Blue.

There is something special about the light in Australia, it’s more vibrant somehow, everything seems clearer. I miss it, my Sydney life. Listening to the warbling magpies on the walk to school. The scent of the frangipani tree. The sounds of the ocean. Beauty is everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if I regret moving, but then I realise that I don’t. It’s all part of a journey, with many things to learn along the way. What I do know is that a piece of my heart and soul remains in Sydney, and on some days, like today, I close my eyes and imagine I was still there.

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Understanding.

People have always found it tricky to place where I’m from. There have been many times when people have spoken to me in French or Spanish or Portuguese, thinking I am one of them. But no, all I can do is smile and try to hide my blank expression. Who knows how many friends I could have made if we’d just understood each other.

The only language I speak fairly well, apart from English, is Norwegian. Of all the languages in the world to learn, I chose the one that only five million people speak. In terms of random languages to learn, Norwegian is pretty much up there. I thought I’d be able to pick up another language fairly easily, after all I’ve done it once before,  but it seems that the bit of my brain responsible for learning languages is full. German goes in, and then about a minute later it’s gone again.

There was a sense that I wasn’t really myself when I lived life in Norwegian. I was always a moment behind everyone else in a conversation, my personality hidden. Now I find myself here again. I’ve lived in a non-English speaking country for almost eight years, that’s quite a long time to not really be myself. I’m just hoping that I’m still there somewhere.

I sometimes feel like my life isn’t real and I’m living a pretend foreign version. I get letters addressed to Frau, and I have to check they haven’t been put in the wrong post box by mistake. Because when letters arrive for someone I don’t recognise, and in a language I don’t understand, it’s like they’re not meant for me. When I get bills I convert the amount to Australian dollars and then to British pounds. Even money doesn’t seem real anymore. This is clearly not the best way to approach adult life.

I do feel guilty about living in Switzerland and not speaking the language. I can manage simple sentences, in the present tense, but that’s about it. So to avoid situations where I either feel bad for not speaking German, or annoyed because I don’t know what someone is saying to me, I tend to just stay at home. For someone living a nomadic life, I’m actually a bit of a hermit.

Being a mum in Switzerland.

I did some research before moving to Zurich. Among other things, I found out that it was normal for mums to stay at home with their children, and that school kids generally came home in their long lunch break. To be honest it all sounded quite idyllic. Maybe life would be easier. I worked three days a week in Sydney, which was a good balance for our family, but it’s fair to say that picking everyone up and then tackling the homework, dinner, bath, bed routine wasn’t particularly fun for anyone. So it was with an open mind I arrived in Switzerland.

Language classes are a good way to try and suss out a place because the language is taught in a cultural context. In German class, not long after we’d started, it was time to talk about work. Some tried to explain what they’d done before moving to Switzerland, but no, that wasn’t relevant any more. The teacher wanted us to reveal what we were doing now. He knew the answer already, we were there at eight thirty in the morning, and our course came with childcare. He helpfully wrote ‘Hausfrau’ on the board. Soon enough it was my turn.

Ich bin nicht Hausfrau” came my indignant response “Ich bin Mutter”

“Nein, du bist Hausfrau”

“Oh”

I felt somehow deflated. I’m not sure why I objected to being called a housewife. Maybe because I hope I’m a good mum, but I’m a fairly average housewife. I just find cleaning so dull. Something about that exchange made me wonder how real the Swiss idyll was. I started to get the feeling that Swiss women might not be so free in their choices after all.

Switzerland came 11th on the Global Gender Gap Index 2014 for overall equality and 23rd for economic participation and opportunity. This was an improvement from 2007 where it ranked 40th for overall equality.

Gender equality and equal pay for equal work have been part of the federal constitution since 1981, yet Switzerland remains one of the worst places for wage discrimination. Women earn on average 20% less than men. In 2010, the statistics office estimated that 40% of Switzerland’s gender pay gap was unexplained and probably pure discrimination.

Switzerland was ranked 13th on the Save the Children State of the World’s Mothers report 2014. A recent report described Swiss motherhood as being defined by the ongoing presence of traditional family values where the idea of women as homemakers still exists.

Since 2005, working women have been entitled to 14 weeks maternity leave with 80% of their salary. Before that, there was no obligatory maternity benefit.

Around 80% of mothers in Switzerland with children under the age of 15 work part-time. It’s rare for women to build up to full-time again when their children are older. Sixteen percent of mothers with children under the age of 25 are employed full-time. Almost one in four are stay at home mums. A mindset remains that it’s impossible to work 100% with children under the age of 15.

