Carlie: Welcome to another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. I’m your host Carlie, and on today’s show, we’re shining the spotlight on expat family life in Finland.
Paola is my guest, an Italian mum of two through birth and international adoption, who has lived in Finland for nine years. She blogs about multicultural family life at TheElephantMum.com and she’s going to share her insights on raising a family in Finland. We’ll talk through some of the country’s very family-friendly policies, Paola’s experience in fostering multilingualism in her kids, the international adoption process in Finland, community integration, and how she and her husband go about blending three cultures into their everyday.
Paola, you’ve answered a Q&A for expatfocus.com, but for the benefit of listeners who haven’t read the article on our website, can you tell me what brought you and your husband to Finland from Italy?
Paola: As you mentioned, both my husband and I, we are from Italy. We moved to Finland around eight years ago. I’ve been here one year longer, so nine. And let’s see … well, it happened a bit by chance, meaning that I came for studying, my last year of my masters in mathematics here in Finland. I didn’t know anything about Finland, anything at all. [laughs] It would surprise you how little I knew about Finland.
Carlie: So, why did you choose it for your masters?
Paola: Well, it was more based on what I wanted to study. I had some topics I wanted to go a bit deeper on, and my thesis adviser [back in Italy] suggested a couple of places. One was Finland. And I don’t know, it was a bit of a leap of faith, a step in the dark, but I was curious about the country I know nothing about. I think nowadays there more a bit of a popular culture about Finland. There’s been a lot of articles about the schooling system and, even in Italy, TV programs doing specials about Finland. So, I think now it would be different. But 10 years ago, Finland was barely named in Italy.
So, yeah, I just said, “Okay, let’s try.” [laughs] And my husband actually knew a bit more, because he had visited as a tourist some time earlier, some years earlier. And when I came here, I was so impressed about how many things were. I found … let’s say all the things I was unhappy about in Italy were the exact opposite here. And it came naturally to talk … we had plans of starting a family at some point, and Finland is a much more favorable place than Italy to do that. So, we talked, and really quickly actually we decided to move here.
Carlie: That was my next question actually, that when it did come time for you to have children, did you consider moving back to Italy? Or what was it about Finland that made you decide this was the place to stay and have your children?
Paola: Actually, quite the opposite. I knew I wanted children, but I was also quite confident I didn’t want to have them in Italy. So, if I didn’t have the opportunity to move away from Italy, I don’t know if I would have a family, with children, by now. It was very clear for me and my husband that we wanted a family if some opportunities were present. Back in Italy, there’s a lot of relying on your family to take care of the kids. It’s not so favorable for women who are working. A lot of missing rights, missing policies. While in Finland, it’s the exact opposite. It’s actually … how can I say? Like perceived to be normal to have kids.
So, even on the workplace, it goes without saying that if you have to pick up your kids from daycare, yes, you have to leave a bit earlier. And there’s flexible working times … the workers’ rights are really protected under them. Say, if they have a family, there are longer parental leaves … many, many things. Actually, overall, a sort of lifestyle that we were actively looking for, being able to spend time with our children regularly and really take care of them and also be independent as a nuclear family, not having to rely on our parents or relatives to take care of our kids.
Carlie: I’ve seen a few of those viral videos in recent years, talking about how amazing Scandinavia is for parents and for bringing up children, and the latte papas, and that culture of dads staying at home and it not being a weird thing. What are some of these welfare policies in Finland that really benefit families and promote equality?
Paola: It’s actually a really long list. Let’s see. Well, first of all, you probably have heard about the Finnish [baby box]?
Carlie: No, but it sounds fascinating!
Paola: Yes, every family, regardless of income, and actually also adoptive families – because we’re also that. So, I can say it’s not just the families by birth. They receive a huge box of baby goodies and clothes and accessories, from the government. So, sort of a “thank you for having a child” from the government. It starts like that. And then you have … monthly, you get some child benefit, few hundred Euros, just because you have a child. According to how many children you have, the benefit is larger. Then, there’s long parental leaves – so you have nine months maternity leave, which is paid almost to the full extent of your salary, and the father has … I think it’s about three weeks. It’s a bit long in the past for me but it’s …
Carlie: You probably don’t remember all the details.
Paola: Exactly. So, don’t focus on the details. But like few weeks, about three weeks, where the father can be at home together with the mother. Usually it’s done at birth, but it’s an option, where you can have it. And then, the father has around two or three months of exclusive paternity leave they can take, to sort of replace the mom when she wants to go back to work. And then, there’s up to three years, including these periods I already mentioned, where either the father or the mother can take parental leave. Now, it’s paid quite little, only … it cannot replace a salary. But it’s sort of widely accepted in the workplace, meaning that you can take up to three years at home, and you can go back to your old employer. And pretty much everyone is fine with it. Unions are really strong here, so an employer has not even, say, space to disagree with that. It’s sort of like a given right, and no one discusses that.
