Reflections On Parental Leave and Early Childcare in Sweden Through The Eyes of An Expat
Fair warning. This post is going to be long, and possibly rambling. It contains no recipe, DIY toddler activity, or garden update. It is not a walk-through of a yoga pose or a fun musing on different languages. This post is just me, feeling the need to get some things off my chest and onto paper (or a screen). It is me, feeling confused and ambivalent about a possibly controversial topic.
It is me, an expat in a different land, being faced with a cultural difference that, while not necessarily bad or wrong, nags at one of my values. My sweet Darling Daughter, who will be turning 14 months on Friday, is starting förskola in September (literally “pre-school,” though at her age, is really more equatable to American daycare than American preschool). And I feel so torn.
I hesitated even writing about this, to be honest. I know that a number of American families are looking at this and thinking “You’ve had a whole year off with your child? How luxurious! What could you have to complain about?” Believe me, I could turn myself blue ranting about the flaws within the American social service system. At least a third of infants and young children are in some sort of childcare in the US. Parental leave in the US is notoriously lacking, and many mothers count their leave in weeks, or even days, often unpaid. And parental leave for the father/partner? Ha!
But that is a rant for a different time; I am here today to discuss Sweden. Sweden is often praised for its parental leave, and for good reason! The parents of a child share 480 days total paid parental leave, with 60 days reserved for each parent, and the remaining days to be divvied up between the two as the parents wish. While about 90 of these days (total; 45 for each parent) are given at the “minimum rate” (180 SEK, or about 20 USD, per day), the majority of the days are at the sjukpenningsnivå, or “sick leave rate” (because yeah, paid sick leave is also a law here), which is 80% of your net income. All this is on top of the Tio Dagar, ten (paid) days, that the non-birthing partner receives in order to be home for the child’s first two weeks of life. Oh, and by the way, the number of days increases for each multiple (twins, triplets) you have, and is valid until the child/ren is/are 8 years old. Plus, if you are a single parent, you are entitled to all of the days by yourself.
If all those numbers have your head spinning, suffice it to say that Sweden has extraordinary parental leave. However, as is the case with all social services here, this extraordinary social benefit is available with expectations. In this case, the expectation seems to be for the parents to take the child’s first year off, and then shortly after the child’s birthday, enroll him/her in förskola and go back to work, saving the rest of the leave for later in the child’s life.
Honestly, when I first moved to Sweden, and learned about the custom of förskola at one year old (or less), I was shocked. Why have all this great leave if you aren’t going to take it? Why save it for later, when the child is older and in school, and doesn’t need your care and guidance as much?
I was fortunate enough as a child to have a stay at home mom. Being as my brother is 7.5 years older than I am, this meant that my mom was more or less at home with us for the 80s and 90s (though she did start working at a half-day daycare when I was in elementary school). My father had a good job, and we lived relatively simply. When my sister-in-law had her first child, my brother rearranged his work schedule so that my SIL could quit her job and be a stay at home mom. All this is to say, having the mother stay home for the first years is my “norm”, the goal that I saw families make sacrifices for, and I always just assumed that the majority of the families who sent their young children to childcare were more or less forced to, financially.
So again I ask, why would Swedes, who have almost 2 full years of paid parental leave (there are around 260 workdays in any given year), choose to send their infants to child
And the answer, as far as I can glean it, is that Swedes seem to value the family differently that Americans. I mean absolutely no offense, this is merely my observation, but it seems to be a difference between a Social Democracy (like Sweden) and a Liberal Democracy (like the US). In Sweden, which has high taxes in order to fund a strong state and public services, the system works best when the culture is relatively homogenous, with everyone working along a similar path toward a common goal. And this is easiest to achieve if the state has a strong and early say in raising the children (similarly, homeschooling, except for very special and heavily monitored circumstances, is actually illegal here). Nothing nefarious, just ensuring that every child receives a good education. And the same education.
