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FAMILY

‘Robbed of time’: How have foreign mums in Sweden coped with raising ‘pandemic babies’?

If it takes a village to raise a child, then many new parents lost their village during the pandemic. Foreign residents were particularly hard hit, with many babies approaching their first birthdays without having met grandparents and extended family.

'Robbed of time': How have foreign mums in Sweden coped with raising 'pandemic babies'?
'There were several moments that were difficult to do alone,' new mum Saniya, pictured with her baby, tells The Local. Photo: Private

“Nobody except my husband has seen me transitioning into a mother,” says Saniya, who moved from Pune, India, to Gothenburg in 2014. 

Even after the cross-continental move, she had always imagined that her baby – her first, and her parent’s first grandchild – would have family around during the first few months. The couple usually visit India once a year, and it had always been the plan that Saniya’s mother and mother-in-law would come to Sweden for the baby’s birth. But in 2020, their planned spring trip to India was cancelled due to Covid-19, and the following month Saniya discovered she was pregnant.

Because both grandmothers are over 65, and it’s a long journey with no direct flights, their original plan seemed unlikely even before Sweden implemented a ban on travel from outside the EU. This ban came into effect on March 17th, initially for 30 days, but has been extended multiple times and remains in place today.

Exemptions have since been added to the ban, including for EU citizens, residents of a small number of non-EU countries with low levels of infection, and for urgent family reasons. The latter exemption made it possible to travel to Sweden from banned countries in order to be present at a child’s birth, but not for post-birth visits, which means many parents who gave birth before that change have still not been able to see their immediate family.

Travel from EU/EEA countries to Sweden has generally been possible throughout the pandemic, though still severely limited due both to many countries issuing their own bans on residents leaving the country, as well as the high rate of infection in Sweden and across Europe.

“There were several moments that were difficult to do alone, whether it was hearing the heartbeat of the baby, seeing her on the ultrasound, feeling her movements and later on the last few weeks before delivery when I was really sick for a week, I missed my family terribly,” Saniya remembers.

“Since we are not socialising much due to Covid I think she gets over-stimulated when she is around other people and finds it hard to take a nap or sleep. Maybe it would have been better if she were used to being others more.”

Three common topics came up among the parents whose children were born in 2020: the impact on family who miss out on crucial milestones; the impact on the parents and their relationship due to missing out on a lot of support such as parental groups; and concerns over how the baby themselves may be affected by limited socialising opportunities.

Rachel, a US resident who gave birth to daughter Bonnie in January 2020, had planned to meet her family in Spain last April. She says the moment when she cancelled those tickets was when she first realised Bonnie’s first year would be affected by the pandemic.

“But even then we by no means expected that she still would not have met her grandparents 15 months later,” she tells The Local.

“It feels like we’ve all been really robbed of time. They didn’t get to hold her when she was tiny and they now will never get the chance to do it.”

“Virtual meetings are an amazing tool that has definitely made this whole pandemic (and living abroad in general) more manageable but you can’t share that new baby smell or hug your mom while she holds your baby or watch your dad’s heart melt when your baby smiles at him over the internet,” she says.

“When I had my first baby, my parents came over to Sweden multiple times that year and looked after him and really got to know him. It feels so unfair that Bonnie hasn’t got to experience that. It’s been heart-wrenching to not be able to introduce my parents to my new baby.”


Rachel with her baby and older child. Photo: Private

The baby is her partner’s first child, and while Rachel remembers open preschools and cultural activities with her older baby as a special time, she is sad that father and baby are missing out on the social aspect of parenthood.

Another reader, who asked for her name not to be published, has felt the same sense of isolation as a first-time mum.

“Sweden can be a difficult place to integrate if you didn’t come for studies. As an adult, most people already have their friends and I was always told that when you have young children it’s the one time you get a great chance to integrate, and was really looking forward to that. Not only can my own family not help, but the Barnavårdscentral [children’s healthcare centre] would normally have parent groups and a lot of those services haven’t been available,” she says.

The reader is originally from Australia, but hasn’t seen her family in over a year, and had her first child in December. The baby has so far met two aunts, and her paternal grandparents, but no one from her mother’s side. Although Australia is exempt from Sweden’s non-EU travel ban, visits from the reader’s father and siblings have been cancelled, while a trip home is impossible due to Australia’s strict quotas on how many of its citizens can return.

“It feels like I had an invisible pregnancy. We didn’t see family, we worked from home so didn’t see colleagues, my husband has some family in Sweden but most live abroad so we have been isolated,” she says.

“Isolation is not uncommon when you have a baby. Your life changes, you’re at home much more than before. But I was really looking forward to spending lots of time with my family when they visited during my parental leave, bonding with them over being a new mother. I thought, as you talk about the baby, they’d talk about you when you were young, so it’s not just the help, it’s a whole new relationship. I’m only going to have my first child once, she’ll only have her first smile, walk, laugh, crawl, once. They’re once-in-a-lifetime events we can’t get back.”

Like the other parents who spoke to The Local, she has been keeping family updated on the baby’s progress through social media, regular voice and video calls, and asking them to send letters for a keepsake journal. She has even printed out pictures of family members’ faces and stuck them to her child’s mobile in the hope she will recognise them.

“A friend’s baby was talking to the baby on the Pampers nappy bag, because she doesn’t meet many other babies. At this age they’re interested in faces rather than toys,” the Australian explains.

But despite finding ways to adapt to the situation – all three parents were looking forward to warmer weather making outdoor parent groups and walks possible – she is still longing for the baby to meet family. 

“The hardest thing is its an ongoing process, there is nothing to work towards. At first we thought, oh well, at least they’ll be here when she’s born, then at least summer, then maybe Christmas. You try not to get your hopes up but you do, of course, then you’re disappointed again,” she says.

“One year for someone in their 30s is not a big deal, but both my husband and I have grandparents alive, who are over 80. She could have the opportunity to meet this fourth generation, and maybe she won’t if this goes on much longer. One year is much more of a big deal when you’re at the very beginning of your life or at the very end.”

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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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