Sweden, land of IKEA, Elsa Beskow and Carl Larsson, is one of those Scandinavian countries known for providing generous paid family leave and being very supportive of families. Lisa Ferland, an American mother of 2, relocated to Sweden from Georgia after the birth of her first child. Then went on to welcome a second child in Sweden, which led to her book “Knocked up Abroad.”
Last month she launched a Kickstarter for her next book “Knocked up Abroad Again.” This book will feature stories from mothers in South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. These varying stories and experiences will help us to see there are many ways to bring a child into this world.
I reached out to Lisa after hearing her speak a little of her journey on a podcast interview and I’m so glad to be able to share more of her story with you today.
When you talked about the difference in prenatal visits in America and prenatal visits in Sweden, so many thoughts came to me; specifically how both models can influence a parent’s confidence. I got the sense that not having as many prenatal visits and multiple ultrasounds, as well as being told “let us know if you need additional care,” was more empowering, because its trusting you to know what’s best for your baby. Has birthing and parenting in Sweden made you more confident as a mother?
I recognize it is not the same for all mothers but for me personally, I found the hands-off approach of Swedish prenatal care as a stress-reliever. During my first pregnancy in the U.S., everything was treated as an emergency, and I was in a mild state of constant panic. With the frequent scans, I was terrified that they would find something even though they never did. Then they found white spots on the baby’s heart but couldn’t tell me if it meant anything. The increased investigations without any answers or diagnoses only made me more fearful of the unknown. My baby was born 100% healthy. All of those scans and worries were for naught. In Sweden, their approach is very much, “let us know if there are any issues but until then, go live your life as you would normally (but no drinking alcohol or smoking).”
Birthing in Sweden has given me the firsthand knowledge that my body can have a baby without interventions of any sort. I had an uninterrupted, complication-free childbirth without any pain relievers and still never experienced any pain whatsoever. A comfortable and easy childbirth experience is very possible—a concept that goes against the majority of the cultural depictions of childbirth in the U.S.
Parenting in Sweden has unquestionably increased my confidence as a mother. I don’t feel the social pressure or judgment that I see so many other American mothers facing today on Facebook or in social media. It helps that the Swedish cultural norms of child-rearing align with how we wanted to raise our children. It is culturally encouraged to breastfeed in public, allow your child to play outside unattended, climbing, exploring, screaming, and laughing in public—all of these things are seen as “kids being kids” and it is a positive environment as a parent.
You shared in your podcast interview and tell me if I have this right, you can’t place your child in daycare in Sweden until they’re 12 months? How did you feel about this, especially after returning to work much earlier with your first son in the US?
That is correct. Swedish daycare or preschools don’t allow children to start younger than 12 months of age but if you did enroll your child, s/he would be the youngest in the group. Parents in Sweden receive 480 days of paid parental leave, and many people stretch those days, so their child is a bit older when they start daycare at 16-18 months.
At first, I was surprised that daycare was so much later than in the U.S., but Sweden has free “open preschools” which are as much for the parents’ benefit as for the child. These open preschools are usually held in churches (Swedes aren’t very religious with only 5% being regular churchgoers), or local community buildings. Unlike a regular preschool, parents must stay and play with their children. Coffee and snacks are provided at a fee but the singing time, access to a safe play space, and other babies and toddlers make for a great meeting spot for parents to socialize and stay sane while at home with their child for that first year after birth.
Truly, Swedish society values family time and places it at an equal or a nearly higher priority than the career.
What was the best thing about having your husband take such an extended paternity leave?
My husband got to walk a mile in my shoes as a stay at home parent, and it was lovely. I didn’t do him any favors, and I never reminded him to pack extra clothes or diapers before he took our daughter out and about. “Bye! Have a great day!” was all I ever said as they walked out the door. I think that experience is the best teacher of all, and he got to make all of those first-time mistakes like I did. It forced him to be an independent parent, and he was more in-tune with what our baby needed. Our daughter was the real boss, and he figured it out fairly quickly who was in charge.
Extended parental leave really strengthened our marriage as well as his bond with our children. He saw life from my perspective and all of a sudden, he saw the need to be within close walking distance to playgrounds and preschools. He understood innately how isolating life at home can be with a young child if you don’t force yourself out of your comfort zone. He had to approach other parents on parental leave to make friends and arrange for play dates. It was so immensely positive for our family that I wish every family could have that time.
Knocked up Abroad
Please tell me about Knocked up Abroad? How did you find the 24 women and why were their stories the ones you chose to include in your book?
