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'Why I fled the Stockholm toddler ghetto for Berlin'

'Why I fled the Stockholm toddler ghetto for Berlin'

Published: 21 Jan 2013 14:15 GMT+01:00
Updated: 21 Jan 2013 14:15 GMT+01:00

"You shouldn't hang out with heterosexuals,” my 40-year-old partner once told me. I was about 20 at the time and thought it was an odd comment. He then elaborated.

"They will abandon you once they have kids. Then you won’t hear from them for ten years, until they get divorced and then all of a sudden they'll call you up because they want to go out dancing. And they'll act like they never disappeared in the first place."

I thought he was being silly and surely my friends would be different.

Yet, his line of reasoning stuck with me. And a few years ago, the kids started arriving. It was like microwave popcorn. First there was one, then a couple more, then another and yet another popped up at a furious rate.

I felt very ambivalent. Of course I was happy for my friends whenever they had a kid. I hit the like button on more distant friends’ status updates and went to pay my respects at my closer friends' homes.

We said we'd keep hanging out. But, for the most part, it didn't happen.

When two parents have a child, a closed little unit forms. It’s as though starting a family involves putting up walls to the outside. And the new family unit has new needs, new habits, new routines and new rules. As a friend, it's difficult to know how to feel about it.

I left Sweden.

I've passed the 30-year mark and here in Berlin what defines my friends more than being hetero- or homosexual is the fact that they are all childless. The older I get I realise that the fault line doesn't run between people of different sexualities, but between parents and non-parents.

But the older I get, I also realise how important the concept of family is, even for those of us who haven't wanted or been able to have children. Yet I feel I get the same nurturing from my self-selected family of friends that other people get from their children.

Popular culture shows us a lot about at the attitude towards people with children and people without them. For the white, wealthy middle class, it's fine to break the norm. And you could say this shows that society is more accepting of alternative lifestyles but the nuclear family is still always portrayed as the ideal.

Especially television series never show people who choose to be different, but show people who are different being accepted as normal.

In the NBC sitcom Up All Night there is a character who sums up this cultural depiction of a childless person – Ava, played by Maya Rudolph. She's the quintessential single girl. Rich like Croesus, utterly self-centred and completely without responsibilities.

Ava will drop in at her friends' house at midnight, pour herself a glass of wine and ask her friends, who have just had a baby, if they'll come out partying.

The friends laugh heartily but exchange telling glances.

Because they pity Ava – they think she is self-centred because she hasn't had a baby who has transformed her, healed her, taught her what real love is about.

This cultural stereotype pops up all the time, not just in sitcoms and drama series, but also in the public narrative of parenthood. New parents will talk about how they used to stagger home after a night out, vomit in a trash can, then roll up at some lover's home for some carefree sex.

That's how a life without children is portrayed. Like a life without a care in the world where you just breeze about depending on what takes your fancy.

Even when the occasional pop cultural character breaks loose to fight this obsession with kids the message instead focuses on this lackadaisical approach to life.

In the Simpsons, there's an episode called Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays. The ever shoulder pad-clad career woman Lindsey forms an action group of all the above mentioned groups to demand the right to administer electric shocks to kids who misbehave in public. They commandeer the school bus to take the pensioners to the casino, instead of shuttling kids to class.

Whenever you want to talk about childless people, these stereotypes rear their head. It's like people think that all we want is to smoke crack in the playground or take over the wading pool with our jet skis.

It’s not what we want. We want not to be hounded.

The migration stream to Berlin has focused on many a thing. Better housing, a more open cultural landscape, lower cost of living. But I also think the Swedish author Horace Engdahl hit the nail on the head when he moved to Berlin and called it "a Sweden for grown ups".

Among my Swedish friends here in Berlin, our choice to move is related to our generation's baby boom. Cafés in Sweden went from smoky hangouts where truant high schoolers, the unemployed and freelancers rubbed shoulder to becoming well lit café latte bars for stressed out parents in the fastlane.

If there were any hangout spots in Stockholm that managed to keep their allure, they were quickly replaced by malls full of organic soap and rustic candelabra.

