Archive for the 'Work' Category

Year in Review

3 June 2013

I write posts all the time and then don’t post them because I feel conflicted about sharing feelings with the public or I just can’t figure out an elegant way to express myself or I’m just being lazy and watching a lot of pirated TV instead. Now a lot of my posts are no longer timely, so here is a summary of what I really should have posted since February.

My English storytime that I give as a volunteer at the library started taking off and now there’s a spin-off English-speaking playgroup in our city. At this playgroup, Little Girl is about a million times better at English than the other kids. This has given strength to my decision to keep Baby Brother home with me (instead of starting daycare) at least another school term. It’s important to me that my kids be well-established in English as their mother tongue. Besides, his Swedish is not behind at all either, so I don’t think it’s to his detriment.

I gave up on trying to be a part of the village mommy-group because they always wanted to take two-hour stroller-pushing speed-walking forest treks in freezing rain. This torture combined with speaking Swedish in a high-stakes social setting stressed me out too much. Then, I tried attending their coffee/pastry get-togethers, but since all the other babies were pre-walkers (because the mothers disappear back into the workforce once their kids turn one) my toddler was having a very, very boring time at their homes not being allowed to interact with their un-baby-proofed coffee tables full of knick knacks and remote controls.

My psychologist fixed me right up! That and the reappearance of the sun. Perhaps hating living in Sweden is seasonal? Also, when I wrote my post all about hating Sweden, I was very sleep-deprived, being at the end of an (unsuccessful) week-long attempt to get Little Girl to stay in her own bed all night long.

I joined a volunteer group that visits elderly shut-ins. I got assigned to someone who was neither elderly nor shut-in, but was very lonely. It became quickly clear why nobody wanted to have contact with him. Now I don’t, either.

My very own evening English courses, with assorted specialties, are being offered for the fall!!! My name is on the school’s website and everything! This does not equal certain employment because it depends on how many students sign up, but it’s close!

That problematic seven-year-old boy at Little Girl’s school threatened her with a knife and nobody at the school thought this was worthy of a mention to me. Husband and I went nuclear and let Little Girl stay at home a while (she was too scared to go back), and then I attended at her side for a few days to help her feel safe and see what was going on there exactly. Mostly, I have to say, I concluded her kindergarten experience was good, if shockingly un-academic. Since my time was a kindergartner, Little Girl reported they had “fixed” this boy, which I guess meant they were making some kind of effort at the school to keep her safe from him. In recent weeks, however, she has said he has called her names and spit on her face and kept her from being able to get food. I would take this up with the principal again, except that he, the fifth principal for this school in three years, is taking sick leave due to being stressed about dealing with the school’s many problems. Yes, what a typically-Swedish solution to having too many work problems: claim you are “stressed” and fix none of them at all and don’t worry about how this affects other people. We are pissed and powerless.

I became alarmed that I have so many Swedish readers and felt worried I was offending them/you guys whenever I bitch about Sweden. I was grateful I have never gotten any dickish comments from anyone anywhere.

My in-laws are lovely people and my kids think they are the BEST.

I lost my mind over the winter regarding Baby Brother’s name. I decided I hated how it’s pronounced differently in English and Swedish and this turned out to be related to a bunch of issues I have about being an immigrant. Now, thanks to the psychologist, I am back to having a delightfully uncomplicated relationship to his name, which is a relief.

I tried to join Little Girl’s school’s version of the Parent-Teacher Association, which actually is just the P, since there are no Ts in it and thus no A. I was going to make the school better! It turns out their focus is on party-planning in order to do things like raise money to purchase McDonald’s for the kids while on a field trip. There is nothing at all about improving the actual school. Also, it was fascinating to see how they planned their events. I couldn’t follow the logic at all when it came to, for example, how much to charge per waffle and how many waffles to prepare. I am going to call it a cultural difference because the alternative is concluding those ladies were morons.

Baby Brother is 21 months old and just totally amazing and delightful and deserves not to be a footnote so he’ll get his own post.

Husband and I took a long weekend trip to Prague to celebrate our ten years of marriage. (In other news, TEN YEARS? WTF?) The kids were cared for by their grandparents and benefited from the Swedish-language immersion, meatballs, and ice cream. We particularly enjoyed swimming in a pool without trying to keep anybody from drowning; both drinking alcohol at the same time; and flying on an airplane without trying to keep anybody else from kicking the chair in front of them. We fly to America later this week where we will have none of those luxuries, but the consolation prizes are Mexican food, cheap clothes, and a large assortment of over-the-counter pharmacy goods.

