Things were going well for Alexandra Suhner Isenberg, 36. After meeting her Swedish husband Daniel, 38, in London, she managed to coax him back to her native Canada and in 2011 the pair had their first child, Viktor. But amid all the baby joy, there was one dark cloud.
“We realized we could not afford daycare. We lived in Vancouver for four or five years, but it is very expensive in Canada. We just could not afford it, even though we both were highly educated and had well-paid – not massively well-paid, but decent enough – jobs,” she told The Local.
After visiting Daniel's family on a holiday to Sweden one summer, they decided to take a leap of faith, packed their belongings and moved to the small town of Växjö in southern Sweden.
Today, the couple has two children, Viktor, who is now three, and two-year-old Helena. Alexandra runs an online luxury nightwear company based back in Canada and her husband works as a web designer.
“When we came to Sweden we realized that 'this is the place for us'. It's just an awesome place to raise children. The curriculum is balanced, they go on field trips and they all get fed properly. I love that everyone can afford childcare and all the children get as equal a start in life as they can get. To afford the kind of daycare my children go to now you would need a lot of money in Canada,” said Alexandra.
Alexandra Suhner Isenberg with her husband Daniel and two children. Photo: Linus Paulsson
Their positive experience of the Swedish childcare system is far from uncommon. Just last week a survey by worldwide expatriate network InterNations rated Sweden as the best place for expats to raise a family, ahead of Denmark, France, Austria and Germany. Comparatively cheap childcare, thanks to generous subsidies, came out as one of the top reasons.
While the Nordic country has a global reputation for being an expensive place to visit, a a study by Numbeo – a global database of reported consumer prices – in January 2015 revealed it is cheaper to live there than many other European nations including the United Kingdom, France and the rest of Scandinavia. The exact cost of childcare varies depending on where in Sweden you live, but is capped by the state at 1,260 kronor ($143) a month for the first child.
Alexandra and Daniel moved for family reasons, but most expat families relocate because of work. InterNations founder and co-CEO Malte Zeeck told The Local that choosing to resettle because of relatives is quite rare among expats.
“When talking about their motivations for moving abroad, only one in 20 respondents chose 'family reasons' as their most important reason for the move. Since family reasons is a fairly broad category, which also includes cases like needing to care for elderly parents, wanting to be close to siblings or extended family members, and the like, it's actually fewer than five percent of respondents overall who decided to move solely for their children's sake,” he said.
Tom Rebbitt, 40, from Britain, his wife Maxine, 39, and their two little girls Josephine, 3, and Danielle, 6, live on an idyllic Swedish island just off Gothenburg. Working for a construction machinery manufacturer based in the United States, Tom was relocated to Sweden by his employer.
“It's our second expat stint – we used to live in Germany. Out of the three places we've lived this is the best for us as a family,” he told The Local.
“In Britain, there's this cliché of an idyllic neighbourhood where all the children play together in the streets, and of course it's nothing like that any more. It could just be the local culture where we live on our island, but here it is still like that. It feels safe for the children to play outside and they bring home friends from 'dagis' [nursery school] almost every day.”
His view is echoed by the results of the InterNations survey, in which 86 percent of 14,000 expats originally hailing from a total of 160 countries said they were happy with their family life in Sweden and 97 percent judged the country to have a positive effect on their children's general well being.
And as Tom's two-year secondment to Sweden is due to come to an end, he and his family have decided they want to stay, at least in the medium term.
“Sweden is much, much more family centric than anywhere else I have seen. I work for an American company and in the States you only get around two weeks' holiday a year. But this summer we've decided we're going to be a bit more Swedish and spend a lot of time with the kids. They're both picking up Swedish embarrassingly quickly and were fluent within months. My wife and I are lagging behind,” he said with a laugh.
Tom Rebbitt with his wife Maxine and children Josephine and Danielle. Photo: Private
But while Tom and his family are thinking of prolonging their stay in Sweden, some expats, such as Marielle Hoogland, 43, cannot wait to return home.
She and her husband moved with their two children, 10 and 7, to Stockholm two years ago after having lived both in their native Netherlands and Hong Kong. For her, the long Nordic winters are a strong negative.
“Where shall I start? Sweden is okay, but it is not the best place for me to raise a family, mainly due to the darkness and winter. In November it gets dark at 3pm and the children can't go out to play. They end up spending a lot of time indoors and I think going outside is something they really miss,” she told The Local.
Swedes enjoy generous childcare benefits with 480 days of paid parental leave, split between the parents. At the age of one, most children start nursery school (known as 'förskola' or 'dagis') before they enter primary school at the age of seven.
But life in a foreign country presents obstacles that statistics sometimes do not reveal, and raising children away from the social safety net of relatives and friends can be a lonely experience, according to expats such as Marielle.
“If I compare Sweden to being an expat in Asia, you have a lot more help there. In Hong Kong the whole system is more organized around help in the home, but in Sweden you're supposed to look after yourself,” said Marielle.
“This is fine if you are Swedish. If you have family who live here you have back-up around to help you, but as an expat you don't. I feel like we live in an expat bubble,” she added.
But she admits the balance between work and life in Scandinavia does offer a silver lining for her family.
“That is really good compared to the Netherlands and compared to Hong Kong. My husband gets home at a sensible time in the evening and gets to spend time with the children. But we will stay here for one year and then I hope we will move back to the Netherlands,” she said.