Norway’s unwritten rules

scan-94_edited-1Now that I understand Norwegian I notice the unbelievable amount of articles coming out almost everyday on topics such as “How to design a happy child” or “Signs that you are a good mother“. Norwegian society seems completely obsessed with children, their well being, and what we, adults, do wrong. Was it like that in France when my mother was pregnant with me? Was it even like that in Norway 30 years ago?

I am at this age where every time I ring or meet a girlfriend she tells me she is pregnant. My facebook thread is filled with pictures of uterus ultrasounds with black and white pictures of E.T-like foetuses (I heard they get cuter later on). My holidays resonate with questions from my family and friends back home asking me whether I want children soon, because you know, the clock is ticking. My aunt even called me on my 30th birthday to advise me to freeze my eggs. The truth is what scares me more than to have kids is to have them in Norway.

Norway is the best country to be a mum

How is that possible? Everyone agrees that Norway is the best country in the world to be a mum. Medical Daily advises all mothers to move to Oslo. And many things indicate that it might even be one of the best places to be a kid. Longer parental leave than anywhere in continental Europe, kindergarten where kids are covered in oversized yellow vests to avoid getting hit by a car. Long days being outside as soon as your are born, breathing the fresh air from the fjord instead of breathing the polluted air from Paris or New York.

So why be scared? The problem is that the Norwegian society has an unbelievable amount of unwritten social rules that need to be followed without anyone saying it out loud. And social pressure is immense for those who read the news and listen to all the other parents and medical experts telling you what you are potentially (probably) doing wrong. Sometimes I have the feeling that because the Norwegian society agrees their way is the best way to raise kids, it becomes the only possible way.

The requirements are so high that it is very easy to be a bad mother in the eyes of Norwegian society. I write here about a few of the aspects of Norwegian upbringing I would find difficult to meet. As a side note, if anyone wonders (especially my parents, colleagues and Child Protection Service employees who are reading this): I am not pregnant or planning to be.

Stay away from wine and bottled milk

I have this irrepressible attraction to red wine. But being a good mother involves eating only green and organic things from the day one gets pregnant, so red wine is out. Thankfully other enjoyable activities such as sex and rock n’ roll are not forbidden anymore during pregnancy.

If that wasn’t hard enough one absolutely has to breastfeed in order to pass the second test at being a good mum in Norway. I had this idea that feminism had given all women the right to decide what we want to do with our body. Get a bottle out of your bag to feed your new born baby in a café in Norway and you will see the looks in other peoples’ eyes: bad mother. My mum breastfed her kids 6 months each and was seen as a hero. In Norway if you do not breastfeed you need to have a very good excuse which you must say with tears in your eyes and a huge feeling of guilt.

Adopt strange sleeping and food habits

It doesn’t stop there. In Norway children absolutely need to sleep by 7pm if not earlier. And they must eat at 5pm. How can one come back of work at 4.30pm and have time to make a boeuf bourguignon or even fish cakes (let’s take a traditional Norwegian dish) by 5pm? Completely impossible. And why do kids need to sleep so early? Most parents I asked about this were unable to give a concrete answer. But if experts say so and other parents do it, then it must be right.

And why aren’t there any cantines in Norwegians schools in a country? I would have thought that a society so committed to giving equal chances and treatment to all children no matter their social background would provide all children minimum one warm, balanced and nutritious meal per day. Instead of what children eat something called matpakke (slices of bread with something on it) every lunch. It is easy to throw some chocolate spread and brown cheese or basically sugar. The best fed kids are those whose parents read books about “How to make a fun and healthy matpakke” (Norway has an unbelievable amount of books and blogs about this issue) and cook fish and vegetables for them in the evening. I might not be objective on this topic: French have as many strict rules about food than Norwegians have them on sleep time.

Spend tidsklemma quality time with them

Experts, which are a bunch of psychologists and parenting coaches, say parents need to spend quality time with their kids. Like teaching them stuff and spending time with them which does not include stress, expectations, anxiety (I am not an expert but just guessing).

My parents spent lots of quality time with us, but not in the frame Norwegian education coaches have decided. They were young when they had us and believed the Malaysian jungle was as good learning experience as any school in a western country. They didn’t work much unless they had no money left, and we spent months playing with them on beaches of Bali, camping in the Australian outback an sometimes going to the local school. No matpakke, no TV, schools in different languages, and lots of quality time with our parents.

In Norway quality time does not mean you can chose whatever you want to do with your children. They must be a plan because later they have their 3rd activity of the week and then you’ll have to go to the gym. It is what Norwegians call being in tidsklemma. Spontaneity, freedom and lack of control over one’s kids are not words I have read often in the perfect Norwegian upbringing written by experts, but why? What feels better than freedom and spontaneity for children? (besides a giant candy man of course).

Is it allowed to say “no” to children?

Besides a hippy childhood, I also experienced the French system. In France one is taught to respect authority, accept failure, not interfere with the life of adults and eat whatever is in your plate. We were also very free: a child’s life involved disappearing from the house from the minute one came home from school until the minute before we had to be home to eat dinner. We played with neighbours, in the forest and in the street. We had time on our hands, and no parental control or cellphones to be tracked in our every moves.

I am not saying I remember slaps on my bum with tender nostalgia. Definitely not. However I do remember freedom as one. Is there not a middle way between the strict French upbringing style and full freedom which makes Norwegian children decide exactly what they want when they want it? In Norway parents have become slaves to their kids. What if one does not want to have control over one’s children? What if a parent decides not to drive one’s kid to every single micro activity and friend’s house? Is one seen as a bad parent for not knowing exactly where is one’s kid?

Yes your child is the best in the world, just like everyone else’s

When I was 11 one of my teachers liked to tell us “Study whatever you like, you’ll all end up unemployed anyway”. It is horrible of course, but at least we knew that failure was possible even when we put hard work to succeed. Which is comforting if you think about it: it wasn’t our fault.

In Norway it is advised to tell children they are great at everything they do. They are the best in the whole world, so talented. It reminds me of a story a teacher in the US told me: when a child wrote 2+2=5 teachers were advised to say “Well done, it is almost right!”. We all need to hear we are a super hero and talented human being and can do anything we want, especially during childhood. Sadly success is not just up to you as an individual person, sometimes hard work won’t even do the trick because there are other factors at play here such as luck, the risk one is willing to take, the motivation one can show, and sadly the fact that some are just better than us at something. The unemployment rate going up. Too many old people at the positions that we want to take, so we have to wait for them to retire. We worked harder because we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But who wants to tell one’s child that life will be tough? It is way too depressing.

I am a bit far from the requirements of being a good/bad mother in Norway now, and the list is still long: being fit, flat belly 2 weeks after delivering the baby, being a superwoman being great as an employee, a mother, a wife, a lover and a friend etc. Hopefully it is not that hard to raise children, despite all the signals society sends us on the do’s and don’ts of being a bad mother. Like my Norwegian friend told me when I told her I was writing about this topic:You know which women are the best mothers? Those who don’t have children.

This article was published in the Norwegian daily paper VG on the 15th of August under the title Derfor blir jeg en dårlig mamma.


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