of Raising a Child in Scandinavia. Sure, she nodded along, agreed, and added some more plusses to my already glowing report, ‘did you know that most medications are free for children under 18 too?’ I was ready to call it a day and tally up the results: Sweden was in fact, greener. But (and there’s always a ‘but’) once we got over the praising and got off the bus, which was filled with other work-commuting Swedes, the mask came off.
‘You know, no one questions the Swedish system,’ Anna told me in hushed tones under the subway station. Had I suddenly found myself in the middle of a classified conversation with a real-life insider?
‘Why question a system that seems to work so well?’ I prompted back with anticipation.
‘It’s just that,’ she said, ‘there’s only one system and everyone expects you to be on board with it, no questions asked.’ She was totally right and it suddenly clicked that I had often fielded questions and passive-aggressive comments about why my daughter was only in daycare two days a week rather than the standard five. Comments like this doozy from Monday: ‘It’s such a shame your daughter’s only here for part of the week, she misses out on so much. Is it because you’re finding it hard to get work in Sweden?’
Anna explained to me that it’s customary for new parents to take the full 18 months maternity/paternity leave and then enrol their child into daycare five days a week while returning to full-time work. *lightbulb moment* I was going against the system!
‘But what if you want to go back to work earlier?’ continued Anna, totally unaware of my personal epiphany. ‘There are no daycares that will take kids who are under one,’ she said, after explaining her own experience of going stir crazy at home with her second baby (totally relatable) and would have given anything to get one or two days in daycare so she could go back to work, something she had easily done with her first child in Australia.
‘Or what if you want to work part-time and keep your kids at home like you’re doing?’ She asked, thankfully not looking for the answer I didn’t have. ‘It’s not like that here,’ she continued, ‘you follow the system and sing its praises to anyone who’ll listen.’
Clearly the parental system in Sweden is missing one fundamental element—flexibility. There are of course ways of going against the grain, it’s not like it’s illegal or anything. You could do what I do and smile politely when people tell you that it’ll be ‘sooo much better for your child and you if she goes into daycare full-time’. But going against a societal norm is no easy task and it’s even harder when that norm is continuously pitched as ‘perfect’.
For me this inflexible fine print doesn’t exactly outweigh all the benefits young families are given in Sweden but waving the flag of perfection may be a little strong too. Sweden is a country that recognises the needs of new parents, male and female. It’s a country that aligns with my values around health, education, and a general attempt at levelling the playing field of opportunity. But sprinkle in a little more choice when it comes to working hours (and a lot more summer) and you’ll have yourself a winning title, sweet Sweden.
It’s been almost a year since we moved to Stockholm and became the ‘Australians that rent the yellow house’. And in many ways, I have become a bragging benefactor in my own right, FaceTiming home to tell everyone that the rumours are true; my degree is free, daycare is less than a trolley of groceries, and the trip to the doctor for croup last week was free too, along with the medication! But I’m always aware that I have left a whole village of friends and family at home who were just a drive away on any sleep-deprived given day. For me, Sweden is offering a replacement village. A community village; a government funded village; a village that looks after its youngest, most malleable citizens. Most parents will agree that it takes a village to raise a child but no matter how green Sweden is, my village remains cemented on the people at home in Australia. I also feel a little uneasy when there’s a standardised way of doing things, especially when we’re talking about raising a child and even more so when the standardisation seems to be implemented on the level of societal pressure. I wouldn’t go so far as dropping word-bombs like oppression or conformativity, but the hum of obedience is in the air. I have learnt that it’s always best practice to ask questions and not be afraid to go against the green … I mean, grain.
Article (a condensed version) published in Your Zen Mama: https://www.yourzenmama.com/new-blog/2018/5/9/is-the-grass-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-world-by-clare-reid