Then there’s the daycares, actually. Even though there are these policies in place that give the option of being at home with the children, pretty much how long as you wish, anyway the government has also some smart policies to encourage people to go back to work. So, you really are free to choose. If both parents are working, you have a right to a place in a public daycare pretty much within a couple of weeks. So, [have a granted] place at a daycare. The daycares are really cheap, virtually free if your income is low. It goes by income, how much you pay. There’s at least one daycare in every neighborhood, so it’s at walking distance. And the quality of the care my children get in public daycares is just incredible. We are talking … I think the limit is seven … again, please don’t mind, I may get this wrong, but around seven children per teacher. But even actually maybe less, if the children are smaller or there are some special needs in the class.
Carlie: That’s a really great ratio.
Paola: Yes, it’s really great, especially again if I compare to Italy … now, I don’t know what is the ratio by law, but easily a teacher can be left alone with 20 kids. So, you understand that a single child would never get a good level of attention if there are so many children in the class. And I could actually go on, as an expat mom, of the level of care my children get as bilingual children. The town we live in has a standard program for bilingual kids, so they get also one-to-one specific exercises to make sure their level of Finnish is at the same level as their peers.
Carlie: I was going to ask, as an expat parent in Finland, how difficult has it been for you to access the resources available to you? Or have you found it quite easy to navigate?
Paola: I would say it depends on the resources. I have to say that Finland in particular … well, Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. And even though they are both official languages, the truth is around 10% of the population has Swedish as the native language, and Finnish is widely the most commonly spoken language, especially in the capital area.
So, we know a bit of Finnish, but there’s always a bit of the language barrier, banding between us and getting services, resources, and having a grasp of what’s happening [chuckles] in general. It’s a very hard language to learn, so it’s sort of accepted that we may not ever be fluent in that, we parents – the children are fine. So, it depends.
I would say for the basic services, daycare … a lot of documents and forms have been translated in English, the websites of the towns within the capital area are translated in English pretty well. There’s also an active expat community, so for the basic things, I will say it’s been fairly easy to gather information.
Carlie: And you mentioned that your children are obviously multilingual and that there has been really good support for them in class. What sort of extra attention do they get to make sure that their Finnish is developing? Because obviously, at home, I assume you’re speaking Italian with them.
Paola: Yes, the home language is Italian, that’s correct. Of course, we parents also take care that they have a social life within the Finnish community, say, so going to children’s events or small hobbies like music class, these sorts of things, we also try to cultivate it within the family. But the daycare has been the focal point in their Finnish language learning. I am very impressed that the teachers have these kind of specific training about the multilingualism. As I mentioned, they have a standard program. My kids have, for instance, a sort of personal report about how they are doing in language learning. I know they have one-to-one with the teachers regularly, where, for instance, they do some small games, exercises, to enrich their vocabulary. The teachers also have a special [eye] to see if the child makes more mistakes than they expect, and we discuss it regularly in teacher-parent conferences … well, meetings, I would say.
But yes, there is a special [eye] … and I heard it’s actually quite an old thing in Finland, like already, 10-15 years ago there were special programs even in schools to facilitate students with a foreign background to get up to speed with the Finnish language.
Carlie: Paola, a lot of expat parents need to make the choice between sending their children to local or government schools, compared to maybe entering into an international school program. What have you chosen for your children?
Paola: That’s a very good question, and I know it’s a bit of a dilemma that many expat parents here face, especially at the beginning. I think it’s a very personal choice, based on the family’s needs and future plans. For us, personally, what happened was that we were pretty clear on what our goals and needs were. As I mentioned, for us, it was the lifestyle in Finland as a family that attracted, motivated our moving here. When we came to Finland, we knew our goal was to stay long-term. And for such reason, it made sense that our kids were fully integrated in society. It was a bit harder on us parents, because as I mentioned, the kids have an active social life in the Finnish circles, which means, for instance, friends visit, and we have to be a bit up to the challenge, [laughs] to understand what they’re telling us.
So, we had to learn Finnish for the same reason, and I will see how it goes when our oldest goes to actual school, transitions from daycare to school. We’ll see how good we are.
Carlie: You’re going to need to keep up with all the teenage slang then too.
