American Mom Raising a Child in Denmark: 'The Social Welfare System Is Really Solid Here'

Heather Degrotte met her husband while they were both living in Copenhagen. Now they're raising their 7-year-old son outside of the city. She shares what family life looks like in Denmark.

Heather Degrotte and family
Photo: Courtesy of Heather Degrotte

Years ago when Heather Degrotte, a New York native, was working in Denmark as a yoga teacher, she met a French man named Kevin at a friend's birthday party. Kevin was living and working at a French school in Copenhagen. They started dating right away and it wasn't long before they fell in love. Unfortunately, Heather was working on a tourist visa and she couldn't stay in the country long-term.

Soon after Heather returned home to the U.S., she found out she was pregnant. "At that point, I was already 39 years old and just knew this was a baby I wanted to have," she says. "I called [Kevin] up on Skype with a positive pregnancy test and he immediately said I had to come back. We just went with it."

By the time Heather was able to get back to Denmark with a new tourist visa, it was October and she was six months pregnant. Heather and Kevin got married in January and their son was born in February. Because her husband is from France and an EU citizen, their marriage enabled her to get a yellow card and stay in Denmark.

Heather and Kevin decided to make Denmark their home and are raising their now-7-year-old son in a small town called Karise in Sjælland, 60km south of the capital, Copenhagen. Here, Heather takes us through some key aspects of her life raising a child abroad.

Family Life in Denmark

Heather and her family were living in Copenhagen when they decided to move to an eco-village of 200 people. They grow their own food and have a windmill. There are about 80 kids, Heather says, and it's a mix of those families, some single people, and pensioners.

While the village is an adjustment from city life, Heather has found a way to make her new village home. She is part of a cooking group in the community. "We all contribute and have these communal meals," she shares. "Because I teach, I also have a small core group of women that I adore. They put their trust in me; it's amazing."

Education and Raising Children

Heather's son is entering first grade. She says she has had a really great experience with daycare and school so far because the teachers and administration really work to follow what the children are naturally interested in. "They invited the parents to a show all about the five senses," she says. "It really taught us that everything they're doing there has meaning. [Their routine] might not necessarily be as structured, but if the child was naturally going toward something, the teacher would encourage it and help them learn about it in all these different ways. That experience gave me a lot of confidence in the system."

Heather has also noticed that adults value children's needs above all else. For example, she says that if two adults are having a conversation and a kid comes up to one of them, the adult will pause their conversation for the child. "It's just a different way of interacting with children than we're used to [in America]," says Heather. "Maybe we would say, 'I'm having a conversation right now please come back in a few minutes,' but [adults here] will immediately focus on the child."

Heather does choose to implement certain American-style manners in her home when she sees cultural differences. While children are raised well there, she says they don't necessarily say "please" and aren't trained to greet adults with the same formality as in America. In France, where Kevin is from, she explains, things are very polite and formal. "I have to teach my son that we expect certain things no matter if people around him are doing it or not," she says. "I can't say, 'OK, now we're in France so you have to say 'please' now.'"

Safety Is a Priority

One of the most striking differences Heather feels is the safety factor. "The social welfare system is really solid here and it's designed to make people feel secure," she explains. "I'm not afraid if I'm traveling late at night that someone will come up to me and take something because they already have their basic needs met. They don't need to be abusive and go to others to get those needs met."

Another big difference she's noticed compared to what she's seen in America is the lack of gun violence, an issue that is of utmost importance in the American political climate today. "My son won't ever have to hide underneath a desk or do a drill," she says. "That doesn't happen here. I shouldn't say never, but it's a different environment."

Giving Birth in Denmark

Heather wanted to have a home birth. "I had a number of miscarriages [prior to this pregnancy] and thought this is probably my only chance to do so," she says. But when she went to the doctor in Copenhagen, her baby was breech and she scheduled a Cesarean at the hospital instead. "I prayed and meditated on it and while it was stressful, I just thought, 'OK, this isn't my birth, it's my son's first entry into the world and this is how he wants to come in. Maybe this is the first lesson for me in motherhood of learning how to step aside.'"

The hospital experience was also different from what she was used to. While everyone was really nice, she felt that they have a lack of choices compared with patient experiences in America. "It can seem oppressive, but with the lack of choices also comes a sense of emotional liberation and security because there is so much structure," she explains.

As Heather went into the operating room, she and her team started singing "Here Comes the Sun," by the Beatles. She had two female surgeons as well. "That blew my mind," she shares. "One was younger than I was and I felt great about having them there." After that, it wasn't long before her son, Julian, was in this world. "Once they put him on my chest, he opened his eyes and looked right at me and it was amazing," she shares. "I knew him."

Medical Care

A big perk of living in Denmark is the free medical care for all residents. After her son was born, they discovered he needed two surgeries before the age of 3. While it was nerve-wracking for Heather and Kevin, they felt really comforted by the hospital staff. "They were amazing with us," says Heather. "We were new parents, really scared, and being two foreigners definitely brought out a different energy they weren't used to, but they were so patient." Now, Julian is totally fine and goes back to the same doctor each year for a check-up where the doctor will sit with him and answer all his questions. It's a comfort emotionally and more stress-free as all that testing and the multiple surgeries he went through were free.

Language Opportunities

Julian is now trilingual—he speaks English and French at home and Danish at school and with his friends. Heather has learned quite a lot of Danish herself, but even so, the language barrier remains a challenge. "I want to learn Danish to be able to advocate for my son and not embarrass him," she shares. She's been learning since she moved seven years ago but it still remains a struggle. Most people do speak English around her but unfortunately, they don't love to use it. "They downplay their education or abilities because they feel like they don't sound great," she says. "They don't realize how good it is."

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