Being a stay-at-home parent in Sweden is not really a thing

2 December 2012

One of the aspects I have enjoyed about mothering in Sweden is the absence of the Mommy Wars. Everybody does everything in basically the same way—everybody tries to breastfeed, everybody pushes a gigantic pram, everybody uses disposable diapers, everybody starts solids at four months—so what’s to argue about? And this sameness seems pleasant and benign until you are the one who is out of step with the norm.

Baby Brother turns fifteen months old today, and a fifteen-month-old out and about with his stay-at-home mommy is a rare creature. At that age, if there is a stay-at-home parent, by now it is usually the father’s turn. Meaning I have lately been chatting with a lot of 30-something Swedish pappas wearing skinny jeans while we watch our young toddlers kick balls around in indoor play areas.

And also meaning I get the question nearly daily as to when Baby Brother will be starting daycare. I tell people I don’t work, but that actually doesn’t constitute an answer to the question; plenty of work-seeking but unemployed people put their children into state-run subsidized daycare 15 hours a week very cheaply (e.g. thirty bucks a week). Next, people assume we are simply waiting in line for a spot, but in fact I am about to say “no, thank you” to Baby Brother’s start date at the village daycare another time since I don’t need the place he’s been offered. Finally, they want to know, don’t I think it’s high time he makes some friends and learns some independence? Don’t I want some time to myself?

Um, no. Honestly I have no idea what I’d do at home with no children. As for the other question, Baby Brother gets plenty of socialization with other children in a variety of ways, and I don’t think toddlers actually need close, personal friends; that’s what his family is for.

I simply don’t feel the need to put him into daycare unless there is what is for me a really compelling reason: I have to be somewhere else to work. It’s true that I am (kinda) job searching. But even if I did find something, I have no interest at all in teaching anything more than a maximum of two half-days or evenings a week. Ideally I’d do what I did when Little Girl was small and have the really sweet deal of a work schedule complementary to Husband’s, meaning she was always with one of us, and/or work from home.

The fact is—and there’s no tactful way to say it—I’d rather work not at all than too much or at inconvenient times, because I don’t work for the money. Partly this is because I don’t make that much to begin with, but also because I plain old don’t have to because, for a variety of reasons, we are doing fine financially as it is. Not that I can say that to people, either. Stay-at-home parents aren’t common here because for most families the tax structure doesn’t make them feasible. You get your one, maybe two years, with a parent at home, and then you’re going to need two incomes to keep life going. The fact that this doesn’t really apply to us (we can’t seem to use up our parental leave days very effectively at all, while most people face the opposite issue, and the money—which I think it is rather a lot, considering I didn’t earn it—they keep sending is just icing and we don’t need it particularly) makes my situation foreign to people.

But here’s what I definitely can’t say to people who have gone another route: I think having a full-time parent at home is incalculably beneficial to small children and I like doing it. I am grateful and proud I get to be my baby’s primary caretaker. I miss the baby after just a couple of hours of being away from him. Heck, I’m delighted to see him again after he gets up from his nap. I would kick myself to miss all the adorable things he does all day, and see how he grows, and teach him, and would hate not to know how he ate or be the one to comfort him when he’s sad. I know being a stay-at-home parent is not for everyone, and many people have no choice about it one way or another, but it is for me, and I do have the choice, and I want to do it. This is why the baby is not in daycare.

Except, like I said, it feels horribly rude to state all this outright, like I am slamming everyone else’s situations and choices. I’m acting outside the norms that other people here both take for granted and are constrained by and as a result have defended so rigorously to themselves that they think theirs is the only right way, that it’s well and good the government has organized things so that you are almost obligated to turn over your children for care at a young age. (I’ve talked to a daycare teacher who has two young ones of her own who felt like this was perhaps the point and not the result of how the tax and incentive structure are organized, that Sweden wants to start its institutional socialization early on.) My current lack of participation is a transgressive act in such a homogeneous society. The only other purposefully and full-time stay-at-home parent I know has strong ties to the US and an uncommon religion in which she is devout (Mormonism), making her quite outside the norm.

In order not to seem too aggressively other, then, and frame my answer in terms more Swedes can relate to, I give half-truths when asked when (never if) Baby Brother is starting dagis. “I’m looking for work. Until then, we have some parental days saved up.”


14 Responses to “Being a stay-at-home parent in Sweden is not really a thing”

  1. Kristina Says:

    Very interesting hearing about the different cultural norms there and the homogeneity. I don’t blame you for not wanting to take a potentially conflict-laden “other” stand. I’m happy that you love being a SAHM and have the opportunity to care for little brother in this way. :-) What are some of the games or toys he’s liking now?

