The Scotswoman moved to London in 2008 for work. During her eight years living there, she met her partner who’d moved there from Sweden to work at a Swedish production company based in the British capital. “We met at a bar in Hoxton, simple as that. We lived with each other in London for two and half years and then we decided we wanted to start a family.”
They decided that Sweden was the best place to raise a family together. “We kind of knew it felt like the right place to be, after all Sweden is one of the best places in the world to raise a family. It just made sense to move there,” she tells The Local.
The benefits went beyond just child-rearing. Although the Swedish housing market has and is going through turbulent times, it’s not as bad as London. “We could afford to buy an apartment, as opposed to London. I was pregnant when we moved over here and then in April 2015 our daughter, Stella, was born. It all felt very natural for us to do this.”
Jill and her daughter Stella. Photo: Private
Although Jill feels moving to Sweden was definitely the right decision, she struggled after her daughter was born. Faced with bringing a child up in an unfamiliar country was difficult at first.
“After she was born, I have to admit I struggled quite a lot. Because even though I was surrounded by friends and family that I knew in Stockholm, the kind of activities and support that a lot of mums have in their home countries wasn’t accessible to me, mostly because of language. Because I was so new to Sweden I hadn’t had an opportunity to learn the language or attend classes or make very much headway with SFI [Swedish For Immigrants],” she says.
“Then when I went on maternity leave I was looking after Stella and so that’s when I started looking a lot for things to be able to do and I found the meetup groups and the English speaking play group that had already been established.”
And that’s how Littlebearabroad was born. First starting as a blog, it grew when Jill started hosting her own meetups and workshops, and now has become a business.
“Littlebearabroad is the combination of 18 months of me living in Stockholm, merely exploring and discovering everything that is available for kids under the age of five. But with access for international parents. So the idea is Littlebearabroad provides support, information, advice, activities and workshops for kids and parents who are coming to live in Stockholm from countries all over the world,” Jill explains.
A baby-painting workshop with Moderna Museet. Photo: Private
The project is starting to fill a gap that hasn’t been noticed by native Swedes, but that new immigrants have to attempt to navigate without much assistance. “I guess it’s kind of like a driving licence to help people navigate through the social system, to help them settle in, finding somewhere to live all the way through to what are the best shops for me to buy my favourite food in or to buy my kids clothes et cetera.”
It doesn’t stop there though. “We also manage various groups for people coming to live in Stockholm, such as the Stockholm International Parents Meetup Group and Högalids Hedgehogs, the only English-speaking play group in Stockholm. And there’s a Stockholm International Kids Facebook group which provides an online support system for people to find information easily and talk to one another about what they’ve done or ask questions about activities or places they’ve been to. So really it’s just trying to bring all of this information into one place.”
A story many international parents may be able to relate to, but which is often not talked about, is the hardships of parenthood, with the added pressures of doing so in a new country. But that’s not to say Jill is criticizing Sweden’s actual support for new mothers.
“I was fortunate to have pre-natal care both in the UK and in Sweden, and without a shadow of a doubt, it’s better here in Sweden. Far better and far more well-resourced than in the UK. I mean, I was attending a clinic at my local GP, for ten minutes every six weeks or something. But in Sweden here it was once a week. I would have a nice sit down chat for 20 minutes at a time. There’s so much more support in terms of care.”
Her concerns lie with the emotional support system for parents who are moving to the Nordic country. Its family friendly reputation is attractive, but often means that they have to go it alone. “What I mean about support for international parents is that saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. A lot of people don’t have that village here. I’m lucky my daughter’s Farmor and Farfar [grandmother and grandfather] are here. It’s about having that emotional support network.”
“I find – and this is me getting on my high horse – that there’s so much support out there for young single professional international expats, especially, but there seems to be very little for people who are bringing their families over. And that’s what I think needs something like Littlebearabroad to give people opportunities to meet other people, to know that they're out there, to get to know one another, to share their experience.”
One of the biggest issues is people trying to understand the social system in Sweden, she says.
“When I was doing my research for Littlebearabroad people kept saying ‘we need more information, how do we make sure we’re registered properly. That’s really the story of how Littlebearabroad came to be about. So it’s my story as well, trying to figure out how to start a family in a brand new country,” she explains.
The newcomer that has a question but doesn’t know who to ask would find a resource like Littlebearabroad not only useful, but probably a relief. “Having someone to ask really silly questions, like what the hell is välling, for god’s sake? I mean, no one’s ever heard of that until they come to Scandinavia. Scandinavians treat välling like a miracle wonder drink that makes babies fall asleep at night and no one has ever heard of it.”
Littlebearabroad is a unique venture, and their clients are from all over the world. “There are people from South Africa, from South America, Indonesia et cetera. We also have clients from the UK, Germany, France. It’s a really broad mix of people, so by no means is this just a UK based expat community, it’s absolutely an international community.”
But given the diversity of clients, it’s a must that they speak English to effectively take advantage of what Littlebearabroad has to offer. “The emphasis is really on making Stockholm and Sweden as accessible as possible for international parents who are moving over here,” says Jill.
Now that she has more time to herself and has started a business, she’s back to learning Swedish and it’s coming along. “A lot of people say don’t worry, you don’t have to learn a language when you go to Sweden, everybody speaks English anyway. I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”
She adds: “It’s hugely important to learn the native language of a country that you’re living in, not just because of work but it also has a hugely important role in socializing with people. A lot of my Swedish friends have said they become a different person when they speak English, because language defines who you are.”
On Sweden being classed as an excellent place to raise children, Jill couldn’t agree more. “There are many, many aspects which are true, about Sweden being a wonderful place to raise a family. And it’s mostly to do with the support that you receive from social services system. Our daughter has just started förskola (kindergarten), for her to be able to attend a state assisted play school for very little money per month is just incredible.”
Childcare in the UK is expensive by international standards, and with Jill's own friends who have to spends thousands of pounds a month just to be able to go back to work, she fully appreciates Sweden’s system.
“It’s a fantastic thing, and I don’t think people quite get that until they go through it or experience the heartache of having to pay for childcare and going back to work at the same time. And it’s also the small things like getting to go on the bus for free with a buggy in Stockholm or going into a restaurant and not having to worry about whether it’s child-friendly. Or the wonderful play parks that are all over Stockholm. I think it truly is a country that has children very much at its heart.”
“We absolutely made the best decision to move here,” she says with confidence.
Article by The Local's intern Saina Behnejad