‘Being a stay-at-home mum is easier for expats’

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.”

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

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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Schooling: What you need to know when moving to Sweden with children

Sweden is often cited as one of the best countries in the world for raising children, but what do international parents need to know when planning a move here with their family? And can your children access schooling without a Swedish personal number?

two children on a swedish farm
From the age of six, every child in Sweden has access to free education. Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/

Depending on your child’s age, there are a few things you should be aware of when planning a move to Sweden. If you’ve recently arrived in the country and didn’t have to apply for residence permits before entering, you and your family may not yet have their Swedish personnummer – the 10 or 12-digit personal number linked to everything in Sweden from healthcare to gym memberships. This guide will give you some advice on how you can sign your child up for school before they have received their personnummer.

Firstly, you may be wondering how the Swedish school system works. Sweden has three different types of school: the first type of school is voluntary preschool – förskola – for children from 1-6 years of age.

Starting at 6 years of age, schooling is compulsory, starting with förskoleklass, a one-year preschool class as a sort of bridge between preschool and primary school. Then, from age 7, primary or grundskola starts. Grundskola stretches from age 7-16 and is split into three stages: lågstadiet for 7-9-year-olds, mellanstadiet for 10-12-year-olds and högstadiet from 13-15. From the year a child turns 16, they can attend gymnasieskola (which is voluntary in theory, but many Swedish jobs require a gymnasie diploma) – lasting three years.

Some schools offer both grundskola and gymnasieskola, some only offer some of the grundskola stages, so check directly with any schools you are considering to see how many stages they offer if you want your child to stay in the same school for the majority of their schooling.

Check out the websites Skolverket and Skolinspektionen for more information on Swedish schooling.

How much does it cost?

The vast majority of schooling in Sweden is free, apart from förskola, where fees are heavily subsidised by the state and are income-based – costing a maximum of 1,510 kronor ($175) per child per month in 2021. Free school meals are also offered for all children. For teenagers at gymnasium level it is up to the municipality to decide whether school meals are free or have to be paid for.

Many independent schools – such as bilingual and international schools – are also free to attend. It’s also helpful to know that these schools aren’t allowed to charge for textbooks or school trips.

There are a few fee-paying private schools in Sweden, but not as many as in other countries.

If you’re moving to Sweden with teenagers, they might qualify for a study allowance (studiestöd). This is available to young people between 16 and 20 attending gymnasium full-time, and amounts to 1,250 kronor a month, paid out from September to June. It is possible in some cases to get this study allowance without a personal number, but you will need to contact the Swedish Board of Student Finance (CSN) directly to register. See more information here to find out if your child qualifies.

The type of school you need to apply for will depend on your child’s age. Photo: Maskot/Folio/

How do I apply?

Many schools, especially in the big cities, have long waiting lists, so it pays to sign your child up early. If you have a personnummer, the sign-up process is relatively simple – for förskola and grundskola, your municipality website will have an online sign-up service (e-tjänst) which you can sign in to with your BankID. If you’re still waiting for your personnummer, this process is a bit more difficult – you can still apply, but you will most likely have to apply via a paper form.

Even if your child does not yet have a personal number, they still have the right to attend school while they wait for their personal number application to be processed – you may have to supply documents showing that your family intend to stay in Sweden for an extended period of time before your child can access schooling – your municipality will be able to help you with this.

Contact your municipality if you are unsure of which form you should use and who you should send it to. They should be able to help you if you move to Sweden after application windows for schools in your area have already closed. If your child is old enough to attend grundskola or gymnasieskola, you may need to contact the school directly for advice on how to apply.

This is part of The Local’s series about what you need to know when moving to Sweden with children. If there are any particular topics you would like us to cover next, you can always email our editorial team at [email protected]. We may not be able to reply to every email, but we read them all and they help inform our coverage.