On the other side of the spectrum is America, where the connection to the family unit is very strong. It’s true that the relatively recent introduction of the nuclear family has shrunk the idea of family unit from a large, branching, extended family to a smaller family unit, typically encompassing just the mother, father, and children. But if anything, in America this has only made the family ties stronger. Homeschooling rates have risen greatly over the past decade, even before the pandemic. This fall, in response to the Covid crisis, that rate is expected to skyrocket.
And so when Dear Hubby and I originally started talking about having kids, I just kind of expected to stay home for the first few years. I didn’t necessarily want to homeschool (although, bull-headed American that I am, nothing makes me want to do so more than being told it’s illegal…), but I honestly feel that kids fare better when they can be in a stabile home with their parent(s) at least until age 3. Despite what I have been told repeatedly from förskola administrators, and other people I know here, there is no actual need for socialization of a toddler younger than this.
There has been quite a bit of research by child experts and doctors, including Maria Montessori herself, that shows that it isn’t until approximately age 3 that children begin to understand the emotions of others, start showing an interest in other children, and start getting their social cues from other kids, rather than from their primary caregiver(s). Before this age, while there is certainly nothing wrong with play groups and the like, the children are not necessarily benefitting from it. In her book “The Montessori Toddler,” educator and researcher Simone Davies discusses that toddlers 0-3 years old engage in “parallel play.” This means that two children can sit next to each other, each playing with their own activity, as opposed to “associative play,” when children collaborate in activities together. Associative play doesn’t usually start until 3-6 years of age.
With all this information, why am I enrolling DD in förskola so young? Unfortunately, simply put, we cannot afford for me to be a stay at home mom much longer. Un-simply put, because I was not employed when DD was born, I obviously couldn’t receive 80% of my income as parental leave. In this situation, Sweden still provides around 250 SEK per day, which was enough for us, when added to my husband’s income, to purchase what we needed for an infant, while still maintaining our budget and even putting some money in savings. However, in order to receive the full parental leave, I would need to work for at least 6 months at a fulltime, contractual job prior to taking off. Due to some complications related to DD’s birth, our timeline is relatively short for having a second child, and so if I wanted to receive the full benefits for the next child, I would have to get such a job relatively soon.
So this is the conundrum. The sooner I get into the system, the sooner we can better afford to have a second child. However, quite simply, I do not feel that being apart for forty hours a week is a good, or honestly even feasible option for my daughter or I right now. We are still breastfeeding (“extended” breastfeeding – another post for another time!), and while DD obviously is eating solid foods and could physically be apart from me for 8 hours a day, mentally and emotionally it is still very much a part of our connection.
And so we’ve compromised. Which is apparently very common in Sweden. For the foreseeable future, starting on 7 September, DD will be going to förskola for 3 hours a day, Monday through Friday. Dear Hubby has assured me that, if we need to, we can un-enroll her and try again in a couple months. And while most förskolor are state-run, we actually got a spot in a private one that values time outside above all, and thus, after breakfast, routinely takes the children to various green areas around town for play and exploration.
With that in mind, may I admit something? Despite all of my concern over whether it is right and good for DD to be in childcare so young, a part of me is looking forward to the time alone. The Etsy shop has gotten a lot of new orders recently, and I really need to sew some new masks to restock. In addition, I’ve recently taken on a commission to sew a late 18th century British Redcoat uniform for a friend, which I am very excited to do. And Lord, if I could just finish one cup of coffee while it’s still warm, especially if it’s while reading an actual book, I will be so happy.
And even though I wholeheartedly believe the research that shows there is no developmental need for toddlers under 3 to socialize, I have already noticed that DD is a very friendly child. She smiles and waves at all the passers-by when we go on our walks. Now that we feel comfortable enough to break quarantine, we often fika over at farmor’s (paternal grandma) house, and DD will reach out to be picked up by farmor. She will even stay there without Hubby and I for a few hours with no problem, which is about the length of time that she’ll be at förskola in the beginning.
So perhaps the question is…Am I the one who is not ready for daycare?