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Hygge: What It Is and How It Can Help You Survive Motherhood

Photograph by Twenty20

If you’ve never heard the word “hygge,” don’t worry. It isn’t even in the dictionary (though Oxford Dictionaries shortlisted it as one of their Words of the Year in 2016). Hygge (pronounced H(Y)OO-guh, with hue as the first syllable, or HOOG-uh to rhyme with sugar) is a unique Danish concept that roughly translates as “coziness,” but it means so much more than that.

According to Denmark’s tourism website, “In essence, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Hygge may be why Denmark is ranked as the happiest country in the world (the U.S. ranks 13).

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When I first read about hygge a couple of years ago, I compared the concept to my own urge to nest when I was pregnant and after my babies were born. It’s an urge that also hits at this time of year. The weather is turning colder and the nights are longer, and it becomes even more of an effort to get everyone up and dressed and out of the house. For me, hygge is that sense of comfort from being in a cozy home with the people I love, talking and laughing and being together. But hygge is a nebulous concept that can be interpreted in very individual ways.

I felt like I was drowning and I didn't know how to save myself. ... I can look back now and see how hygge would have helped.

While nesting, that need to make your home comfortable and insulated, not just from the cold but from harsh realities of the world, has a lot in common with hygge. Hygge can be lighting candles and having a fire going while you’re snuggled on the couch with blankets and a book, or it can be hosting a messy, chaotic dinner party. I've hosted a few dinners with friends and my husband’s coworkers, and rather than being stressful, these evenings have felt like a sustenance all of their own. We can connect with other people, eat good food and drink more than a little wine, and not care that the kids are loud or the pasta is a little overcooked. Connection, home, hygge.

I think you might have to be Danish to truly understand what hygge really means, but I find myself actively looking for ways to bring it into my life. It has become a part of who I am as a mother, too. My oldest son was born in December and we just celebrated his seventh birthday. Thinking back on those early months alone with a newborn while my husband was deployed to the Middle East, I remember the postpartum depression, the sense of isolation and hopelessness as well as a loss of identity. I felt like I was drowning and I didn't know how to save myself. Those feelings passed and I survived, but I can look back now and see how hygge would have helped. We all need to be able to connect with and feel comforted by other people who care about us, don't we?

Hygge is more than a feeling of contentment, it’s a way of looking at life. It can be tough as a mom to feel content, to actually feel connected to your home, family and friends when you have so much on your plate and so little time and energy to invest in everything you care about. Hygge invites you to slow down, breathe, embrace what makes you happy and let everything else fall away. You can do this while playing a game on the floor with your children, sitting in that big chair in the corner reading a book while the kids watch a movie, inviting friends over for a no-muss, no-fuss dinner of pasta and bread and conversation while all of the kids play, or baking cookies and letting the scent soothe you. Finding out what it means to you is just as important as how it makes you feel.

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As I go into the cold, wintry months ahead, I will seek out new ways to embrace hygge and share it with the ones I love. The sense of belonging and comfort it brings can’t be measured, but the Danish have certainly found what works when it comes to beating the winter blues.

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