    • antropologa Says:

      He is obsessed with balls and cars and books (his attention span is best for these), enjoys peekaboo and hide-and-go-seek, wants to play with everybody’s phones or anything else with buttons (e.g. dishwasher). Nobody has ever loved a dog like he loves our Loki; he just wants to pat and hug and kiss and lie on him all day, poor patient dog. He likes songs with hand gestures and dancing to music and talking and discussing the various sounds animals make. We have a bunch of toys and he dogs play with them, too, but if he is seeking something out, it’s usually a book or a ball right now.


  2. Youma Says:

    Very true. The wellfare system is also based on the idea that everyone wants to work, and what’s keeping them is unemployment, disability etc, so you’re stepping on that toe as well.

    I’d write my own opinion, but I’m not sure what it is, I hope you’re not being hounded too badly.

  3. Alexis Says:

    I think no matter what you do, someone can make you feel bad about it, because everyone views personal choices as some kind of reflection on what’s right in general.

    I wouldn’t mind a different set of incentives (so at least, I would be choosing based on what is actually best for us, and not based on the cost of daycare, which has been a huge factor in TWO countries now. sigh. the UK was worse, because daycare was even more expensive, but there was no tax benefit to having a non-working spouse and almost none for children, which at least we get here.)

  4. hanna Says:

    I think it’s great that you’re doing what you want do, but do make sure to take care of things for the future. For example, if one parent isn’t getting a salary, it is very important that the other part is paying for retirement insurance for the stay at home parent!

  5. christy Says:

    I am a strong advocate for staying home with your babies. I know that some people have to work to make ends meet, and of course, I support that decision. But when mothers can stay home, I think everyone is happier. And like you, I couldn’t imagine missing all of the mundane details of my baby’s day.

    And I think the idea of Mommy Wars is a little over dramatized. Maybe it is just a first time mommy thing? Honestly, I don’t give a shit about other people’s parenting decisions. My friend Krystle didn’t even attempt to breastfeed her baby, and honestly, I was kind of impressed by her bad-ass attitude.

  6. a Says:

    I’m a fan of never answering the question the first time. If someone persists, then I tell them the truth, but they have to ask for it. :)

    It’s gotta be a bit tough, since they seem so reasonable about everything else (but sometimes reasonable means that everyone conforms). I hope that you are always in a place where you can choose to work instead of having to work. Also, I hope you can find that perfect position!

  7. Carrie Says:

    This is one reason I would not want to live in Sweden. I don’t really mind being a dissenter, but it does get tiring to always be the person who is doing things so differently. I am glad you are able to brush them off.

    Also, I was going to comment on your post about LG the other day but kept getting interrupted. As you may have noticed, I have similar feelings about my oldest. He is the opposite of your LG, but in many ways he is the same. I don’t understand him or his personality at all. Just do not get it. It makes raising him incredibly difficult, even though I love him and I love being his mom. But yeah. . . also very frustrating and exhausting.

  8. Alyssa Says:

    Being able to stay at home with your children, even when they are school age is a true gift. I have had NO choice but to work full time since my son was 15 months. It is unnatural. That is the overwhelming feeling I’ve always had about it. When I am home from work (4th grade teacher) on a school break, I am a FAR better mother and wife because I am less stressed and able to focus so much more of myself where it should be. You enjoy that gift and I don’t blame you for the half truths. I’d do it too. Make your life easy – who needs funny looks or to get into ugly discussions.

  9. Liz Says:

    I think that your incomplete answer, while not the whole truth, is one that is kind and good enough.
    It’s sort of like the answer I give when people have asked me if we were going to have another child (since we have just the one son). I always answered “what happens, happens” and now that he’s 10, “It wasn’t in the cards”, when the truth was that my husband really only wanted one, and I would have been happy to have more. But that’s more information than people really need or want.

