For our final post of this year’s Motherhood Around the World series, we talked to Angelina Allen de Melo, a professional ballet dancer. She lives in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, with her husband, Fernando, and two-year-old daughter, Lucia. Here, Angie describes the Swedish sweet tooth, her experience with postpartum care and the importance of the outdoors…
Angelina’s background: I moved to Sweden when I joined a ballet company in Stockholm 12 years ago. Later, I met my husband, a fellow dancer and choreographer, at the GöteborgsOperans DansKompani, where both of us now work. We live in an apartment in Linnéstan, one of Gothenburg’s oldest neighborhoods.
Since I’m from California and Fernando is Brazilian, ours is not a typical Swedish household. For one thing, we’re not particularly tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed (!) and, even after more than a decade in Sweden, I’m still not enticed by the caviar purée squeezed out of a tube that’s popular for breakfast here. But, in many ways we’ve completely adapted to the Swedish way of life — embracing the magical summers, cold winters and parenthood in this culture.
On Nordic rhythms: In the summer, the sun stays up almost all day. You can stay outside until almost midnight and it’s still bright and amazing. You don’t realize how closely your internal clock is connected to the weather until it’s 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night and you’re not hungry for dinner yet.
But, in the winter, it gets dark so early that you start to hibernate. Your body starts shutting down in the afternoons. At the darkest points, it will be pitch black by 3:30 p.m. and won’t get light again until around 9 a.m. Since we go to work at 8:30 a.m., there are days that we don’t see the sun at all. It’s like living in this night world. I think that’s why tanning booths are so popular here, and sunny vacation destinations like Thailand and the Canary Islands are hugely popular with Swedes.
On napping outdoors: Even in the thick of winter when temperatures are below zero, many Swedish parents put their kids, bundled up in their strollers, outside to nap. They say children sleep longer and better this way and believe the cold and that fresh air is good for a child’s immune system. And here, if you’re sick your doctor will say, open the window when you go to bed at night, fresh air cures all!
When I first moved here, I went to meet a friend for coffee in the pouring rain. She told me her baby was asleep outside in the stroller, like it was the most natural thing in the world. His stroller had a waterproof cover, and she could see his stroller outside the window. I realized that it was not actually that crazy when I compared that approach to bringing a wet stroller with a sleeping baby, all bundled up in winter gear, inside a crowded, stuffy cafe, full of germs, trying to find a place to park the stroller, then risking waking him by undressing him so he doesn’t overheat. All of a sudden, leaving him outside seemed like a pretty great option!
On Swedish vacations: Most employees here get at least five weeks off in July and August. It’s customary for Swedes to spend their vacations in nature. Many families have country houses where they can retreat on the weekends or during holidays to relax and spend time by the sea, the forest or a lake. In the summer, we will go to the seaside or visit our Swedish friends’ country homes.
On postpartum care: For the year after you have a baby, this culture takes care not just of the baby, but mothers, too. Two days after we got home from the hospital, a nurse came to our house to weigh Lucia and do a check-up. She gave me a check-up too, asking all about how I was doing. Anytime I’d take Lucia in for a pediatrician appointment when she was little, they’d ask about me, looking for signs of depression, and reiterating all the support networks that were available to me as a new mother. Also, pediatric practices often offer support groups for new parents. They’ll arrange for 10 mothers with babies of a similar age to attend four or five classes about sleeping, eating, life balance, expectations of parenting or other topics. Everyone brings their babies, and it helps you build a support system.
On parental leave: Parents have a whopping 480 days of paid leave to share — that’s about 16 months. Recently, the law has allotted 90 of these days as non-transferable days for fathers only, to encourage men to take their paternity leave. There’s also a “gender equality bonus,” where parents receive slightly higher pay if they split the time evenly. Parents can even take up to one month off together, and they can spread their time over the first TWELVE YEARS of the child’s life.
Since most Swedish fathers take extensive paternity leave, I’ve noticed that they also get to play an active role in running their whole family household, too. When compared to Central and Southern Europe, Swedes are definitely less traditional in their household gender roles overall. Men are expected to pull their weight with cooking, cleaning and childcare the same way women have traditionally.
On the Law of Jante: There’s an interesting cultural principal here and in a few other Scandinavian countries called the Law of Jante. It essentially means that one individual is not more special than any other, and you’re not to behave as if you are. When I was teaching ballet in Stockholm years ago, I noticed that my students were, indeed, reluctant to stand out. For example, they were quite timid when I asked them to demonstrate steps or propose new ideas to the class.
On childcare: Most Swedish parents put their kids in government-subsidized childcare when the child is about one year old. There are a lot of different types of programs, none of which can exceed $150 per month, including two meals per day. We chose a bilingual school for Lucia, where she’s learning Swedish and English, but there are also public schools, parent co-ops, nature-focused curricula, language-focused ones… the list goes on. There’s even a gender-neutral school in Stockholm, where teachers don’t call children “him” or “her,” and the books and toys are carefully selected to avoid traditional presentations of gender roles.
