For our Motherhood Around the World series, our first interview is with American photographer Rebecca Zeller, who lives in Oslo with her husband and three children. Here, she shares 10 things that have surprised her about raising kids in Norway…
Rebecca grew up in Cincinnati and met her Norwegian husband, Martin, when they were both studying abroad in France during college. After graduating, they moved to Oslo, Norway, for a year, so Martin could finish his thesis. “That first year, I really embraced the whole Norwegian way—loving winter, skiing cross country, vacationing in a remote cabin. I tried to become Norwegian. We had no kids—it was a big adventure.”
Since then, Martin’s job in the Norwegian Foreign Service has moved them to Seoul, Korea (where they had their son Jonas, 6), Northern Virginia (where they had daughter Selma, 3), and finally back to Norway in March 2012. The couple welcomed their third child this month. Rebecca works as a freelance photographer (you can see her beautiful photos of families here).
“This time around, with kids, some of the charm has worn off,” Rebecca laughs. “It’s just so cold and dark! But in many ways life is good here. There’s security—the government provides so much. Everyone gets a pension; full-time childcare is $350 a month, at the most; medical care is basically free. You don’t even have to worry about paying for college! It cost me $200 in enrollment fees to get a Masters in English.”
But the hardest adjustment, she explains, is the lack of variety. “There’s a sense that there’s just one right way to do things. And everyone does it that way. In America there are different parenting styles—co-sleeping, attachment parenting, etc. Here there is just one way, more or less: all kids go to bed at 7, all attend the same style of preschool, all wear boots, all eat the same lunch…that’s the Norwegian way.”
On pregnancy: Most women will never once see an obstetrician during their pregnancy. Almost everything is done by midwives. In the U.S., you usually see a doctor as soon as you think you might be pregnant. When I called the midwife here, she told me not to come in until I was at least 15 weeks. I got only one ultrasound. When we lived in Korea, they did 3D ultrasounds every two weeks! Here, my midwife listened to the baby with a long wooden horn that she pushes against my belly. It kind of freaked me out.
On birth: I applied to give birth at the “no drugs” unit at the hospital. (Mostly because when you apply to the regular unit, there is a possibility you could be turned away if the hospital is full and sent to another hospital you may not be familiar with.) When they say no drugs, they mean no drugs. No exceptions. You can’t even get antibiotics if you’re positive for Group B strep. Women who’ve had a baby in the U.S. know about Strep B; every pregnant woman is tested for it, and if you test positive, you get antibiotics when you deliver so you can’t pass it to the baby and make the baby sick. Here, it’s not even mentioned. When I asked about it at the hospital the nurse just said, “We don’t worry about that.” At first I was appalled, but I’ve learned that in socialized medicine, they take calculated risks, and as my husband says, it usually works.
On friendliness: People are not as overtly friendly here as in the United States—especially compared to the Midwest where I’m from. When I was pregnant in the U.S., strangers would smile at me, hold doors, offer to help. Moms struck up conversations on the playground. People don’t do any of that in Norway—you keep to yourself in public. When we lived here for the first time, eight years ago, I baked a lemon poppy-seed cake for my neighbors after they had a baby. When I brought it over, you would have thought I had handed them a severed head. They were completely shocked. I think people here tend to be stoic. There’s value to being able to “tough it out” on your own. I think it’s embarrassing to need help, so no one wants to embarrass you by offering help.
On the other hand, there’s no American pressure to be friendly and “on” all the time. It’s okay to be quiet and keep to yourself. I love getting a haircut here because I don’t feel pressure to make small talk with the stylist.
On school: Both my kids attended Barnehage (Norwegian for “children’s garden”), which is basically Norwegian pre-school and daycare. Most kids here start Barnehage when they’re one year old—it’s subsidized by the government to encourage people to go back to work. You pay $300 a month and your kids can stay from 8am to 5pm. They spend a ton of time outside, mostly playing and exploring nature. At some Barnehage, they only go inside if it’s colder than 14 degrees. They even eat outdoors—with their gloves on! When I was worried about my son being cold, my father-in-law said, “It’s good for him to freeze a little bit on his fingers.” That’s very Norwegian—hard things are good for you.
On being tough: Whereas Americans value comfort, in Norway there’s a charm and value to things being challenging. When my father-in-law vacations, for example, he often goes away to a remote cabin with no internet and just listens to the radio and bird-watches. That’s not an atypical vacation here. I think that, in a way, it’s a self-preservation mechanism. Norway is a rugged, largely uninhabitable country. The weather can be brutal. I think they’ve made a practice of glorifying those aspects of life that are really challenging in order to survive.
On playground culture: Because everyone works, there’s really no playground culture. When we moved here last March, my kids hadn’t gotten into Barnehage yet, so I was alone with them all day from March until August. There was nothing to do. There are minimal kid activities, kids museums, playgroups or classes like in the U.S. because no one doesn’t work! Kids are all in Barnehage and parents are all working.
On working moms: Women here get ten months of maternity leave at 100% pay or twelve months at 80% pay. (Actually, either parent can choose to take the “maternity” leave—it doesn’t have to be mom.) And then pretty much everyone goes back to work. Oslo is one of the most expensive cities in the world—along with Tokyo and Moscow—so women can’t afford to stay home. Also, it’s just not part of the culture to not work. If you’re not working, you’re not contributing.
On marriage: People work a lot fewer hours in Norway than they do in the U.S. For example, my husband works for the government for 37.5 hours per week (8am to 3:45pm, five days a week). That’s typical. Since both parents work, marriage partnerships feel much more equal here. Families tend to eat dinner together around 5pm. The housework is mostly divided, and I don’t know any husband who doesn’t help cook dinner and take care of the kids. I see just as many dads picking up their kids from Barnehage as I do moms.
On valuing the group: There’s a Norwegian idea called janteloven. It basically means that you’re part of a group—you’re not assumed to be better than anyone else. The American culture really values and promotes the concept of “the individual” in a way that is almost unheard of here. In Norway, the needs of the individual are subordinate to the good of the collective. To stand out or call attention to yourself is considered gauche. People here don’t boast or play up their accomplishments. When I first met my husband, we’d gone on three dates, and I thought, “He doesn’t seem ambitious—is that a problem?” But now I see that he doesn’t lack ambition; he’s just not going to step on toes or kill himself to get somewhere. That’s janteloven.
On food: There’s no real food culture here—it’s not like Italy or France. Food is much more utilitarian and there’s much less choice. At lunchtime, kids typically eat bread with caramelized goat cheese or swiss-like cheese. My husband eats it, too—almost every day.
Also, most Norwegians seem to LOVE hot dogs. They seem to eat hotdogs whenever they get a chance. They serve them at every gas station, at Ikea, at every kids’ birthday party; they grill them outside in the summer, they boil them inside in the winter. There’s no wrong time to eat a hotdog around here. Even at the airport at 6am, people are eating hot dogs.
Thank you so much, Rebecca! Your photos are gorgeous.
P.S. French kids eat everything, and babies sleep outside in Denmark.
(Thank you to my fantastic friend and writer Lina Perl for help reporting and interviewing)