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THE LOCAL INVESTIGATES

EDUCATION

Why is Sweden top in the world for expat families?

With inexpensive childcare and generous parental leave, Sweden is often painted as a family paradise. As the Nordic country once again comes out top in a poll of where in the world is best for raising children, three families tell The Local about their ups and downs of expat life in Sweden.

Why is Sweden top in the world for expat families?
Is Sweden one of the best places to raise children? Photo: Martin Svalander/imagebank.sweden.se

Things were going well for Alexandra Suhner Isenberg, 36. After meeting her Swedish husband Daniel, 38, in London, she managed to coax him back to her native Canada and in 2011 the pair had their first child, Viktor. But amid all the baby joy, there was one dark cloud.

“We realized we could not afford daycare. We lived in Vancouver for four or five years, but it is very expensive in Canada. We just could not afford it, even though we both were highly educated and had well-paid – not massively well-paid, but decent enough – jobs,” she told The Local.

After visiting Daniel's family on a holiday to Sweden one summer, they decided to take a leap of faith, packed their belongings and moved to the small town of Växjö in southern Sweden.

Today, the couple has two children, Viktor, who is now three, and two-year-old Helena. Alexandra runs an online luxury nightwear company based back in Canada and her husband works as a web designer.

“When we came to Sweden we realized that 'this is the place for us'. It's just an awesome place to raise children. The curriculum is balanced, they go on field trips and they all get fed properly. I love that everyone can afford childcare and all the children get as equal a start in life as they can get. To afford the kind of daycare my children go to now you would need a lot of money in Canada,” said Alexandra.


Alexandra Suhner Isenberg with her husband Daniel and two children. Photo: Linus Paulsson

Their positive experience of the Swedish childcare system is far from uncommon. Just last week a survey by worldwide expatriate network InterNations rated Sweden as the best place for expats to raise a family, ahead of Denmark, France, Austria and Germany. Comparatively cheap childcare, thanks to generous subsidies, came out as one of the top reasons.

While the Nordic country has a global reputation for being an expensive place to visit, a a study by Numbeo – a global database of reported consumer prices – in January 2015 revealed it is cheaper to live there than many other European nations including the United Kingdom, France and the rest of Scandinavia. The exact cost of childcare varies depending on where in Sweden you live, but is capped by the state at 1,260 kronor ($143) a month for the first child.

Alexandra and Daniel moved for family reasons, but most expat families relocate because of work. InterNations founder and co-CEO Malte Zeeck told The Local that choosing to resettle because of relatives is quite rare among expats.

“When talking about their motivations for moving abroad, only one in 20 respondents chose 'family reasons' as their most important reason for the move. Since family reasons is a fairly broad category, which also includes cases like needing to care for elderly parents, wanting to be close to siblings or extended family members, and the like, it's actually fewer than five percent of respondents overall who decided to move solely for their children's sake,” he said.

OPINION: “With Swedish childcare, everyone's a winner”

Tom Rebbitt, 40, from Britain, his wife Maxine, 39, and their two little girls Josephine, 3, and Danielle, 6, live on an idyllic Swedish island just off Gothenburg. Working for a construction machinery manufacturer based in the United States, Tom was relocated to Sweden by his employer.

“It's our second expat stint – we used to live in Germany. Out of the three places we've lived this is the best for us as a family,” he told The Local.

“In Britain, there's this cliché of an idyllic neighbourhood where all the children play together in the streets, and of course it's nothing like that any more. It could just be the local culture where we live on our island, but here it is still like that. It feels safe for the children to play outside and they bring home friends from 'dagis' [nursery school] almost every day.”

His view is echoed by the results of the InterNations survey, in which 86 percent of 14,000 expats originally hailing from a total of 160 countries said they were happy with their family life in Sweden and 97 percent judged the country to have a positive effect on their children's general well being.

And as Tom's two-year secondment to Sweden is due to come to an end, he and his family have decided they want to stay, at least in the medium term.