Another amazing childcare benefit here is called Vabbing. The government pays your salary when you need to stay home from work because your child is sick. People even sometimes call February “VABruary,” as colds are so common in the coldest winter month!
On food: One of the funniest food customs I’ve observed here is the national tradition of having split pea soup and pancakes for lunch on Thursdays. The first time a Swede told me that, I thought he was joking, but the opera house where I work serves that meal every Thursday. I think all Swedish schools do it, too, and you’ll see it in restaurants. When Americans think of split pea soup it’s green, but here it’s more yellow, with white and yellow beans, and the meat is a pork sausage that’s sliced into the soup.
Also, Swedes eat cheese in ways that I’ve never seen anywhere else. For one thing, there are a ton of cheeses that come in tubes and are spread over knäckebröd (crispbread, like a cracker) or eaten in sandwiches. Also, every Swedish household has a osthyvel, or cheese slicer, which is treated with a high level of reverence.
Another big food tradition here is buns, which you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever been to IKEA. People love to eat cinammon buns, or kanelbulle, for breakfast with their morning coffee or for a late-afternoon snack. This is called a “fika,” or coffee break. There’s even a national day for buns, Kanelbullens Dag. When I first moved here, I thought they were kind of flavorless and dry, but now I love them. I’ll come back to the U.S. now and taste a Krispy Kreme donut and all the sugar hurts my teeth!
On candy: Swedes eat more candy than anybody else in the world, something like 35 pounds of candy per person per year! Huge candy shops with impressive sections are everywhere. What intrigues me most about the Swedish sweet tooth is lördagsgodis or “Saturday candy.” Every Saturday, kids and often their parents fill bags with their favorite candy. Gummies and licorice are big favorites. Before I became a parent, I thought this was a great idea, but now I’ve seen what sugar does to my daughter!
On playing outdoors: Lucia loves to play outside, picking up sticks or playing in the mud. In the parks, you see moose, deer and wild rabbits. And the playgrounds here are more creative than in any other country I’ve visited. One park near our house is themed around nature and all the equipment is made out of natural wood and bark. It even has a real “insect hotel,” so the kids can observe bugs, and a “barefoot path” designed to teach them about different textures underfoot. The playground system is so extensive there’s even an app to help you find and navigate all the playgrounds in Gothenburg. Our favorite playground near our apartment is Slottskogen, which is always stocked with tricycles, balls, buckets and shovels, as well as a barbecue pits for grilling sausages while your kids play.
On embracing the cold: My husband always reminds me that our daughter is Swedish and she doesn’t care if it’s freezing or dark; she just needs to go outside and play. It’s her parents who need to get over the cold! In her preschool, they go out every day and play for at least an hour even if it’s rainy or snowy. Have you heard the Swedish saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”? Kids wear layers upon layers of gloves and hats and overalls and snowsuits and long johns. I feel bad for Lucia’s preschool teachers because it’s such hard work turning a bunch of little kids into Gore-Tex dumplings! In Lucia’s school, they even have drying machines the size of refrigerators for winter clothes. When you come pick up your kid at the end of the day, they once again have dry, warm outerwear.
On coziness: The Swedish word mysig is hard to translate, but technically means “to smile with comfort,” or be cozy. It’s an important concept here, where the winters are long and cold. You see candles everywhere, year round. When I first moved here, it struck me as a major fire hazard! But they’re everywhere and so beautiful. Sometimes we go to IKEA on weekends (“It’s cold and rainy, so let’s go to IKEA!”), and everyone buys their candles there! Everyone has candles in their carts at checkout.
Swedes even have a special word to describe curling up indoors on a Friday night: fredagsmys. You light candles, cuddle under a blanket on the sofa, eat candy and watch a movie. I love that there’s a verb for it.
On children’s books: All the children we know, including our daughter, love Pippi Longstocking, the classic book by Astrid Lindgren. There’s another sweet children’s character called Alfons Aberg, or Alfie Atkins in its English translation, who’s very traditional and charming. He has been a children’s obsession for generations — there are even play centers around town themed around him. The stories are about a little boy with simple toys, and you read about him having picnics with his cheese, thermos and special cheese slicer! It’s all very Swedish and old-school.
On a favorite moment: One afternoon, my iPhone was stolen on the tram and I called the police to report it. Within minutes, an undercover police car (Volvo, of course!) pulled up to where I was standing. Two female police officers with long blonde ponytails drove me around Gothenburg following the signal of my stolen phone. Unfortunately, our hunt ended in a crowded tram station where we lost the signal, but they were kind enough to drive me home a good 15 minutes away. I have a hard time imagining anything like this happening in a major city in America. In fact, to me, this anecdote sums up how efficient and friendly Sweden is.
Thank you so much, Angelina!