Paola: Yeah, that’s … we already know we are terrible. [laughs] But let’s see …
For us it was quite an immediate choice. I think if a family, for instance, knows that they are likely to move away from Finland, then it may make more sense to apply to an English-speaking school, or other language.
I also heard of … we have some friends that made different choices for different kids. Again, they knew, for instance, they were staying ten years. So, it made sense that their oldest child studied in Finnish school. But along the way, they had other children, and they were pretty sure they would move in few years, so the youngest children applied to English-speaking schools.
So, I think it’s a choice that the family has to … you have to try to assess as best as possible what your plans and goals are, reflect on what kind of social life you and your child will have. Because just speaking English of course poses some limitations on the kind of activities you can access to, and when the child is older also, what kind of social circles they can access too.
Carlie: What kind of social circles do you socialize in as a family? Do you make an effort to socialize with the Finnish community, or do you have a big international community around you as well?
Paola: I would say we have a mix of both. Again, I think it’s a personal choice. For us, we were planning to stay a long time and we wanted our children to be integrated. And along these lines also, some friendships just happening. [laughs] It’s not as much as, say, a background check that you do on everyone.
So, we have some Finnish friends that we got to meet, for instance, because they were our neighbors or they were parents of children our children were friends with or we got to meet in other communities, like say the adoptive families community, and so on. And then, we have of course Italian friends. We are members of a local Italian association, so we go to parties of the association, so we get to meet other Italian expat parents. And then, there’s the expat community at large – of course you get to meet people also there. You maybe go to some family events in English and you get to meet people from all backgrounds. We also have a connection to the Indian community through our adoption, so we get to meet also a lot of Indian friends. It’s really like a colorful community we are surrounded by.
Carlie: It sounds really beautiful, and there’s so much depth to your community in Finland. It’s really lovely.
Paola: Yeah, I think it’s quite peculiar, the social circle we built around us. Yeah, I’m very happy about it. I’m happy about all the friends we have. We have a very hectic social life.
Carlie: You mentioned that one of your children is adopted from India. Did you go through that process in Finland and was it a difficult one?
Paola: Yes, we went through the process here in Finland. We started it around five years ago, and the child has been with us for two years. Actually, three years is a really short process. I think, for many families, it lasts around five years or even more. It’s a very peculiar process, I think quite typical of Nordic countries. Because of our expat background, we were pretty much forced to go through international adoption.
Let’s see … there’s a quite severe screening, to start with, done by the Finnish authorities. You have to get some stamp of approval, and the screening lasts one year, one year and a half. It includes regular but diluted meetings with a social worker, which in the end drafts a home study. When you get the approval, there’s a very limited number of agencies that handle adoption. It used to be three, and now it’s two. So, it’s only two adoption agencies serving the whole country, for international adoption. And they pretty much have the countries they work with split between them.
And then, it’s very much dependent on the country you choose, the process there, the availability of potential matches in the children’s homes the Finnish agencies collaborate with, and so on.
Carlie: You said three to five years, and I think that is relatively fast, from what I’ve read before, especially where I’m from in Australia. I know couples that that were talking about five to ten-year waits, to find out if they can adopt a child, and then there’s age limits and that sort of thing that come into play. It sounds like it’s a pretty efficient process in Finland.
Paola: Maybe so. I think it’s very much dependent on where you live and what the local regulations are. I know Italy, for instance, is another place where the wait can be really, really long. And I said three to five years – actually, it’s more. Let’s say five is more the average around here. So, our three is a bad example of an average [laughs], locally.
It’s very different, for instance, from the US model, as much as I know, where there is more competition between agencies, and consequently, it’s more motivation to speed up the process, more pressure.
But this is not a critique, actually, of the Finnish system, because … of course, it’s very frustrating for a waiting parent, but … like every model, there are services which can be improved, but in the end, I really appreciate how it’s attentive to the child’s well-being. So, the waiting parents actually always come second, and I approve of any severe screening when it comes to adoption.
Carlie: You mention that you have friendships in the Indian community as well. Does that mean you’re essentially blending three cultures into your family to make sure that your adoptive child also has a connection to their home country?
Paola: Yes, exactly, you got it right. When I describe my family, I say we are an Italian-Finnish-Indian family. The three cultures we work hard, so that the three cultures are all present in our family. And I think this comes from our own background – we were expats when we adopted, so we already had, at heart, how important is culture in the child’s identity. It was already running strong within our family, given our roots.
