Is the Grass Greener on the Other Side (of the world)? by Clare Reid
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 seem to either ignore or give the bare minimum amount of f*cks. 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 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 80’s but having worked in advertising for my career thus far, I knew the behaviour was only slightly better 30+ 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, meaning that all university fees disappeared (EU citizens get education for free, for as long as they want). And daycare? Less than a third of what we paid at home! But wait, there’s more: free health care and dental until you are 20 years old and free bus rides if you have a pram. Furthermore, if you’re a Swedish citizen, you also get a monthly allowanceof 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 …
Here it goes: parents in Sweden get 1.5 years (480 days) of PAID parental leave. Three months must be taken by the mother and three months are reserved for the father, but the rest can be split as the family needs. 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. Mothers have a much more secure place in the workforce, should they choose to take it, and fathers are in equal demand when their baby falls or fills their nappy. I’m sure many mums have heard this one at 2am when the baby wakes: “She/he just wants you, they don’t stop crying for me.” Yep, that was the baby daddy talking and he is usually right. We do have wildly strong bonds with our babies and they do settle with us more often, why? 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 generalization but the assumption here is not the same; the equality given through 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, whereby 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 with their young children and they were all men. It was a Wednesday morning for the 9:15 – 11:30 session and all the dads were there 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 his reply, “Of course. If you don’t take your paternity leave, you are seen as less of a man. Why wouldn’t you want to spend this time with your child when the government pays you to?” Point taken.
Before I finish, I’ll quickly take a tip toe away from big topics like government policy and national gender identity to talk about the weather, because you can’t discuss an Australian moving to Sweden without making a big fuss about winter. Now, who would go out in -20 degree winds with thick snow and slush everywhere thanks to a Siberian blizzard? Well, the Swedes. That’s also something I admire about the people here and their attitudes to life and parenting, they just get sh*t done. Can’t drive the pram wheels through the snow? Put the kids in a sled. Can’t feel your feet? Knit thicker socks.
While I miss my village of friends and family at home that were just a drive away on any sleep-deprived given day, Sweden offers a village of a different sort. A community village; a government funded village; a village that looks after its youngest, most malleable citizens. Because any parent will tell you, it takes a village.
by Claire Reid, Knitting novice.