The Sunday Interview: On Parenthood, Countryside Dreams and Life as a Freelancer with Emma Sundh

Kicka här för hela inlägget på svenska: Söndagsintervjun: om föräldraskap, landsbygdsdrömmar och livet som frilans med Emma Sundh

We moved to Sweden in August 2017, and got to enjoy a pretty normal Swedish late summer before an unusually rainy fall took over. The coming spring, in 2018, didn’t see any rain at all, on the other hand. And it was warm. Summer-like way too early, many would say. And so it continued. The summer of 2018 was indeed nice from a swimming and sunbathing perspective, but it left many of us with a big lump in our stomachs. A big one, even. I remember that Mike, still a beginner Swede at the time, asked me sometime in May-June if forest fires ever were an issue in Sweden. “Nah”, I said. “I can only recall one, and that was the one in the Tyresta National Park many years ago”. The one that dad actually smelled even out here on Yxlan and made him go for a loop around the neighborhood in the middle of the night, to see if something was up.

But then they did indeed start raging, the forest fires, as there were no summer rains to be seen, and it all of a sudden felt so near and tangible. Climate change, that is.

Following this very un-Swedish “super summer” and right around the time of the release of IPCC:s special report in the fall of 2018, journalist, author and influencer Emma Sundh founded Klimatklubben (“The Climate Club”) together with sustainability colleagues Maria Soxbo and Johanna Nilsson. Klimatklubben has since the start grown into something of a phenomenon in Swedish media, with 20.000+ active members on Facebook and 35.000+ followers on Instagram, and works to change norms and behaviors, inspire climate change-related action and, well, secure a greener, better world, in the end.

Emma Sundh has an endless amount of energy and drive and takes great care of her massive influence. She’s an inspiration source in everything that she does, spreads warmth and joy in the darkest nooks and crannies and has – on top of it all – an amazing sense of humor as well as a Värmland dialect, making her completely impossible for us not to like. In other words – she was a given dream guest for this interview series, and – thankfully – not one bit hard to convince. This conversation won’t touch too much about Klimatklubben, but instead dreams, fears, parenthood and life as a freelancer. Among other things. When it comes to Emma Sundh, it’s best to just buckle up and enjoy the ride – so let’s!

Would you like to start out by telling us a little but about who Emma Sundh is?

Wow, well, I’m a bit of a whirlwind from the province of Värmland who works as a journalist, author, sustainability influencer and speaker. The latter Pre-Corona, of course. I love old things, building stuff, crafts, gardening and starting up different projects. I LOVE projects. I have a past in the magazine industry, but since I started freelancing in 2012, I’ve written three books (“Vintageparty” together with Linda Hansson and Louise Lemming, “Vintagefrisyrer” with Sarah Wing and “Gör skillnad – från klimatångest till handlingskraft” with Maria Soxbo and Johanna Nilsson), initiated a giant city flea market (Kransenloppis) and founded Klimatklubben which engages thousands of people in the climate cause together with Maria Soxbo and Johanna Nilsson. But now I lied. I’ve actually written seven books, but four of them were small. But important. They make up what we call “Klimatasken” (“The Little Box of Climate”), which will be released through the Novellix publishing company in April this year. Going the freelance route has been sort of like letting go of a balloon you just blew air into – you know, one that all of sudden flies all over the place without much structure, hahaha.

Yes, no one could ever complain about the amount of content coming from you, that’s for sure! If we were to rewind a little bit – what was your childhood like?

Free. I grew up in an old house with a big yard in the picturesque Värmland countryside, together with parents, sister and cats. And when I was very little, also chickens, ducks and a bunny rabbit. My second cousin – more like an extra sister to me – lived in the house next door and my aunt and two cousins were two houses away. As the youngest of the tribe, I got to hang out with all the older cousins and ride on the back of their mopeds down to the lake. I had lots of people around me. Such a safety net. My parents were and still are free spirits and my entire upbringing was very… free. When I was about knee-high I biked to the lake a few kilometers away and was away all day. I came back home for dinner. Not so much of that helicopter parenting, if I put it that way. I think it all made me very independent. My closest friend lived three kilometers away so I entertained myself a lot. Built stuff, sew, painted and sang. We didn’t really have any TV-channels to lose ourselves in front of, so one did what one could to stay occupied.

To me, that all sounds completely wonderful. And it certainly sounds like your creativity was given a lot of space already from a young age. What were the sustainability related habits you were equipped with early on?

To use whatever is on hand. A trip into town wasn’t exactly something you could swing just like that. We bought furniture at auctions and flea markets and clothes were proudly inherited from older, cooler cousins. We ate from the garden and there was talk of toxins early, to keep the soil healthy and nutritious. Let’s just say we peed a lot outside.

We do too. Cheapest and most eco-friendly fertilizer for sure. What had teenage Emma said if she had learned what her personal and work life would look like at the age of 37?

