Mandie Gower: I couldn’t put ego on back seat to be stay-at-home mum

When Mandie Gower gave up her career to follow her husband’s job abroad, she was excited at the prospect of full-time motherhood. But in a taboo busting confession, she admits… I couldn’t put my ego on the back seat to be a stay-at-home mum

  • Mandie Gower left London in 2018 to move to Holland with her husband Nick
  • They also took their two daughters Pearl and Honor, then seven and four
  • She gave up job as magazine editor but soon realised domestic life wasn’t for her

The first time I noticed that something had changed between us was when my husband met us at Schipol airport last year.

Four weeks earlier, Nick had started a new job in Amsterdam, while I’d stayed on in London with our two daughters to pack up the house, see out the school term and, not insignificantly, leave my own job as a magazine editor before moving to Holland to join him.

Reunited in a flurry of hugs and tears, I couldn’t help noticing that Nick looked somehow different.

Same hair, same smile, but nonetheless different — slightly better, in fact, like when a friend has had some really expensive work done. Surely he hadn’t, I thought for a fleeting second, before dismissing the idea as ridiculous.

Finally the penny dropped. After a month in a hotel, he was rested. In fact, after a month in a hotel without kids and life admin to contend with, he was extremely rested.

Mandie Gower (pictured in Amsterdam in January 2019) left London in 2018 to move to Holland with her husband Nick

I, meanwhile, looked positively haggard after a frantic four weeks of clearing out cupboards, finding tenants for our house, and organising a sanity-threatening amount of playdates so the girls — Pearl and Honor, then seven and four — left full of happy memories.

‘Turns out the stress of starting a big job in a strange city is no match for looking after two rambunctious children,’ I remember joking to Nick in the taxi. ‘Who’d have thought?’

Certainly not me. After all, until we left London in April 2018, we’d been career equals with similarly senior roles and salaries. But when we moved to the Netherlands — where Nick had a new job as studio director at an international fashion house — we decided to temporarily tip the balance.

After more than 20 years of working, mostly full-time, I was going to lean in to family life at the age of 41, and start working again only once everyone was settled. ‘It might be good for my ego to take a back seat for a while,’ I told surprised-looking friends.

They also took their two daughters Pearl and Honor, then seven and four (pictured together)

In truth, our equal footing in London had had many benefits. For starters, we both felt passionately about our jobs and proud to be setting an example of equality to our daughters. Bills were divided evenly. World Book Day costumes fell to whoever had to work the least late. Ditto cooking. And we both did a school drop each week, the rest covered by our nanny.

Seeing unfair divisions of labour corrode many a friend’s relationship, I hoped being career equals was our secret weapon. In our house, no-one could claim they were more deserving of a lie-in on the weekend or argue they should do less housework because they paid more of the mortgage.

But yes, like many working parents we’d sometimes wonder if life would be easier were we not both trying to juggle work pressures and domestic duties, noting that it often meant ending the week equally stressed. In Amsterdam we’d be redistributing our workload in a different way: Nick would take care of the paid stuff; I’d do practicalities.

At first, it still felt like we were making an equal contribution. Like a pair of archaeologists unearthing a new life, we’d work different patches during the day before regrouping over dinner to share our discoveries — a quicker tram line (him); a potential apartment (me).

Mandie gave up her role as a magazine editor before moving to Holland to join her husband, who had a new job as studio director at an international fashion house (pictured together)

But after their new life started, the former editor (pictured, her family) craved conversation and also started worrying about spending money on herself

But as our new life morphed into just, well, life, my ‘findings’ began to feel inconsequential.

Compared to Nick’s board meeting debut, surviving a playdate in a foreign language sounded laughably trivial. And while I followed his office dramas as keenly as any soap opera saga, the same couldn’t be said for him.

But who could blame him? Because as I learned, however much it means in the moment, the trivia of domestic life doesn’t travel well.

Yes, it was nothing short of miraculous that I managed to safely deliver three children to hockey practice on my bike in torrential rain but, well, you had to be there. And the truth was, like me just a few months earlier, he never had been. Not day in, day out, with only the hum of the dishwasher for company.

In truth, I’m not sure we listened any more intently to each other’s newsflashes back in London. But the difference was that after a hectic day at the office, neither of us was craving adult conversation as I now was.

Come Friday night in our new life, while he wanted to flop in front of a box-set, I’d be up for getting a babysitter and exploring the city.

But it’s not just what we termed ‘evening inequality’ that took us by surprise. Despite having agreed how we’d handle money (one joint account, no questions asked) before I left my job, I’d find myself hesitating over buying things for myself in a way I’d never done before. It was discombobulating at best.

The journalist (pictured with her family) wrote: ‘After eight months of trying to put my ego on the back seat, I’m in awe of those whose self- esteem doesn’t require the occasional shout-out in a team meeting’

Of course, it swings both ways. While we both used to share the Sunday-night ritual of packing up laptops and checking our calendars for the week ahead, I can now pour an extra glass of wine and marvel at just how mellow Sunday evening can be if the laundry gets done during the week.

