‘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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Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected]