The Danish-American way of motherhood
Forging your path in a new country while raising four children can create a lot of difficulties - but also a beautiful family adventure.
Photographs: Terumi Mascarenhas - www.fjordfoto.dk
Text: Michaela Medveďová
Annie Samples always knew she wanted to have four kids. Her husband's dream was to one day live in Denmark.
And call it coincidence or fate, but guess what - the family of six has been staying in Copenhagen for the past three and a half years, happily exploring the Danish way of living, parenting, and staying calm.
From coast to coast…
Annie was born and raised in Texas. While it comes with a very conservative culture, her parents did not fit the mould. It might have been hard to fit in growing up, but she believes it prepared her for the future. "Something I heard a lot growing up was: You don't seem like you're from here. So it felt quite natural when I set out to move to other places. But Texas was a good place to grow up - at least at that time. I'm not so sure about now."
After graduating high school, Annie moved to Los Angeles - without even knowing why. "The American college experience is to graduate, go to college, and figure out your life right now. I was 18, and I didn't know what I was doing. Moving to LA seemed cool, but it was intense. I did learn a lot, though - I took a creative writing class and realised my passion for writing."
California was not the right fit for Annie, so she moved back to Texas and went to college there - and ended up meeting her husband. He's a designer, and she worked in the computer lab's art building. "We dated briefly in college and then broke up. I stuck around Texas after graduation, but many of my friends finished college, and we all decided to move to New York together. He moved there a year later, and we reconnected."
About five years later, they married and had their first son. "We meshed well together. We had a very similar upbringing. He always wanted to be a dad." And - foreshadowing - Annie knew straight off the bat her husband wanted to move to Denmark. At that point, Annie had never been out of the US but wanted to live abroad. "He travelled to Denmark when he was 19. It wasn't as great as it's now, but already at that time, he recognised how great the city infrastructure is." While they both love Texas, at that point, the veil was starting to slip on the state, the Texan, and even the American lifestyle. "He knew it didn't have to be this way. He lived in France, travelled to Africa, and had a good global perspective."
But until the right opportunity presented itself for the move, the couple was still enjoying life in New York - until family priorities took over. "We knew we wanted many kids, and New York is not the most kid-friendly place. It's not very accessible, and difficult to get around with a stroller. So we started looking to maybe move back to Texas to be with family, but my husband loved the company he was working for, and they ended up opening an office in Portland, Oregon." A couple of days after moving there, Annie found out she was pregnant with their second son, and the third one arrived a year and a half later. "I was ready to stay in that environment, to have the suburban mom life. And I liked it."
…And across the pond
But Denmark has always been in the cards for the family, so when the offer came for Annie's husband to relocate to Copenhagen in 2019, they were all aboard. "I was thinking: oh, how hard could it be? I didn't think it would be such a big deal. I heard nothing but good things about Denmark and Copenhagen, so I was expecting this fairy tale experience. In many ways, it was. But we moved at the end of May, and the summer was great." But then fall started creeping in, and reality started to settle in with it. "My kids started school, and I was forced to acclimate to the culture. It was a lot. I felt very incapable as an adult and a mom, which was very unsettling."
It didn't help that the world shut down only a few months after they relocated, in March 2020. "I remember seeing the news and just having this feeling of dread; that the world's going to end." Annie's husband got a free work trip from his company, so they planned to go to Texas, leave the kids with family, and go to Mexico. All planned for the start of March. "We were actually in Texas when the lockdown began. And there was a really weird part of me feeling like, good, now we'll be forced to stay here, and I'll be able to homeschool my kids, which is something I always wanted to do. I'll have this life again."
But after a few weeks of seeing what life would be like in the US, Annie started thinking differently: Oh God, we got to get back to Denmark.
Finally, after constant phone calls, they could get a flight back. "We were so grateful to be back. It sounds crazy, but we were grateful to experience COVID in Denmark as opposed to the US. Of course, it sucked a lot, but comparatively, we had it a lot easier."
The ever-present Danish calm and reason are not something Annie was used to at first. She feels like her whole family stuck out like a sore thumb after they moved to Denmark because they were still so high-strung. Now, whenever she's gone home or had friends visit, they tell her she seems so calm. "Well, not all the time - I definitely still have four kids," she laughs. "But this is the one thing that has rubbed off on me. It's such a safe country that cares about its citizens that we have the privilege to be calm and feel safe."
The Danish way of parenting
After three and a half years, Annie and her husband are okay with Danish. But Annie's very motivated to learn more. "My kids all go to a Danish school, so when I go to school meetings, they have friends over, or we go to the doctor who is more comfortable speaking Danish to the kids - it motivates me to learn more." But having four kids makes it a bit hard to make proper time for language classes.
