Emma is half-Danish and half-English. After having lived in the U.K. her entire life, she set out to explore her Danish heritage in Denmark together with her own small family.
After 3,5 years she and her growing family repatriated to the U.K. but not because they wanted the journey in Denmark to come to an end.
Rather, Emma’s story is striking because it shows how to embrace uncertainty as a way of life and make decisions based on your instincts and the signs of time, rather than forcing a certain narrative or others’ ideas of what would be right for you.
Please tell us a little bit about you – Who are you and where has your expat journey taken you so far?
I’m Emma, a freelance journalist who is half Danish. I live in Sheffield, England with my Yorkshire husband and three girls aged 6, 3 and 9 months.
I returned to England in August 2020 after three and a half years living in Copenhagen, Denmark.
We moved there in February 2017 just after I finished maternity leave with my first child.
The aim was to experience Danish living; discover more about my Danish heritage which I could pass onto our children and to learn the language, something I had always wanted to do.
When did the “should we stay or go?” dilemma come up for you?
The question was there right from the start.
We set out to move to Copenhagen as an experience – thinking it would be 1-2 years, if we could make it work.
It was very difficult to find jobs when applying from the U.K. so we took a leap of faith and decided to just move out there, using our savings to take out a two-month rental and giving ourselves that time to secure work.
If we couldn’t, we would move back to the U.K, as our jobs had given us career breaks and we managed to rent out our U.K. home on a month-by-month basis. As our two months came to an end, we had enough work to enter a new six-month rental agreement.
But we needed something more stable to live longer-term in Copenhagen with our one-year old daughter.
“Just as we were seriously contemplating moving back to the U.K, my husband got a great job offer in his line of work in Denmark.”
We were then able to rent somewhere with a two-year contract and start living in Copenhagen properly.
During this time I left my U.K. staff job as a BBC journalist and went freelance permanently, I started learning Danish at language school and I had our second baby.
“Our two year contract came to an end and we weren’t ready to finish our Danish experience but we were still viewing it as an experience rather than a long-term settlement.”
We found an apartment with a four-year contract and managed to put in a one-year break clause, to give us the option if we wanted to return home before the four years was up.
Due to schooling and my husband’s family business in the U.K., another four years was going to be the maximum we would stay and we were very open minded about taking each year as it came.
However, what we didn’t expect was for our private landlords to use that one-year clause. They had been posted on a four-year contract to Belgium but after six months, decided they wanted to return to their home and we had to leave after a year. Finding affordable rented accommodation in Copenhagen is notoriously difficult and we had already moved four times.
At the same time in December 2019, the tenants in our Sheffield home broke their contract and moved out early, leaving us with an empty house.
“It felt like things were pointing towards heading back, but on our stay in the U.K. over Christmas, it didn’t quite feel right for either myself or my husband.”
I wasn’t ready for the adventure in Denmark to end. I distinctly remember travelling on the metro to Copenhagen airport with our suitcases ready for our Christmas holiday in England and thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this for a final time in eight months.’
Our three week stay in England over Christmas was a little stressful because of all of us getting a sickness bug, trying to cram in seeing friends and family and living with this idea of coming back.
“Both my husband and I knew the pros and cons of each decision and the adventure side of us wanted to be able to make it work to stay in Denmark.”
But the parents in us knew we had to be sensible as to how many more risks to take.
We decided to give it a few more months to decide, so we got a Sheffield school place lined up for our oldest child who was approaching school age, but also applied for some international and bilingual schools in Copenhagen, which delayed our next apartment search because we would move to where the school was.
I’m intrigued by your mindset throughout all of this and going into Denmark. It seems as if you completely embraced uncertainty as a way of life?
We completely embraced it and that was part of the whole adventure.
We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and felt very grateful to get to each stage of the journey and grateful that it was even possible.
It helped that the children were very young and that we moved when we were part of the EU.
“Moving abroad in a nonconventional way definitely made it tricky at times, as we were making it up as we went along, but it was all the more special when we succeeded.”
There was also a thrill in living for the day and my husband and I became such a tight team with our little family. We constantly checked in on each other and we never regretted it for a moment.
Did that ever shift for you?
Yes, when our eldest was reaching school age, something shifted with both of us and we wanted stability.