I took over dropping Little Girl off at school in the morning, where I am the only parent of a child under ten who does not park his/her car and walk his/her child into the building, down the hall, up the stairs, to his/her cubby, and into the classroom every single morning. Look, the school only has like 80 kids in it and it is no mystery to Little Girl where she is supposed to go. I can’t figure out why everybody walks their kids into the building every morning. The school has a pull-through driveway at the front door for, I can only assume, the precise purpose of dropping/picking kids up. Despite early protests from Little Girl, walking to her classroom herself has turned out to be a good step in regards to her self-confidence and independence. Sometimes they grow up on their own; sometimes you have to give them a push.

Three years and a lot of ruminating

23 April 2013

Well, it’s definitely time to put that last post behind us. Besides, the universe seems to have responded to my complaints and is attempting to shape up and I am actually, well, not hating living in Sweden at the moment! Life’s not so bad, after all.

That said, today marks three years since we moved to Sweden, and the first time I ever remember tearing up with homesickness, thanks to “Summer of ’69” on the radio. With its themes of nostalgia and longing for summer and the carefreeness of youth and its classic American vibe (I know Bryan Adams is actually Canadian, but still), it really conjured up some feelings. And next some Europop come on and I felt better, because I love Europop.

Magically, in the two-and-a-half weeks since my anti-Sweden diatribe, spring came, Swedish people started lining up to spend time with us, I got hired to teach some interesting classes this fall (!!!) (if they make, that is), my volunteer work has gotten even more fulfilling, Little Girl learned how to bike on our quiet little street, my sister-in-law had a healthy baby girl whom we’ll meet soon, and my husband and I booked a luxury trip to Prague next month to celebrate our upcoming ten years of marriage. All this bodes well and reflects why we were supposed to be living here in the first place.

I Have to tell you, I have very much appreciated your support and insights about my situation here in Sweden. There are lots of terrible things about blogging but the feelings of connection I have to people who understand me isn’t one of them. It’s always amazing to me how writing here improves my spirits and outlook, and not just because it’s as if I have divested myself of my problems by dispersing them into the ether of the internet, but because of knowing you guys are out there, giving a shit. Thanks, you guys!

I’ve had time to think about everyone’s comments on my last post, and I want to clarify that my complaints about Swedish society and people were not particularly directed to the people in my village. They were the culmination of every negative thought I’ve had from any Swedish source these last three years. And I don’t say that just because of my terror that someone in this village will happen upon my blog and tell everyone else about it, probably at a party to which I wasn’t invited.

No; people are perfectly nice to me. Acquaintances chat with me when we run into each other while walking our dogs; strangers ask friendly questions at play places; friends text me to make plans. Just because not everybody is clamoring to be my best friend doesn’t mean they aren’t perfectly lovely people, different as they may be from me. One again I remind myself: Swedish niceness is not American niceness, therefore a lack of American niceness does not equal Swedish rudeness. It’s just…something else. And the locus of my social life can be elsewhere without its meaning that I am shut-out from the village. I guess I have just had some idea that living in a village where you could get to know everybody and walk to your friends’ houses meant that you had to get to know everybody and have friends there to whose houses you could walk. But really it can just be an address.

These realizations are one thing leading to my feeling better, but probably the change in the weather, the sun’s reappearance, is really the main thing. Six months of winter are more than enough, thanks. Of course, now I think that 52 degrees Fahrenheit is a lovely, warm day, worthy of shorts and bare feet. I have no idea how I’ll survive South Carolina this June. Maybe then there will be some homesickness reversal!

Why I hate living in Sweden

6 April 2013

I write, or at least begin, far more blog posts than I end up publishing, mostly because I don’t want to subject you all to the same sort of whining that you’ve been hearing for the past three years I’ve been in Sweden. But usually the act of writing is therapeutic, and reading your comments even more so, giving me outside perspective and a feeling of being understood or appreciated. I should really write more.

Now that I am in actual weekly therapy with a psychologist with whom I have a rapport I am not at all feeling less full of thoughts and insights to share. And while I am currently feeling even more unhappy about my life here than usual, and it’s miserable, it’s good to know why, at least.

First let me tell you about time with my Swedish therapist. For one thing, we speak in Swedish. That has some benefits, such as the therapist probably understands me with less effort and, when she talks to me, can focus more on the content than the form of what she says. It also means she is experiencing me as the majority of Swedes do, which is helpful since a good deal of what we talk about is how I relate to Swedes and Sweden. I am also more succinct in Swedish since I usually only have one way to say something. I guess this way I get more bang for my therapy bucks. It’s also kind of neat to know that I can manage a sociolinguistic situation so complex as talk therapy in another language.