It seems that the traditional role is changing, and that women increasingly want to go back to work, but are prevented to do so by a lack of choice and viable work model. Childcare and schools are still set up to cater to the traditional family where a parent stays at home. School hours are not always the same, so children in the same family may have staggered start and finish times. Swiss schools also have up to two hours off for lunch where children go home to eat.

I have to agree with the difficulties of school hours. My older two are at school and their school day is 8.20 to 3.20 pm. Their lunch break is 12.00 to 1.40 pm. Most of their friends go home for lunch. Mine stay at school, but we pay CHF 7 per child per day to send them with a packed lunch as staying at school for lunch is classed as childcare. On Wednesdays there is no school in the afternoon. There are no after school care facilities at their school. My little girl is five and goes to compulsory pre-school which is from 8.00 to 11.55 am. This is her timetable until she is six, when she will start school.

Switzerland’s federal political structure means that state interference in issues concerning mothers and the family is limited and there is still some debate as to what role the state should play in family matters such as childcare. The view is still engrained that childcare before pre-school is up to the family and that the state shouldn’t interfere with private affairs. In March 2013 a constitutional amendment was proposed by parliament to improve conditions for working families by giving both the federal and cantonal authorities powers to boost childcare options. The amendment was rejected by voters.

Full-time day care can cost Swiss parents two-thirds of an average salary, more than any other country in the world. A place in a day care can cost up to CHF 170 a day. Almost 90% of childcare centres are private and financed by parents. In total, just 0.1% of Switzerland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is designated for financing childcare, less than most other European countries.

Three-quarters of children under the age of three still do not have access to day care. Switzerland has one of the lowest proportions of children under the age of three who attend day care for a majority of their time. Thirty five percent of children attend daycare two days a week, 20% one or three days and 10% four days. Almost 80% of grandparents regularly look after their grandchildren.

The creation of more childcare places at affordable prices is one measure that is regularly proposed by unions and the political left as a means of reducing the salary gap.

Working mothers in Switzerland have to fight for social acceptance against traditional thinking and people who believe that mothers are selfish to work and send their children to day care. The UN has shown concern at the persistence of entrenched traditional stereotypes regarding the role and responsibilities of women and men in the family and in society at large.

Recent discussions have focused on the argument that better integration of women into the workforce would reduce the need to look abroad for the workers required to fuel economic growth. It will be interesting to see how this develops as it is one of the measures proposed by the Swiss government in preparation for the initiative “against mass immigration”.

It’s now been almost two years since I started those first searches on how life in Zurich would be. We haven’t been here very long, so I feel like I am still trying to figure out how the society really is. The fact we are both foreigners means that we will always have a relatively superficial understanding. This is different to Norway, where I had a deeper knowledge because I was together with a Norwegian and as a result was more integrated.

Sometimes I look at my children and wonder how it would be for them if we were to stay in Switzerland. Will my daughters be able to realise their dreams, whatever they may be? Will my son think that it is fine for him to get more money for doing the same job as his sisters, simply because he is a boy? I can’t help the feeling that if we were to stay permanently that they would have to fight for the freedoms that have already been won where they have lived before. Will their future be hindered by traditional thinking that will continue through to the next generation? To their generation? I suspect the answer might be yes.

Being a mum in Norway.

I’m a little hesitant to admit that I was slightly oblivious to the fight for women’s equality that has come before me. It could be because I had no sense of injustice growing up, I never felt that my choices were restricted because I was a girl. It’s only since becoming a parent, specifically a mum, that my eyes have been opened to how much a woman’s choice can be affected by cultural expectations.

I have experienced being a mother in three countries. I became a mum in Norway, one of the world’s most progressive countries for women. Now, just a short distance away, I am experiencing motherhood in Switzerland, a country holding onto its traditional values.

The differences between how Norway and Switzerland view a mother’s role in society are striking and thought provoking. I have been surprised by cultural expectations and the acceptance of these. The Norwegian and me first became parents nine years ago. Since then, he has worked full-time whereas I have worked part-time, full-time, been a stay at home mum and a Hausfrau.

Of the countries I have lived, Australia led the way for equal rights being the first to grant women the vote. By 1908, women in all states had the right to vote in state and federal elections. Indigenous women however had to wait until 1962. Norwegian women were given the right to vote in 1913, and British women in 1928. Swiss women were not able to vote until 1971.

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I had my first baby in Norway, ranked second in the Save the Children State of the World’s Mothers Report 2014, based on factors such as welfare support, maternity leave, childcare provision, and gender equality.

Norway is considered to be one of the most gender equal countries in the world. It ranks 3rd in the world for overall equality and 2nd for economic participation and opportunity.

