There are very few things in the world that Swedish-born Mikaela Wallinder Clifford can’t solve. I’ve never met such a dogged, humble, rock-star humanitarian — she has diffused landmines on the sands of the Western Saharan desert, helped rebuild Thailand after the devastating tsunami, and worked with refugees across four continents. If there’s suffering somewhere in the world, Mikaela’s first in line to help alleviate it.
Her daughter Milou, however, might prove to be the one thing that stumps her. Mikaela can deftly remove cluster munitions from the perimeter of a 1000-mile-long defensive Moroccan wall, but there are days in which she has no idea how to calm her often mercurial three-year-old. “Being a full-time mama is the most rewarding, fun and challenging thing I have ever done,” she admits.
As she settles down in Southern California to launch Ruth & Ragnar, an online store for funky organic Swedish-designed kidswear, she’s quickly determining how to juggle raising Milou while working full-time from home, and still find time to save the world.
Occupation: Humanitarian and Founder of Ruth & Ragnar, a kids’ organic apparel company
You’ve traveled, lived and worked in over four continents. You’ve seen the world. After all of your humanitarian work, was there anything that really surprised you about motherhood?
I’m surprised by the kind of mother I ended up being. I had all these ideas of what I was going to be like, and I am nothing like that at all. I was going to go back to work, to continue traveling for work — and Milou is now three, and I still have never left her. She was going to sleep in only her crib, and she is still snuggled up in bed with us. I was going to go out with friends as usual and just bring her along, and “if she’s tired she can just sleep in the stroller”. Now I hardly know what it’s like outside after dark. And I’m loving it. It was a shock how much my life changed, but it was even more of a shock how quickly I got used to it and fell in love with this new life.
What’s harder, diffusing bombs or Milou’s temper tantrums?
(Laughing) When you’re training to disarm explosive remnants, there is an instruction book – you undergo professional training and you are surrounded by experts in the field. You learn the exact distance to clear, you know how much time you need, how much TNT is necessary, you can even calculate these amounts with math and equations. With a 3-year-old, you have no clue what to expect.
In 2006, Mikaela diffused and disposed of explosive remnants of the Western Sahara War. Photo by Johan Persson
For instance, last night my husband Simon came down from the bathroom while giving Milou a bath and said, “She wants you to take her out of the bath. She won’t let me.” So as I walked up the stairs, I saw her in the bedroom watching me come up, and she got extremely upset. Crying and screaming, she wouldn’t let me come upstairs, yelling, “You go down!” So, I went back downstairs, and she finally comes down, dripping wet, with her clothes on inside out and backwards. When she finally calmed down, she told me she was so proud of herself for getting out of the bath and getting dressed on her own, and she wanted to surprise me — but I came up before she was ready. So. That was about 30 minutes of tears. And who knows, tomorrow she may be upset because I don’t come up quickly enough. It’s like a time bomb can go off any second, and you do your best to try to anticipate her needs, so you have the right response for it. Sometimes you are good at it, sometimes you fail at it.
What is your best piece of advice for mamas with young kids?
Follow your heart and instincts! There are so many experts out there. With the help of the internet, anyone can be an expert! It’s easy to get confused and doubt yourself with all the parenting advice we get bombarded with every day. My main advice is to trust your motherly instincts because they are there for a reason! If it feels wrong to let your baby cry, then pick them up. If you want to nurse your baby to sleep and rock them while they’re napping, then go ahead. If it feels right, then it usually is right. Each child is different, each parent is different. Don’t compare yourself to other moms, do what feels right for you and your child!
What’s one thing you do as a mama that you thought you’d never be doing?
I was never going to dress Milou in pink, frilly dresses with girly hairbands, and ribbons and glitter. I couldn’t stand the gender stereotypes (still can’t) and couldn’t understand why any parent would do that to their child. What I didn’t realize though, before I became a mum, was that kids are born with a personality and a free will, and they will express their needs and wants in any way they can. So, as faith would have it – my child’s favorite color is pink. She truly believes that “when in doubt, add glitter” and dresses are made to spin. Tutus are a favorite and so is a very thrashed Elsa dress. Someone really ought to create a fancy “dress up” line for kids using sustainable materials, because the ones out there now are so popular and such poor quality. Maybe that should be my next business?
Do you have a favorite baby product?
I recommend the Baby Nest to every pregnant friend I have — it’s so useful and soft. I love it. It’s a Swedish organic portable mattress with a soft border and drawstring. You can pull the drawstring up to adjust the sizing and coziness. Milou had acid reflux, and I could prop it up at an incline for her comfort. And it’s so portable, you can bring it everywhere. You know how most kids have a blankey, lovey or favorite stuffed animal? This was Milou’s. Even as she grew out of it, she still loved it and used it as a pillow!
And of course, for mothers, I love the Mamachic.
When do you feel most beautiful?
I feel beautiful when I’ve helped someone. If someone is struggling and I help them get through it, it makes me feel so good about myself. I think all people love to feel needed. That’s one of the paradoxes of motherhood: you want your children to become independent and self-sufficient but you secretly love feeling needed.
What’s been your best mama moment so far?
It would have to be either the first time Milou laughed out loud or really any moment when I see her laugh so hard she literally falls over. Seeing her happy makes me feel like I don’t need anything else ever again. I’m so lucky.