Knocked Up Abroad was an idea that was born during a discussion I had with a colleague while I was pregnant. We were discussing the different pregnancy/birth recommendations, and she mentioned that she had two daughters—one in Thailand and one in the U.S. In Thailand, they told her to submerge the umbilical cord in warm water twice a day, every day until it fell off. Keeping it wet was imperative. When her second daughter was born in the U.S., the doctors told her to keep the umbilical cord dry, applying alcohol swabs to dry it out. Both babies’ umbilical cords fell off after ten days. It didn’t matter if the umbilical cord was wet or dry—the different recommendations yielded the exact same result. I then started wondering about other countries’ recommendations and how the various cultures impact pregnancy and childbirth practices.
I posed a question in an international expat group and asked how many women had “interesting” stories about pregnancy and childbirth and the responses were overwhelming. From that cohort, I followed up with them individually to see if they would be interested in sharing their story. Not everyone was a writer or wanted to take the time and effort to write a chapter but the ones who did really left their hearts on the page. The outcome was an anthology of heartfelt, emotional, and inspiring stories about pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting in a foreign culture. Birth stories themselves can be compelling, and when you add in the cultural context, new social norms, and diverse expectations of parenting, it takes on a whole new level of discovery for the reader.
Birthing around the World
After hearing a variety of birth stories, from women from all over the world, what are the top 3 places in the world women are supported and nurtured through their pregnancies and early mothering?
As with anything, I want to be careful not to generalize between cultures and countries because every mother can have a different experience in the same country. A mother can find a supportive midwife or doctor in any country, on any continent. That being said, I think the most supportive countries are the ones that are mother-focused and employ the midwife model and those tend to be the northern European and Scandinavian countries. I love the kraamzorg in the Netherlands, who is a woman who comes to your house during those initial few days after birth and helps with breastfeeding, weighing and checking your baby, and helping with laundry, dishes, and shuffling the older kids to school. Basically, she is there to help with whatever you need while you rest with the baby. Other countries will send nurses to do the initial well-visit checks at your house. Anyone who has tried to get a baby out of the door in time for an appointment knows how accommodating these house calls can be.
Did you buy one of those fabulous baby carriages and let your baby take naps outside of cafes in the winter?
We still have our B.O.B. jogging stroller from the U.S., which is hardly equivalent to the gorgeous Swedish prams and elegant rolling bassinets you see on the streets of Stockholm, but we made it work. Swedish parents love their baby gear and everything is quite trendy (and expensive). I discovered early on that my babies slept so much better in the fresh air while in the stroller—almost an extra two hours longer than if they were in the crib. Our son was nine-months-old when we moved to Sweden, and I was intent on exploring the city in those early months of January-April. The weather was frigid, so we purchased one of those stroller sleeping bags and kept him warm while I walked the city. The cafes are small, and there isn’t space for any stroller to come inside and you’ll see a line of strollers parked outside of the cafe window. I was nervous the first time we left him outside, but we found a seat in front of the window so we could keep an eye on him and finally relaxed enough to enjoy our coffee in a temporary moment of peace. By the time our daughter was born, we lived in a neighborhood in a house, so I parked her stroller outside for hours every day in front of my kitchen window. She still prefers to nap in her stroller, and she’s almost three years old.
Is Ikea as popular in Sweden as it is in the States?
Yes! You can walk into almost anyone’s home in Sweden and find many things from IKEA. I can recognize IKEA lamps because I see them so often in stores, office buildings, and other people’s houses. Furniture is expensive in Sweden and IKEA is still the most affordable option.
What is the typical first food for babies in Sweden?
It is recommended that babies start foods at four months, which I always thought was strange considering the WHO recommends waiting until six months of age. In Sweden, first foods are the root vegetables—potatoes, turnips, and parsnips mixed with olive oil. They do have baby oatmeal and rice porridge, but it was not recommended by the nurses. There was also no mention of waiting to see if an allergic reaction develops before moving onto the next food. I didn’t receive much guidance for introducing food other than to limit the salt.
I know you’ve bought a home there and intend to stay, is a Stuga in your future as well?
No plans for a stuga yet! Although, I never thought that I would need a sauna in my house and now that we have a sauna in our basement, I see it as a necessity to survive those long dark and cold winters so I have learned to never say never.
Is the Swedish countryside really as picturesque as an Elsa Beskow children’s book?
Yes, absolutely. When we pick blueberries in the forest, we see those red mushroom caps with the white dots everywhere. We live near an Icelandic horse riding school and every day I see horses rolling in the pastures behind our house. The red style country house is the classic style and can be found throughout Sweden. We live near the Baltic sea and on the edge of a forest, so I feel like we have the best of both worlds.
All photos courtesy of Lisa Ferland