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Why America’s gun culture made us raise our children in Sweden

The Local's columnist Victoria Martínez, who grew up in Texas in the US, writes about why she and her husband have chosen to raise their children in Sweden.

Why America's gun culture made us raise our children in Sweden
We have a peace of mind in Sweden we didn't feel we would have in the US, writes Victoria Martínez. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

From the archive. Published in November 2017.

I'm often asked why we have made the conscious decision not to live in the United States. Most people laugh at the first answer I generally give, which involves a certain person currently residing in a large white house in Washington, D.C. The laughter always stops when I give my second reason: I already worry enough about my children that I don't want to live in fear that they will be gunned down in a mass shooting, at school or anywhere else.

The mass shooting on everyone's mind right now is probably the one in Las Vegas on October 1st that killed 58 people and injured nearly 500. Justifiably so. But as a parent – as well as the wife of a teacher – I am always particularly distressed when I hear of school shootings in my native country. The fourth-deadliest mass shooting in modern American history took place in 2012 at an elementary school in Connecticut, where 20 six- and seven-year-old children and six school employees were massacred. Not to mention the countless other instances – averaging almost one a week – at schools of all levels that systematically kill, injure and traumatize children, young people, and educators.

My heart already skips a beat when I get a call from my children's school. Are they injured? Sick? Did my three-year-old escape again to play in the snow with no coat or boots? The last thing I want to add to that list is the worry that there is an “active shooter” situation at or near my children's school. Or worse. Just recently, a Facebook friend in America posted about just such a situation at her child's school. On a visit to the U.S., another friend's child told me how her school was locked down that day because a kid was flashing what turned out to be a fake gun. Neither one of these incidents occurred in a “bad area.”

That said, “bad areas” are relative. Technically, my entire home state of Texas is a “bad area” for mass shootings. As a recent article pointed out, Texas lags only slightly behind Nevada in the number of victims of mass shootings to-date in 2017. The most recent major mass-shooting occurred in Texas, when 26 people were gunned down in a church. One of the earliest mass shootings I was fully aware of took place in Texas in 1991, when 23 people were slain and 27 injured in a restaurant. That same year, a boy in my high school took a gun to school and hid it in his locker before shooting himself in front of his class.

That year was undoubtedly a turning point of sorts for me. Growing up, I had run around the neighborhood playing with toy guns with my friends. I had watched all the popular television shows where both good and bad guys had guns and used them freely (although, miraculously, no one ever seemed to get shot). Guns were a part of popular culture in many ways, and had always seemed harmless enough, as much as it pains me to say now.

My husband's experience growing up in Spain was naturally quite different, and he is – by his own admission – a great admirer of what he likes to call, “weapons behind glass”. But we have always agreed on our feelings about guns at large. Having children only deepened our awareness of how America's gun culture not only permeates children's lives, but also affects and threatens them directly. When considering whether to live and raise our children in the United States or continue to live in Europe, there's no doubt that the more responsible regulations and attitudes on guns in Sweden were major factors in choosing the latter option.

Terrible tragedies can and do happen anywhere at anytime. Mass killings do occur without the use of guns. Swedes own guns, too (though significantly fewer, proportionately, than Americans), and there is gun violence in Sweden (though, again, it is far less common). I know all these arguments and more, but they just don't fly with me.

Without context, some might argue that Sweden's increase in fatal shootings is a sign that the country might be poised to “catch up” with America. Closer inspection reveals, however, that, as The Local has reported, this increase is due to gang-related violence and criminal networks, a category of deadly gun violence that experts in America believe should not be defined as mass shootings or included in related analysis. In addition, this type of violence does not generally occur in places like schools, churches, family restaurants, etc.

When statistics show that 66 percent of the world's mass shootings over 30 years occurred in the United States, while only 2 percent occurred in Sweden, I feel our decision is validated. With, on average, one mass shooting every day, and one major mass shooting every two months in America, I don't think we are being paranoid. As the number of school shootings in the United States since 2013 now stands at over 250, I am grateful I am living in a country where the most recent violent attack on a school (involving a sword) in 2015 took place 54 years after the last deadly school shooting in Sweden in 1961 killed one and injured seven.

Beyond statistics, the most important thing to us is that we have a peace of mind in Sweden we didn't feel we would have in the United States.

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.

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How Sweden’s gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off

Sweden is often lauded as being gender-equal, reflected in Swedish divorce law. But that doesn't mean that Sweden is the best place for women to get divorced, as Sarah Jefford discovered following her split three years ago.