Of course, what’s not good about speaking Swedish is that I fucking hate speaking Swedish, feel like a childish idiot when I do, and can’t always explain myself and my feelings as precisely or fluently as I’d like. Nevertheless, when the therapist hasn’t seemed to have quite understood my intent at first, it seems like the problem is more cultural (e.g. expectations of behavior for an American from the south).

In general, this woman really seems to get me. She understands my feelings, my situation, my reactions. I can’t tell you how novel and valuable it is to feel like a Swedish person gets and appreciates me. She doesn’t think that all my problems with feeling at home here in Sweden are all my fault, or that I’m doing something wrong, or that my life is a series of mistakes that sounded like a good idea at the time. The therapist is good at pepping up my self-esteem by telling me various of my solutions to problems or my initiatives (e.g. volunteering at the library) are creative. And she has had some great insights into psychological and societal processes that are affecting my state of mind:

• I don’t actually having any sort of anxiety or depression disorder as I was beginning to suspect, according to her, but rather am just uniquely unsuited to my current status of being an unemployed educated immigrant from the southern part of the United States living in a rural working class Swedish village, and am thus having an especially difficult time adjusting to the change of living here. The facts of who I am just don’t mesh at all with my environment and for assorted reasons I am particularly sensitive to this discord.

• It’s probably not that the ladies in the village don’t like me (especially since they don’t really know me); rather they’re not interested in making the extra effort to communicate and connect with me, given my foreignness and my accent. They are comfortable with known entities, and don’t want any new friends or even acquaintances. This is a very strong phenomenon in a rural Swedish village and my therapist advised I straight-up give up trying to be friends or even all that friendly with the mommies in the village. Theoretically if I stop trying, I’ll stop being disappointed (shout-out to Facebook, for facilitating much of this disappointment!), which is wreaking havoc on my self-esteem. I’ve never had trouble fitting in or getting along with people before, and I really like socializing, and I feel very alone out here in this village, so this bit is very hard for me.

• Where I come from it’s your social class, education, and work accomplishments that provide status and context for an individual, whereas here it’s who you know and where you grew up. I don’t know anybody and didn’t grow up here, so I’ve got no cache. Though I could of course take personal and professional satisfaction in having an appropriate job and doing it well, and thus compensate for my lack of social capital, I still have no such job.

• My map/guidebook for interacting effectively and winningly interacting with people and institutions (e.g Little Girl’s school) is of no use so besides the language difficulties, which still arise, I feel bereft and powerless in these contexts.

• In my “previous life” in the US, I did everything a girl like me should: played the piano, rode horses, did well in school, went to a good college, got married before living together, worked a professional job, had a baby, stayed home to care for her. It was all by the book for my milieu. And then I went off and moved to Europe, which was totally off the rails, and this one major life decision that was the first which was entirely my own isn’t turning at a) at all how I’d hoped and b) very well for me personally at all. This is apparently why I can’t seem to feel comfortable with any decisions I now make, about issues big or small; I don’t trust myself to make good ones.

• My marriage is now direly unequal, since I rely on Husband more and more (instead of the expected less and less) for so very much as I am emotionally dejected by previous failures and in practical terms not interested in repeating them (e.g. not securing a refund on a defective item at a store; unable to convince school personnel to take me seriously). Now I try to get him to call or be present at appointments for everything, having no faith in my ability to manage them. This makes e feel the opposite of capable and adult. Being an immigrant is like being a five-year-old.

• I feel super-guilty, apparently (as evidenced by all the crying in therapy), about having left my mother and grandparents behind in the US. When I moved, my grandparents were both in serious decline, and my mother had left her work to care for them full-time. Very shortly into my time here some things happened I am not comfortable detailing here, but they were pretty horrifying and necessitated my return to the US to deal with the fallout. My having moved abroad was one reason they occurred. GUILT.

• Additionally, I am a good southern girl, and we are supposed to take care of our families, sometimes I of course am not at all doing from another continent. MORE GUILT.

• Much of my expectations have been met with disappointment. We were supposed to come to be near Husband’s large extended family, but we hardly ever see anybody except his parents. The country life was supposed to be idyllic, but the villagers ignore us and there are a couple of men who drive around our village and others trying to convince schoolgirls walking home to hop in their cars for who knows what terrible purposes. Apparently Little Girl’s sweet little country school is crappy. The long winters and unreliable summers are taking a toll on me. The graduate degree I got in the US with the explicit purpose of being more employable abroad has turned out to have no practical value in Sweden. I had expected to travel within Europe a fair amount but we don’t get around to it too much, what with the never-ending house renovation using up our time and money instead. And, not to be too middle school about it, but nobody wants to be my friend, at least nobody Swedish, and that’s disappointing.

