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‘Having young children abroad is stressful’

US citizen Lisa Ferland moved to Sweden in 2012 and after finding motherhood in a foreign country both stressful and rewarding, she's now sharing her experiences with the world.

'Having young children abroad is stressful'
What is it like to have children abroad? Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Already a mother-of-one, Lisa Ferland, 32, had her second child in Sweden, after relocating to the Nordics with her husband. She found herself fascinated by the cultural differences between her home country and her adopted one and decided to write about them. 

Later, the project evolved to include 24 different stories from various international parents about raising children in foreign countries. The Local spoke to the writer about the end result — a book called 'Knocked up abroad', which has just been released. 

What inspired you to write the book? 

I had one child in the US and one child here in Sweden, and I was blogging about the differences between my two pregnancies. My friend, who was pregnant at the time, said ‘you need to write a book about this.' 

I only have my two experiences and as interesting as those are, I thought it would be more interesting to look at a wider range of countries — to say 'okay, how exactly do different cultures affect the recommendations for pregnancy and child birth'. How does that impact a foreigner? 

Who is your book aimed at? Can it appeal to a wider audience than just other parents who have children abroad? 

I think everyone would enjoy it. I think it’s probably more relatable for women, because there is a lot about pregnancy and I think any woman who wants to be pregnant, or has been pregnant will relate to these feelings. 

The book has three sections: those who are pregnant abroad, those who have given birth abroad and those who are parenting abroad. We actually have two fathers presented in the book as well. One discusses parental leave in Sweden and how that is different from his home culture and then another who quit his job when he and his wife moved to Switzerland and became a stay-at-home dad is featured. The culture in Switzerland is not like it is here in Sweden so he had a very different kind of experience there. 


Lisa Ferland believes everyone would enjoy her book. Photo: Sandra Jolly Photography

Did you see any differences in the men’s experiences and the women’s experiences of having children abroad? 

The biggest difference was that both men were American and coming with their very, sort of, American mindset of not necessarily being the primary care taker of the children, and that was a unique role for them the to fill [in their adopted countries]. 

I think in a lot of cultures the woman is often expected to be the primary care taker and she takes all of the responsibility in terms of naps, snacks and, everything related to the family. 

When the dads have to take that on full-time, they are faced with all those challenges the mothers usually go through but for which they never really feel appreciated. 

What would you say are the biggest differences between having children abroad and bringing them up in your home country? 

Raising a family and having young children is automatically going to be stressful and it requires a lot of patience and understanding. And then when you have the layer of not necessarily understanding the language, not understanding the culture which is expected of you as a parent — that adds an additional layer of possible stress and miscommunication. Things that should be simple are not and you have to take into account things you would not have to have to in your home country. For instance the citizenship implications of having children abroad if there are any, and extra paperwork you need to file that you may not have expected. 

Some of the writers in the book experienced major changes in their healthcare, their insurance coverage changed and they had to take that into consideration. 

What are the highlights of having children in Sweden? 

For me personally, I think a highlight of having a child in Sweden was without doubt, the long term parental leave. Being able to have the culture understand that you are not expected to go to work while you baby is still dependent on you. 

Everything in Sweden is great — with the availability of highchairs, baby seats everywhere and changing tables in every restroom, free rides on the bus if you have a stroller…people understand. All these little things add up to a very family-friendly society. It makes your day easier. You might not think it makes day-to-day life easier until you go someplace where it is not like that and then you're thinking ‘oh this is really hard'. 


Ferland thinks Sweden is a very family-friendly society. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

What have you learned from talking to others who have also had children abroad? 

The reassurance that even though we all go about pregnancy and childbirth differently, there are so many different ways you can experience it — we all have the same worry in common. We all want our child to be healthy in the end. 

What’s next for you? 

That question is kind of like after you have just a baby and people ask you ‘so when are you going to have another one?'! 

I think what’s next depends on the interest in this book—I’m hoping there's going to be a lot of interest in this book. I plan on opening a submission section on the website for people to submit their own stories, because I think there are a lot of interesting stories out there that I haven’t heard yet that deserve to be heard. 

And if there is enough interest in another edition or a follow up project — I would be open to that!

Interview by Emma Lidman

For members

FAMILY

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected] 

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