And that’s exactly when any stability we had created, left us – with the unexpected end to both our Copenhagen and Sheffield house contracts.
Then March 2020 came – a pandemic, a lockdown and a miscarrage. School decisions were delayed, apartments were not becoming available, we couldn’t fill our Sheffield house and suddenly the future felt very uncertain.
My husband’s job was 50% travel and we weren’t sure if it would be affected longer-term and we were going to have to sign a new apartment contract and move our family for the fifth time since moving to Copenhagen.
“The miscarriage made me uncertain for the first time about what expanding our family, away from grandparents and support would look like, especially as I solo-parented quite often when my husband travelled.”
When we got an international school offer, two months before we had to move out of our apartment and with nowhere to live lined up, something in my gut told me that wasn’t the next step to take.
My husband was beginning to think it made sense to move back but wasn’t pushing it, letting me explore different options.
“Ultimately, I didn’t want to put my family through all these uncertain changes to get a bit more out of an experience that had already exceeded all of our expectations.”
We wanted to end it on a high and we have incredible and wonderful memories from our time there. But perhaps that made it all the more difficult to accept it was over.
What was it like to return to the UK, especially having left Denmark on a high note?
Hard! 18 months on, I’m still finding my place back in Sheffield but the resettling process has been hindered so much by the pandemic.
When we arrived back in August 2020, we had about a month before more lockdowns started and we were forced to stay at home. We weren’t allowed into friends’ houses; we couldn’t arrange playdates; meeting new people and new parents from school and nursery was very difficult and even seeing our parents felt like a game of Russian Roulette in case we passed any school germs onto them.
On top of this, we have felt shut out of Denmark, as we haven’t been able to travel back as a family for 18 months. Brexit also brought another level of finality to it all.
But we knew what we were getting ourselves into, moving back at the time we did and people have been affected by the pandemic in much more difficult ways.
The main thing that surprised me about returning was how much of an imprint Denmark had left on me.
“Three and a half years doesn’t sound a great deal of time to be away from your home country but we packed a lot in during that time and they were very formative years, especially for me in terms of motherhood and learning about my Danish heritage.”
I definitely became more Danish in my thinking and parenting than I realised and that’s made it more difficult to adjust to the English way of doing things, especially regarding children. I miss the level of trust and freedom given in childhood, as well as the clean air, the sea, bike lanes and outdoor lifestyle in Denmark.
Leaving on a high can give you a tendency to see everything through rose-tinted glasses and there have been many times I’ve compared bad days here to good days over there and wondered about going back.
But I think you have to go through these pain barriers to resettle again and I’ve had to be patient with the process of returning to our old lives as a different family. That process has been slowed down by the pandemic, as well as being in the thick of parenting a new baby and 6 and 3 year old.
I’m looking forward to our next year back as one where we can do more, find our feet and new rhythm as a family of five and finally make a visit to Denmark for the first time since leaving.
Looking back, did you doubt your instincts at any point?
I have always had a strong instinct which I have followed throughout my life and rarely doubted. But for the decision about whether to stay or leave Denmark, I really didn’t have a clear feel on it.
My personal instinct blurred with my mother’s instinct and what would be best for all of us as a family unit. After lots of reflecting and writing about it, I felt my instinct at the time was to leave when we did.
But that settled feeling in my gut, that I had when my husband and I eventually said the decision out loud, disappeared as soon as we started saying our farewells and still hasn’t come back, 18 months on.
It’s a really difficult place to sit in, when you’re in this limbo of resettling but I know, from speaking to other expats who have done this, that it’s normal. It’s just not something I ever expected to feel.
What advice would you give your past self before moving to Denmark?
Keep speaking Danish even when Danes try to change to English. And invest in a long-term apartment – it doesn’t have to mean forever and it will save you a lot of hassle.
What advice would you give your past self before moving back to the U.K.?
Be patient and don’t be scared by the feeling of grief that’s going to come your way. It will get easier.
Katherine is a clarity coach for expats who can’t decide whether to stay or go. She has combined her PhD research on internationals dealing with change, professional expertise in change management and insight from serial expat and repat life into a powerful signature coaching method. Katherine’s mission is to help expats create fulfilling lives that feel both fun and secure (yes, that’s possible!).