Oh, she would be so disappointed! Haha. She did all she could to escape the countryside and would certainly wonder why on earth all I want now is to return. But I also think she’d be a little bit proud. That I’m still the same nature romantic as I was back then. When I was 20-something and lived my life at the night clubs of Stockholm, it’s possible that I once said that “if I ever stop clubbing I might as well die”. That’s not exactly a quote I stand by today. But I’ve lived life and enjoyed myself for sure. That was fun. But now I want to go back to Värmland.

You have two daughters, Bodil and Majken. How would you like them to look back at their childhood?

The way I do. When I look back at my childhood, I see one resembling a beautiful a summer sunset, complete with a soundtrack made up of wood pigeon, chaffinch and owl. A recurring image I see is this scene of me walking home from my aunt, where my cousins and I had been playing hide and seek outside. It’s late. Way too late, really. But, you know, it’s just not a big deal. You can hear someone walking on the gravel road in the background. It was just such happy times. That feeling of safety. And that’s what I want to give my children. A life where they can pop by a neighbor, get a snack and perhaps help with something. Clean or bake. Chitchat. What I got the chance to do a lot of as a kid. There was just such a strong sense of community. I think I’ve always been chasing that community, actually. But in other places.

That’s exactly the kind of childhood we’d like to pass on ourselves. Sure, the teenage years might feel like death and they’ll think us parents are the lamest ever… but it typically doesn’t take too many years before you start to see reason. So now you’re ready to leave Stockholm and move back to Värmland?

YEEES! I’ve loved every bit about city life – the energy and pace and all of that. But now I want to move back. Preferably to the very same gravel road I grew up along myself, but it seems that’s too narrow of a search when you look for real estate online. I miss the untouched nature so much. To be able to go out into the woods just around the corner and forage mushrooms, breathe fresh air and go for a bike ride without feeling like you’re involuntarily part of Tour de France.

HAHAHA. That’s the best analogy I’ve heard to date! I recall someone talking about “the lycra mafia from Nacka” (Nacka is suburb outside of Stockholm) as they were describing their commute a couple of years ago. The bike commuting scene in Stockholm is indeed wild. If we’d zoom out a little bit: what choices and decisions do you feel like have had the greatest impact on your life?

Moving to Stockholm to study. And remaining there. The first six months were awful, to be honest. I felt so incredibly lonely. I moved from Karlstad where I had such a big, wonderful group of friends and where you could go downtown and basically have made a new friend an hour later. It was so simple and straightforward. Fast forward to Stockholm, where it was remarkably difficult to become part of a social context and feel like part of a community. So I got hold of a house to rent, imported a bunch of friends from Karlstad and started a commune, instead. That solved everything. But the plan was never Stockholm long term. The plan was Gothenburg. Boy, do I wonder what life would have looked like now, had that happened.

Yes, those “what if” thoughts are intriguing. What if one hadn’t found one’s partner, for example. You’re married to John. How did you two meet?

Well, I walked up to him at a club somewhere and told him we should be together, haha. But it wasn’t completely taken out of the blue. I lived in that commune in Stockholm with lots of friends, and he lived in a commune in Linköping with lots of friends. Our friends were seeing each other. One day, my friend came home from the Linköping commune and told me there was a guy there who was kind of like me but more like a monkey. I thought it sounded perfect and decided to go for it.

“my friend told me there was a guy there who was kind of like me but more like a monkey”

Haha, what a catch! Do you share the same fundamental view on life, you and John?

Definitely! Our values are almost identical, I’d say. Everything from climate change and dreams to equality in our family.

Despite your wish to move back to Värmland, what other dreams do you carry?

As part of the move back to Värmland, I dream of creating a large garden, building a greenhouse from old windows and becoming self-sustaining when it comes to electricity. And being able to help and take some load off of my parents. That’s my big dream. But I’m also open to starting new ones. I would love to work with local sustainability projects and turn into the Värmland version of Mandelmanns (Swedish TV-show, following a married couple living a self-sustainable farm life) in a few years. And write more books.

I can’t imagine that wouldn’t turn into an immediate TV success. Your refuge beyond the big city has otherwise been a dreamy cottage in Gotland, which you’ve now decided to sell. It’s been clear to all of us following you that that has been a very hard decision. Do you want to tell us more?

Yes, it’s been awful. Because the cottage and the garden are our lungs and our hearts’ craving. It’s the most magical place! But I hope we’ll be able to build our dream in Värmland instead. First, the plan was that we were going to move to Gotland and test live in the cottage for a year, but we couldn’t get the equation to work out as I want to be close to my family – and especially now, when I’m very much needed. Because now, my big grief is that a family member in Värmland is sick, that time is precious and that I’m stuck in Stockholm due to Corona.

I get so sad, thinking about what you all are dealing with. You have my – our – deepest and most sincere sympathies. My mom was diagnosed with cancer two months after we had moved back home to Sweden and I thanked my lucky star for that, as it allowed me and us to be close. With 20.000+ followers on Instagram and a very popular – and to some extent personal – blog, do you ever feel pressure to document your life and what you’re up to? And what happens when something sensitive happens or is going on?