• I feel like a culturally incompetent parent and I hate that for my children’s sake. They deserve someone who knows what’s what and can work the system on their behalf.

• There’s a fair amount about Swedish culture I just don’t like and now I’m going to make some big assholish generalizations here in discussing them because I am in a bad place about Sweden at the moment and don’t feel like being fair: Swedes don’t appreciate how good they have it. They take advantage of their social welfare mechanisms and expect to be taken care of entirely in a very entitled way. Everybody wants to look the same and do the same things (preferably in a group) and buy the same crap and it’s boring as fuck. Swedes hate change and innovation unless it relates to their iPhone. They are too casual about sex which I personally think is part of why their rape culture is so strong. The typical foods are boring and bad for you. Adults are rude and unfriendly and children indulged and undisciplined. They don’t value education beyond trade school, which they sometimes call university even though it is not. They think everything about Sweden is automatically the awesomest and are incurious about everywhere else. Extended family has little value, and neither does staying home with one’s children. Swedes are suspicious of and/or uncomfortable around anybody who is different. The only books they read are cookbooks, and then they just go ahead and fry up ready-made meatballs all the time anyway.

• My point about the above diatribe is that a lot of what I see as common Swedish values I do not like and I do not share. It’s tiring and frustrating and demoralizing to run up against them, to work against them in raising my children, to see them at work everywhere.

So now that the therapist has figured out why I am having such a hard time, we need to figure out how to make it better, because I can’t go back in time and not have moved, and even though we could and might move back to the US (something I think about many times a day), that’s not going to happen for a few more years for practical and ideological reasons. I want to be happy here, but how?

For a positive update, click here.


1 February 2013

The substitute teaching so far has been fairly terrible (I’ve worked three full days with grades 5-9). A few classes here and there were enjoyable and productive—the ones where I actually got to teach rather than try to follow an absurd lesson plan consisting of “make them work quietly by themselves for an hour”—but largely the subbing has been a combination of babysitting and police work of classes populated by disrespectful, unpleasant, entitled tweens and teens. I’ve turned down requests to sub for now and am giving it some thought before I ever consent to put myself in that situation again. As I saw the students behave decently enough towards the regular teachers I guess the problem is me and not them, which is dispiriting. I’ve never had trouble with classroom management before when I taught adults (and I did follow y’all’s tips and the rules of the school). Perhaps I am not suited to the teaching of children.


Baby Brother fell again and cut his lip again in the same damn place. This time didn’t require stitches at any rate.


I’m an anxious wreck, to be honest. I feel like it’s sort of been building since we moved to Sweden and has been especially troublesome in the last year, but I’m not sure if I’m just reacting to the uncertainty of cultural and linguistic ignorance coupled with (what feels like) social and professional failure or if I’m actually suffering from a psychological disorder. Frequently I stay awake half the night obsessing about topics including, but not limited to, Little Girl’s school experience, Baby Brother’s name, social mistakes I have made and/or fear making in the future, and my professional and personal development. Why does everything seem so worrisome and hard when, in practical terms, I and we have it easy, have it good? Anyway, I made an appointment to talk to a doctor about it.


It’s been almost two years since I was last in the US, and I feel like we should go there this summer and see people and eat stuff and swim in the ocean, but I just can’t seem to feel strongly enough about going to buy tickets. (Husband consents to going but doesn’t really want to). It feels disturbing that I don’t want to visit my country when we have the time and money to do it, but it’s just so far away, and traveling with toddlers is hard, and it wouldn’t be as relaxing a vacation as in Greece (where I actually want to go) because we’d have to, you know, clean and cook and drive around, and plus what I miss about my life in America—mostly knowing how things work and fitting in—wouldn’t exactly be fulfilled in two weeks of visiting. My friends mostly don’t live where we’re going so there’s not many we’d see. It all seems kind of too difficult to be worth it. And these are my feelings and I should respect them, I guess, but it seems pretty fucked up not to want to visit my country. Surely it’d be fun if we went, right? America is still fun?


A month ago my dad emailed me about dates for his buying a plane ticket to come visit, and I kept trying to write him back that they were fine, to be nice, but instead was overwhelmed by anger over issues of my feeling he was either absent or inappropriate during my childhood, and is a mediocre father and grandfather (and terrible houseguest) now. All these feelings seem triggered by the life stages of my children and likely by my own less-than-stellar psychological state. So I wrote him a whole long letter telling him all this, and he responded with a bunch of non-apologies that amounted to “I’m sorry you feel badly about things that did not actually occur,” and proceeded to point out parenting mistakes he feels Husband and I make. I really have no response to that, but I guess I should come up with one.


