In January 2015, I moved to a small town in rural Denmark with my husband and two young sons. Only two weeks before, we’d moved from Somerville, Massachusetts, out of the only home our kids had ever known. Our life there had been relatively happy and satisfying: We lived within reasonable walking distance of a subway stop, a lovely Indian takeout place, a decent Mexican restaurant, a lovely bakery, the Tufts University campus, six parks, two groceries, and a beautiful walking path along the Alewife and Mystic Rivers. We had nice groups of friends from various stages of our adult lives scattered around the area, and we had a small, modest apartment with wonderful upstairs neighbors and a vegetable garden in the back yard. The Boston area had been good to us and I wasn’t exactly itching to leave.
Like many young couples, my husband and I had often discussed the possibility of living in Europe someday, but we unconsciously put those conversations to rest once we had kids. Parenting young children is hard enough. Why would anyone in their right mind want to make it harder by moving far from friends and family to a place where everyone is a stranger whose language you don’t even speak? Plus, if your kids are already picky eaters (as our oldest especially was), I mean… really? Would you honestly want to sign up for THAT?
Well, after much discussion, we decided to do it anyway. My husband was offered a one-year contract working for the LEGO Foundation in Billund, Denmark, and I figured I could live almost anywhere for a year. It would be an adventure, and the kids—especially our oldest who was just about to turn 4 years old at the time—would gain so much from the experience of living abroad and seeing how other people live. Their brains are sponges at that age, right? All we’d have to do is go for a walk, interact with some Danes, and voila—the kids would be fluent in Danish! We could check that one off the overachieving American parents’ Personal-Goals-to-Impose-Upon-the-Children list.
On January 2, we arrived in Billund’s small and tidy airport, and Denmark’s second largest, around 9:00 a.m. We had touched down through fog and gray, which I would soon learn is the usual state of things around here, and found our way to baggage claim where we waited for and collected six giant U-Haul boxes filled with most of our belongings, three very large suitcases, and six carry-ons, all with our very jetlagged toddler and preschooler in tow and my saintly in-laws along to help. Our tower of boxes was borderline ridiculous. My biggest regret about that day is not photographing the leaning tower of belongings we had unwittingly constructed. It took four trips to and from the airport in the rental car to transfer it all to our new house.
Those first few days of dealing with the jetlagged-and-under-four set are a total blur to me now, with the exception of one memorable incident, which typifies the initial emotions and exhaustion brought on by our overseas journey. On our first night in Billund, I was drifting off to sleep after being awake for 36 hours (Of course I didn’t slept on the plane—are you kidding me? I had an 18-month-old climbing on me, yelling about his seatbelt, repeatedly asking to get off the plane while we were 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, spilling things and, in a final act of retribution, pinning my arm in a fixed position between his head and the armrest for three hours while he slept fitfully, threatening to wake up at any minute.). Just as I was about to get reacquainted with my sweet, delicious, reliable friend, sleep, all of a sudden, our older son burst into our bedroom and started jumping on our bed, yelling, “Play with me! Play with me!” over and over again, at the top of his lungs. It was almost midnight.
After a brief moment considering what it might actually mean to send a child to live with the wolves (sometimes that turns out okay, right?), I managed to snap out of my own jet-lagged stupor and realize that what our son was doing made PERFECT SENSE. Children often turn to physical play to mitigate emotional anxiety. Somehow I was able to remember this little tidbit of information at that particular moment, which is why our son is still with us today and not part of a wolf pack in the middle of Jutland.
And I knew how he was feeling because I was feeling it too. I had spent the earlier part of the evening pacing the bathroom like a caged animal (in fairness, it was a nicely designed Danish “cage” with amazing under-floor heating) and grieving the absence of our friends, our home, and our elderly dog (who could not make the trip with us).
“What have we done?” I kept asking myself as I paced and tried to stay calm, all the while working out the fantasy logistics of returning home ASAP. This was an unexpected reaction; it felt like the walls were closing in on me. So when I saw my son above me jumping frantically on the bed at 11:45 at night, I knew exactly what it was about. And it wasn’t about dominoes or getting out the Hot Wheels track. I decided then and there that I would not send him to live with the wolves after all.
Instead, I cuddled him into the bed, between my husband and me. He had a little cry, and we all slept until noon the next day. Well, actually, I had to get up at 7:00 a.m. with my younger son, now that I think of it. But everyone else slept until noon.
After about nine months, our one-year contract turned into a permanent contract. Two years later, we’re still here and have come to feel quite at home and mostly happy to be in Denmark. No more pacing the bathroom floor at night wondering what we’ve done. We know what we’ve done, and we’re staying.