Still, the reality is that although it sounds an equal split, dividing workloads between ‘paid’ and ‘practical’ means anything but.

For a start, there are no set hours for domestic duties — it’s 24/7, with reminders of what you haven’t achieved scattered throughout the house (hello, pile of laundry on the stairs).

Rather than merely leaning in to family life, I could see how easy it would be to be knocked over by it, and gave thanks on an almost daily basis that this was short-term and exploratory, as we’d always wondered what it would be like to have one person in charge at home. Without an established pattern of sharing certain chores I’m not sure how we’d have fared.

Nick is still as likely to make packed lunches as I am, though he cooks less in the week — it makes sense for me to get started before he gets home.

She added: ‘Rather than merely leaning in to family life, I could see how easy it would be to be knocked over by it’

Mandie now freelances as an editorial consultant and journalist for brands and publications in London and Amsterdam

He hates anything to do with laundry and gets to swerve that, but happily does the supermarket shop, which I hate.

I’m more in control of our social lives now — occasionally he bristles at being told of commitments I’ve made for us, but it’s not practical to consult him on every arrangement. At the weekends, though, it’s 50:50, and when things get busy he reminds me he can still do life admin, too, and we share it out more.

Nevertheless, having been used to the tangible achievement of producing a magazine every week, not to mention a comfortable pay packet every month, it was hard to feel the same sense of pride in being at home. While Nick’s new job gave him validation, I struggled to shake off the feeling I should be doing something more than just ferrying children to school, stocking the fridge and translating a gas bill.

I’d tap my foot at the school gate, purse my lips at yet another game of Uno, and then feel hideously guilty that raising children didn’t feel enough for me. Thankfully, from day one Nick saw my contribution to the family as equally valuable. As he frequently reminded me, our nanny and cleaner used to represent an eye-watering outgoing on our bank statement each month.

And that’s not counting the cabs home from meetings that run late, takeaways when there’s no one around to cook dinner and all the other costs that come with two busy careers. And yet, while I’ll always nod my head vigorously to news stories calling for a country’s GDP to recognise unpaid labour, when it came to me doing it, I struggled to see my contribution as ‘enough’.

Without work to bolster your self-esteem, Mandie (pictured with her family) said it’s very easy to feel like you’re vanishing into the background

If society values salaried work far more than domestic duties (and boy, does it), then I’m complicit. It was an uncomfortable realisation.

Others too, made it clear they saw my contribution as unequal to the cold, hard cash Nick generated. ‘At least learning Dutch will keep you out of the shops!’ one acquaintance patronisingly commented, conveniently ignoring the fact that with two children in a Dutch school, it was a necessary skill for one of us to have.

It was a bit of a light bulb moment — without a fancy job title to give my role status, I had to start creating it myself. So when Pearl was sick on the first day of my new course, I tactfully suggested that Nick could work from home, just like he would have done in London. If this is my job, I realised, it can’t just exist in the shadows.

For while as two working parents I thought we were doing an impressive juggling act, this experience has made me realise the hard work couples with a more traditional split must put in to keep things fair.

Because without work to bolster your self-esteem, it’s very easy to feel like you’re vanishing into the background. Ask a stay-at-home parent what they’ve been up to, and nine times out of ten their answer belongs to someone else. ‘Well, Honor’s been doing ballet rehearsals,’ I’ve heard myself say.

After eight months of trying to put my ego on the back seat, I’m in awe of those whose self- esteem doesn’t require the occasional shout-out in a team meeting, and can be sustained simply by feedback on the quality of their packed lunches (‘s’alright’). But I’ve had to concede that I’m not one of them. And that’s fine.

That’s not to say that if you’re able to get satisfaction from ensuring everyone has clean pants, getting the leaky roof looked at, researching the healthiest cereal (and remembering to buy it) you’re more saintly, but maybe less ambitious than me.

More that if you can, and that’s what you want to do, then you’re winning. Because there’s no doubt these are important endeavours, requiring far more stamina and selflessness than I’d ever realised. As far as I can see, if we want true equality — for men to be happy staying at home so more women can fill those boardrooms — then we need to redress our value system.

There have been many special moments with the children, of course; not least our mutual delight that I can now sign up for school outings, see whether they are smiling or sulking when they come out of school and be on hand to talk about why. That has been an invaluable part of settling them in and it’s been a joy to watch them flourish.

Yet while I don’t underestimate what a privilege it is to have been able to step back, I always intended to work again. Realising late last year that the girls were happy (not to mention fluent in Dutch) so I could start to work again felt like letting sunshine back into my life.

Now I’m freelancing as an editorial consultant and journalist for brands and publications in London and Amsterdam.

The scales are gradually tipping back the other way. With it comes the need for another balancing act — fitting my freelance career around retaining some of the domestic responsibilities. Hopefully, as our first eight months here showed us, constantly re-calibrating should stop anyone from being tipped over the edge.

So when I look back on pictures of us at the airport, his pillowy skin and my dark circles, I see three things: A happy family reunited; a warning of the dangers of assuming one job is more important than the other; and the equal players we always were. After all, in a team not everyone plays the same position.

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