Last June I high-pressure-washed all the patio and walkway pavers and got what I guess is tennis elbow and it’s still bothering me. I guess I can bring this up with the doctor, too. Speaking of the doctor I’m going to see, she’s my GP, but I don’t like her at all. Once I saw her out and about and waved a friendly greeting and she looked frightened and backed away. Swedish people, man. Sometimes they drive me totally nuts.

Entering the workforce

26 January 2013

Guess what, you guys! For the first time, somebody besides the government in Sweden wants to give me money! And not just because I reproduced, but in exchange for labor! That’s right: I got a job!

Career-wise it’s a bit of a step down from researcher and university instructor to substitute teacher at a middle school, but it feels like an accomplishment nonetheless. However, I’ve never taught middle schoolers before, and from what I recall, early adolescence is a tough age for those going through it, and those around them. Like their subs.

Wish me luck! Or even better: give me tips!

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.”


16 June 2012

You’ve probably heard tales about the vast quantities of parental leave you get when you have a baby in Sweden. Basically, you get 480 days to use in assorted ways (with lots of assorted regulations; some of the time is reserved for fathers, for example) until the child turns eight. Even though didn’t move here until Little Girl was three, we got the full complement of days for her, too (for the people who know about this system, the only stipulation was we’d get reimbursed for those days at the lowest rate). And of course we got all those days for Baby Brother, too.

Since I certainly don’t need to take any time off from my non-existent job, this means Husband could, theoretically, take, years off from work. Since he, however, actually wants to do the job he has been hired to do, and I am of course home to care for the children, he has instead just been taking Fridays off. Every weekend for the last year and for foreseeable future is a three-day-weekend for him!*

Except for right now, when he is taking four straight weeks vacation (and he still has three weeks left to use after that). It’s very common for people to take all their vacation days (I think the minimum is five weeks per year) all at once, spending the entirety of July in a lawn chair in their yard, except for the week they go to a beach or a cottage by a lake. Everything shuts down or is drastically reduced in Sweden in the summer (e.g. specialist doctors, restaurants, libraries).

So Husband’s going to be around. Honestly I don’t know what to do with the man. We have a pretty busy social life nowadays, the kids and I, and I can’t figure out if I should not make plans with people? Or include him? Maybe we’d like some time apart? Maybe he wants to see what we do all day? And while it’s his vacation, am I a jerk for hoping he will finish all the half-done renovation projects around here?

I also really kind of need to go someplace. We aren’t flying to the US (a subject for another day) but I wouldn’t mind a night or two in a hotel by the ocean. I’ve seen very little of Sweden and it’d be nice to check it out a bit, especially now the baby doesn’t totally hate riding in the car. However, all of our previous trips and vacations, plus our big move here, were orchestrated by me. For once I want someone else to make the plans. Husband is aware of this and hasn’t made any (he has been crazily busy at work), and since things book up, I don’t know if we’ll be going anywhere. Before Baby Brother was born I left the country every three months; now it’s been a whole year! Although I don’t need to cross any borders I am feeling a little antsy to travel.

By the way, I guess it’s the American in me, but I realized recently I subconsciously feel that taking weeks upon weeks of vacation all at once is, well, a bit much. Wanton, slothful even! Plus it seems risky to me–what if you need those days later and you used them all up? I think anxiety comes from the limited sick and other kinds of leave in the US, how you had to save your vacation for your family members’ possible illnesses or deaths, for example. I also remember not even being allowed to take vacation sometimes if my work needed me around, or just thought it might need me around. And here Husband is, a crucial element of his workplace, leaving for a month! And everybody thinks that is awesome and well-deserved!

I still can’t quite wrap my head around all these great quality-of-life systems Sweden has in place. They’re great, but still feel alien and just kind of over-the-top. I mean, full parental leave rights in honor of the birth of a child who was potty-trained before she even stepped foot in the country? Sweden sometimes seems like a parody of itself. In a good way!

* These three-day-weekends have meant, also, that I’ve had actually not a ton of time I’ve been solely in charge of two children. How easy I’ve had it. Three days a week Little Girl was at preschool for a half day (and her father drove her there. She is now out of school for the summer). Three days a week my husband was home. There was only one day a week I had to do the stay-at-home-mom-of-two thing and that was only for the workday. Spoiled!


24 May 2012

My mother’s always been rather dramatically up-and-down with her weight and it’s a great concern of hers. From where I sit now I think that as a kid and during my adolescence I had a perfectly healthy weight and body shape. And then, as now, in fact, my body image has always been decent. Even at my highest weight I have always been able to look in the mirror and think I look somewhere between okay and fantastic (the same is not always true of photographs), and I’ve never been one to talk negatively about my body to myself or others. While to some degree what my weight is doing is a reflection of my self-regard, it’s not at all the main source of it.

