Flying. Landing. Building a nest. Spreading her wings. With every new challenge, Vanessa Petersen has always forged a unique path in every stage of life.
Photographs: Vanessa Petersen / Illustration: Michelle Davidson - @sunni_rae_art
Text: Michaela Medveďová
At first glance, there is something surprising about Vanessa Petersen. As an owner and the creative force behind her jewellery brand, Style Freed, she wears much less jewellery than expected.
But then again, it would be a pity to associate Vanessa only with her work and art - albeit beautiful and unique.
She's also a mom. Self-proclaimed organised chaos.
And a bit of a rolling stone that, for the time being, set her roots in the most unexpected of places - Denmark.
A Danish jinx
"I moved from Boston to Florida for the weather. So as you can imagine, I would not move from Florida to Denmark," laughs the United States native Vanessa. But her job as an international flight attendant often took her to the weather-wise not-so-enticing Scandinavia.
Vanessa was encouraged by her friends to find a cute tour guide in every city she flew to. Bad news - she did not manage that. Good news - in Copenhagen, where she had frequent layovers, she met her now-husband, and the rest is history. Or maybe a jinx that came true. "I met a Danish guy in New York before. I said I would never step foot in Copenhagen again - and now I live here."
Copenhagen always reminded Vanessa of her native Boston. She got to know the city well during the 2½ years she and her partner dated long-distance. "But we were in a lucky situation because I was travelling here for work a lot, would have layovers there, and then I had a lot of flight benefits so I could hop on a flight whenever I was off work." She eventually started her move to Copenhagen - in increments, to slowly dip her feet into living in Denmark.
This process shifted into a higher gear when she got pregnant. "I wanted my partner to be a part of the journey." He owned a business in Denmark, and Vanessa was already on maternity leave. So without ever fully experiencing the Danish winter, the self-proclaimed weather-motivated Vanessa started to settle in Denmark.
The expat glass ceiling
Luckily, she found the moving process - and the pregnancy - easier than expected. Thanks to her husband, who knew his way around the system, she got a temporary CPR number without many challenges. During the family reunification process, she was even granted a visa to visit the United States a couple of times. "Plus, my pregnancy journey here was absolutely amazing. Even my lupus went dormant while I was expecting," says Vanessa.
Her biggest struggle ended up being the usual suspect - the Danish language. In a way, Vanessa considers herself spoiled. "Thank God that Danes are practically bilingual from a young age because Danish is not easy." But getting more proficient in Danish is on her to-do list as she does not want to be known as 'that American mom' among other parents. "I do ask in Danish if it is okay to speak English. I learned the important phrases to ease others into speaking English. I'm smart about it," laughs Vanessa.
But she's afraid she could get stuck under the expat glass ceiling - fully adopting the Danish culture and contributing to society, but still being labelled as an expat. "Denmark is a small country, and it's not known for being a melting pot. Outside of Copenhagen, it's still something new. So even if you have adopted the country, it might not have adopted you."
While trying her best to integrate, she can't embrace one part of the Danish culture - leaving babies in strollers unattended. Seeing this was one of her first cultural shocks. "I come from the land of amber alerts. I had to wait by that stroller until somebody collected the kid. My husband said: 'Who would take the child?' It's just one of the differences in culture. I allowed the school to do it, but I still have not left my son alone."
Vanessa has taken the lead in raising their son - understandably, as she comes from a big family. "We were always the next generation's babysitters. I changed diapers from when I was a kid myself. My husband? Our son is the first child he has held in his life," she laughs.
The distribution of languages is equal. Her husband speaks Danish, and she speaks English to their son Motley. Figuring out which language he understands more is challenging, as Motley is Autistic and non-verbal.
Organised chaos - but with love
Having a child with special needs means that his parents are "winging it" every day. "We agreed the most important thing is for Motley to be happy. No matter what, we don't want to put unnecessary pressure on him."
Vanessa appreciates every milestone the four-year-old Motley hits. "He is way better with nonverbal communication. For example, if he is thirsty or hungry, he will physically take your hand and lead you." Before, Motley just had a shriek-like sound, and his parents played charades to see what he meant. "But patience and attaching meaning to his sounds and things has been beneficial."
But Vanessa still calls their daily life organised chaos. For example, Motley has difficulty sleeping at night, so she is up too and answers work messages at four in the morning.
But it also comes with a lot of learning. "It's given me a lot more patience, and I have learned how to prioritise things. He comes first, his happiness, development. Sometimes, I may be wiring metal, and he takes my hand. Even if I know it will ruin the piece, I immediately allow him to lead me. He is trying to tell me something, and I need to see what it means."
Motley's communication journey affected Vanessa's, too. "I thought my Danish skills would be evolving with my son's. But if he starts speaking Danish, you better believe I will be in a language school the very next day."