Well, I’d say I’m a pretty open character to begin with. I don’t really have many… boundaries in that sense. Haha, that didn’t sound too good. But I think I’m sort of limitless in a way – and I also think it’s good for us to talk about EVERYTHING. Because that’s what I need myself in order to feel good. I don’t ever want there to be any taboos. The only I thing I don’t talk about right now is the sickness in my family, as that’s not my story to tell, so to speak.

The talk of pressure to document life makes me think of the balance between work and free time for an entrepreneur and freelancer. How do you deal with that?

Not at all, haha. I work a lot, and my life is my job, so it’s a tough line to try to draw. Freelancing sure brings a lot of freedom, but it also comes with many sacrifices. I don’t really have a substitute to call up, you know, which means I practically work every day, all year round. And I work maaaaany evenings. Evenings are actually my best time. And I do love my job, but I’d like to work a little less. The way it is now, I work like crazy in the fall, winter and spring, and then I go all in on being social in the summers. I’m a little bit of a seasonal worker, I guess, but would like to find more balance. And put my body to work in the garden more!

“I don’t really have a substitute to call up, you know, which means I practically work every day, all year round.”

“Work like crazy” definitely feels synonymous with you, who’s always up to something new. To everyone following you through social media, you come across as competent, driven, determined and funny, among other things. But what would those who know you the best say are your strengths and weaknesses? And do you agree?

Driven is a recurring thing I get to hear, hahaha. But I’d like to say that a lot of people think I’m a little… upside-down. I’ve written a manual for my own brain and sent a large, camel shaped cinnamon roll to Dagens Nyheter (one of the biggest newspapers in Sweden) when I was looking for an internship there. I should add that I got it but turned it down as I got a “real” job instead! Yeah, and the first time I met my husband, I walked up to him and said: “Just so you know, we’re meant for each other. I know you’re already taken, but I thought you should know”. What can I say? I like good stories, hahaha. 

That is indeed very clear – but also that you’re fairly fearless. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

When I quit my job after three days because it didn’t feel right, took the leap and went into freelancing instead. Just hoping my ideas and love for projects would take care of the rest. It’s been tough for sure, but it worked out in the end.

When things are difficult and tough, how do you handle them?

Well, I have this interesting mechanism where I suppress the hard stuff. And mostly end up remembering the good ones. I’m good at seeing the silver lining, I guess. An example would be when I had given birth to my first daughter and I was asked to rate my pregnancy. I gave it a strong seven. Then my partner put his foot down. Apparently, I had been sickly nauseous, struggled with pelvic pain since week 12, had early contractions and had trouble walking by myself the last few weeks. I also suffered a third degree tear and had to have surgery. But I was like: “it was great!”.

What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to parenthood?

The feeling of inadequacy. And the challenge of not turning everything into a performance-achievement type of deal. I’m a high achiever, I’ll happily admit that. Nothing I’m especially proud over, because it’s given me a headache both one and two times. I notice that I judge myself based on how I’m performing as a parent all the time, and I wish I could just be a little more. Just love and provide warmth. Not feel as if I could have done more, or done things in a different way.

My guess is that many parents – including parents-to-be – can relate to that. I’m scared to not only feel inadequate but actually be inadequate. To not possess or be able to develop the right set of behaviors. What makes you scared?

Oh, darkness (worst thing number one with wanting to move to the countryside), snakes (worst thing number two with wanting to move to the countryside) and the climate change threat. But I handle the latter by trying my best to do something about it all the time. Engaging myself.

We’ve already gotten a fair amount of your time now, but have two quick questions left. As the ice cream lovers as we are: what’s your favorite flavor?

Vanilla cookie and chocolate. I worked at an ice cream shop back in the day and gave everyone a free sample of vanilla cookie because, well, it’s the best. Until my boss found out.

Very good answer. And finally: what’s the question you’d like to get asked and what would your answer be?

Oh, that’s hard! Maybe what my guilty pleasure is? In that case it’s imitating Riverdance with my kids.

Thank you so much, Emma, for letting us get an insight into some of your thoughts, dreams and reflections – you’re a true inspiration source and give us all a reason to kick ourselves in the butt both one and two times. We hope that you, as a reader, enjoyed this interview, and would of course like to encourage you to follow Emma on Instagram @emmasundh, visit her blog emmasundh.com as well as follow/join Klimatklubben on Instagram and Facebook. And of course: read the books “Gör skillnad” and the 4-part “Klimatasken” and spread the word to friends and family. Thanks, and we’ll talk soon!

This interview was originally conducted in Swedish.

All photographs courtesy of Emma Sundh.

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More posts in our interview series:

On Gardening, Self-Sufficiency and Life Balance with Karoline Jönsson

On Parenthood, Countryside Dreams and Life as a Freelancer with Emma Sundh

On Running, Life and the Love for Nature with Erika Borgström

On Detours and Finding Your Way Home: An Interview with Live Slow Run Far’s Sophia

A Transplanted New Yorker in Sweden: An Interview with Live Slow Run Far’s Michael

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– Sophia & Michael


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