There were a few months when I was 13 when I dieted severely in reaction to social pressure (a jerky boy and the naturally slender girls at my lunch table) but for the most part any worrying about my weight when I was growing up came courtesy of my mother, despite my reasonable-for-me then-size-8 shape. I remember lots of forced time on the stair climber and a preponderance of dinners consisting of tofu and cabbage. I’m not naturally and never will be a slim person, that’s true, but I certainly wasn’t overweight, so when my mother’s doctor at my pre-college health exam told me my BMI was too high, I recall feeling like it there was no point in trying to control the quality and quantity of my food if I was going to be “fat” regardless.

That’s why it’s no surprise that, once off at college and in charge of my own diet and exercise habits, they became extravagantly unhealthy. My first year of college I gained weight from grilled cheese sandwiches. My second year of college I gained weight from macaroni and cheese. My third year of college I gained weight from pizza. My fourth year of college I gained weight from cheese enchiladas. (I guess I really like cheese.) By the time I graduated I had gained something like forty-five pounds!

I married and got a miserable job that required me to drive around a lot, leading to my eating a lot of fast food. When I got a desk job, I spent a bunch of time hunched over at the computer, snacking. Then I went through infertility and became depressed and gained even more, and my particular version of infertility was worsened by extra weight. The medication for my fertility-reducing insulin problem (which I’d had symptoms of even back in high school, before I was overweight, just for the record) and the reproductive endocrinologist’s insistence I exercise helped me slim down a bit, and as a result of these various factors and the mysteries of reproduction, I eventually became pregnant.

Morning sickness the first third of the pregnancy helped me shed around twenty pounds; I eventually gained forty back, but by the time I finished lactating I was dozens and dozens of pounds slimmer than when I’d gotten pregnant. It was the first time in my life I’d lost significant amounts of weight and I put no effort into it at all. After I stopped breastfeeding the weight loss slowed, but healthier eating habits (gained from caring about what I fed Little Girl) and a more active lifestyle (especially when we lived by the beach and I was swimming and jogging every day) helped me get to what I think was a perfectly reasonable adult weight for me. It was still twenty pounds over what I weighed in high school, but I think it was a good, healthy size for Adult Me.

But then we moved to Sweden. Chocolate balls, cinnamon buns, ice cream trucks, strong Swedish coffee which I had to put tons of sugar in to tolerate, a long, snowy winter, boredom, loneliness, immigrant stress—they all took their toll and I gained weight. I became pregnant and had no morning sickness and gestated a boy who made me very hungry, and, by the end of that pregnancy, put on forty pounds. I didn’t breastfeed long enough to shed much of the baby weight.

This left me unable to fit into lots of my clothes and feeling rather lumpy. But not exactly unfit. Even at 41 weeks pregnant I was hiking in the forest and climbing flights and flights of stairs without getting winded. It was just extra fat from extra calories from too much sugar that I’ve been carrying around; I kept up my pregnancy eating habits long after the pregnancy was done. After a few months of just sort of hoping I would magically lose weight, I discovered that my summer shorts wouldn’t close.

Since I’m way too cheap to buy new shorts, that was the motivation I needed, evidently. Over the last six weeks or so I’ve cut out most sugar and snacks and eaten smaller portions of healthier food and, hardest of all, gone hungry a fair amount (I’m hungry right now). It’s been really very challenging and extremely slow going and I have had days where I’ve gotten frustrated and eaten chips and salsa for breakfast, but I can finally button those damn shorts. In a few more pounds I’ll even be able to wear them in public. That’s all I ask. I hope I never gain a bunch of weight again and have to try to lose it, because now I finally know what everybody is talking about when they say losing weight is so hard.

Grown-up Job #2

5 May 2012

After I left my horrible social work job I fortunately found a great temporary gig at a research consulting firm (I later ended up a full-time regular employee). Everybody had their own office at this place except for the temps who doubled up and my office mate and I really hit it off. Frankly I’m impressed either of us got any work done at all because all I remember from those days is laughing really hard, constantly, and also lots of lunches out.

The office manager was not a fan of ours (maybe, now that I think about it, because we spent all our time being loud and taking long lunches). One day when our door was only half-open she popped in and informed us that, as temps, we could not close our door at any time. After a few months, when I started having carpal tunnel from all the computer work (which, again, I have no recollection of since all my memories from those days involve giggling), I requested a wrist support pad, which the office manager was extremely pleased to get to inform me I would not be receiving, since I was a temp.