The urban character of Stockholm was washed away by a middle class ghetto.

For those of us without children, it was like the city no longer offered us refuge. There seemed to be this consensus that you either have a kid and adapt, or you keep a darn low profile.

All the things we liked were all of a sudden outdated or worse still, stood for bad values. The pub was a "superficial meat market", rock clubs became "irritating hangouts for alcoholics". And the night clubs? Yup... that was where the druggies hung out in the eyes of the new families.

"I can’t believe that used to be my life," the smug parents started saying.

We just had to ignore the barely concealed insults while yet again congratulating them on producing a precious little miracle while it refluxed baby food.

Moving to Berlin gave the possibility to dance until eight in the morning on a Wednesday without having to hang your head in shame. To not feel ostracized in your apartment block because your schedule isn't perfectly in sync with everyone else's. To not feel left out in the cold just because your life doesn't necessarily fit all the parameters set up to make the life of parents easier.

Not to have to feel immature, self-centred, different or like the oddball bachelor or spinster just because you haven't reproduced.

I’d like to see a bit more respect for us who have either chosen not to join the parent gang or haven’t been able to. Does being a grown up have to be defined this way, does it have to be synonymous with parenthood?

Let’s create a new narrative about childlessness. For example, let's talk about how our groups of friends give emotional support, especially now that some of us 30-somethings are starting to lose our parents.

We do take responsibility. We answer the phone if a depressed friend calls in the middle of the night to talk. We help a friend who is crippled by illness to clean their flat. We go with our lover to their mum’s funeral so they don’t have to go alone.

I’d like to see a fair deal more respect for us who don’t have children and I’d like to see that adulthood isn't synonymous with parenthood. Our childless families need places and spaces where we can meet and have our needs met.

I never regretted having so many heterosexual friends, despite that warning over a decade ago. Partly, of course, because in the next ten years it became more and more common for gay couples to become parents so the child haves and the child have nots spread over the categories.

I congratulate all the new rainbow families, but I still want to congratulate those of us who don’t have children just as much. We have people who need us just as much as the parents do.

Tomas Hemstad is a Swedish freelance writer living in Berlin.

Follow Tomas on Twitter here

The original version of this article was published in the magazine Ottar.

Your comments about this article

15:07 January 21, 2013 by Migga
You`ll get your respect when you stop refering to parents with children as smug. Why behave in the same manner that you criticise others to do? You can go dancing in Sweden for as long as you want, the only one stopping you is you. Why care about others and the norms? Are you so focused on what others think? Instead of running away to your glorified mirage of Berlin you should have dealt with your insecurity and built up your self esteem. If you want respect here then how are you going to do that all the way from Berlin?
15:31 January 21, 2013 by Rishonim
@Tomas, spot on. I would also add the tendency of couples to feel threatened when one of their friend get divorced/separated. They somehow avoid that single friend. They no longer get invited over for dinner or family events. The reason being is that they are afraid the recently single friend will make a move on their partner.
16:07 January 21, 2013 by Nomark
I'm not sure why the author chooses to frame his argument in terms of parents/children. It sounds to me like the author has just discovered that Germany is very different to Sweden. Such differences are particularly manifest when one compares life in the major cities.

Regarding the comment " I'd like to see that adulthood isn't synonymous with parenthood." In view of the need to produce a younger generation to keep the society going it should be fairly synonymous.
16:45 January 21, 2013 by Siq
A really interesting article. I find the same problem, entering my 30s, that all my friends are having children now and the question me and my partner get asked is "when" are we going to have kids, assuming that as a normal couple this is all we could possibly want to do with our lives. In fact, we're undecided. We both like kids, but neither of us is sure we want the next 18+ years of our lives to revolve around them.

