Monthly archives: June 2011

Silence is sometimes golden

There is a veritable selection of books about the Swedes – sociological insights into their cultural quirks and how to get to know them better, or how to get to know them at all. Indeed, making friends and acquaintances in Sweden takes time. I’m celebrating my 9-year anniversary in Stockholm this month and that’s enough to boast numerous good relations. In the book Swedish Mentality, noted ethnologist Åke Daun refers to “shyness” when it comes to social interaction with the Swedes.

“Shyness…..has been little investigated in Sweden, despite the well-known stereotype of Swedes as rather shy, reserved, withdrawn, stiff, and in many cases not very interested in approaching someone they do not know.”

In Modern Day Vikings, Christina Johansson Robinowitz and Lisa Werner Carr hit the spot. “In Sweden….silence is a trait to be valued. Swedes are generally uncomfortable with small talk, finding it unnecessary or, worse, intrusive.”

This generally holds true until becoming a mum, I found. A sure-fire way to get random strangers talking to you at the bus stop or in the supermarket is to equip yourself with a stroller. Only yesterday, a kind lady reminisced about her now grown-up children with me in the frozen vegetable aisle. So a stroller is a key conversation starter. Put a cute baby in it and you’ll even get your neighbours to chit-chat and pass the time of day with you. Amazing.

Perfect pickings in the park for the unwanted advice brigade. Photo: Christine Demsteader

Yet, Robinowitz and Werner Carr continue. “…(Swedes) see conversation as something that should have a purpose. When they do communicate, however, they can be surprisingly blunt.”

No kidding.

Sometimes, I’ve found their chosen words are simply just unwanted advice, badly timed at those crisis moments when you’re unsuccessfully trying to settle your crying baby. I’ve had people tell me he needs picking up, share their knowledge of preferable sleeping positions and the pitfalls of pacifiers.

There is a Swedish proverb: “Tala är silver, tiga är guld” – To speak is silver, to keep silent is gold. I used to moan about missing a friendly few words with passers by, but after nine years in Sweden I got used to holding my tongue. Now there are moments when I wish they would stick to being the solemn silent types I have come to know and even love.


The midwife at 300

I went to see my midwife for the first time since my bump became a bundle of joy. Over the course of nine months my barnmorska watched me blossom and bloom, or rather puff up and swell. And I got used to the way she quashed my fears and concerns in a caring but surprisingly carefree fashion. This was my final appointment post-birth – a chance to cuddle the fruits of her labour, and mine.

Midwifery of yesteryear. Photo: Svenska Barnmorskaförbundet

Midwives in Sweden are revered. Trained nurses with an additional 18-month education, they are often your prime and only point of medical contact before, during and after birth. If your pregnancy comes without complication it’s unlikely you will even see a doctor, which leaves many mums-to-be fretting at first before accepting to go with the flow. The laid-back approach begins with the first phone call to the health centre. It goes something like this…

Mum to be: Hello, I’ve just done a pregnancy test and it’s positive.

Midwife: Ok, we’ll make an appointment to see you when you’re around 11 weeks.

Mum to be: But I’m pregnant. Can’t you fit me tomorrow?

Midwife: No. We’ll book you in for a time six weeks from now.

Mum to be: (Baffled). But. Didn’t. You. Hear. Me. I’m. PREGNANT.

Midwife: (Already hung up).

During my labour a doctor poked her head around the door, which seemed more of a fleeting formality. It was much to the annoyance of my delivery midwife who, with her 38 years of experience, was keen to get on with the job in hand – single-handedly.

The responsible role of the midwife in Sweden has been three centuries in the making. It was in 1711 that the profession first came to the fore with specialist education and 2011 also marks the 125th anniversary of the Swedish Association of Midwives (Svenska Barnmorskaförbundet). The joint occasion has been celebrated with an exhibition hosted at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute.

The stay-at-home stigma

When I was a young child my mother was always close to home. Literally. She didn’t return to work until I was of a responsible age to own a front door key. Looking back, her constant presence was a source of safety and security which I probably never appreciated at the time. I simply took it for granted. And granted it was a different era in a different country when the full-time mom was fairly routine.

Personally, I don’t know any stay-at-home moms in Sweden today. I met one a few years ago among a group of otherwise career-oriented women. The conversation soon turned to work and I distinctly remember the feeling in the room when she revealed she had two kids but no job. It certainly wasn’t envy and it clearly was contempt. That’s because stay-at-home moms have it easy don’t they…?

The Swedish parental leave system makes little room for wannabe homemakers. It limits choice and promotes conformity. I’d say the pattern is pretty much the same across the board. The 480 days of maternity leave is shared between mother and father. Mom takes between 10-13 months and is then ushered back to her day job while dad takes over the remaining 3-6 months. The occupation of stay-at-home mom doesn’t seem exist in Sweden and, even for the few who would dare to admit they would want their house as their workplace, society doesn’t deem it acceptable. But isn’t being a mom the hardest full-time job in the world…?

Encouraging mothers back into the labour market has had a beneficial effect on Sweden’s economy and, it has to be said, the system supports parents that work. Part-time possibilities come as standard as does social security cover for time off to look after sick children.

However, it seems this theory doesn’t quite hold true for everyone in Sweden today. Last week, a report from think-tank ESO states the parental leave system is preventing immigrant women from joining the workforce. Instead they choose to use the system as a means to stay at home.

I’m currently extolling the virtues of the parental leave, which I’m finding as generous as is claimed. So it perhaps seems harsh to criticize it. Especially in a first post on the issue. A timely report persuaded me to cast another perspective but guaranteed there will be more posts on its merits to come.


Cries from the motherland

I counted 14 out of 20 strollers on a sunny Stockholm day sporting a plastic coffee cup holder. No, it seems I’m not your average Swedish mom. I am one of 2,7 million mothers residing in this country and according to Statistics Sweden the majority are called Eva. According to my meagre quantitative research most also boast the nifty coffee cup gadget. I, however, own neither name nor accessory. And I probably haven’t read the going rate of parenting books either.

Still, there are some universal truths to being a parent wherever you are in the world. Like sleepless nights – hence the need for a caffeine kick within easy reach, quite possibly. With that said I find myself typing this first post at 5am after flicking through chapters of The Contented Little Baby Book and The  No-Cry Sleep Solution – I have a sizeable library of US and British child-rearing literature kindly donated by fellow moms but despairingly overlooked by this one. Until now.

I choose sleep over selected bedtime reading. Photo: Christine Demsteader

These maternal gurus write that my near three-month-old son should now be well-versed in a four-hourly feeding routine by now. In fact, I should have set the pattern rolling shortly after he took his first breath in the open-air. The Swedish healthcare system, however, continues to encourage me to feed on demand – a fair method methinks since I advocate it personally. Put philosophically, I’m hungry, therefore I eat. (Feeding on demand seems somewhat strange in a country where just about all office workers feel compelled to leave their desks for lunch at 11.30am prompt.)

But back to the matter in hand, being a first-time mom in my non-native land leaves me somewhat stuck in no man’s land. Should I take heed and hark back to the way things are done back home? How about comparing notes with fellow moms from my motherland? Or should one sit back and fully embrace the good guide to Swedish parenting?

I succumbed to both caffeine and consensus in the end. Photo: Christine Demsteader

While I’m keen to expose my Englishness on his upbringing, I hope to avoid conflict when choosing my way over the Swedish superbaby highway. This is just one of many considerations I intend to explore further in this Mamma blog. For now though, it’s unlikely I’ll be changing my name to Eva but those practical café latte holders seem more appealing by the minute.