Want to know how to be a super-successful immigrant parent in Sweden? So do I…

Want to know how to be a super-successful immigrant parent in Sweden? So do I...
It's always the litte things, isn't it? Photo: Linda Forsell/SvD/TT
Parenting is challenging in the best of circumstances. But when you're still struggling to learn the language and cultural rules of a new country, it's easy to feel like you're alone in the world. Victoria Martínez writes about the ups and downs of immigrant parents.

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If there's no guide book to parenting, there's definitely no guide book to parenting as an immigrant in Sweden.

Sure, there's tons of advice to be found. Practical resources are also usually available. And, of course, there are numerous groups for immigrants and expats. These are all great and valuable tools for some of the practical and emotional aspects of parenting, but when it comes to the immediate realities I am confronted with every day as an immigrant parent, I’ve found they have limited usefulness.

I'm talking about the things I take for granted; the daily activities I assume I am well-versed in until I realize I've never done them in Sweden. Recognizing that my own notions of “how things are done” often have to be thrown out the window can be hard enough. Unraveling how it is done here – sometimes without anything or anyone to guide or instruct me – can make the process even more challenging and frustrating, and even emotionally draining. As a parent, this is amplified, as my responsibility is not just to myself, but to my children as well.

Also, because my children are quite young, there are many things I'm doing and experiencing for the very first time in the role of parent. How I enter these situations – my expectations, my basis of planning, etc. – is usually rooted in my own personal experiences of doing things in the United States as a child, or perhaps as a babysitter or aunt. Needless to say, this alone often leads to errors due to incorrect expectations and poor planning.

Whether in the United States or here in Sweden, I accept these errors as a normal part of parenting, just as they are of life in general. Where I struggle as an immigrant is in realizing that my lack of experience and knowledge about how certain things are done in Sweden can make new or challenging parental experiences even more challenging and the search for answers problematic.

In the United States, I would have had not only a more accurate frame of reference, but also almost immediate support from an existing network of other parents and friends. In Sweden, most new situations with my children involve a combination of serious gaps in my knowledge and a group of strangers. Add in my still emerging grasp of the Swedish language, and the physical and emotional distance kept by many Swedes, and it's easy to feel at times that I am going it alone in the dark.


I felt this acutely earlier this year when my five-year-old daughter began taking swimming lessons for the first time. Not only was this the first time one of my children was taking swimming lessons in Sweden, it was also the first time ever. Going into it, I planned the best I could for her first lesson, packing her swim suit and towel, as well as some toys to keep her brother occupied while we waited. I expected she would get changed, rinse off, have her lesson, then rinse off and change again. Done.

Walking into the locker room, I was faced with the reality that there was a very clear process and order being followed rigorously by everyone that I would clearly also need to follow, though without any guidance except my own observations. Not only that, I realized this process required numerous things I did not bring or plan for, and was inhibited by one thing I did bring: my three-year-old son.

While the other mothers breezed through everything, their attention focused on their one and only child, I struggled to improvise as best I could with my nervously excited and bewildered daughter, while also attempting to contain my mischievous son.

Let's just say it did not go well, and it took all of the nine lessons for me to figure out the system and make it a relatively routine event. Although I'm pretty certain we were far from looking like naturals on the last day, I still felt proud at how much we had improved since that first lesson. I only wish I could have got to that point sooner and with the benefit of some helpful advice or assistance.


Granted, I'm an adult. I don't need someone to hold my hand and walk me through every new situation. But I also readily admit that I long for, at minimum, an easygoing companionship among my peers to help smooth over and cope with the many rough edges of daily parenting, especially in the absence of a guide book, a leaflet, or some other helpful instruction.

I would have needed this as a parent in the United States, where it would perhaps have come more naturally. As a parent in Sweden, struggling not only to navigate parenting, but also doing so in a country where I am still very much a newcomer, I feel this need even more acutely.

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 and history column on The Local here.