“Sweden is much, much more family centric than anywhere else I have seen. I work for an American company and in the States you only get around two weeks' holiday a year. But this summer we've decided we're going to be a bit more Swedish and spend a lot of time with the kids. They're both picking up Swedish embarrassingly quickly and were fluent within months. My wife and I are lagging behind,” he said with a laugh.


Tom Rebbitt with his wife Maxine and children Josephine and Danielle. Photo: Private

But while Tom and his family are thinking of prolonging their stay in Sweden, some expats, such as Marielle Hoogland, 43, cannot wait to return home.

She and her husband moved with their two children, 10 and 7, to Stockholm two years ago after having lived both in their native Netherlands and Hong Kong. For her, the long Nordic winters are a strong negative.

“Where shall I start? Sweden is okay, but it is not the best place for me to raise a family, mainly due to the darkness and winter. In November it gets dark at 3pm and the children can't go out to play. They end up spending a lot of time indoors and I think going outside is something they really miss,” she told The Local.

Swedes enjoy generous childcare benefits with 480 days of paid parental leave, split between the parents. At the age of one, most children start nursery school (known as 'förskola' or 'dagis') before they enter primary school at the age of seven.

But life in a foreign country presents obstacles that statistics sometimes do not reveal, and raising children away from the social safety net of relatives and friends can be a lonely experience, according to expats such as Marielle.

“If I compare Sweden to being an expat in Asia, you have a lot more help there. In Hong Kong the whole system is more organized around help in the home, but in Sweden you're supposed to look after yourself,” said Marielle.

“This is fine if you are Swedish. If you have family who live here you have back-up around to help you, but as an expat you don't. I feel like we live in an expat bubble,” she added.

But she admits the balance between work and life in Scandinavia does offer a silver lining for her family.

“That is really good compared to the Netherlands and compared to Hong Kong. My husband gets home at a sensible time in the evening and gets to spend time with the children. But we will stay here for one year and then I hope we will move back to the Netherlands,” she said.

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FAMILY

How to use all your parental leave in Sweden before it expires

The parents of fully 70 percent of children in Sweden fail to take all the parental leave available to them before it expires. But there are some tricks to make sure you use it all.

two parents and two children in a car
You could save some parental leave days to use for a long holiday – but be careful so that they don't expire. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

“The Swedish Social Insurance Agency has decided that you will not receive child benefit for Finn from December 24th to January 8th,” read the letter that dropped into my secure digital mailbox over Christmas. 

My son turned eight on December 23rd, and as he was born just a week before a new more generous policy became valid in Sweden, that marked the end of our eligibility for child leave.

And just as had happened with his elder sister, we had let his leave expire with more than a month of leave yet to claim.

It turns out, we are far from alone.

The parents of fully 72 percent of the children born in Sweden in 2010 failed to claim all of their shared 480 days of parental leave by the time they expired in 2018, according to the latest statistics from the Social Insurance Agency. On average, parents in Sweden failed to claim about a month, but 21 percent of parents had, like us, failed to claim more than 60 days.

In total, that amounted to 1.4 billion kronor ($154.4 million) in unclaimed benefits, and according to an analysis by the agency, it was those with the lowest incomes who had the most days left over.

A graph showing how many days of parental leave was not claimed for children born in 2010, divided up by (from left) low-income, mid-income and high-income families. The dark green shows days paid at 80 percent of the salary (sjukpenningnivå) and the light green the lowest-paid days (lägstanivå, 180 kronor a day). Photo: Försäkringskassan

A change in the rules since my son was born has made using your days quite a bit easier. Parents of children born after January 1st in 2014 (a week after my son), can now continue to take out leave until their children’s 12th birthday.

But be aware that all but 96 of these days expire when the child turns four, so the race is still on.

If you want to understand how parental leave in Sweden works, here’s The Local’s detailed guide to how the system works

But to avoid other foreigners in Sweden suffering the same disappointment as I did, keep scrolling for some tips for how to make sure you use all that leave.

Take leave together 

Swedish rules allow both parents to take leave at the same time. In the first few months, this can really take the pressure off the mother, allowing her partner to take over while she makes up for lost sleep, or takes a precious hour or so to herself. 

The rules allow each couple to claim a maximum of 30 of these so-called dubbeldagar or “double days”, which taken together will use up 60 days of leave. 

