Eeva Ahtisaari:


This year, for the first time, the President drew attention in his New Year's speech to the problems of families with children affected by economic insecurity and growing domestic violence. At home in Mäntyniemi, the presidential couple's official residence, Mrs Eeva Ahtisaari has often discussed the same theme with her husband over the course of this autumn. The presidential couple want to make an active contribution to preventing the country from witnessing the emergence of a generation of unhappy children.

Unemployment and the long economic recession have affected families with children in particular. Another frequent topic with President Martti Ahtisaari and Mrs Ahtisaari is domestic violence. Indeed, they consider the anguish of families with children and growing domestic violence such a serious phenomena that the President drew attention to them in his New Year speech.

"The threat is that Finnish society will split into winners, survivors and losers. If this is the case, we might see the emergence of a generation of unhappy children," Eeva Ahtisaari says.

Mrs Ahtisaari reminds us that the majority of Finns are still doing well, and that most of our children continue to have a happy childhood. In other parts of the world, Mrs Ahtisaari has seen children who have been much less fortunate than ours. But we should not close our eyes to the problems at home, either.

"It's terrible if parents dampen the happiness of their children. However hard times the parents may be going through themselves, they should ensure the happiness of their children."

Such happiness is a source of strength for the parents, too. This is what parents battling with unemployment, and others, have repeatedly told Eeva Ahtisaari.

"All adults have experienced some period of happiness in their childhood. We should always remember that. We should also remember that inner joy doesn't necessarily depend on material things.

"Happiness lives in every small child. But where does it go to? I myself would like to rediscover that inner joy, since I have realized that I can no longer feel the same pleasure in life as I used to."

Children need adults

Mrs Eeva Ahtisaari arranges a seminar, called 'Eeva's session', twice a year. Last time, the theme of the seminar was families with children. From this namesake seminar, and from elsewhere, Eeva Ahtisaari has realized that Finnish society is far too work-oriented, albeit the role of families grew in importance during the recession years.

"Ever since the old agrarian society, we Finns have always worked hard. With industrialization, people in towns adopted the same pattern of life. Industriousness has its positive sides, too. It has brought equality between men and women, and working mothers have provided a model for their daughters," Eeva Ahtisaari reflects.

"The negative side is that adults are busy, and there is not always an adult at home to listen to the children.

"Grandparents and those close to the child are important listeners and supporters when the parents are busy.

"We should accept our responsibility for our own children - and other people's. We should adopt what is known as 'extended parenthood'," Eeva Ahtisaari says.

On her regional visits to farms, Eeva Ahtisaari has become aware of this 'extended parenthood', which means a larger kind of parenthood than a small core family. Children on farms take part in the household work and consequently learn a natural way of communicating with adults of different ages.

"It would be a benefit if something of this environment could be imported into our cities. After all, it is up to us individuals to provide children with a safe home and a place to play in."

Finns becoming more sociable

Eeva Ahtisaari supports Professor Lea Pulkkinen's idea that, in Finland, some of the school day should also be dedicated to children's hobbies. This would allow children to pursue their interests at a time when they are still energetic. Evenings and weekends could then be devoted to the family's joint pursuits or household work.

"In this way, more children could enjoy having a hobby. Although I know that teachers are hard pressed with their large classes, I can't help wondering why they don't take a more positive attitude to this proposal," Eeva Ahtisaari says.

When the Ahtisaari's son, Marko, went to the international school for the children of UN staff in New York, the lessons and all other activities stopped at three o'clock every day. To round off the day, the children stayed on for a while in the school yard to have a chat with their friends or pupils from other classes.

"When we came back to Finland, Marko wondered why everybody was in such a hurry to leave school. Exchanging news at the UN school had taught him some social skills."

Recently, Eeva Ahtisaari has often compared Finnish social skills with those of other nations. Even our next-door neighbours, the Swedes, are better equipped to negotiate and conciliate than we are.