So, when we were planning to adopt from another country, we had a clear motivation in our heart to sort of include the new culture in our family. Even so, when [chuckles] you break it down into practice, it’s quite hard, it means also a lot of studying, for us, [laughs] as parents. We didn’t know much about India and about the culture. And of course, it required a bit of an effort for us to reach out to the Indian community. They were super nice and kind and welcoming, like amazing. I would have never believed it if you told me. But we found a lot of help from them. It means I’m constantly trying to understand how some festivals work, and is this festivity fine for our family, should we include it in our [laughs] yearly festivities and so on.
Carlie: You must have a very busy calendar.
Paola: Yes, it’s quite busy, because now it includes three [laughs] cultures! And India is particularly … the Indian calendar is particularly dense. So, almost weekly … I sort of turned on the option in the Google calendar, to have the Indian festivities. And almost every week there’s something, which means almost every week, I have to open Wikipedia and sort of understand, okay, what’s this about? Okay, no, this is religious, so it’s not for us. Or this is just celebrated in this particular region of India, which is not my son’s, so maybe we can let it go. [laughs]
But it’s a lot of … Italian festivities, I guess there are like three in the whole year. [laughs] So, India makes me work a lot, in that regard.
But yeah, for us, it was very clear that … we sort of wanted to include our son’s [cultural rules], even though they don’t really matter for him now. Because he’s a small child, he has forgotten, unfortunately, everything from his past. But I think it is our responsibility as adoptive parents to keep them alive and maybe – it’s a maybe, it’s a sort of investment and a leap of faith – but maybe this work will matter when he is older, if he wants to know more about his birth country and about his own story.
Carlie: Absolutely. It’s always those teenage years when people are really wanting to connect and discover their identities, and those questions seem to come up. In movies, anyway. [laughs]
Paola: Yeah. I heard it can be typical. It’s very personal. We don’t know. But just to be on the safe side. Not to mention that of course it’s enriching, also, our family life. Even our daughter got super into Indian things, so Indian dance, and … she actually is the most curious at the moment. I really believe that cultural diversity is a huge treasure, a huge richness. So, it’s an incredibly gain that the whole family has gotten.
Carlie: And what Finnish traditions have you incorporated into your family life?
Paola: Yeah, that’s actually interesting. Finland is a relatively young culture. It’s a country which is only 100 years old, about. 102 this year – I hope I remember right, otherwise I will be probably deported. [laughs] But well, they are a relatively young country, and they are really proud of their culture. It’s also a Scandinavian country, so let’s say even though Christianity has tried to influence the local culture, they resisted as much as possible by slipping their old pagan festivity as much, wherever possible.
Now we are close to Easter, and it’s very common on Palm Sunday, there’s a small children’s tradition … especially girls, but I think nowadays it’s open also to boys. But they dress up as witches. And they have this kind of willow branches, which they [24:49] door by door, and they recite a small rhyme and they expect sweets in return.
And this is sort of a tradition which is rooted in some old, ancient pagan religion. And it’s anyway close to Easter. And there’s several small examples of that.
Carlie: It’s interesting, it sounds almost a bit Halloween-y, trick-or-treating-like, doesn’t it?
Paola: Yes, exactly. The principle is very similar, just the costume is more specific. And [the stat] … there’s also like mid-summer is very felt around here. The first of May also, it’s called Vappu, it’s very much felt. Festivities here, the Finnish ones, they’re really strongly felt.
Sometimes I joke and I say that the Finns have sort of a collective brain, because during those days, everybody does the same thing.
But in truth, I really admire this sticking to their tradition and how they’re so motivated to make them persist and last.
Carlie: You said, Paola, in your Expat Focus Q&A, that cultural integration remains a hard and standing challenge. How is it difficult to integrate in Finland or what aspects of society make it difficult to really feel like you belong?
Paola: Very good question. Yes, it does remain a challenge. It’s hard to summarize it in just a few words. I know there are endless podcast episodes and blog posts and people wondering what’s going on. About the [motivations], I can only speculate. The language is definitely one of the biggest challenges that we face as expats. Even though Finland is quite a modern country, also quite advanced technologically … like they also are quite proud to be a bit of a technological/startup hub, and that’s true. There are still too many workplaces which require Finnish language. It’s an ongoing discussion in the society here, and also saying … Finnish people saying “It’s in our own interest that skilled and talented immigrants move in, so we should try to be more welcoming for them.”
But in truth, there’s a lot of … also a bit discriminatory episodes and phenomenon. Discrimination in hiring, this kind of strict and sometimes useless requirement of Finnish language. I mean, it’s sometimes impositions which have absolutely no reason to, and …
Carlie: You mean where the business language might be English anyway, or …
Paola: Yes, exactly. Sometimes, for instance, it’s common that some positions are advertised in Finnish, when in truth the workplace is maybe half English-, half Finnish-speaking. There is a flexibility in the workplace, but even there, the job posting may be only in Finnish. I don’t know exactly what the reason is.