Equality is a major topic in Norway and the resulting political model has been one aimed at achieving gender equality by encouraging women to work by giving them clear incentives to be in employment. The combination of parental leave and subsidised childcare has been largely credited for helping to close the gender gap.

Around 83% of mothers with small children are employed, of these, just under 61% work full-time, while 36% work part-time. Stay at home mums are considered rare.

In Norway, paid parental leave is 13 months at 80% pay, or 10 months at 100% pay. Nine weeks are dedicated to the mother around the time of birth, and 12 weeks are dedicated to the father. The rest can be divided between both parents as they see fit. Once a child reaches 12 months they are eligible for full-time state subsidised day care. In 2013, 90% of all children aged one to five were in day care, of these, 92% were there more than 41 hours per week.

It’s widely accepted that after having a baby, a mother would have up to a year off, then go back to work full-time when the child started day care around the age of one. Fairly recently though, a discussion has been emerging about family life in the equality debate.

It has been suggested that the eagerness for Norway to be the world’s most equal country has been at the expense of giving parents the opportunity to choose how to raise their family. Some find it troubling that feminism and gender equality should mean only one thing, which is that everyone should work and be the same.

In 2013, Inga Marte Thorkildsen, of the Socialist Left Party (SV), then Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, said that she didn’t believe that staying at home to look after children was as valuable as it was to be employed. She asserted that power, status and equality came with working, and that freedom of choice was related to economy. She argued that choosing to work part-time would negatively influence a woman’s financial independence way into retirement, and in doing so restrict their freedom.

The current minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, Solveig Horne, from the Progress Party (FRP), has highlighted how women who stay at home have been discriminated against with politically correct ‘universal equality’. She questioned the socialist definition of equality and suggested that equality could also be considered as giving families choice. When questioned about her ideals, she identified herself as a feminist by being engaged in having freedom of choice and equal opportunities.

Cash-for-care, kontantstøtte, is a universal payment for parents of children between the age of one and three if their child doesn’t attend day care. The cash-for-care scheme has proved to be a controversial issue as some believe it hinders equality by offering a financial incentive for mothers to stay at home with children under the age of three. Researchers have argued that in doing so, it allows the notion that spending time with their mother is the most important thing for a child.

Norwegians struggle to find the meaning in being a stay at home parent. There is a disagreement to what status a stay at home mum should have and what it actually entails. Some claim that it contributes to a calmer family life, and has an important role in society. Others see it as a luxury phenomenon, where mothers are more concerned with their own wellbeing than that of their family.

There is an area in the south of Norway where the incidence of stay at home mums is higher than the rest of Norway. Using this area as an example, researchers have suggested that not going to day care, and growing up without both parents taking equal responsibility, could increase the chances of children dropping out of school, becoming juvenile delinquents and receiving disability benefit. They concluded that it was better for a child to be at day care than to stay at home with their mother.

Some say that the experience of modern equality in Norway is that you are considered an outsider if you prioritise your kids rather than a career, and that wanting to spend time with your children is not valued in todays culture.

So what do I think? Well for the record, my point of view is that women and families should be able to choose what suits them best. People are different and what is right for one family may not be for another. Even within the same family, needs can change as time goes by.

I lived in Norway when my children were very small and the Norwegian model made me uncomfortable. My daughter went to day care full-time when she was one, and I worked full-time. It was just what you did. Later, when I had maternity leave for my son, I would bring her to day care around 10 am, but that was frowned upon, she was late. I tried to keep her home on Friday’s, but again, I was clearly the foreigner who didn’t know how things were done. All I wanted was to spend time with her. I missed her and she missed me.

I had a real sense of getting my children back when we moved to Australia, especially the eldest, then two. She had been lost to me for a while, the Norwegian state assuming responsibility for her. It’s hard not to feel emotional at the relief I felt at being able to follow my instincts again. I hadn’t been able to do that in Norway. It was much better for her to be in day care they said, she might never have any friends otherwise, ever. When we told people in Norway she went to day care two days a week in Sydney, they felt sorry for her, poor child wasn’t socialising enough. They couldn’t grasp the fact that we socialised every single day. There were loads of kids around, but now she had her baby brother and her mum with her too. In Norway during the week, the playgrounds are empty, the kids are all at day care. In Australia the parks are bustling with kids of all ages before they start school.

I’m not sure that choice should be the price that is paid in the name of equality. Can equality, social justice and diversity be compatible with a real life society? I hope so. I do believe that Norway will continue to lead the way as there is a genuine commitment to do the best for its people. There is now talk about a six hour day to help balance family life with work. The question of choice within families has now been raised and I will continue to follow the ongoing discussion with interest.

