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CHILDREN

Readers reveal: What it’s like raising an international family in Sweden

From playgrounds to healthcare, these are the best things about raising a family in Sweden, plus some areas for improvement, from those who know a thing or two about it.

Readers reveal: What it's like raising an international family in Sweden
File photo of a mother and child taking an evening swim: Gorm Kallestad / NTB scanpix / TT

After a report from Unicef ranked Sweden as one of the world's best places to raise children, we asked our readers for their experiences.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, but parents still highlighted areas where authorities could make it a more welcoming country for international families. Here's a look at what five parents in Sweden had to say.

For Cristina, 39, Sweden is the “best place without a doubt” to be raising her two children. Originally from Ecuador, she has lived in Västerås since moving there for her husband's job in 2013, even though the couple had no previous connections to the country.

Sweden's family-friendly reputation, which they heard of from colleagues, was a big part of the draw.

“When we moved in six years ago and went to different places to do errands, such as the Tax Agency, the Migration Agency, even the car dealership, it was stunning to find inside these offices a small place with toys and books for children,” she remembered. 

In terms of how Sweden could be more welcoming to international families, she said that without Swedish family, it was hard to understand some of the social norms.

“As well as SFI, it would be nice to have an course that explain how the Swedish society works. For example, recycling and how and where to sort the garbage, and the school system,” she suggested.

Dad-of-two Tyler has moved to Gothenburg with his Swedish wife in 2015 after having their first child in India. The family spent some time there and in New York before deciding to move to Sweden.

“Our goal before we had our first child was to give them the best environment to raise them in. We were lucky to have options and after our son was born we decided to move back to my home country of USA,” he said. “Quickly though, cost realities set in with daycare, health insurance, longer work hours, very little vacation and no sick leave.

“We took the next leap and moved to Sweden. At this point my wife hadn’t lived in Sweden for 12 years so it was a big jump for all of us. But we could feel so many stresses slowly drift away. As parents we can be more present for our children without the stress from before. Our boys are lucky to get the feelings of both a city and a rural life,” Tyler said.

File photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

Thanaletchumy, 27, was also happy with the state support system she found after moving to Varberg from Malaysia with her three-year-old.

“It's very good having help from the system like parental leave, daycare and more to raise a kid,” she told The Local.

And one Swede who moved back to their native country after living long-term in South Korea also highlighted the ready availability of facilities public toilets with nappy-changing units, as well as  playgrounds and high chairs in restaurants.

“Swedes are generally understanding towards parents and kids and I have never experienced anyone getting annoyed and complaining when out with the kids. On our two-week visit to Korea when our daughter was one, people complained about our daughter crying, some restaurants had no chairs for kids, and 'no kid zones' were a thing.”

Natalie, 24 moved to Sweden in 2016, from USA, and is now living in Uppsala county with her two children under three. She was already in the process of moving to Sweden for her partner when she found out to her surprise that she was pregnant, and said the choice to stay in the Nordic nation to raise her family was a “no-brainer”, particularly from a financial perspective.

Natalie and her Swedish-American family. Photo: Private

In the US, we felt that we’d have a constant struggle trying to make ends meet. Giving our children access to free healthcare and affordable daycare is something we are so thankful for,” she told The Local.

“Right now I am mammaledig [on maternity leave] and the paid leave helps us enormously to be financially stable, as well as the monthly barnbidrag [childcare contribution] for raising kids,” explained Natalie. “But, surprisingly enough, we do even better financially when I am back to full-time studies with the help of CSN [the Swedish Board of Student Finance]. I can’t even imagine how it will be for us financially when I actually have a full-time job here.”

She says she feels “spoiled” to be raising her young family in Sweden, but admits that there was still an adjustment period. “International parents need to adapt to Sweden as best as possible to have the easiest time creating a life here. It wasn’t until I began to understand and speak the language that I started to feel like a part of the country,” she advised. 

She also noted that moving to Sweden for love typically takes a long time, and said the Migration Agency could improve by speeding up this process and allowing families to be together sooner.

The Unicef study took into account national policies on paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, accessibility of childcare services offered up until school age (six years old), and breast-feeding rates. While the parental leave policy and childcare were highly praised by the readers who spoke to The Local, factors such as the access to nature and many playgrounds appeared to be equally important to family life.

Thank you to everyone who responded to our survey. Although we weren't able to include everyone's comments, everyone who responded helped contribute to the article. 

READ ALSO: 11 of the best playgrounds in Stockholm

 

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FAMILY

How to use all your parental leave in Sweden before it expires

The parents of fully 70 percent of children in Sweden fail to take all the parental leave available to them before it expires. But there are some tricks to make sure you use it all.

two parents and two children in a car
You could save some parental leave days to use for a long holiday – but be careful so that they don't expire. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

“The Swedish Social Insurance Agency has decided that you will not receive child benefit for Finn from December 24th to January 8th,” read the letter that dropped into my secure digital mailbox over Christmas. 

My son turned eight on December 23rd, and as he was born just a week before a new more generous policy became valid in Sweden, that marked the end of our eligibility for child leave.

And just as had happened with his elder sister, we had let his leave expire with more than a month of leave yet to claim.

It turns out, we are far from alone.

The parents of fully 72 percent of the children born in Sweden in 2010 failed to claim all of their shared 480 days of parental leave by the time they expired in 2018, according to the latest statistics from the Social Insurance Agency. On average, parents in Sweden failed to claim about a month, but 21 percent of parents had, like us, failed to claim more than 60 days.

