Mini Piccolini! a family lifestyle blog

Hellobee Interview about Motherhood and Maternity Leave

I recently did an interview with Bee of Hellobee – she asked me to share my perspective on maternity leave in Sweden since I have experience of parenting both in Sweden and the US. Some of the questions were also about our everyday lives and about Mini Piccolini. I thought I would share it with you today!

I’m Mina. I am almost 34 years old and I live in Stockholm, Sweden with my husband Sumit and our little boy Alec, who is 16 months old. We are expecting Baby #2 in August! We are an international little family. My husband was born in India and has been in Sweden since he was five years old. I am half Swedish (my mum is from East Africa but of Asian descent), and I was born here in Stockholm, but I actually grew up in Vancouver B.C. I have spent most of my adult life in Sweden, but Alec was born in Atlanta, GA, where we were spending a few months due to my husband’s work.

How does maternity leave differ in Sweden compared to the United States?

We get 480 days of of paid parental leave to be shared between the parents. Two months are reserved for the mother and father respectively, so if the father chooses not to take any leave, those two months are lost. You can take out parental leave any time until the child’s eighth birthday, and your job is protected for two years.

Among our friends, it seems like the moms usually stay home for the first 9-12 months, and then the dads take over and do the nursery school start with the child before returning to work. Most children start nursery school between 12-18 months old. There is also a good cash “equality bonus” for couples who share their leave equally.

In our case, I have been on leave since 10 days before Alec was born, and my parental leave for him will stretch into my parental leave for baby #2. When our second child is a year old, I’ll head back to work and my husband will have around six months off.

There is also quite a set-up around maternity leave:  when your child is born, you are put into a group of other families in your neighborhood with children born around the same time. There are some meets that cover topics like breastfeeding, sleep training etc. And the groups meet up on their own for walks, play dates, cafés, children’s theatre or baby-movies (where they show non-scary movies in a more well-lit movie theatre with a feeding break in the middle). When the dads take over, they usually hang out with the other dads in the group. There is also something called Open Nursery School in pretty much every neighborhood. It’s open one or several days a week, and it’s basically like preschool or mother’s morning out, but it’s free and you stay with your child.

A mother can start taking leave from 2 months before the due date (or longer if she has a physical job such as a physiotherapist or similar, in which case you get extra leave before the birth). Immediately following the birth, the father gets two daddy weeks off. Besides those first two weeks, the parents can only be on leave at the same time for the same child for one month during the child’s first year. Otherwise only one parent can take leave for one child at a time. A lot of families we know seem to use that one shared month to take a long trip around the one year mark before switching roles when the mother goes back to work. We also have friends who are really creative with their leave planning so that one parent works two days a week and the other three days a week.

At my parents’ country house in Sweden

Is maternity leave paid at full salary?

No, maternity leave isn’t paid at full salary. You get around 85% of your salary up to a certain level. So if you have a reasonably well-paying job, you will be getting probably 40-50% of your gross salary (and you still pay income tax on your parental benefits).

Many companies however top up your leave benefits. Some companies ensure you get 90-100% of your actual salary for a number of months; others give you a 2-3 month bonus upon your return to work.

We do pay high taxes (but not as high as one might think), but keep in mind that university education is not only free, you receive a subsidy every month you are a student, in addition to very advantageous student loans. School (including hot cooked lunches etc) is free, whether you attend a public or private school. Every child receives a subsidy of around 160 US dollars monthly from birth until they start to receive student subsidies at the age of 16. If you have two or more children, you get a multiple child add-on which increases for each child you add to the family.

Do most moms take the full maternity leave? Does anyone choose to go back to work early?

I would guess that pretty much all moms take the full maternity leave since you can use it for longer summer and winter holidays until the child is eight years old. I think a lot of moms do return to work “early” if they have a high-power career, but in those cases it usually also means that they have a spouse who is staying home with the baby. And then there are a lot of parents who return part-time and are on leave part-time. But I think it’s very rare for moms to return to work before 9ish months.

