It’s been noted many times that Iceland is a country that treats children well. Many new arrivals have remarked on this point, often citing the amount of social services devoted to kids, as well as the existence of babies in carriages left outside cafés while their moms sip lattés, content in the knowledge that no one is going to snatch their child here. Iceland really is a children’s paradise.
But how well can you utilise the services available when you don’t speak the language, the websites have little or no information in English, and there aren’t any locals who can really help you out? You do what most immigrants do around the world—you turn to other immigrants.
A SUPPORT GROUP OF SORTS
This is exactly what Sinéad McCarron had in mind when she created a group called Iceland’s International Parents Group. “I think there’s a need for it”, she told me. “It really helps out in dealing with the language barrier. A lot of people seem to think that since everyone speaks English here, it should be no problem figuring out what you need to do as a foreigner with a child in Iceland. But there’s a real lack of resources in terms of information available in English. Of course, it’s easier if you have an Icelandic partner, but not everyone has one. So this is a support group of sorts”.
Although she emphasises that Icelandic parents are welcome—especially in being able to explain to the foreign parents what their resources are—when I stopped by to pay a visit to the group there were no Icelanders present. Although to be fair, at the time of writing the group is only two weeks old. In that short span of time, the group has already attracted over 140 members and counting. For now, the group uses a Facebook page (search for ‘Iceland International Parents Group’) but Sinéad says she hopes to get a website up soon.
As with any group of immigrants, you can find the dual desire to band together and support each other, while at the same time wanting to reach out and connect with the locals. For example, while these parents will share what they’ve learned with each other, they’ve also talked to the local library about having a children’s day, where they could explain what books and songs their children are being taught.
The moms—there were no dads around on this day, either—hail from England, Poland, Ireland, Germany and the US. Some of them are new arrivals, some have been here for years; some of them have Icelandic partners, others don’t. But all of them had plenty to say about their experience so far in Iceland.
Holly, originally from England:
“I’ve been in Iceland for four years now. It was originally only supposed to be for six months, but then I met my current boyfriend. There’s a lot of stuff I miss, things I don’t hear about from the papers. But someone will post something on the group’s Facebook wall, and that way I don’t miss out. I have loads of Icelandic friends—my boyfriend is Icelandic—but the most important thing for me has just been knowing there are other people in the same position. I think Icelanders are very tight-knit. Of course it makes a difference having an Icelandic partner, but it’s hard to socialise with Icelanders. Until you get a drink in them, that is”.
“I think speaking Icelandic has been the biggest challenge for me. It’s not easy to do when you have a child. I honestly can’t pronounce half the words. Not even my boyfriend can understand what I’m saying sometimes. The biggest advantage, though, would have to be how child-friendly this country is”.
Anja, originally from Poland:
“Everyone here speaks English, and yet I have a hard time finding any information for parents in English. I have two kids here. At first I was stuck at home, which made me depressed. Now I can speak Icelandic—that’s the main thing that made a big difference in my life. I think maybe interpreters make people lazy about learning the language. They hang out with other Polish people, where they only speak Polish together, everything they read is in Polish. The funny thing about language is, even though I speak Polish to my child, he answers me in Icelandic. He understands the Polish, you know, but prefers to speak the language here. Yeah, I’d agree that the main advantage here is how child-friendly it is. You try finding changing tables in a shop in London. Here, I find changing tables in cafés, little toy corners in banks. It’s nice”.
Angela, originally from Germany:
“I think Icelanders don’t get in touch with you if they don’t have to. They’re open to a certain point, but you’ll find that the open ones are the ones who spent some time living overseas. I’ve been here 14 years, and I have almost no Icelandic friends. I’m the one who has to call them if I want to get together and socialise. I think this is maybe because they’re shy. Sometimes they’re rude, but I think for the most part, when they meet a foreigner, they’re unsure about what to do in this situation. I’m the one who has to start things”.
“The biggest challenge for me is the fact that I don’t have my family here. My mom came for two weeks once, but all my family live abroad. Another thing is, the Icelandic system sort of punishes you financially if you want to stay home with your child for more than a year. Your benefits get reduced. It’s good for a child to have a mother stay home longer. I was a little disappointed about that. On the plus side, it is a very child-friendly country. I just wish my child had more opportunities to play with other children”.
Karen, originally from the US:
“I’ve been here 19 months. My husband is British, and works for CCP. I agree Icelanders can be very anti-social. When I go to my child’s school, the Icelanders won’t even look me in the face. I have to sort of force myself upon them, and I do greet them in Icelandic. I went out once with a group of Icelanders. They knew I spoke English, but no one said anything to me. It’s like they wanted nothing to do with me. Having said that, the parents that I’ve gotten to know through activities outside of school, like soccer or gymnastics, they’re more open. So are the ones who’ve lived abroad.
“The most challenging thing for me is that there’s really no stay-at-home-mom culture. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but I had no choice but to put my child in day care. The isolation and the ignorance are also a problem. You can’t get information in English easily, and I don’t just mean the legal stuff; I mean things like activities that are going on. That’s one of the things that’s so good about this group, hearing about things like this. As far as language goes, I find that while Icelanders speak English to me, they will speak Icelandic to my child. On the plus side, it is really safe here. You don’t have to worry about someone snatching your child or something”.
Jessie, originally from the US:
“I moved to Iceland last January. What I really like about it here is that Icelanders regard their children as assets to the country. Strangers have actually congratulated me on the street for having a child. It’s a nice feeling in contrast with back home, where people might look at a child as another mouth to feed. Here, they really value children. I’m from New York, and that’s a very transient place. People are always coming and going, so it’s more social, people open up more. Here, I think people have their set groups that they socialise with. You have to sort of force yourself into those groups if you want to socialise with Icelanders”.
Krystal, originally from the US:
“I’ve been here nine years, and I feel almost embarrassed speaking English to my son”.
Melvina, originally from Poland:
“I think the experience a foreigner will have in Iceland depends on what you’re used to. Coming from Poland, I think the social services for children here are great, but a friend of mine from Switzerland thought they were a joke. The most difficult part is learning the language, definitely. But I’m also shy, so maybe the problem is mostly me. My husband is Icelandic, and I think it’s probably easier for us who have Icelandic partners, but I can understand every side of the situation. I think the connection we all have here, with each other, is that we’re here because we want to be. If you decide what you want to do, you can do it”.
Sinéad, originally from Ireland:
“I came to Iceland three years ago. My husband is Icelandic, and his family helped out a lot. It’s sometimes a different story with the CCP wives, who come here with their non-Icelandic spouses. They get almost no help finding resources, and the language barrier is a huge problem. When I’ve brought this up before, some Icelanders have said to me, ‘Well, learn Icelandic then’. Icelanders do speak English to my child, though. One great thing about this country is that there are a lot of breast-feeding rooms, but even when there aren’t, people don’t make a big fuss if you decide to feed your child in public. But at the same time, our kids have international friends. That’s why we see Icelandic parents are welcome to join our group. I feel positive, overall. I’m not just living my life for me anymore. I’ve got a smile on my face”.