The other day, I was closing my daughter’s bedroom window at the same time I was repeating something to her for the fifteenth time in a loud voice – some might even call it shouting. As this was happening, a neighbour was entering our building from the common entrance below and looked up a bit startled. When she saw me, her startled look turned into a knowing grin, followed by a friendly nod, and I could almost see her thinking, “Of course. I should have known it was the excitable American with the loud Spanish husband and the two wild children.”
Needless to say, our family does stand out at times as being the antithesis of lagom, that Swedish state of being usually defined as moderate in all things or “just enough.”
We are the family of “too much” – too loud, too enthusiastic, too emotional – and this has become painfully obvious to me in the ten months since we moved to Sweden. Not that most native Swedes seem bothered by it. Or, at least, they are very circumspect in showing it; which is, of course, a very lagom response. But I can’t help but feel self-conscious about it.
Raising our children in Spain, where “too much” is basically the norm, we were far less noticeable. As loud as my so-called “Mommy voice” can be, my husband’s commanding “Daddy voice” in Spanish is positively booming. It fit right in in Spain, but not so much here in Sweden, where anyone with a knowledge of Spanish who hears my husband remonstrating with our children is likely to feel compelled to follow his orders as well. For my part, the voluble and emotional American in me was known to draw notice in Spain when dealing with my children, but mainly because it was primarily expressed in English. No one would have batted an eyelash had it been done exclusively in Spanish.
My husband's booming 'Daddy voice' fit right in in Spain. Not so much in Sweden. Photo: Victoria Martínez
In family joy – as in parental angst – we are also “too much.” How can we not be? With one side that epitomizes the Spanish expression of “GOOOOOLLLLLLLLL!” applied to almost all of life’s victories, and the other side epitomizing the extroverted and effusive American, we are not likely to easily adopt too many lagom characteristics. As much as we pride ourselves more as citizens of the world than a typical American and Spaniard, it seems we can’t escape at least a few of our respective cultural traits that clearly manifest themselves in our parenting style. It just isn’t that common here in Sweden to see families making a big commotion – and we, collectively, seem to be experts at that.
As the parent who spends the most time with the children on a daily basis, I have come to recognize more than a few situations where I seem to go against the norm. The main one is the playground, where I note Swedish parents behaving in a generally serene and dignified fashion. I like to think that it’s because my children are quite young, but it seems I am almost always climbing, running or calling after them, and typically becoming as dirty and worn out as they are. Serene and dignified are rarely used to describe me at those times.
Another is the library – a place that is, to a researcher and writer like me, almost sacred. As a result, when my children act like children there – and they always do – I am anything but moderate in my parental threats and bribes, even if they are made in whispers. Yet another is the supermarket, a place that regular readers of this column might recall I experienced some of my earliest parental nightmares in Sweden.
Being an international parent in Sweden is not without challenges. Photo: Victoria Martínez
We can’t change who we are, individually or as a family, so it’s great that Sweden is a country where social integration – not cultural assimilation – is the goal. Nevertheless, perhaps I should give in to commercialization as a writer and use this situation to my advantage by writing an authoritative book on lagom parenting in Sweden.
Yes, I have been here less than a year. No, I have not reached that state of apparent Zen that many Swedish parents exhibit when their children begin running, screaming and generally behaving like little monsters. True, I am almost exactly the same parent I was when I lived in Spain and didn’t necessarily parent like the average Spaniard. So, how – you may ask – will I write “the” book on lagom parenting when I am clearly not lagom?
That’s easy. I will simply advise doing everything the opposite of how our family currently does it. And the title will be one of our family’s most-used phrases, “Just dial it down a bit!”
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.
Read more from her family column on The Local here.