The kids, however, have taken to Danish perfectly. All three boys - aged 8, 6, and 4 - are fluent, and while they should speak English at home, Annie and her husband are trying to expose their 11-month-old - born in Denmark - to some Danish. "The boys didn't require any language assistance - they did full immersion through kindergarten." What they struggle a little bit with, though, is the contrast with American culture when they visit their family in the US. "The American way of life can be, on the surface, quite comfortable. For example, a kid sees going to a big house with a pool and driving everywhere in a car if it's raining outside as the norm. They're like: this is so easy - we want to do that." They sometimes ask to visit the US more or possibly move back, but Annie thinks that when they're a bit older, they'll understand the reasons for staying in Denmark beyond the fact they have friends here. "I think they say they want that, but if we actually moved back, there would be a lot of reverse culture shock."
What adds to this is that the kids have been raised the Danish way from the get-go. "The Danish Way of Parenting is actually a book that's very popular in the US, and it aligns with all these parenting styles and tips that I had hoped to apply to my parenting. So it's been seamless. When I lived in the US, I had a lot of pressure to be harsher with my kids or spank them. So it's been nice to live in a country where I can parent my kids the way I've always wanted to."
She points out some of the expectations that came with motherhood in the so-called "mommy blogger era" - kids dressed perfectly, the moms perfectly made-up. "We definitely felt the opposite - and I'm glad for it because it gives you some resiliency." And that's definitely needed in a family with four young children - although, as Annie says, four is easier than three. "They say that with three, you're just outnumbered. With four, you just relinquish all control," laughs Annie.
"They sometimes ask to visit the US more or possibly move back, but Annie thinks that when they're a bit older, they'll understand the reasons for staying in Denmark beyond the fact they have friends here."
Great job, see you later!
Having had her daughter while already in Denmark, Annie's also uniquely positioned to compare the maternity journey in two countries. When she remembers her three pregnancies and births in New York and Portland, Annie says she lucked out. "There, they are progressive and open-minded. But you have to seek these experiences out in the US."
She experienced postpartum care to be different. In the US, she had to stay in the hospital for 24 or 48 hours after she had her kids. Here, she had her daughter, and four hours later, she was sitting at home on her couch. "In the US, you do get what you pay for. After I had my kids, they gently placed me in a wheelchair, cleaned me up, wheeled me to my nice room with nice food, and checked on me all the time. And it's not that I didn't feel cared for here, but after I had my daughter, they said, great job, see you later! So I was holding my baby and walking upstairs just a few hours after I gave birth, so I knew I could also just go home. Then, of course, the next day, the home visiting nurse came by, which was great. But if I was an expat and that was my first experience having a baby, I can see that as being kind of challenging."
When Annie got pregnant with her second son back in the US, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom. "I just took time off work and was expected to return when the baby was six weeks old. But this wasn't paid - there was no maternity leave." When she moved to Denmark, while being a stay-at-home mom was still her primary role, she started working briefly at Sephora and got a job offer from a different company. However, it was right when she found out about her fourth pregnancy. She ended up being so sick she could not accept the job offer. "So I do a lot of freelance now. I know many expats here are stay-at-home moms, and I've heard from some that they wish there had more visibility in terms of compensation."
Annie is grateful for the flexibility freelancing gives her. Her youngest is still at home with her, but when others are at school and kindergarten, it gives her time to work on content creation, writing, and digital marketing. However, establishing herself as a professional in Denmark was not easy. Being out of the workforce for so long was tricky, and she lacked the time to work on her resume. So she started to take things into her own hands.
Fitting into Eventyrland
One of the ways she did that was by starting her widely popular Instagram page @annieineventyrland (Annie in Fairytale Land), where she shares her observations of what the life of an American family with four kids looks like - in Denmark, experiencing Danish culture. It started about a year ago when Annie started making TikTok videos about their life in Denmark to share with the family back home. But then they started getting more and more videos, and she'd get requests for topics to talk about - for example, babies sleeping outside, a video that ended up having 16 million views. "Things sort of took off from there. I love making content and seeing people's nice feedback. When I moved here, I saw no accounts of American moms in Denmark. I didn't know what to expect when moving here. A lot of what we do in our culture nowadays is learning about new situations through social media. I wanted to provide that as an American living in Copenhagen."
Stepping out of the digital world, Annie's excited to take her exploration of Denmark to a new level. "I'm going to be releasing guides and doing tours and events for families in Copenhagen - either visiting or living here. I'm really excited to be able to take control in that way because I really require so much flexibility. And now I'm excited to be able to use what I've learned and help other people have a good time."
Annie and her family are not yet ready to leave their Eventyrland. Denmark's just the right fit for their life right now.