"If we could learn to talk more about things, we could use words to solve our conflicts and find compromises. This might even reduce domestic violence."

On the other hand, we hear lots of good news about schools, too. Eeva Ahtisaari and her friend Professor Leena Kirstinä are both delighted that the teaching of mother tongue at schools will from now on be called 'mother tongue and literature'.

"This recognition increases the importance of literature at school. Apart from augmenting the children's vocabulary, literature is important in other ways, too. Literature deals with the emotions, so reading is very important for the child's development."

A superwoman's role is demanding

In Finland, we are used to women not only working outside the home, managing the family and participating in organizational activities, but also being keen students and users of cultural services during their spare time. But is this superwoman's role too demanding? How has Eeva Ahtisaari managed the many expectations that women, and particularly mothers face?

"It's wonderful that there are so many competent and versatile women who are skilled in many fields. Such superwomen and mothers set a high role model for those who can't do the same. This should not be a source of stress, though - we don't all need to be involved in everything.

"Perhaps I had it easier vis-à-vis the many demands made of women because we lived abroad. I did a lot of cooking and looked after the home, which was of course boring at times because I wanted to have a career as well as be a mother. But I'm not a superwoman. If I had had a career outside the home, I wouldn't have wanted to do everything myself. I would have purchased lots of services."

Eeva Ahtisaari has been following the recent debate on 'maids'. In her opinion the family workload could be eased by using some kind of home help. The experience her family had of the three home helps who looked after Marko in the '60s and '70s, when day-care places were the privilege of a few, was very positive. Those young women appear to have done well in life since then, judging by the messages they have sent to Eeva Ahtisaari.

"We also had outside help in my childhood home, that is, people who helped to look after the house and the cattle. We couldn't have kept the house running without them. The work done in homes is valuable. But of course those working at home must be allowed to be independent," Eeva Ahtisaari says.

Go where the job is

Because of President Ahtisaari's international career, the Ahtisaaris have moved frequently and have lived both in Africa and in America. Eeva Ahtisaari encourages today's young to go where the work is.

"Naturally, moving requires a bit of effort, but it's well worth it. You have to clear out the house and your mind whenever you leave for a new place.

"If you move often, you learn to build a home out of very small things. Personally, I, have no status symbols in my home, and I have never given a thought to colour co-ordinated interiors.

Was Eeva Ahtisaari frightened of the change that her husband's presidential candidacy would bring into her life?

"No, I wasn't, not at my age, - I was over fifty and I'd seen life. But I knew what the election campaign would be like. I have never wanted to be a national showpiece! I much prefer to mingle with people," Eeva Ahtisaari says.

Children seem to cope with moves easily, but it takes time and effort on the part of the parents to organize things. in their many moves, both Ahtisaaris took the trouble to help Marko to integrate into a new circle of friends.

"Marko's friends have always been welcome to visit us, and in fact, he still has close friends here in Finland. Every time he comes home, the telephones start ringing and there is a steady stream of young people coming to see him."

The Ahtisaaris have made an effort not to raise a child just for themselves.

"We have tried to raise Marko to be independent, and above all intellectually independent. Both my husband and I have encouraged Marko to be inquisitive and to avoid banalities. We also allowed him to question our opinions and ideas. And we have always talked a lot."

Age of culture and education

As the President's wife, Eeva Ahtisaari has been working for children and the young. Recently, she has been supporting work to prevent substance abuse and is patron of the good manners project launched by the National Board of Education. This year, she has focused her attention on culture and education.

"We should appreciate our schools and teachers more than we do," she says.

School work today is interactive which requires a great deal of effort from teachers trying to cope with big classes. Eeva Ahtisaari appreciates the demanding work that teachers perform, and says it deserves all our support. Despite their heavy work load, schools, too, could do some things in a new way or better than before.

"Although most families with children are doing well, there are parents who just can't handle their parenthood. Even so, every child has a right to a happy childhood. That means schools must be given the necessary resources. And we all should close ranks in an effort to support our children."