If I have to speculate myself, I think it comes back to Finland being a young country and a relatively small country, in the sense that it’s about five million inhabitants here. I wonder if there’s some sort of unconscious fear of melt away into a globalized and multicultural world.
Carlie: And losing a local identity.
Paola: I think so. I think so, especially the language, they are so … I think they’re pretty terrified, because it’s a very unfriendly language to learn, so … and they also fought hard, historically, to affirm it, because when they were under Russian and Swedish dominance, the Finnish language was … I don’t know if … ‘discouraged’ is even a too-mild term. So, they’re really proud of having conquered the language and their cultural identity. I don’t know if the reason lies in there.
In general, I can feel many Finnish people are, I would say, even a bit scared of diversity. There’s something deep inside many things that makes them distrust anything that’s different. And it even fires back, because there are more and more stories coming out of Finnish people who have moved abroad, for studying, or lived abroad for a while, and they come back and they face the same challenges in recruiting and integrating that the expats face. So, like they have lost, somehow, the Finnishness, by living too long abroad.
It’s something that, to be honest, I’m very confident and trusting that it will be overcome in time. I can say that the Finland I am now, it’s very different from the Finland of nine years ago when I moved here. It improved, in that sense. It’s opening more and more, but it’s doing it at its own pace. [laughs]
Carlie: Which may not be as cosmopolitan as another city in the world.
Paola: It definitely isn’t. It’s also like … the percentage of people with a foreign background in Finland is very, very low compared to other countries in Europe. Way lower than Sweden, way lower than UK or, for instance, London. Well, London is a bit of an extreme example, as we know. People with foreign background, which … it’s a wider classification than immigrants. It means also second-generation, international adopted children, and so on. The number of people with this kind of foreign backgrounds, multicultural roots is very low here.
Carlie: Paola, if you had to rewind to nine years ago, what would you be telling yourself or doing differently when you moved to Finland?
Paola: Hmm. Interesting question. [laughs]
No, I don’t … I don’t have regrets. I think I did some right moves, and my husband too. Maybe I would repeat to myself what the goals of the move were in … like, I know it’s common, I know I’m not the only one, but I had some periods in which I was quite discouraged, especially by the hardship of integrating or having … in some moments, when you struggle with something, you find it heavier that your family is away or that you don’t have childhood friends.
I remember when I had my daughter, my first child, I felt so lonely. It was really tough. And it’s very easy to slip into the … I don’t want to use the wrong terms. But when you start feeling that kind of disappointment, it’s really easy to slip into a bit of a mental, social isolation, a bit of feeling that it’s you against, say, Finnish people, you against others, to take it personal. To, in some cases, even doubt if you’re even worth of being hired or following your career.
When you face this kind of struggles, it’s very easy to become negative and pessimistic, and I think I had many of these struggles, of these negative periods, until … actually, not long ago, I resolved in my mind, I reminded myself why I’m here. I think almost every expat in Finland, maybe even elsewhere, they come to a place, at some point, in which they question, “Should I stay or should I go?”
For me, it was really, really useful and it sort of unblocked me when I reminded myself why we came here, why we are here. And I told myself the same things I told you here today, that it was to access a certain lifestyle for my family, for me as a parent. It was for my children to have some kind of opportunities.
And yes, it’s tough to be an immigrant, it is. You don’t have the family support, you regularly feel out of place, there is no place which is to be called home anymore, because nothing feels fully like it. It is tough. It’s a baggage we all have as expats. But would my life be better if I would be in another place? In truth, I don’t think so.
It wouldn’t be better if I would be in Italy. Yes, maybe I would be more at ease on certain things. My family would be closer. I would feel I belong. From the language perspective, I could understand what people tell me. I don’t know if it would be easier to find a job, because there would be other restrictions. And if I would move in another country, I’m sure I would face different struggles.
So, I think if I could go back in time, in some periods of my life as an expat, I would remind myself why I did it and why I’m doing it. And it may be that this will change in some years. It may be that in 15 years, or 20 years, when my kids are old and independent and I’m left there, maybe I will feel differently. Maybe I will move somewhere else. Maybe I will move back to Italy or even in another country. I expect this motivation to change in time. But right now, I am convinced this is the best choice I could make.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have any questions for Paola or want to share your own experiences of expat life in Finland, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our Finland forum or Facebook group. Be sure to check out our other podcast episodes however you like to listen. We cover all aspects of expat life, all over the world. If you like what we do, please leave us a review. And I’ll catch you next time.