Förskola to Systembolaget: How I survived moving to Sweden with kids

Förskola to Systembolaget: How I survived moving to Sweden with kids
Victoria Martínez and her two children. Photo: Private
Victoria Martínez moved to Sweden with her Spanish husband and their two children this year. Little did she know she would be in for the ride of a lifetime.

Five months ago, when I imagined what our new life in Sweden would be like, it almost always involved glorious snowy days, my husband and myself drinking warm glögg from a sleek Bodum thermo jug by a cozy outdoor hearth while our two young children, warmly and adorably bundled, played cheerfully on sleds.

What I failed to consider in my happy fantasy was that, contrary to what I envisioned before my children came along, parenting is messy. Parenting in a new country is even messier. And, as I quickly discovered, not even previous experience as an expat completely prepared me for the realities of making a new life with my family in Sweden.

When I was young and single, I made the adventurous decision to leave my corporate job to travel, research and write in England. By chance, that is where I met the man who would become my husband, a Spaniard who shared my sense of wanderlust. Together, we lived for a time in Scotland before marrying and settling down in my home country, the United States. In time, American suburbia was traded for a new life in Spain, which neatly coincided with the arrival of our children, now two and four years old.

Although raising children in a country not my own wasn’t exactly easy, at least my husband was a native Spaniard and I had visited the country many times before moving there. For the children, life in Spain with the occasional holiday to the United States was all they knew. Sweden was uncharted territory for all of us. And as my husband went off to start his job with a good knowledge of Swedish, I felt like an inexperienced and poorly-equipped Sherpa guiding two very erratic and impulsive little mountaineers up Mount Everest.

As if the horrors of bringing the children on trips to Skatteverket and Försäkringskassan, the Swedish tax and insurance agencies, weren’t bad enough, I still have nightmares about all those early trips to the supermarket with them in tow. Never in my life have I seen a larger selection of dairy products than in Swedish supermarkets. And who knew there were so many types of flour? Without any knowledge of Swedish, just buying basics like whole milk and all-purpose flour required a translation app and ten minutes of googling. A situation made more stressful when my four-year-old spent that mostly unsupervised time racing around deliberately bumping into people so she could practise saying “förlåt,” while my two-year-old pulled things off shelves and incessantly screamed, “caca!” to try and get my attention.

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It should come as no surprise that with episodes like this occurring on a regular basis, the Swedish term for children's day care, förskola, became my favourite word, and every day I waited with anticipation for our application to be accepted. In any case, it was time. After spending most of the last few years being a stay-at-home mom, I was ready to get back to doing my research and writing. More importantly, we all needed to work on integration and I needed child-free time to focus on things like learning Swedish and getting my Swedish driving licence, not to mention setting up our new home. Just buying ceiling lights and privacy blinds for our entire apartment, in addition to lamps for each window, was turning into a part-time job, and every parent knows that children and lamp stores are not a good combination.

But when the children were finally offered a place in a wonderful förskola, my dreams of leisurely supermarket trips and casual browsing of lighting were interrupted by the reality of children’s regnkläder and vinterkläder, rain clothes and winter clothes. Unlike in Spain or Texas where you plop your kid in a raincoat and boots on a rainy day, and any warm coat, hat, scarf and gloves on a cold one, this was a science. Rain jackets and trousers: should I buy lined or unlined? Winter jackets and trousers: winter is coming. Fleeces: including hats to go under other hats! Gloves: knit, rain AND winter. Don’t forget to buy two of everything, one for förskola and one for home (three is even better if your children are as rough on clothes as mine are). Oh, and put their names on EVERYTHING.

Enter two new Swedish words into my vocabulary: Systembolaget and loppis. Thanks to them, my local mega store Smålänningen, and two new Swedish friends, my children did not have to start förskola wrapped in blankets and trash bags sealed by duct tape, and I kept my sanity mostly intact.

Now, winter is upon us and life in Sweden is almost like I imagined. The children are certainly warmly bundled. Somewhat haphazardly, perhaps, in a vast array of both new and used outerwear (all of which already seems equally well-used) and not-quite-matching accessories (they’ve each already lost or destroyed at least one pair of gloves). The sleds are bought and ready for them to cheerfully enjoy – but mostly fight over – on the next snowy day. As for my husband and me, at the moment we are happy drinking warm glögg generously ladled out of a pot on the stove. After all, Bodum is a Danish brand, so it never really belonged in my Swedish fantasy anyway.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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