Photo thanks to Susan Shain: http://susanshain.com

Stuff.

I’ve moved many times over the years. What started out as a straightforward process, with just a few boxes to pack, has evolved into a much bigger project.

I like to think that I live quite simply. If I do buy something a lot of thought goes into it, before it arrives and quietly takes its place where something was somehow missing before.

I was weary at the thought of packing up my Sydney life, but as I looked around I figured it wouldn’t be so bad, we didn’t have that much stuff. I got a surprise when moving day came and I saw all the boxes, our small apartment had clearly been clever with storage. I had no idea we had accumulated so much.

The journey from Sydney to Zurich for our belongings took three months, so there was always going to be a period of time where we would have nothing except what had come with us in our suitcases. We spent three weeks in an empty apartment. Literally empty, not even light fittings. We were all quite miserable by that point. The arrival of our container marked the end of that phase, and when our Zurich chapter could really begin.

The change in our mood on seeing our things was dramatic. There it was, our life in a blue container, becoming real again once the boxes started coming in.

It turns out it wasn’t just stuff, it was part of a story. Worthless to others, but precious to me. As I unpacked, there was a sense of contentment as everything found its place. As the pile of empty boxes grew, the apartment was becoming a home. A sanctuary. When outside, things were foreign and unfamiliar.

I bought some cups the other day. I’ve had my eye on them for about a month. Something was stopping me from buying them, probably a feeling of guilt because I’m not working at the moment, and we don’t really need more cups. Every day I would pass the shop window, only allowing myself a glance. Until one day I found myself in there, cash at the ready. I haven’t unpacked them yet, but already they have an importance because I know that, for years to come, I will use them and be taken back to this time in my life, the year when my children were five, seven and nine, and we lived in Zurich.

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Fitting in.

I find it fascinating how humans, essentially similar physical beings, can think so differently, depending on where they have grown up. One thing about not really belonging anywhere, is that it lends itself to a unique insight into a society and the cultural expectations that define its people.

As a newcomer in Norway, my cultural benchmark was the UK. My subconscious perception, having never been challenged before, was that the way British people did things was normal, and that Norwegians could be a little strange. I was often left bewildered by my daily interactions, sometimes things were just so different.

The Norwegian didn’t hide his amusement at some of my English ways. I didn’t really feel the need to defend my actions, after all, he was the one who did such odd things.

I knew that Norwegians didn’t get British people and their love of carpets. Dirty apparently. As for not taking shoes off when inside, well, to a Norwegian that is just wrong. We also didn’t wash up properly, I had never known that the rest of the world washed the soap off. The Norwegian was incredulous that a whole nation didn’t realise they were washing their dishes in dirt. But I had moved to Bergen, a rainy city, and he clearly didn’t realise that it wasn’t normal to have umbrella vending machines in the street. And no, one sunny day in July didn’t count as summer, only people from Bergen thought that.

In Australia things were more familiar. A calmness came over me. I hadn’t realised how much energy I’d used trying to make myself understood before. At last I blended in, with only the occasional word giving me away.

Something had changed though. People thought I was strange for taking my shoes off, but it made complete sense now, why bring the dirt in? Australians were shocked by how much water I wasted rinsing the plates. They had a point, I tried to do it more quickly.

I hadn’t noticed that my baseline for normal had shifted. I had tried to integrate into Norwegian society, but I don’t think I made it to the final ‘mastery phase’ when passing through the stages of culture shock. Even so, I lived there for six years and two of my children were born there, so I was undoubtedly influenced by the culture and the values held by the society.

I have now been in Zurich for over a year. Once again I am experiencing culture shock, currently in the ‘frustration phase’ where I am noticing the differences between the old and new cultures. This is complicated by the fact I have lost my ‘base’ culture. I have days when I am homesick, but equally so for England and Australia.

I sometimes feel free from the cultural expectations of how I should be and that is quite liberating. I am now at peace with doing things differently. In those early months in Zurich I was so concerned with integrating and fitting in that I experienced an inner turmoil because I was doing things that just didn’t feel right.

Children here walk alone to kindergarten and school from the age of four. It is frowned upon for a parent to walk with them and the teachers tell the kids they must walk by themselves. This is because the Swiss strongly believe that children should be independent from an early age. My kids walked by themselves when we first moved, and I would wait by the window, holding my breath until I caught sight of them coming home. Then one day I had a revelation. I didn’t care what the Swiss kids did. I wasn’t comfortable with them walking alone along a busy main road. They would still grow up to be independent because I would foster this in other ways. The importance of being true to myself sunk in, I am the parent and must do what I think is right, because I will still be the parent when we leave Switzerland and the rules change again.