But not all my interactions with the office manager were negative. One day in the break room she showed me how to microwave bacon. And she was also the one in charge of office snacks and she was not stingy. They kept lots of things on hand (several flavors of instant soup, two kinds of popcorn, a huge array of coffee creamers) because they wanted you not to leave the office in search of food, and instead to stay holed up in your office working.

After I was made a regular employee I got my own office. It had no window but was near a copy machine. At this point Husband and I were going through infertility and working with a reproductive endocrinologist but meanwhile, at work, nine ladies were pregnant. My supervisor went on maternity leave. My interim supervisor went on maternity leave. (Thank goodness my next supervisor was in her sixties!) When I finally did get pregnant the office manager wanted to know if it had been intentional, bless her heart.

I quit that job to stay home with Little Girl (I was also in grad school at that time, and went back to that part-time when she was four months old). Everybody at the office was so confused that I was leaving permanently. “So…when is your maternity leave over?” But the person they hired to replace me turned out to be, well, evidently not as awesome as I was, so when Little Girl was about a year old they made me a great offer: work from home part-time as much as I want, whenever I want (it ended up being about 15 hours a week). By that time I was done with my graduate degree and teaching part-time, but I had enjoyed the work (and the pay) so it was nice to go back to it a bit. Working mostly when Little Girl slept, I kept that up for a few years until we moved to Sweden. It was too complicated to employ me from abroad so I quit.

Now I think about that job every time I make popcorn or open Word, but otherwise it’s kind of amazing how something that once took so much of my time and effort has no bearing on my life now at all.

Toe in the workforce

19 April 2012

Back in December I got antsy about finding a job for the fall. That may seem a bit far off but I’m a teacher, affording me just two chances a year to start work. And then I thought: but that means I need to get something on my résumé for this spring. Over and over I’ve heard that Swedes don’t quite trust non-Swedish education or work experience. So, in a bit of a panic, I came up with a list of places I’d like to teach, picked the one that seemed the best fit, and called them to offer my services as an unpaid teaching assistant this semester. (Calling strangers in Swedish is nearly a phobia of mine, so I am still impressed I got up the courage.) I had a pitch: they’d get an extra native speaker in the room for free, an experienced and educated language instructor, and I’d get to learn more about how Swedes learn English, which would be a benefit for everybody if they ever hired me for my own class.

And so that’s what I’ve been doing all term. Once a week I’ve helped out in an evening English course. And now the term is done. I kept not posting about it and not posting about it because I wanted to be able to talk about how the volunteer work had led to a real job, but it has not.

It’s okay, though. I’ve talked myself into being very pleased I get to take as much time off from working to be with the baby as I want.

The course’s instructor is an English woman who’s lived many decades here in Sweden. Through her I’ve learned lots of new British English terminology, most of it guessable but I’ve been stumped by mystery sentences like, “I hope you don’t get stuck in a tailback on your way back from the shops to buy a flex for the telly.” I’ve also gotten a real kick out of her calling potted plants “pot plants.” I keep picturing the (often elderly) students informing perplexed Americans about all the pot plants they are growing in their living room. And they’ve been further informed that your live-in boyfriend/girlfriend is your “partner.” The teacher herself talks about her partner all the time. For the first two months I totally thought she was gay.

Even if the only benefit turns out to be a broadening of my own English vocabulary (probably not the language I should be working on) I’ve had a nice semester having a little time each week to go out into society and be of some use. After class each night the teacher and I have had some great conversations about pedagogy and being an immigrant and comparing Swedish and English. The students were sweet and gave me a very nice present at the end of the course. And I do feel more prepared, if I ever do end up at the front of a classroom again, to figure out what sort of learning environment and techniques would be most successful here.

Sure, an unpaid internship in a community night school is a big step backward in my career (I used to be in research and teach in universities), but since I’ve moved here I’ve got to begin again it seems, and you have to start somewhere. Now, if I can only figure out a good English translation for “går bredvid” I can finally update my résumé.

Social work

6 March 2012

During college my career plan was social work so I was super-psyched after I graduated and got a job (after a detour as a nanny) with a small family services provider which contracted with the state. Sometimes the Department of Family and Children Services would determine that while there were possible cases of abuse or neglect, they weren’t serious enough to remove the children, but the families did need extra support in place. Mostly the support took the form of parent education but sometimes formal family therapy or assessments of drug and alcohol abuse were recommended.

Once hired I was immediately sent out into the field to assess and address all manner of dysfunction. And since I was the only staff member who spoke Spanish I got all the Spanish-speaking families, and was supposed to interpret during family therapy sessions with Spanish-speakers. In no way was I prepared. When it came to parenting advice I scoured Dr. Phil’s website. Never having had any experience with addicts I just naively believed anybody who said their drug problems were behind them. I had no idea what I was doing.

