The changing room after a swimming lesson for infants, a friend of mother-to-be Heidi Laine reckons, is the scene that best represents Finland’s welfare system. As months-old babies wade one final lap their mothers bring them to shower and dry at the changing room, where the babies are dressed: the same tights, the same shirts and leggings, the same pair of mittens and socks, as well as the same suit. Every infant looks identical with common outfits.
Even around town, especially during winter, new-borns don the same kind of clothes.
These common items come from Finland’s maternity package, given to its expectant and adoptive couples. The one-of-its-kind box is a standard gift granted by Kela, the government agency responsible for social security programmes, via the Finnish Maternity Grants Act. 154 days after the pregnancy an application can be made, and a card from the local post office would then be sent to the family for the package to be picked up.
With the issued mattress and additional linen the box often becomes the baby’s first crib for the next few months. Heidi’s common-law husband Mika Tuuri cannot remember sleeping in one, though his box is stowed safely away in the family’s summer house in Hanko. Heidi herself recalls three separate boxes in her childhood home, each for her three younger siblings.
The package is not only meant for citizens, but for parents-to-be who reside in Finland.
Simon Sim is a Singaporean based in Espoo. He was fascinated when he first received the maternity package, and the children’s book – in Finnish and Swedish – was his favourite item. “It emphasises the importance of cultivating reading from a young age, and a good reminder for adults as well to read”, he says. Although his son never did sleep in the box, the clothes are now nicely folded up and stored, and the box is kept with its bedding intact.
Items in the package are chosen precisely. Over the years Kela has gathered feedback from interviews and the contents are consequently changed every year. For instance, its research has shown that the bodysuit, coveralls, and sleeping bag have historically been the most popular products. There are different outfits to prepare the parents and their infants for the often-harsh seasons, but the box itself is standard issue and the products are gender-neutral.
One might assume that standard issue implies that all the products are white, bland, and boring. Yet besides the functional undergarments, the other outfits and accoutrements are extremely fashionable, comfortable, and adorned with adorable cartoon animals.
Broad socio-political justifications for the maternity package include lowering infant mortality rates and increasing fertility rates. Heidi is expected to conceive in March later this year, and she sees the box more as a carrot to see the doctor – to receive active prenatal care and examinations – and not necessarily to encourage more Finnish couples to have children. Under the neuvola system the expectant mother has to attend routine check-ups at the community health centre. With a maternity card both husband and wife are involved in the pregnancy journey, as they attend appointments and the ultrasound checks.
It is also about education. Most – if not all – parents can afford the items, but only 5 per cent of first-time parents choose to take the alternative 140 euros (S$240). 35 per cent choose this alternative if it is not the first expectancy. Simon thought it was a great learning experience. “It was a reminder to start preparing: psychological preparation, as you open the package and see all these little clothes in there, visualising your child in them”. Like Simon, Heidi and Mika thought the arrival of the box made the transition to parenthood seem more real, as they became more cognisant of what a baby needed.
The neuvola appointments become more regular as the mother-to-be nears the expected delivery date, and they continue even after the mother has given birth. Nurses will visit the family and the child at their homes, and follow up with the doctors if needed. Throughout the pregnancy process the prospective parents are given guides, offered information about eating habits and personal healthy history, as well as access to counselling services.
“Everything about motherhood is new to me, and I am very grateful that the package is well thought out”. For Heidi the maternity package is above all a testament to “the strength of the welfare state”, evidence that the state cares for its people, its mothers.
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