She hopes that Motley will start speaking but is not adamant that it will happen. "He very well could not develop speech." Instead, Vanessa simply expects him to develop some type of concrete communication, whether it is sign language, picture communication, or speech. "Of course, speaking is the best outcome. I still haven't heard the word mama. But I can't put all my eggs in that basket - I need to be able to handle it if he doesn't speak."
Struggling with the system
Motley was developing like other children for the first eight months and even tried to say dada and far. "But he had a physical reaction to his third set of vaccinations where he lost his hearing for a month. And then, he wasn't saying far and dada anymore. So when I was googling, Autism came up in a lot of the search results."
But when Vanessa tried to get an early diagnosis and help, she hit a wall of doctors saying that is too early and the fact that he comes from two languages might be a factor.
Navigating the system, especially as a foreigner, was not easy. "There could be resources, but I wasn't educated about them. Plus, the system does not seem to be ready for children that young. There probably are the best resources after the age of three."
But Motley was only 15 months old, and Vanessa refused to wait because she knew something was not right. So she took her experience from abroad and privately searched for headstart alternatives she knew were a possibility. "Thankfully, I found the right doctor. So Motley got a very early diagnosis compared to Danish practice. But that was because I pushed and pushed."
Vanessa believes there should be an expedited option for cases like her son's. "Autism, for example, can be drastically changed with early therapy. There should be a quicker process time - not like the status quo where you need to make an appointment for an appointment about an appointment."
"Navigating the system, especially as a foreigner, was not easy. There could be resources, but I wasn't educated about them. Plus, the system does not seem to be ready for children that young. There probably are the best resources after the age of three."
As Motley got older, their experience with the system improved. Right now, he is in preschool. His education track will depend on the next couple of years. "If he does develop language, we don't know if that means everything else will fall into place, for example, if his social awareness develops."
Vanessa does wonder about the future possibilities of education and employment, though. Unlike in the States, she does not see people with developmental needs working in mainstream places. "I was taken aback. Where are these people? Are they not allowed to work?"
She has already experienced what the stereotypes about children with Autism can feel like - it's just bad behaviour, bad parenting, he's just playing you… "But Autism is a big spectrum. Motley is very comfortable in different environments. He doesn't have a lot of sensitivities that people can see. And because they cannot see that, they think it's a behaviour thing. But do you need to see Autism to believe it?"
Vanessa would like to break down the stereotypes that it is difficult to work with kids with Autism and are non-verbal. Motley was recently booked for a photo shoot, and his mom is sure they could capture some good photos. "I want people to know that the kids can focus. Their processing issues aren't equated to misbehaving. I want to make sure Motley can live a full life even after I'm gone. I want him to thrive."
But she is thriving as well. While advocating for her son and helping him develop is challenging, it is not all-consuming. "As a mom, I am supposed to say motherhood changed me. But it didn't. It just amplified the person I was already. I am still networking with friends, I am an entrepreneur, I am creative. I do all these things. I just have a baby now."
When Vanessa found her first job in Denmark, she was grateful - but it did not turn out as described. "A lot of expats take jobs they normally wouldn't even look at back home. But I didn't want to be in an environment that devolved me as a person. And if I couldn't find a job that's perfect for me, I was going to create it."
"A lot of expats take jobs they normally wouldn't even look at back home. But I didn't want to be in an environment that devolved me as a person. And if I couldn't find a job that's perfect for me, I was going to create it."
And that's precisely what she did. Her entrepreneurial fire manifested in her own hand-made jewellery brand, Style Freed, which she founded in 2020 with the help of her husband, also a business owner, who she calls her "cheat sheet".
The brand's name is a play on freestyle, and most of her pieces are commissioned privately. "You have the freedom to choose who you are. Essentially, I wanted to create pieces of jewellery that had meaning or energy but were still simple," explains Vanessa.
She comes from a very creative family, but she has not expressed it until now. Still, she chose an unusual outlet. "I chose jewellery because I don't wear jewellery. So I wanted to make something that would make me want to wear it."
But the success of her brand showed that others want to wear it, too. So every Monday, she posts pictures of people wearing her pieces. That's the best motivation for her. "My jewellery has travelled more than I have in the last year and a half. It was just recently in Tanzania. That's crazy."
The uniqueness is a big part of the appeal of her brand. But it comes with its struggles - for example, finding the ideal materials in Denmark or the EU. "I want the materials I work with to have meaning as well."
While having her own business comes with a lot of challenges, it also freed her.
It let her out from the American Dream cycle where she would get a formal education and have to find a job to pay what she owed for it.
It helped her better accommodate her life with Motley and start the workday whenever she could.
And it allowed her to be her best, creative, thriving self.
For more information on Autism, contact: https://www.centerforautisme.dk/