One part of the job was ferrying kids living with foster parents to various kinds of doctors’ appointments to evaluate their needs (some had never been to the dentist, for example, and others came into foster care with no documented medical history so they needed vaccinations to go to a new school.) I can’t say I was impressed with a single foster parent I met. Usually they had oodles of unattended children stowed all over their homes, and they were always unwelcoming to me and the children I brought back to them. One lady thought it was hilarious to slam the door in her foster children’s faces when they returned “home” and claim she didn’t know who they were. The foster kids themselves thought they would be better off back in their neglectful/abusive homes where at least the adults acted like they cared about them sometimes. Couldn’t argue with that.

Oh, the things I saw. Five-year-old girls with herpes; religious nuts taking their preschoolers to see Mel Gibson’s Jesus snuff film and telling them if they were bad the same would happen to them; homes with no furniture or food; children living with a hoarder and not being able to get rid of lice due to the filthy home and not being able to go to school, all while sleeping crammed on the floor of one room in a five-bedroom house; having to interpret during family therapy for a bunch of violent adults and their terrified kids. Traumatizing.

My boss kept having me do illegal things (like evaluate people for drug/alcohol addiction, as if I had any idea how to do that; she claimed she had the credentials to oversee my doing that but she was lying, I finally figured out) and paid us only irregularly. But the main hardship for me was that I couldn’t really help any of the people I was working with–couldn’t get the government to pay for that five-year-old girl with herpes to see a doctor; couldn’t get the government to pay for a psychological evaluation of the hoarder. I had thirty or so families I was supposed to see weekly, but could never make any appointments with anyone and was constantly driving all over a gigantic Georgia county trying to catch people at home, people who didn’t want to see me, people whose lives were a mess and whose children were suffering, people whom I could only pretend to help.

It was such a frustrating work environment and the staff turnover was so high and the outfit so poorly run. I remember interviewing potential employees (why I was also doing human resources work I have no idea) and the electricity was out because my boss hadn’t paid the bill. I felt sorry for anyone to whom I offered a job, and thought less of them if they accepted it. Nothing about social work, as I experienced it, worked.

Convinced I would somehow get charged with manslaughter by not helping someone on my caseload (I had way too many cases) or for the illegal psych and drug/alcohol evals I had done (which, it turned out, could possibly be used in court proceedings), I quit. I lasted only four months or so in social work. That was quite enough for me. But I think about the people I met. I was able to walk away from their problems, but they’re still stuck there.

What could have been

5 December 2011

Maybe I should just go ahead and fall out of touch with my old friends from college. While I’m at it, most of my high school buddies, too. Because talking to them just bums me out. They’re all surgeons at important hospitals and Ph.D.-wielding consultants and costumers for famous musical groups and NYPD cops and head hospital pharmacologists and award-winning lawyers and college professors and, well, what am I? Right, I’m on maternity leave–from my unemployment.

I have a graduate degree, sure, and I had great positions teaching at universities and I worked a rather long time in research, but that was all before I moved. Now I have no contacts or prospects. Swedes seems confused about my credentials. I’ve been told I should probably get a new degree here to be taken seriously. I’ve love to go back to work part-time when the baby is a year old or so, but there’s not even a real university where I live, and that’s my proper milieu. I’d consider myself lucky to teach a night class at the community college, while everyone else I went to school with is getting mentioned in The New York Times, or being sent to China on business, or saving lives every day, or making assloads of money, or usually some combination of the above.

Not that raising my children isn’t a wonderful occupation. Because that’s certainly the one thing I have that pretty much nobody else from my cohort has, busy as they have been with their exciting careers and advanced degrees. I can’t figure out, now, what I was thinking, but I started trying to get pregnant when I had just gotten married after graduating from college, at age 22. How ridiculously young! What did I think was the rush? As heart-breaking as the subsequent years of infertility were, I’m grateful for them, now, for giving me time to go back to school. But I can’t even blame the children on my stalled career prospects. The move to Sweden gets the credit there. And I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking when we decided to do that, either.

I try so hard not to bore my old friends when we reconnect, but our lives are in such totally different places. I’m scrutinizing my infant’s sleep patterns so as to develop a methodology to encourage him to lengthen his naps, and they’re having trouble managing to pick up their dry cleaning in between court appearances and flights to Toronto. They can’t decide which suit-wearing man to go to drinks with, and I’m picking up my husband’s dirty socks again and again and again. If their biological clocks are ticking they haven’t mentioned it, and hearing about my life isn’t going to encourage them. I pretty much always have to hang up because somebody is crying. I guess I should be glad they called at all.