On a national level I believe only about third of all fathers take out those two months that are reserved for them. And there are statistics that show that most paternity leave is taken in the summer months (when the mother is probably on holiday and therefore also at home with the children), and in connection with major international sporting events such as the Olympics or World Cup soccer.

Does Sweden offer subsidized childcare after maternity leave?

Yes. Childcare is very heavily subsidized. It depends a little on where you live, but basically you pay 3% of your combined gross salary for the first child, 2% for the second, 1% for the third child, and nothing for subsequent children. There is also a ceiling of around USD 190 dollars for one child, USD 126 dollars for the second child, and USD 63 dollars for the third child. So the absolute most you could end up paying for three or more children every month is around USD 379 dollars. That is regardless of if you choose a public or private nursery school, and the fee covers meals as well.

Why do you think Sweden offers so much maternity leave compared to the United States?

It’s not just Sweden! You have only to look across the border to Canada to find a year of paid maternity leave.

But I think the differences in the system in Sweden vs. the US are mainly down the differences in overall philosophy of these countries. Sweden is a welfare state with a cradle to grave mentality. We also have a long history of working for gender equality, which is why our parental leave system is built up as it is. Which is not to say that it is perfect from a gender equality perspective, since it is still women who take the bulk of parental leave.

Mainly I think it’s down to Sweden’s social liberal politics. However, I would say that it is remarkable that the US is the only western country not to offer any paid maternity leave. There are only four countries in the world that don’t have any legislated paid maternity leave: Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, Liberia and the US.

What do you love about raising a child in Sweden?

One thing I love about raising a child here in Sweden is the security based on everything I’ve described above. It is a great place to have small children, and we really appreciate the easy free access to universal healthcare.

Other things are the fresh air mentality! Swedes are crazy about nature and fresh air. We don’t have the best climate, but we have a saying that “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Basically, if you dress right, you can enjoy the great outdoors no matter the weather. Swedish children play outside daily in pretty much any weather. You will often see strollers parked outside of houses, cafés, and on balconies here. And if you assumed they were empty, you would be wrong. If you peered in, you would find a sleeping baby in good clothes and thick bunting. There are nursery schools that are completely outdoors, where the children only really go inside to use the bathroom, and where they develop language skills and counting using what they find in nature.

I also really appreciate the consciousness that Swedes have about not pushing children into a gender-based mold from an early age. Nursery schools work quite actively to encourage gender-atypical play (eg little boys are as encouraged as little girls to play with dolls and the play-kitchen, and little girls are equally encouraged to get into sports and play with trucks). It’s often very difficult to guess the gender of a Swedish child, as boys can have longish hair and wear pink and purple.

What do you dislike, or what would you change about raising a child in Sweden?

I have to start by saying that we absolutely adored our time in Atlanta and miss it every single day. It was a fabulous place to be pregnant, a great place to give birth (we had such a good experience even though it was nothing like my “plan”), and a wonderful place to have a baby. Being abroad when Alec was born also means that I don’t have a really network of moms here in Sweden the way I did in Atlanta, and that definitely affects my view of family life here in Sweden.

The main difference for us is the somewhat negative attitude people have towards children and mothers on leave here. Here in Stockholm, when I roll into our local (teeny tiny urban) grocery store in the afternoon, people are visibly annoyed that I am there, taking up precious space in the narrow aisles and with a baby who might even let out a whine or two in the check-out line.

I recognize that this might be down to many other things besides culture, but in Atlanta I had a FABULOUS group of moms and babies to spend time with. There was no judging, no talking behind people’s backs, no comparing of how our children were advancing through their development stages. There was a ton of support and understanding. I miss this group, especially one mom and baby pair, every single day. I don’t have a Swedish mom’s group to compare to – I’m looking forward to having one for baby #2 though – but from what I hear, there seems to be a lot more comparing and just general pressure here.

Describe a typical day in your life.

My day starts fairly late since my husband is an early bird (and an angel!), and has been handling the morning shift basically since the first bottle of pumped milk came into our lives when Alec was around three weeks old.  Alec wakes up between 6-7am and my husband gets up with him. They have a bottle and play, and usually wake me up before they start breakfast at 8ish. I join them at the tail-end of breakfast and then take over when my husband goes to get ready and leaves for the office.

