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BIRTH

Pass the ‘mother cake’: giving birth in Sweden

With Crown Princess Victoria's set to give birth any day now, contributor Patrick Reilly shares the linguistic perils that can accompany expat fathers' first trip to a Swedish maternity ward.

Pass the 'mother cake': giving birth in Sweden

For many, the inevitable conclusion of a Swedish love story is winding up in a maternity ward in Sweden directing birth.

Chances are if you have a Swedish partner who gets pregnant, she will want to return to the loving bosom of her native land for the delivery.

Socialist medical utopia for the mother and a crash course in the svenska Hippocratic terminology for us English speaking fathers.

Now it has often been said that the best way to learn a new language is to date a native speaker.

In fact, I would go further and suggest ditching your expensive courses and having a baby instead.

Seriously, you will adopt a new lexicon of bizarre words such as foglossning, fostervatten and moderkaka and all for entry into the Pampersklubben.

Moderkaka?

At first I thought it was a variation of the Swedish delight kladdkaka.

Sadly not, as the literal translation is “mother cake”, better known as the placenta.

It doesn’t really work with cream unless you are Tom Cruise, who once quipped he would eat his wife’s placenta (whether he ever did remains unknown).

Last May, I discovered my sambo (co-habiting girlfriend) was pregnant and we decided to move to Malmö in early 2012 as the birth drew near.

The medical staff in Britain wholly endorsed our idea, believing that the Swedish health service to be the best in the world.

(Assuming you can dodge the bullets on the way to hospital in the gun crime capital of Scandinavia of course.)

Routine appointments with the midwife followed and she even indulged me by speaking English.

As my sambo and I aren’t married (hence why we are not allowed in my native Ireland) I had to sign some papers to confirm I was indeed the baby daddy before being encouraged to go on the Jeremy Kyle show (the UK’s equivalent to Jerry Springer).

We were promised an interpreter at the local family legal services centre (Familjerättsbyrån), where they seemed genuinely amazed that we Irish speak English.

A gent speaking the Queen’s finest was duly supplied and then prompted me to confirm the suggested dates of conception. A minor silence ensued with some quizzical looks which was a tad embarrassing.

It was almost implied that if you haven’t tied the knot then you sleep around.

Liberal Swedes, eh?

Papers signed and they haven’t yet come looking for a kidney, so all seems to be in order.

Like many modern dads, I took on the role of birth partner by reading all the right books and memorizing the route to the hospital.

Conclusion to all this research: shut up and do as you are told.

My partner was a week late, breaking the Swedish norm of punctuality.

Once the water broke, we were sent home several times before active labour begun.

Upon arriving at the hospital we were confronted by a large board listing all the wards using long and intimidating Swedish words.

It sparked a look of confusion like finding out that classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers is called ‘Pang i bygget’ in my adopted land. ‘Bang in the construction work’ indeed – none of it made any sense.

Pushing a red button did though and we were ushered to a private room.

Our bilingual birth plan was supplied to the midwives as we passed the few hours laughing and eating pancakes before all hell broke loose.

Any first time parent will tell you that nothing prepares you for childbirth.

Particularly when you are relying on your partner to translate key words during intense contractions.

As labour progressed, our soon to be born son’s head was passing through the cervix according to the midwife.

Trying to find the English word for polotröja to describe how his head was lodged in the cervix, she hesitated and looked at me for a solution.

The midwife needn’t have bothered as my partner roared ‘turtleneck’ and proceeded to keep on panting.

By now my role was to provide drinks via a straw and towel down my partner like a boxing trainer between rounds. During the final phase of pushing the midwives gave me a new role – gasman.

This involved holding the gas mask down on my partner’s face and keeping it handy for when called upon.

At least that was the plan anyway.

With the baby’s head on the way out a midwife beckoned ‘have a guess’ and I replied ‘a boy’ thinking she was asking about the gender of my newborn baby.

Cue confused looks before I realized that she was demanding I pass the gas to my partner.

We managed a slight chuckle at the lost in translation moment but my sambo was less amused.

Within moments our son was born and all the confusion of the past few hours had faded away.

There was still time for one final cock up as I remarked on the birth certificate description of ‘gosse’ thinking his birth weight was that of a small goose.

On the plus side we are now referring to our new arrival as a little goose and suggesting that he listens to his mother instead.

Fatherly duties have continued by being dispatched to nearby Lund to buy special nipple cream and attempting to throw in some of my new vocabulary into casual conversation.

Now, anybody for some moderkaka?

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STOCKHOLM

Meet the expat who is now Sweden’s youngest PhD

Stefan Buijsman, 20, just finished a PhD in the philosophy of mathematics. He tells The Local what his work is all about, and why Stockholm was the best place to do it.

