A plane taking off

The Turndal/Somp family — Annika Turndal, Carl Henrik Somp, and their three children — had been working on their move from Sweden to the US for several years. Carl Henrik’s company was growing, and he was being sent over to assist with the expansion to the US. Securing the right visas had been a long process and the family had had several false starts. But now it was finally going to happen. All the paperwork was in order and the date for the move was set — March 14, 2020. They had rented out their house and pulled their kids out of school, daycare, and various activities. Annika had taken a 2-year leave of absence from her job as a prosecutor. 

On March 12 they got a text message about the borders to the US closing down. Carl Henrik’s company told him they had to leave immediately, or they wouldn’t make it.

That night they stayed up until 2 am to pack the last of their stuff and at 4 am they hopped in a taxi and headed for the airport. The short flight between Stockholm and Copenhagen went as it usually does — quickly. But at Copenhagen airport, it was obvious that things were not as they usually are. Annika went to buy food and the clerk shut the window right in front of her. The airport speakers were announcing coronavirus warnings and not the usual flight-related information. It all felt strange. Once airborne, the captain announced that they had shut down the airport — they were one of the last flights out. 

When I meet Annika at an outdoor cafe at the beginning of June, she has been in the US for almost three months. The family arrived at their rented house in Silicon Valley just as the Bay Area issued lockdown orders. Everything was closing down. Sheltering-in-place meant only leaving home for the most essential of needs for millions of people in the area. For the Turndal/Somp family, it also meant starting life abroad with pretty much everything closed down. It meant trying to get settled without the regular infrastructure of school, daycare, or work, and without access to regular social interactions or activities.

From the get-go, it was a struggle to get even the basics taken care of — from necessary paperwork for school, banking, getting a driver’s license, to securing household goods. Annika tells me nothing has really worked as it should, and whatever notions they had about life abroad have had to be quickly altered to fit the reality on the ground.

One of the big motivating factors for the move was to give their children the experience of living and going to school abroad in a multicultural place, learning English. So far, their American school experience is one of online learning. “Our two oldest kids are in the 1st and 4th grade, respectively, and they have only met their teacher and classmates via Zoom. Amazingly, they haven’t complained or said that they want to go home. Our oldest son has expressly said the opposite.”

But Annika wonders about how the kids will be affected. They haven’t had the opportunity to make friends or start activities. Online learning is less than ideal when you are new to the language and new to the system. Annika says: “I worry about how this will impact the children. Will they feel insecure and isolated? How are they going to learn the language?”

For Annika, this move represented a chance to start something new. She had a demanding career in Sweden and was looking forward to taking this time abroad to reassess what she wants to do. She had been thinking about starting a new career, and in anticipation of having some time to explore, had signed up for several classes online. 

Her day-to-day life since they arrived in California has revolved around helping her kids with schoolwork as best as she can and looking after the little one who is three. Without childcare and with everyone at home all the time, there is no time left for Annika to think about her needs or wants. “I don’t even know what our youngest is doing most of the time, she’s just roaming around the house. She needs to have someone her own age to play with. But with social distancing and many parks being closed, it’s been hard to meet people.” 

We talk a little bit about the difference in how Sweden (which never shut down its elementary schools) has handled the coronavirus outbreak compared to what she is experiencing in California. “At home, our kids could have gone to school, and continued with some activities, I feel their lives would have been less impacted. Maybe it would have been better for them?” she says.

The fact that there has been such a big difference in the response to the pandemic between Sweden and the Bay Area is something that complicates things for Annika who feels a little stuck in the middle. “Family at home has had zero understanding of what it’s been like here and they don’t really want to talk about it. At the same time, if you mention that you are Swedish here, you feel bad because of the way Sweden has responded to the pandemic (Sweden never issued lockdown orders and, as mentioned, kept elementary schools open) — you feel you have to answer for Sweden’s decision to keep the country open.”

And on that theme, Annika shares that a version of this dynamic has played out in her own neighborhood as well. “I feel like we are the black sheep on our street because we let our kids go out and bike around. One of my neighbors told me she hadn’t left the house since the lockdown orders took effect and her kids are not allowed to go outside — that’s the attitude among many here and it’s been really hard to get used to.” 

Carl Henrik works a lot, although he has yet to set foot in his Silicon Valley office. With everything online, the workday can go from early morning to late night as there is always an affiliate office somewhere in the world that has just started their workday. Annika says: “It seems like no one can say no to meetings now that they are all conducted online, and because he works against different time zones, someone is always on. In addition, with the business climate being uncertain, you don’t really feel like you are in a position to say no, or put up boundaries, for how much you should work.” 

Annika finds it frustrating that Carl Henrik’s colleagues expect him to be available all the time. She knows most of them have older kids who are more self-sustaining. Carl Henrik on the other hand sometimes needs to help with homeschooling, for example. Annika muses that there probably is a bit of a culture clash in general surrounding childcare duties, as Carl Henrik and Annika have always shared the work and have both taken time off to care for their children. His male colleagues in the US, it appears, have not.

I ask her about what they are thinking of in terms of the future. Their original plan was to stay two years, possibly longer. But now, she says they are thinking of moving back to Sweden, probably already this fall. “It’s so hard not being able to plan for anything. We don’t know what school here will be like in the fall — but likely it will mostly be online. We don’t know if the kids can join any activities. Maybe it would be better for them if we went back. We know they would be able to be in school, and activities such as soccer are still running.” 

At the same time, she reflects on the huge investment they made in moving here — uprooting the kids, putting her career on hold, renting out their house, not to mention all the paperwork and hoops they had to jump through to get everything in order. Add to that the hopes they had for the move — the kids learning English and experiencing a different kind of society, taking advantage of the climate and the great outdoors in California, and her chance of rethinking her career. Annika is not sure she is ready to give all that up just yet.

Annika tells me that most days she wakes up with a sense of dread and anxiety — worrying about if they made the right call and what the impact on the kids will be. But she says, somehow the trajectory of each day is still towards the positive. “I’ll have my morning coffee on the patio and then help the kids with school. For dinner, we’ll BBQ and around that time, when we’re all gathered and can relax away from school and work for a few minutes, I think, well, maybe this can work out after all.” 

By: Felicia Shermis

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