How Sweden's gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off

Moving to a new country can bring enough turmoil, stress, and culture shock to put a marriage through its paces.  Causes of divorce and separation among native Swedes and immigrant partners include emotional estrangement, loneliness, and a lack of independence in a new country. But what happens when a Swede and foreign spouse decide to split up in Sweden when they share a child?

For expats enduring a divorce to a native in Sweden, separation can be especially acrimonious if children are involved and one of the plaintiffs is financially and civically dependent on the other.

Immigrant divorce rates in Sweden are around 15 percent higher than native Swedish divorce rates and marriages between a Swede and a foreigner are between a quarter and two-and-a-half times more likely to end in divorce than those between two Swedes, according to a study by Martin Dribe, Professor of Economic History at Lund University.

British expat, Sarah Jefford, considers herself, since her split nearly three years back, to be trapped in Sweden, destitute, and fighting to be able to leave the country with her son to return back home to family and friends to rebuild a life for themselves. She would like other expats to know what they’re getting into with regards to absence of alimony and child support in Sweden.

“It’s not that good towards women”

She tells the Local that “expats should realise this because Sweden is super popular at the moment, you hear constantly in the papers that it is such a civil society–fantastic for women, the kids, and an equal society? Well, these are the disadvantages of an equal society. And the truth is that it’s not that good towards women.”

She met her Swedish husband, a pension fund CIO, in Switzerland and they married in the UK. Happy with the course their burgeoning family was on, she agreed to put her own job as a winemaker on hold and move to Sweden to follow her husband’s career together with their child in 2014.

She could never imagine it would end in divorce, let alone that she would find herself struggling to make ends meet and look after her child after her husband walked out amidst an office affair nearly three years ago.  Though they share joint custody and despite his wealthy career managing a top Swedish pension fund, her ex refuses to financially support their son, now 14, who lives with her.

Photo: Sarah Jefford

“It did not occur to me that were I to get divorced it would be the law of the country of residence that I would be subject to and not the UK, my home country, the country where I got married.”

Swedish law stipulates that joint assets (those acquired during the marriage) are split in half when a couple divorces in Sweden. Unlike in the UK or North America, there is no division of pension and alimony is not available. There is no child allowance if the children spend one week with one parent and one week with the other (regardless if one of the parties has no income).

Should a child live with one parent full-time, the other must pay child support.  The amount varies according to the child’s age. 1,673 kronor until the child becomes 11, 1,823 kronor till the child turns 15, and 2,273 after that. Försäkringskassan (the Swedish Social Insurance Agency) estimates how much the non-custodial parent must pay to Försäkringskassan. 

In Sweden, there are other options for dealing with issues regarding property partition and child custody arrangements, family mediation and constructive dialogue are advised tactics. The European e-Justice portal includes a comprehensive description of divorce law and settlement procedures in English.

In Jefford’s case she claims 1,823 kronor (about €170) a month for her 14-year-old child through the agency.

“So the Försäkringskassa pays me and then goes after my ex for the money.  As a result, there is no child support or alimony depending on the parent’s income. How should I bring up a teenager with that? I mean it it barely pays for the fancy sneakers that teenagers like so much, and definitely does not cover their food and they eat like horses at that age.”

Jefford’s business as a wine educator has suffered immensely during the pandemic, and she finds it near impossible to keep up with the price of living in Stockholm whilst supporting her child.  She has been scraping by working as a substitute teacher and doing sporadic odd jobs which she says she can’t survive off, or pay rent with, or get bank loans for a mortgage. 

Feeling completely stuck, Jefford says that had she known about Swedish divorce laws and the fact that they are legally binding in the place of residence, she would have “never moved here, or got married.”

Jefford recalls friends in France and Switzerland being gobsmacked by her predicament:

“Foreigners are envious of Sweden’s generous parental leave, and that’s talked about a lot. So the focus is on Sweden being an amazing country, because you get this parental leave, right?”

“But it blurs the fact that other problems with the system going towards total equality are actually misguided in a way. Great, you know, equal pay and opportunities for men and women. I’m all for that, of course.  But it doesn’t always work–you have to take into consideration circumstances.  I think the system of equality works if everybody is equal in life, or has the same advantages and has the same kind of life and opportunities.”

“But if you don’t have that, if you don’t come from that, then that system doesn’t work and is unfair. That’s how I see it. And I think it’s really scary.”

By Matthew Weaver