These days cannot be taken from the 90 reservdagar, or “reserve days”, which are tied to each parent to prevent fathers from taking out days at the same time as leaving the mother to do all the actual childcare. They also can only be taken before the child is one year old. 

Claim leave for ordinary holidays 

My mistake was to see parental leave as something to take only when I was off work specifically to look after my children. In fact, you can take it out any time you are not actually working: when you take time off over Christmas, Easter, during the sportlov or höstlov school holidays, or over the long Swedish summer. 

“My husband takes all of the school holidays and the summers off so we can travel and all be together,” says Martha Moore in Malmö. “I’m a teacher, so I will probably give all of my days to him, since I get to be off when my kids are off anyway.”

You can even claim for days which you are also claiming as holiday from your work, or days which are public holidays in Sweden, but you can only claim parental leave for these days at the so-called lägstanivå, or base level of 180 kronor a day.  

You can claim some days at the same time as the other parent. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Take a very long holiday 

One Australian living in Stockholm said she was off to Thailand for two and a half months this February in order to use up some of the days from her second child, which are due to expire when she turns four later in the year.

She recommends planning one long holiday to use up any of the 384 days that will expire when your child turns four, and then saving up the other 96 days for a second long holiday before they turn 12. 

She is putting her eldest child into a Swedish school in Thailand while they are there, using one of the chain of Swedish schools set up in Thailand, primarily for parents holidaying on their parental leave.  

She deliberately didn’t use as many days as she could have in the first 12 months, so that she and her husband could do this. “My tip is to not use many days at all paid that first 12 months, and to burn your savings instead,” she says. 

As her child is more than one year old, she and her husband cannot take leave simultaneously, however, so he is using holiday time he has saved up. 

Take leave before the birth 

The pregnant parent can start taking parental leave and collecting benefits up to 60 days before the due date. It’s actually compulsory for the mother to take two weeks of leave in connection with the birth, which can either be before or after. New fathers or secondary caregivers can also start taking leave up to ten days before the birth. 

This could be a waste of days, however, as if a difficult (or, let’s face it, even fairly normal) pregnancy makes it impossible to do your job, you can claim sickness benefits instead of parental leave, and get the same level of benefits without using up any of your 480 days. 

This does not apply, however, to “normal pregnancy difficulties such as back pain and fatigue”, so to claim sickness benefits, you will have to convince your doctor to certify that you have pregnancy difficulties that are “unusually severe”. 

A father carrying his child in a Baby Björn in Sweden. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Take a chunk out to do private projects 

People less good at forward planning sometimes take a chunk of leave just before their child turns four or twelve (or eight if they were born before January 1st, 2014), even if they don’t have anything planned in particular.  

You can use this time to do the sort of home chores that it is so hard to find time to do once you have children. 

“I had a colleague who took two months’ maternity leave when her daughter was seven years old,” says one woman in Malmö. “She took it as a vacation in the summer to fix her apartment.” 

Use parental leave to work a short week 

Once the child is in preschool (dagis or förskola) many people, including Moore’s husband, use parental leave to take Friday and/or Monday off work for six months or more, allowing them to spend more time with their child.

This is obviously something you have to square with your employer, but in Sweden most employers are more than willing to put employees on 80 percent. 

You can either use this time to take some of the pressure off your partner during their parental leave, or to reduce the amount of time your child spends in preschool.

A parent walking their child in a pram through a snowy Stockholm. Photo: Jann Lipka/imagebank.sweden.se

Use parental leave to work short days 

You don’t need to take each allotted day as a full day, you can also reduce your working day by three quarters, a half, one quarter or one eighth, and receive proportional parental benefit for the time not worked.

Parents of a child under the age of eight can reduce their working hours by up to 25 percent, whether or not they decide to take parental benefit for the remaining 25 percent.

This can be extremely helpful in making combining childcare and work a little less stressful.

Claim leave for weekends 

You can claim parental leave on weekends as well as on normal weekdays, but unless you normally work on the weekend, you can only claim these at the lowest base level of 180 kronor. 

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