In total, that amounted to 1.4 billion kronor ($154.4 million) in unclaimed benefits, and according to an analysis by the agency, it was those with the lowest incomes who had the most days left over.

A graph showing how many days of parental leave was not claimed for children born in 2010, divided up by (from left) low-income, mid-income and high-income families. The dark green shows days paid at 80 percent of the salary (sjukpenningnivå) and the light green the lowest-paid days (lägstanivå, 180 kronor a day). Photo: Försäkringskassan

A change in the rules since my son was born has made using your days quite a bit easier. Parents of children born after January 1st in 2014 (a week after my son), can now continue to take out leave until their children’s 12th birthday.

But be aware that all but 96 of these days expire when the child turns four, so the race is still on.

If you want to understand how parental leave in Sweden works, here’s The Local’s detailed guide to how the system works

But to avoid other foreigners in Sweden suffering the same disappointment as I did, keep scrolling for some tips for how to make sure you use all that leave.

Take leave together 

Swedish rules allow both parents to take leave at the same time. In the first few months, this can really take the pressure off the mother, allowing her partner to take over while she makes up for lost sleep, or takes a precious hour or so to herself. 

The rules allow each couple to claim a maximum of 30 of these so-called dubbeldagar or “double days”, which taken together will use up 60 days of leave. 

These days cannot be taken from the 90 reservdagar, or “reserve days”, which are tied to each parent to prevent fathers from taking out days at the same time as leaving the mother to do all the actual childcare. They also can only be taken before the child is one year old. 

Claim leave for ordinary holidays 

My mistake was to see parental leave as something to take only when I was off work specifically to look after my children. In fact, you can take it out any time you are not actually working: when you take time off over Christmas, Easter, during the sportlov or höstlov school holidays, or over the long Swedish summer. 

“My husband takes all of the school holidays and the summers off so we can travel and all be together,” says Martha Moore in Malmö. “I’m a teacher, so I will probably give all of my days to him, since I get to be off when my kids are off anyway.”

You can even claim for days which you are also claiming as holiday from your work, or days which are public holidays in Sweden, but you can only claim parental leave for these days at the so-called lägstanivå, or base level of 180 kronor a day.  

You can claim some days at the same time as the other parent. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Take a very long holiday 

One Australian living in Stockholm said she was off to Thailand for two and a half months this February in order to use up some of the days from her second child, which are due to expire when she turns four later in the year.

She recommends planning one long holiday to use up any of the 384 days that will expire when your child turns four, and then saving up the other 96 days for a second long holiday before they turn 12. 

She is putting her eldest child into a Swedish school in Thailand while they are there, using one of the chain of Swedish schools set up in Thailand, primarily for parents holidaying on their parental leave.  

She deliberately didn’t use as many days as she could have in the first 12 months, so that she and her husband could do this. “My tip is to not use many days at all paid that first 12 months, and to burn your savings instead,” she says. 

As her child is more than one year old, she and her husband cannot take leave simultaneously, however, so he is using holiday time he has saved up. 

Take leave before the birth 

The pregnant parent can start taking parental leave and collecting benefits up to 60 days before the due date. It’s actually compulsory for the mother to take two weeks of leave in connection with the birth, which can either be before or after. New fathers or secondary caregivers can also start taking leave up to ten days before the birth. 

This could be a waste of days, however, as if a difficult (or, let’s face it, even fairly normal) pregnancy makes it impossible to do your job, you can claim sickness benefits instead of parental leave, and get the same level of benefits without using up any of your 480 days. 

This does not apply, however, to “normal pregnancy difficulties such as back pain and fatigue”, so to claim sickness benefits, you will have to convince your doctor to certify that you have pregnancy difficulties that are “unusually severe”. 

A father carrying his child in a Baby Björn in Sweden. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Take a chunk out to do private projects 

People less good at forward planning sometimes take a chunk of leave just before their child turns four or twelve (or eight if they were born before January 1st, 2014), even if they don’t have anything planned in particular.  

You can use this time to do the sort of home chores that it is so hard to find time to do once you have children. 

“I had a colleague who took two months’ maternity leave when her daughter was seven years old,” says one woman in Malmö. “She took it as a vacation in the summer to fix her apartment.” 

Use parental leave to work a short week 

Once the child is in preschool (dagis or förskola) many people, including Moore’s husband, use parental leave to take Friday and/or Monday off work for six months or more, allowing them to spend more time with their child.

This is obviously something you have to square with your employer, but in Sweden most employers are more than willing to put employees on 80 percent. 

You can either use this time to take some of the pressure off your partner during their parental leave, or to reduce the amount of time your child spends in preschool.

A parent walking their child in a pram through a snowy Stockholm. Photo: Jann Lipka/imagebank.sweden.se

Use parental leave to work short days 

You don’t need to take each allotted day as a full day, you can also reduce your working day by three quarters, a half, one quarter or one eighth, and receive proportional parental benefit for the time not worked.

Parents of a child under the age of eight can reduce their working hours by up to 25 percent, whether or not they decide to take parental benefit for the remaining 25 percent.

This can be extremely helpful in making combining childcare and work a little less stressful.

Claim leave for weekends 

You can claim parental leave on weekends as well as on normal weekdays, but unless you normally work on the weekend, you can only claim these at the lowest base level of 180 kronor. 

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