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'Being a stay-at-home mum is easier for expats'

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'Being a stay-at-home mum is easier for expats'
15:39 CET+01:00
A number of years ago, back when we lived in California, I read an article run in Swedish daily Expressen called, “Jag är hemmafru, men jag är inte desperate,” or “I’m a Housewife, but I’m not Desperate.”

It was written by someone called Madeleine, a Swedish mother of two grade-school girls who had moved to Palo Alto, California.

The gist of the article was that life as a stay-at-home mum and self-described “housewife” was great, so much better than her life in Sweden.

In Palo Alto, her days were filled with driving her kids to sports practices and play dates, helping them with their homework, and, of course, baking cookies. Parents are required to “volunteer” in the classroom one hour per week.

People can choose to stay home with their kids if they want—there’s no pressure to work. Life was so much easier. What? I thought to myself as I read this article.

I thought Sweden was supposed to be one of the best countries to raise kids, a country where health care is free and daycare is pretty close.

I had even heard a rumor that parents get a monthly stipend for each kid—we would get paid to have kids if we lived in Sweden? How could life in the U.S. be easier?

Although you would never hear the “h” word come out of my mouth, I, too, was a stay-at-home mum, and although I only lived a short drive away from Madeleine, I felt miles away from her idyllic description of parenthood.

My life felt more like this: struggling with San Francisco preschool admissions (preschool admissions?), dealing with a mountain of health insurance bills and schlepping two kids to school, activities, appointments and play dates.

Every afternoon, as Gabrielle would snuggle up in her car seat for a late-afternoon nap, I’d worry that my two-year-old was starting to think she thought of the car as an extension of our home. Actually, it was.

Don’t get me wrong—I felt lucky to be able to be at home with our kids, a privilege that many Americans can’t afford. I enjoyed the feeling of togetherness in the household that I consciously cultivated. But, as anyone who has been home with two kids under the age of 5 can tell you, it didn’t feel easy.

What got me about Madeleine’s article was her rose-colored view of being a “housewife” in the US.

Contrary to what the popular Swedish television show Hollywood Wives might lead people to think, I was not basking in the lap of luxury, and I wasn’t baking a lot of cookies, either.

But, as luck would have it, I got to meet the author only a few weeks later. My Swedish teacher invited her to come and talk to the group about her experiences as a Swedish mum in the US, which proved to be enlightening.

“How can you think parenting here is relaxed?” I demanded as politely as possible.

“What about the constant my-kid-is-better-than-yours pressure? And the pressure to be the best, the perfect mum? And the pressure to constantly volunteer for baking and fundraising and spending more time in the classroom? Don’t you feel the pressure???”

I realize I’m making myself sound a little neurotic, but we all have our fears, and here’s mine: that I’m not doing a good enough job as a mum. And societal pressures weren’t helping.

“Sure, there’s pressure in the U.S.,” she answered casually. “It’s just that, back in Sweden, there was so much more pressure.”

Madeleine went on to describe her life before their move to California.

Her husband travelled a lot, and, in addition to taking on all parenting responsibilities and running the family’s daily life, there was plenty to do to get ready for their move.

So, for their last year and a half in Sweden, she quit her job and stayed home, taking on all that other stuff full-time. And everyone thought she was crazy. And lazy. And selfish.

“What do you do all day?” her friends asked. How can an educated, experienced woman just be a housewife?

Well, of course this thought has crossed my mind. I’ve certainly asked myself this question more than once while, say, sitting on the bathroom floor reading Once Upon a Potty for the thousandth time.

But the question wasn’t keeping me up at night. Stay-at-home-mum is an acceptable choice in the U.S., and it’s not seen as a permanent job, either.

And then it came to me. It wasn’t that Madeleine didn’t see all the parenting pressures in the U.S.; she just didn’t feel them. At least, they didn’t affect her as deeply as they did me, a fully-indoctrinated American mum.

Just like my decision to stay at home doesn’t plague me the way it did her.

Now, I am in her position. I am parenting in another country, where a completely new set of standards and expectations hover over parents. And guess what? It does feel so much easier being a parent here.

But I suspect this is the reason: as I learned from the insightful Madeleine, it’s easier as an ex-pat parent to ignore the societal parenting pressures I don’t agree with here in Sweden because I don’t feel them in my gut in the same way.

Like, for example, the pressure as a modern woman in Sweden, a woman dedicated to gender equity, to not let my career get sidetracked by motherhood… and yet I should still have plenty of quality time with my kids. How’s that for pressure?

Is it possible to meet this standard? Yes. In fact, one of my California friends here seems to have achieved this balance within a few years of her family’s move here.

But likely? My informal research lacks statistical significance, but the evidence around me seems to point to “no.”

So I’m making the best of both of my worlds: I’m ignoring the pressure to put my career on equal or higher footing than my home life.

But, as the only mum I know in the neighborhood that spends her afternoons with her kids, it’s much easier to temper the internal pressure to be a good enough mum.

Dealing with societal pressure is a trick that any parent anywhere has to master, but, as an ex-pat parent, I realize that I now have an advantage.

When I stop to talk to other mums in the neighborhood, they ask, “So, are you still…?” and trail off. I know the word they’re avoiding: the “h” word.

“I’m working a little, but I’m mostly home with the kids,” I answer and smile.

“One of those peculiar American housewives” has no doubt crossed the minds of some of these mums. But I know I’m no Maria Montazami. I’m just trying to make the right choice for me.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt

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