  10. may Says:

    Thank you Thank you for your post,,,, I love being home with my baby boy (he is nearly 2 in Jan,,,,so really a toddler and not nearly a baby) but he is our 3rd and when his older brothers were his age i was either working or studying. I was torn to pieces…for I had a post grad scholarship to an Ivy League Uni,,,and i just couldnt let go (my boys were 2 and 9 months ) I was a mess,,, i would leave them with their nanny,,, i had a different nanny every year during the 4 years i had post grad studies,,,and i would always make home made food,,, nanny would write down all the things that happened from say 7am till 6ish when i got home,,, i would take a shower as soon as id walk in,, take the kids to the park or Library and then bring them home,,dinner,, bath,, story,,bedtime,,, then my schedule repeats,,,cook dinner,, clean,,, take another shower,,,drop dead to repeat the ghastly schedule the next day. I was always guilty,,,, i was always bitter,,,, i would give anything to stay home,,,and now nearly 3 years since,,, i love being home,,, i dont want to work,,,because im a far better mother ….and thus I have far better behaved 8 and 7 year old who are so creative, so smart,,,so empathetic,,,,so lovely to be around,,,plus a nearly 2 year old spoiled monster who is the apple of my eye… I love being home,,, and Thank God husband doesnt need me to work. Sure if i worked,,, my boys would be able to go to the most expensive private schools…. more vacations,,, more expensive everything,,, But children need a mother more than expensive stuff… children need a mother more than a super expensive summer camp,,, children need a mother for their own social well being, confidence,,, and Happiness. Listen regarding your daughter…. we all treat our eldest kids completely different from number 2,,3,,,,,, etc,,,, its a birth order thing… .
    Sometimes,,, there are stresses in life,,,maybe you can have someone come 1x a week and help with the stresses ,,,eg ,,, housekeeping service,,, sure its expensive… but it means you can spend QUALITY time with little girl is home insteado f thinking what batthroom to do… or what carpet to vacuum,,,,
    Good luck,,, you are a wonderful mother and Little Girl is perfect he way she is…. Your pictures show such a happy family with happy children,,, and you taking the time to ask for Little Girls guidance from a counselor means you are devoted and want to have all the answers.
    Enjpoy them,,,,
    My 23 month old is into books,,, barney ;-)…. trains,,,cars… and is always trying to steal his older brothers LEGOS aghhhhhhh


  11. Sara Says:

    Sorry people are making you feel like you have to either defend your own decisions or appear to attack theirs. I think vagueness is a perfectly acceptable option.

    Like Alexis, I think that I would love to live in a country with a set of tax structures and incentives that allowed me to stay home for 15 months or longer. I think that the statement “Stay-at-home parents aren’t common here because for most families the tax structure doesn’t make them feasible,” is true about the USA also, but minus the “one, maybe two years with a parent at home.” I guess it’s not really the taxes here, but the health care system and the cultural focus on using a business model to make ALL decisions, so workers are paid as little as possible, yet it’s necessary to have a job if you want to have decent access to health care. Or then again, there are the people who can’t work because their salaries would be so low that they can’t afford child care. That’s not ideal either. I think it’s great that you have a choice, and think that you should hold your head high about the choice that you’re making.

  12. thebankes Says:

    Greetings from Denmark next door! :) Your vague response to those queries is perfect. It’s quite similar here, with kids going into institutionalized daycares starting usually by 11-12 months at the latest (often they start part-time earlier than that, though). Parental leave is not quite as generous as in Sweden, as the mom gets 10.5 months and the father then also has something like 6 weeks (I’m forgetting the exact number right now). Daycares are also not so highly subsidized — we pay $500/month for a 1 year old to go 3 days a week, eek. The prevailing attitude here seems to be that there is a culture of institutionalization because that’s how it’s been done for a long while now and early socialization in an institutional setting is critical for children to learn how to get along in this society. I don’t buy it — I am perplexed by the contradiction between the amazing level of support for parents to be at home with their children for most of the first year of life, followed by suddenly putting them full-time into institutional care by age 1. (And there have been plenty of accounts here of kommune workers giving families grief when they choose to have a parent stay home with a child over the age of 1 — particularly when those parents are immigrant families — but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms!)

    The reality is, it is incredibly rare here for parents to be able to manage financially without both working full-time, and thus the need for the institutional care. I feel like there should be some better compromise — maybe some reduction in the parental leave benefits (because honestly, it’s not financially sustainable in this tiny country that is already taxing everyone to the hilt) but with the opportunity to allow parents to then work part-time as desired. I’d rather go back to work 2 days/week when my child is 8 months old and know that I could do that for the next couple of years during their toddlerhood and early childhood, than get the full 10.5 months off and then know that I had to work full-time from there forward. It seems most workplaces here do not accommodate part-time schedules like that, so it’s very much all or nothing. I’m lucky to telecommute for my U.S.-based firm still and grateful for the flexibility in schedule, but yes, I get the weird looks and comments too when I am out and about with my one year old on Wednesdays and Fridays, as it’s just not done here at all, either.

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