I am from Skellefteå, a small town in the far north of Sweden, where I met my hubby when I was 19. Six months after his move back to England I decided to come over. We didn’t have Skype back then and talking on the phone was hard. I took some things and left my house. It was the first time I lived abroad. The first time I moved out.


Compact Silence Quiet


I came straight to London. Everything was just completely different. Everything seemed so - this is going to sound wrong - so basic: The wonky cupboards, the drafty floorboards, the broken washer, our inexistent storage, and those single glazed windows!

Mostly though I remember the noises. When I used to go to bed in the countryside it was quiet. Compact silence quiet. When I go back to Sweden now where I still have my old girls room, I have tinnitus the first couple of nights, that’s how soundless it is. But it’s lovely. It is such a rewarding sleep.

I remember dreaming about sirens too. The first few weeks there was always something whooshing by in the background of my dreams. I don’t remember what the dreams were about, just that sirens featured in them prominently. Often I would wake up in the middle of the night to realise: “Oh, there’s an actual police car driving by.”

It didn’t bother me at the time because everything was new and exiting.


When people actually say they don’t want you to speak your language


I used to speak Swedish to my children all the time. When they were a bump, at home, when we were out and about, in parks and on playgrounds. But over time a couple of things happened that made me change.

First, my mother-in-law said in no uncertain terms that she finds it incredibly rude when I speak Swedish in front of her. She doesn’t mind me speaking a different language to her grandchildren, she simply doesn’t want to feel excluded and has compared this to whispering: If you sit around a table with friends and family you don’t whisper. If you want to go to another room and discuss the same things privately, that’s alright. The same applies to languages. I can understand her so that made us stop talking Swedish with each other when she’s around.

Then there was this incident at a local park. I was out with my kids looking at tadpoles when a stranger on a bench started his rant by saying “You should speak English when you’re here”. I turned around and said “I speak English to them, I hardly ever get to speak Swedish unless I’m on my own” but he didn’t care about any of this. I felt really uncomfortable. We quickly left but it has stayed with me. It put me off speaking Swedish to my kids in public which is a shame really but I couldn’t help it. It put me off the park for a while too. It was so unpleasant and whether you want it or not such experiences stay at the back of your mind.


The best of plans can change


Our original idea was to go back and live in Sweden. We attempted this twice. Once without children, and then again around my second pregnancy. Unfortunately, there were no jobs available, my husband didn’t learn enough Swedish, and the prospect of better positions lured us back to England. In the end our great plans panned out in the sand.


Do you often travel back to Sweden?

We visit for maybe a month in the summer and head over for Christmas too.


What are your friends saying about your children’s Swedish?

Nothing, they are impressed that my kids speak fluent English. They find their London twang really cool and will explain “Oh, that’s sweet” and laugh. I’m more like “No, that’s not sweet!” Saying a nursery rhyme in Swedish would be sweet.

My brothers are fairly quick to switch to English as well and when my kids are playing with their cousins they get frustrated because they can’t express themselves the way they’d like. I find this really annoying because I want them to speak Swedish. I find this really annoying because I want them to speak Swedish. When else do they get the chance? My parents didn’t speak English, or not very well, and with them the kids HAD to switch to Swedish.


Order matters


Do you worry about this?

No, although it’s obviously not what I wished for. I get that it’s hard for them to speak Swedish just as good as English unless I put the time and effort in to it. But as a parent you just don’t have the same amount of time to invest in the younger ones, plus once siblings are around your influence shrinks even more.

With my first born it was easy. We had a lot of one-on-one opportunities. We were living in Sweden with him for a bit too where he picked up bits and pieces. With my second child things had already changed and we read books in both Swedish and English. With my third I’m afraid it ended up being just English; he refuses to focus on any other books.

As a consequence, my first can speak Swedish well, read a bit, but can’t really write it. My second speaks it though doesn’t read a word of it, or simply gives up too soon. My youngest understand some things but constantly asks “What’s that in English?” This is so frustrating and grinds you down.

I know I need to crack on with this. I’ve made it my mission to speak more Swedish to them again. But the second I leave the room, they flip and speak English to each other anyway. What can I do? It is painful for me to see that my children understand my language less and less.


Books make everyday life feel like christmas


My mum used to be very active. She sent us books. We were members in a book club but they wouldn’t post directly to the UK and so she took it upon herself to forward the parcels to us. Most of the time she would add sweets or some nice clothing. Simple treats. Her parcels were a delight and made me feel like it was Christmas every month. I miss not having those books come on regular basis anymore.

I miss not having her around anymore too. She passed away from Alzheimer’s. In hindsight I wish they would have spoken about it more. No one told me about it when my granny died from it too. I should have listened better, but at the time I was so young I didn’t really realise what was going on. In hindsight I wish they would have spoken about it more.

I did loads and loads and loads and loads of research. Nothing helped. One of my aunts passed away from Alzheimer’s as well and one of my uncles was recently diagnosed with it. It is hereditary, so chances are I might develop it too.

We still have the books she send us in a bookcase. They seem to be more and more rare. I suppose that’s up to me to pick them out now.


Adopting your own son


Yes, we had to adopt our own son. Well sort of. It was a paper battle and only started because we weren’t married when we had him but were married when we had his sister. It’s ridiculous.

All my children were born in the UK to the same parents. It just happens that my husband and I got married in Sweden in 2009. Our first son was born in 2007 whereas his sister was born in 2010.

When we went to register her birth the clerk in charge pointed to the difference between the siblings: one was born before and the other after our marriage. This literally cast him as a bastard and according to British law this means that if something were to happen to both his parents he would not have any claim to anything we might own. The full inheritance would go straight to his sister - or in other words the child born within the marriage.

The clerk insisted that we need make him legit as soon as possible for his own sake. And that’s when the paper war started.

It was crazy! We had to get our marriage certificate translated, send it in to get it approved, request a confirmation of approval, which we had to use to register our marriage with the local authorities. Next we had to request a copy of this entry, which we could forward with our son’s birth certificate, to request a new birth certificate, which stated his parents as “married”. This new birth certificate had to be sent back to the original office to make him our lawful heir too.

Needless to say the whole procedure took a couple of months and loads of money to finish. I found it really silly but as of now all my three children are equal before the law again.


Going full circle



Do you find it difficult that  your children don’t have the same connection to Sweden that you have?

Yes, of course, it is my heritage after all. But I get their perspective too: They are born here, they have all their friends here, their family and life is here.

My husband is from London. He was born and bred in this area, he’s a proper original. Funnily enough, our youngest son’s nursery teacher used to be my husband’s teacher too. He was in the very first class she taught at school. Rumour has it that when she saw our surname she exclaimed “and here we go again.”


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Places mentioned during the interview (no affiliation)

1/ Go Boken - monthly children's book club. “Go” means cozy in Swedish.

2/ Swedish Church at Baker Street

Madalena Xanthopoulou

visual storyteller / founder of @the_alma_collective / structuralist / home in many worlds / #raisingmultilingualchildren