In the mornings Alec and I either spend time at home, go to Open Nursery School or occasionally have a playdate. If we are at home we’ll do some chores (Alec loves to help with laundry), and maybe do some baking or prep dinner a little. We play and we usually read a few books before lunch. Alec has a pretty early lunch – usually at around 11 and after lunch he takes a nap.

During Alec’s nap I have a little lunch and try to get things done, including blogging, replying to e-mails, and tidying up. When Alec wakes up (usually around 2), we have a snack and then head outside. Lately we spend most afternoons at the park. Alec is obsessed with the sandbox and will happily hang out in there for an hour or more, scooping sand into his bucket. We buy groceries on the way home.

When we get home we usually hang out a little in the kitchen. I am militant about family dinners and it takes some prep and planning to get dinner on the table by 5:30ish to suit Alec’s rhythm. My husband is home in time for dinner if he’s not traveling, and we all sit down, light candles, and eat together. After dinner there is a bit of playtime, a quick tidy of the nursery (Alec helps put away the day’s toys), bath time, story time and a bottle before bedtime at 7.

After Alec is asleep it’s finally adult time at our house. Since my husband has such a short workday between the morning shift with Alec and family dinner at 5:30, he usually has some work to do in the evenings and I usually have to spend some time at my computer too. And of course we try to get some time together as well. Once in a while my sister will watch Alec and we’ll go out for dinner in our neighborhood, and on Takeout Tuesdays Alec has dinner before us and then when he goes to sleep we order in and have a mini date night at home (with a no computer rule). We’re terrible about getting to sleep on time, but try to turn the lights off by 11.

On the weekends we often have friends with kids over for playdates (since most of our friends’ children are a little older than Alec and are at nursery school during the week). We’ll serve up a simple brunch for the parents and the kids just play. We also spend a lot of time at the park. Often we’ll pick up lunch from a cafe to bring along and eat while Alec plays.

Why did you start your blog Mini Piccolini?

I think I just had a head full of ideas and thoughts and lists and great tips, and Mini Piccolini is the best place for me to share it all. The blog is constantly evolving as my life as a mother changes. Right now it’s all about preparing for a second baby, so I am really into nursery planning, choosing a double stroller etc. Alec is also at a fabulous stage but also in need of a lot of stimulation, so there is a lot about the activities we do together. And meal-planning for a vegetarian family is something that I find challenging but also fun, so there is some of that every week. I see Mini Piccolini as a bit of a combo of some other blogs that I really love like Hellobee, Modern Parents Messy KidsHow We Montessori and Babyccino Kids.

What’s a parenting rule you always break?

The one that says you always have to be consistent. The best thing I have learned as a parent is to put my gut feeling before consistency. If Alec’s crying at bed time doesn’t feel right one day, I will break routine and sit with him until he falls asleep. Being a little inconsistent means that sometimes getting a routine on track takes a little longer, but it also means that we can always feel good about our parenting decisions and that we always believe in what we are doing. If something doesn’t feel 100% right, it’s hard to stick to it and be convincing.

What’s the hardest part of being a mom?

I read somewhere that to decide to have a child is to decide to forever have your heart go walking around outside your body. And that’s exactly how it is for me. I had no idea that it was even possible to feel such strong and complete, all-encompassing love for somebody until I had Alec. At the same, he is his own little person with his own destiny and I can only do so much to shield and protect him. In the end I will come to that point where I can only really stand by and watch him make his way in the world, and hope that it turns out wonderfully. It’s heart-breaking! It makes you feel so vulnerable.

What’s the best part of being a mom?

The best part of being a mom is just getting to spend time with this amazing, funny, quirky little person. Nobody makes me laugh like Alec does and I find myself smiling through so much of my day in a way I never did before. I just had no idea how much fun it was going to be to hang out with such a little guy all day. It really does just get better and better every single day.

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