There is a lot of good things about Sweden. Great outdoors, very clean water (except in Skellefteå), a great social security blanket, and Saturday’s candy – to name a few. Another great thing is that everything seems to be in place for people to get back to work after having a baby, as the kids can stay at subsidised daycare places, called Dagis. It is great, and it works: men and women can continue working and producing and paying taxes, while their little ones stay in a nice, safe, cosy place where they learn to socialise and other stuff. Dagis is one of the most important steps Sweden has taken towards equality between genders.
If you are a parent who works full-time, you get full-time number of hours at Dagis as your right. If you work part-time, then you get less hours. And if you are unemployed (for whatever reason), then you get some hours a week – with the purpose of having enough flexibility to find another job and get back into paying your taxes.
So far so good. However, there is a catch. This law seems to be based on the idea of a traditional family. The parents work fulltime and pay taxes, and their common kids are well looked after. If the parents divorce and have shared custody, then each of them get the number of hours at Dagis according to their own working situation.
And the catch is: what happens when the dad meets a new girl, who does not work full-time or does not work at all? Well, in that case, the number of hours that the kids can be at Dagis are reduced accordingly. That is, when she’s at home, the kids must stay with her. If she has a day off during the week, the kids stay with her. If she is unemployed, the kids have no right to Dagis, and stay at home with their new stepmom, even though the dad works full-time.
It happened to me when I first moved to Sweden and didn’t have a job. I didn’t know enough Swedish to get around (even if everyone speaks English), I had no network, and I lived in the middle of nowhere. I had to start from the beginning. Moving from a great job into unemployment, from London to Vagnhärad, from having an amazing network of friends to knowing 10 people in the whole country, from living a single life to being married and looking after a 4 and 6 year old girl who I could not communicate with. Not easy at all.
I started by trying to get into a routine. Getting up, helping the kids get ready, take them to Dagis, read, watch TV, listen to as much Swedish as possible, trying to figure out how things work, trying to find a job or internship and a language course, trying to make their home my new home… and sometimes even unpacking my boxes. Then I would pick them up, bring them home, and wait for about 30 minutes until hubby came back. So when the teacher at Dagis told me that the kids could not continue coming to Dagis, and that I had to look after them full-time, my already overloaded and unexperienced hands gave in, and I bursted into tears (note: this happened at home and not in public!). How could I ever get a job and learn the language, and be as flexible as I needed to be in order to get out there and start a new life? Why did I have to look after 2 kids who aren’t mine, full-time? and, why were these kids being thrown at someone who didn’t really want to look after them full-time? Because, let’s admit it, as horrible as it sounds, I really didn’t want to.
However, after being scolded by the teacher at Dagis about me leaving the kids there, I did not really want to set foot in there again. I was embarrased, angry, felt like the whole thing was very unfair (after all, they had always gone to Dagis when Peter was at work, and was sort of part of the un-spoken deal), and overall, very unconfortable of even walking by that place, let alone come in and leave the kids. I was also ashamed of feeling like that! I was expected to want to be their full-time carer, only because I live with their dad… So Peter took back this task. He would take them there in the mornings, and pick them up after work. And the funny thing was that the teacher at Dagis never said anything to him. Not one word about what happened. Thankfuly, I got a job very soon after this happened, and the ridiculously early commuting meant I didn’t have to leave or pick the kids from Dagis, so I never got to talk to that woman again.
This is something that I wished changed in the law in Sweden. Maybe there aren’t a lot of foreign stepmoms out there who are new to the country, unemployed, and can’t speak Swedish. Or maybe there are?
I still get a belly-ache when I think of that teacher from Dagis, and the fact that she chose to confront me with the issue, and not him. She chose to scold me, knowing that I would not be able to talk back (come on, in Swedish?), that I didn’t know my rights, and wishing that I would just lower my head and say yes. That’s easier than confronting a 1,95m tall guy who knows his and his kids’ rights, and who can stand up for himself. Shame that it came from a woman too.