If I’m honest with myself I’m not a naturally adventurous person. I was the first of my family to go to university and the first to move away from my family’s area of south Essex to live in London but I’d be lying if I said I found either adventure easy.
So how on earth did I end up in rural northern Sweden, with twin toddler girls, 1800 km from my family?
I'm one of a whole swathe of British people who find change very scary, who can’t imagine not living within a few miles of their close family. The furthest my immediate family moved was from the East End of London to Essex after the Second World War. Most of my family remain happy in their little Essex cocoon. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But I met and fell in love with Paul, a man who has family dotted around the globe and who has never been scared of travelling. His parents moved from Ireland to England to find work in the 1950s and his sisters have lived in America and northern Africa. Change is in his family’s DNA.
When we first considered a move to Sweden (I suffered a life-threatening accident in America which forced us to reconsider our manically busy and childless lives in London – we wanted to slow our lives down and try to have children), Paul’s family was unconcerned. After all, they’d all already moved to different countries for financial and romantic reasons – Paul was just following in their footsteps.
My family, however, just could not understand it. Why on earth would we want to move to Sweden? Isn’t it cold all year? Why would you not want to live in the UK? The opposition – especially from my father – was fierce. But I remained firm. The low property prices in Sweden meant we could downscale our lives and live more simply. It might even mean we could have kids. It also meant we had the opportunity to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Donna wearing her Zumba gear in northern Sweden. Photo: Private
I was terrified of the move but Paul’s confidence and calm made it all slightly easier. We moved, found a house that needed renovating, and I fell pregnant with twins within five months. I can’t be sure that would not have happened in the UK but it hadn’t in the previous five years we’d been living our stressful urban lives.
That’s when it all suddenly became too much. I was pregnant and the house was a mess due to the renovation process. I wanted to be back in England with my family. I needed my mum and I wanted to share experiences with my two younger sisters who had already had children. I’d been a career woman while they had had families. There was always that gulf between us. Now we had so much more in common and I wanted to share it with them. And I was stuck in northern Sweden with no friends or family. I had nowhere and nobody to turn to. I couldn’t even fly back to the UK as I was advised not to by my doctor. I was miserable.
When I gave birth to our twin daughters seven weeks early, I was reminded of why we moved here. The care we received from the maternity ward of our local hospital was nothing short of amazing. We were kept in for a month while our girls grew stronger. We had our own room and the care was first-rate. There was no way we would have been offered the same treatment in the UK.
But when we got home, once the novelty of looking after two newborn babies had worn off, loneliness set in again. And it set in hard. Paul couldn’t quite grasp why I was so unhappy. He was fine, doing his own thing. I’d changed everything. I’d given up my prestigious job on a UK newspaper, I’d moved countries and I’d become a mother to twins. My life couldn’t be any more different. I also felt I’d lost my identity. I’d been a senior member of staff at a big newspaper – my career had defined me. Now I was a mum in a foreign country. And how foreign it was.
I went to a mother and baby group in a nearby small town and was shunned. Northern Swedes were supposed to be friendly! I drove home in tears. I later learnt that even the locals think that the residents of that small town are strange and unfriendly but it didn’t help at the time.
Donna and Paul's children at “Dagis” (Swedish daycare). Photo: Private
My parents and one of my sisters came over to see us and I cried when they left. I really missed them. It was a very low period.
But gradually things improved. I found another mother and baby group that was much more friendly. I started to make friends. I developed a love for cross-country skiing. I felt a little better. But I still felt a little untethered. I love my girls more than anything but I’m a doer. I need to be working. I need to be contributing to the household bills.
Before we left the UK I’d qualified as a Zumba instructor. I’ve always been interested in keeping fit and Zumba had been one of my favourite ways of exercising. I thought perhaps it might offer the possibility of work in Sweden.
However, the idea of getting up on a stage and “performing” in front of others has always horrified me. But, this February, I finally I took the plunge and started classes in a few local towns. It might be a slight exaggeration to say that taking these classes has changed everything but it’s has made a huge difference to how I feel. I now feel part of the community.
When I go my local supermarket all the women who work there say ‘hej’ as they’re all members of my class. When we go to town to a kids’ event I now have lots of people to talk to. And I’m now spending as much spare time as I can learning Swedish. For the first two years here we were just too busy with the house renovation and the twins. And I felt too unsettled to give it my all. But now I need to learn. Scratch that – I want to learn. I want to speak Swedish.
I also feel as though I actually like Sweden now. As I said, we moved here largely because we could afford to downscale, live somewhere beautiful and have simpler lives – Sweden's health and welfare system was a consideration but only a small one. It could almost have been anywhere in Scandinavia. But I see what’s happening in the UK now and I value Sweden’s liberal approach. I want my girls to grow up in a much more equal society that cherishes its youth. I want them to live in a part of the world where there's very little crime and minimal poverty. I want the best for them and, by most measurable indicators, Sweden offers the best or very close to it. It may have almost been a fluke that we moved here but it’s turned out to be a happy fluke.
And then there’s my family. They’ve nearly all been over at least twice to see us over the last three years. The funny thing is, once they get used to the fact we don’t live cheek-by-jowl with polar bears and that it’s not dark the year round, they absolutely love it here. In fact my youngest sister loves it so much she and her family are seriously thinking about moving over here to join us.
And my staunchly anti-Sweden dad? He’s made friends with our neighbours and is looking to buy a summer house close to us. It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks after all. Maybe us Essex folk aren’t quite as unadventurous as we thought.