Maybe it's a bit much to call them smug but I have noticed more than a few of new parents seem to pity anyone who hasn't had kids. But to be fair I was equally unbearable when I first got into a serious relationship, pitying all my single friends, which was pretty patronizing now I look back on it. We all need to be a bit more open minded when people decide to do something different. Unfortunately, in Sweden, being different is much harder than in most European countries and not wanting a family in this country does make you different.
17:29 January 21, 2013 by rainbowly
I'm 29 and just had my first child. And I feel no more or less adult than I felt before parenthood. I think what makes you an adult is about a lot more than having children, which is possible regardless of maturity. And I think the problem is caused by both sides, I have certainly noticed a change in attitude from friends who don't have children regardless of my attitude towards them. I think it's only natural that most of us gravitate towards people who can relate to our life experiences and having children is, for those who choose to, one of those experiences. I do however think it's wrong that any of us should believe our choices makes us better, or more adult, or that they are something that constitutes the norm.
18:14 January 21, 2013 by Reason and Realism
China has imposed a one child law (at least in major cities), and this is commendable at least insofar as it will reduce the consumption of the planet's resources, but any reduction in the amount of children will strain economies that are based on capitalistic and government fiscal systems that are based on pyramid rather than pillar shaped age distributions.

If the West starts to generate fewer children as the result of a growing cultural phenomenon, and if the West can live with the financial consequences of a pillar shaped age distribution, then this is not all bad for the planet or for society, particularly if the birth rate reduction is by choice.

And making this change by choice is in fact better than what is occuring in China, where the forced one child policy is leading to an increasing shortage of girls as a result of adoption exports, and other less pleasant alternatives.
18:22 January 21, 2013 by Mina08
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
18:38 January 21, 2013 by Clando
Thinking of yourself as more adult (for whatever reason) is completely childish. Reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote.

"Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
20:00 January 21, 2013 by redfish
@Clando:

I wouldn't say for whatever reason. Lets say two men have responsibilities, one is shirking his responsibilities and being lazy and borrowing money from his parents, the other one is taking care of his responsibilities and making a life for himself. The latter is both more "adult" and more admirable.

C.S. Lewis was talking about something else entirely. He was talking about pretensions. For example, the pretension that folk tales stops being interesting when you're older, or cartoons stop being entertaining. In one of his books, he mocked the idea that wearing makeup and looking to attract boys is more mature than going on fantastic adventures.

I don't think you need to have children to be adult, or even have a partner to be adult. I have to say that I think *some* of the attitudes behind wanting kids to be childish in a bad way. For some people they just have other things in mind for their life that would take away time from raising children, which is fine. That's not childish at all, never mind in a bad way. For other people, however, they don't have other things in mind for their life, they just have a kind of self-centered attitude and couldn't think of themselves devoting time to raising children. That is childish in a bad way.
20:10 January 21, 2013 by EtoileBrilliant
You write so well, it's difficult to see how the disconnect occurred between "you" as as a product of two loving parents (assuming that you were the result of a heterosexual relationship) and your attitude to children.

Having children is the single most most unselfish act in the world. I'ts not that your friends turn their backs on you, for the most part, they have no other life than their children, not even for themselves. In other words, they give everything to their children.

As an aide. Germany has a naturally shrinking demographic (-0.5% pa). On the odd occasion the population grows, this is solely due to immigration. With a childless Head of State, it's not surprising birth rates are down.
22:27 January 21, 2013 by godnatt
Yes, god forbid you should ever grow up...

It may be a shocker but life doesn't end after children. Shockingly, many of us actually continue to have fun, get wasted sometimes and have social lives even after suffering the horrific burden of child rearing.

Your self absorption is really going to bite you in the butt later when you're the lonely creepy old guy lurking around the club and the rest of us are busy taking our adult kids to dinner to badger them to pop out grandkids.
08:51 January 22, 2013 by wabasha
population of berlin: 3.5 million

population of Stockholm: 2.1 million

it was a nice read but not shocking that the writer found more like minded people in berlin.
11:43 January 22, 2013 by Byggare Bob
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
12:02 January 22, 2013 by grymagnusson
More than 60% of households in Stockholm are single occupancy, so the 'toddler ghetto' analogy simply doesn't hold.

What your article seems to be expressing is more a general feeling that the city has changed away from you and has in some way been taken from you. And you have decided to single out parents and children to blame.