Meet the expat who is now Sweden's youngest PhD
Stefan Buijsman. Photo: Anna-Karin Landin

Sweden’s youngest PhD has had a busy few weeks. Since completing his doctorate – becoming the youngest person in the country to do so – he has done plenty of media interviews about his work, appearing in over 50 publications.

“It’s been great, because you don’t normally see philosophy in the news!” he tells us when we meet in his office at Stockholm University. “And not many people have heard of the philosophy of mathematics.”

Summing up his thesis, Buijsman explains: “I'm looking at how we learn maths – and trying to understand what it is. Is maths about anything real, or is it just something we’ve been making up for 3000 years?”

Buijsman, originally from Leiden in the Netherlands, completed his work in just one and a half years (after finishing his Master's aged 18).

“The main reason was that I had lots of supervision from two very good professors; they were one of the reasons I chose to come to Stockholm. I wrote a chapter of my thesis every two weeks, then they’d tell me for three hours straight every single thing that was wrong with it. I’d write something new and then two weeks later we would repeat the process!”

The philosopher credits Sweden's more informal working culture with making this possible. Compared with the Netherlands, he says “getting help is easier here, people are very approachable. So it's much easier to go to a professor and talk about what you’re interested in or struggling with”.


Stefan meets the Dutch Ambassador after completing his PhD. Photo: Anna-Karin Landin

But what makes his speedy completion of the doctorate even more impressive is the fact that he didn't need to pull any all-nighters in the library to achieve it – quite the opposite.

“I try to limit very strictly how much I work,” says Buijsman. “In my experience, if I work more than 35 to 40 hours per week, it’s too much. Especially with work that’s mentally demanding, your brain needs long breaks so you have the energy to be creative.”

This relaxed – and very Swedish – approach to working hours has also given the academic plenty of time to get to know his new country and to meet people.

Why Stockholm attracts so many international researchers

He hasn't found that his age has been a barrier to socializing with fellow PhD's.

“I skipped my first class at the age of four, I have always been around older people so I don’t really know anything else. For the first two weeks, it’s a bit strange for everyone else, but then they get used to it – I’m doing the same kind of work so people forget that I'm 20.”

Despite being close to a decade younger than the average PhD in Sweden, Buijsman wasn’t nervous about his defence – the public debate with professors which marks the conclusion of the degree.

“It was a lot of fun!” he laughs. “One of the professors is designated as your 'opponent', and they question you on your ideas. We spent half the time just discussing my ideas and getting excited about what to do next.”

Indeed, Buijsman's work could prove very useful for teachers, psychologists, and everyone who has ever complained that they just don't 'get' maths.

He explains that the field of philosophy of maths has for a long time been dominated by two groups: “One group believes numbers are things which really exist, and that when we do mathematics, we discover things about them. The other believes they do not exist, and we just make everything up.”


Photo: Anna-Karin Landin

Buijsman's research looked at how non-experts use maths in everyday life, for example when shopping – and discovered that “absolutely none” of the theories philosophers had come up with can be applied to how ordinary people use maths.

“This means some people are making it all more complicated than it needs to be – and we don't have a good understanding of how people learn maths.”

Having reached this conclusion in his PhD, Buijsman's post-doctorate studies – which he started “pretty much immediately” after finishing celebrating – will look at how people do use maths in real life.

“What’s next is the interesting and useful bit,” he says, adding that he hopes his work will prove useful for teachers and psychologists, as well as students.

“It could be very helpful. Of course, telling people some philosophical story of what numbers are isn't very useful, but right now we don't have a story that everyone agrees on anyway. Understanding how we learn maths may help give us more effective teaching methods.”

The 20-year-old received offers from several universities when he was applying to do his PhD, and chose Stockholm not only because he was keen to work abroad – “getting to know a new culture is nice even though Sweden and the Netherlands are fairly similar!” – but also because Sweden is one of the few countries with funding for his field.

He hopes that other countries will start taking a leaf out of Stockholm’s book when it comes to research funding.

“In the Netherlands and other countries, the rationale for cutting funding to the humanities is that it isn’t producing anything economically valuable straight away.”

“Swedes have much more long-term thinking – they recognize that this work could be very beneficial to society, it just doesn’t produce something that you can sell one year after the research has finished. The system is also much more flexible so you there's a lot of opportunity to do whatever you are passionate about.”

As for whether he will stay in Scandinavia once his three-year post-doctoral studies have finished, he isn't sure. “It depends on job opportunities, which are always a very uncertain thing in the academic world,” says Buijsman.

“But I certainly wouldn’t mind if it became long term!”