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‘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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How does the cost of childcare in Sweden compare to other countries?

Parents in Sweden benefit from a cap on childcare costs, with parents paying different fees based on their household's income. But how does the generous scheme compare to other countries?

How does the cost of childcare in Sweden compare to other countries?

Preschool childcare is not free in Sweden, but fees are income-based, with a maximum fee across the country 1,572 kronor (€145) per child per month (fees for 2022).

There are also deductions for each child if you have multiple children attending preschool at the same time – in this case the maximum fee would be 1,048 kronor for the second child and 503 kronor for the third, with parents paying no fee for any further children.

Children over three are entitled to 15 hours of free preschool education per week, so these are deducted from your fee once your child reaches this age.

To get an idea of how much you would have to pay based on your income, you can use this calculator (in Swedish – similar calculators exist for other municipalities). These fees are adjusted yearly by the Swedish school authorities and are applicable to all municipalities. If your child has a preschool place, you have to pay even if you do not use it – over summer or during holidays, for example.

School meals and preschool meals are free in Sweden, meaning you don’t need to pay extra for your child’s lunch, breakfast, or any snacks served during the day.

Denmark

The exact amount parents pay for childcare in Denmark depends on the municipality. In Copenhagen Municipality, the cost of nursery (vuggestue up to 2 years and 10 months) is 4,264 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €573). For kindergarten (børnehave from 2 years and 10 months to 6 years) it is 2,738 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €368).

The government pays 75 percent of the cost of a place or even more if your household income is below a certain threshold. 

If you have more than one child using childcare, you pay full price for the most expensive daycare and half-price for the others.

Norway

The cost of nursery and kindergarten is capped at 3,050 Norwegian kroner, regardless of the hours attended or whether that facility is state-run or private. This means you’ll never pay more than roughly €295 a month per child in childcare costs.

Germany

The costs for daycare centres (Kindertagesstätte, or Kita for short) can differ greatly depending on where you live in Germany, as the fees are set by the local government.

In Schleswig-Holstein in the far north, parents pay on average nine percent of their after-tax income on childcare costs. In Hamburg, 4.4 percent of parent’s income goes on childcare as every child in entitled to five hours of free care a day. In Berlin, daycare is completely free. 

Spain

Costs can vary depending on whether it is a  private or public guardería or centro infantil (as nurseries are called in Spanish).

Public ones are heavily subsidised by the government and cost around €100-260 per month, depending on where you live in Spain and your situation. Private nurseries cost between €150 and €580 per month. There is also a fixed yearly fee called a matrícula or enrolment fee, which is around €100.

There is a 50 percent discount for large families and single parents don’t have to pay anything for childcare.

There’s also a deduction of up to €1,000 (cheque guardería) that is applied to the income tax return and works out at around €100 to €160 per month which is aimed at working mothers and is available up until the child is three years old.

France

In France, crèches tend to be the most affordable option and the cost is based on the family’s income. High earners might pay up to a maximum of €4.20 an hour (€33.60 for an 8-hour day), whereas low-income families might pay €0.26 an hour (€2.08 for an 8-hour day) at a crèche collective, which is for three months to three year olds. At the age of three, compulsory education begins in France.

The cost of a childminder is around €10.88 an hour and up to 50 percent of the costs of a nanny or professional childminder can be reimbursed by the government.

The OECD calculations on the percentage of income spent on childcare – based on two parents both working full time – is 13 percent in France. This is roughly similar to Spain and Italy.

Austria

Public nurseries and kindergartens are heavily subsidised and in some cases free, depending on where you live. For example in Vienna, parents only need to pay €72.33 a month to cover meal costs, with low income families being exempt from that fee.
 
Vienna also subsidises private kindergartens, paying up to €635.44 a month directly to the institution. 
 
In other provinces, kindergarten is free for part-time hours. It is mandatory for all children in Austria to attend part-time kindergarten from the age of five. They start school aged six.

Switzerland

The average Swiss family spends a massive 41 percent of their net income on childcare, three times the OECD average of 13 percent.

The average cost of childcare in Switzerland is CHF130 a day (€136). Due to tax breaks and subsidies paid out in the cantons, many parents will pay between 30 and 80 percent of this cost, depending on income. This equates to paying between €41 and €108 a day, roughly €902 to €2,376 a month. 

It’s even more expensive to hire a nannie, which will cost between CHF3,500 (€3,678) and CHF5,000 (€5,255) a month, including mandatory pension contributions.

United Kingdom

According to charity Coram in their Childcare Survey 2022, the average cost of full-time nursery is £1,166 (around €1,304 a month), which is even higher in some parts of London. There are some government subsidies available for low-income families and those receiving benefits and every parent is entitled to 15 or 30 free hours of childcare the term after their child turns three years old.

Childcare conclusion

The cost of childcare varies within each country, depending on family circumstances. However, for guaranteed low childcare costs for every parent, Sweden comes out best, with a maximum of €145 a month.

Average monthly cost of state-run childcare:

Sweden: €145 maximum

Norway: €295 maximum

Austria: €72.33 – roughly €500

Spain: €100 – €260 

Germany: €0 –  €368

Denmark: €368 – €573

France: €45,76 – €739.20 

Switzerland: €902 – €2,376 

U.K. €1,304 which reduces the term after the child turns three.

By Emma Firth and Becky Waterton

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