Fine. You left. And I must admit that Stockholm's gentrified conformity makes the cheap rents in bohemian Berlin tempting. Easy living for freelance culture people with external income sources. Nice.

Wait a year or two though and when your funky, rundown neighbourhood (read cheap) follows the same process of gentrification and wealthier hipster-wannabees move in and push up the rents. Maybe then you'll be able to understand the feeling which Berliners do now after the recent influx of Swedes and others who have moved to their city and claimed it as their own.

In the meantime, enjoy the ride and enjoy the feeling of smug satisfaction that viewing Sweden from the outside so often seems to evoke among its expats.
14:08 January 22, 2013 by cogito
Sweden is working to reverse its trend toward self-extinction. Using social engineering through financial incentives, the state created a class of breeder-women.

The breeder-woman are dependent on the state for survival, because many Swedish men are Peter Pans. They won't grow up and assume the responsibility for their (often several) families. We are indoctrinated to accept single mothers and fatherless children as the norm.
18:20 January 22, 2013 by terriergirl
The author of this article seems very fearful and has perhaps pre-empted any abandonment by his hetero friends.

After the first frantic few months of parenthood, one's 'pre-parent' friends are vital in helping a person stay in touch with the person they really are, particularly when one is up to one's eyes in nappies.

One's children are at home for only 18 years of the average 80 year life - not so much really. And of those 18 years, only a few are all-consuming. Would the author feel the need to drop his hetero/gay friends if they had to care for an elderly parent or a sick partner? It would seem callous, and yet he has no issue with dropping friends when they become new parents and have to give the majority of their attention to a new baby.

What a needy man! I imaging his friends must be happy to be dropped.

Life is full of phases and priorities are ever-changing. By the age of 30 tyhe author should have realised this.
18:44 January 22, 2013 by Lowlin
I agree with the article in so many ways, all to often a friend you used to spend all your time with abandons you. Shouldn't loyalties in relations be the strongest to the persons who have known them the longest? A new culture is needed where a new boyfriend or girlfriend is welcomed into a social circle but at the terms of the friends, not the terms of the newcomer and cultural expectations.

Research show - Falling in love costs you friends

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11321282
22:39 January 22, 2013 by godnatt
@terriergirl

Spot on.

This rant is the product of some subconscious realization on the part of the author that he's edging towards being oldest person in the club while everyone else moves on with their lives and there's absolutely nothing he can do about it.

Sad really.
10:33 January 23, 2013 by EP
Easier to make friends anywhere else outside of Sweden anyway, so no surprise.
16:30 January 23, 2013 by Lars Porsenna
I liked the ironic observation of @godnatt.

More generally, what disturbes me in the article is that it is yet another article defining a minority, and selling elements of such minority as victims of our society, so insensitive to their nature.
11:05 January 24, 2013 by RobinHood
@ Tomas Hemstad

Change your name to Mr Garrison, and buy a hand puppet called Mr Hand. Mr Hand will never let you down.
11:55 January 24, 2013 by deenforcer
So sweden is not a gay paradise anymore?
14:48 January 25, 2013 by theotherjim
I'd start a long rant with a complaint about his use of 'ghetto' (anyone tried using a pram in Donetsk during EURO 2012?), move on to suggesting that he be more accepting of those whose lifestyle choices/ biological drives do not match his own, and then try to find something nice to say about his text, but I've got to get the twins fed.
16:27 January 25, 2013 by 3rdjerseyman
You make a gross error when you address parenthood as a social construct.

Reproduction is the primary task for any lifeform. The thwarting and denigration of the propagation of the species is what has been constructed socially. Given that the hipster element is dedicated, according to their rhetoric, to preserving and appreciation the natural world: organic food, indigenous culture, global warming, bottles of spring water and all the rest, it's rejection of the most obvious of all natural processes is amusing.

We can see from the empty cradles and cathedrals of Europe, that the extinction of European culture is in the offing. It's the simplest thing in the world: if you have reasoned yourself into a position where you abjur the most fundamental of all biological functions, then you deserve the extinction you court.

"Them not busy being born are busy dying."
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