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Toca Boca App Designer Calls 1-Year Maternity Leave 'Exhausting and Exhilarating'

After staying home with her youngest daughter for more than a year after she was born, Willow Mellbratt, a senior play designer at Swedish digital app company Toca Boca, went back to work.

"That time was exhausting and exhilarating," Mellbratt tells Mom.me about those months spent at home with daughter Ru. "I was ready to return to work and for her Pappa to take over. He will be home with her for another year until she is 2 years old."

If you're kind of jealous, we feel you. Sweden boasts 480 paid days of parental leave for moms and dads in the country, and that leave can be taken until a child turns 8 years old. However, re-entry back into the office can be daunting.

"In the run-up to returning to work, I was nervous about how the company had changed and how it would feel to come back after such a long time," the mom of two admits. Although she says it was overwhelming at first, it was also energizing. "I have such excellent, friendly work colleagues. At the moment, it feels like such a luxury to come home to have dinner cooked and the kids all picked up from daycare by my husband."

Mellbratt started working as a designer in 2003, when she says "children's interactive experiences were very poor." Since then, she's focused on designing meaningful experiences for players while constantly improving on what's already available.

The working mom talks to us about her work at Toca Boca, which makes playful, kid-friendly apps like the "Toca Life" series and "Toca Blocks." She also reflects on how she wants to teach her daughters (ages 4 and 1-1/2) about girl power.

Describe the moment you first felt successful as an app designer.

I'm not actually sure that I've reached that point yet. I know the "Toca Life" series is amazing, and that kids really enjoy it and it gives them something that they need. However, it is not just me on the team, it is a whole group of amazing, talented people that have made this happen, and I am just one of them.

How do you want to teach your children about "girl power"?

Yes, this is a very poignant question. Both my children are girls, and Sweden is a country that is quite forward-thinking in regards to gender equality, yet women still earn less than men and there are issues. I feel what is most important is raising my daughters to be confident people, to be secure in who they are and how they feel. In a few years, they will be hit with all the demands society puts on women's body shape, appearance and behavior, and I want to equip them so they don't drown. In fact, it is already happening to some extent with my 4-year-old!

I feel what is most important is raising my daughters to be confident people, to be secure in who they are and how they feel.

There is a growing number of women in the tech world, but it's still generally dominated by men. How can we encourage our girls to stick with science, math and tech beyond elementary and middle school?

I've noticed there are lots of great tech and maker groups here [in Sweden] for kids, and both girls and boys attend them. My husband is an IoT [Internet of Things] designer, and so I think he will naturally bring this side of things into play with his children. I'm not such a fan of these "pink" programming toys that try to say programming is also for girls. If a girl is interested in tech, then she will be driven by her interests, and I would say it is more about her inner confidence and finding a supportive community to determine if she survives the male-dominated industry. I watched a great documentary called "Logga ut för fann" ["Get the F-ck Out" in English], which demonstrates the sexism and destructive behavior in the gaming industry, which really hit home how difficult it is for women to do what they enjoy.

What sacrifices have you made as a mom and a career professional to keep everything in balance?

At the moment, I don't feel that I have made too many sacrifices. I used to love to travel for work and speak at conferences, but I'm not so interested in that at the moment, as my work and family life are enough. Toca Boca is a very liberal-minded place, and it is more about me speaking up for my needs. I do miss out a lot on the work socialization, though!

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