Things You Only Know If You Gave Up Your Job To Follow Your Partner Abroad

'On bad days it could feel a bit 1950s'

Mandie Gower

by Mandie Gower |

I know exactly how the conversation will go before it even begins. In one of Amsterdam’s many concept stores, I am chatting to the shop assistant about how tricky it is to learn Dutch. And then comes the dreaded question. ‘So, what made you move to the Netherlands?’

Granted, there are worse things to be asked. But rightly or wrongly, I feel like a feminist dies every time I answer, ‘We’re here with my husband’s new job.’ I didn’t take his name when we got married, yet here I am introducing myself as some kind of international plus-one. Having been a two-career couple – with equally important jobs – in London, it’s a dynamic we’ve both had to adjust to.

When last January we told friends in London that we’d be moving abroad, the most common reaction was, ‘What an amazing adventure!’ – although there were a few twitchy eyes when we said our children (Pearl, eight, and Honor, five) would go to a Dutch, not international, school. In truth, the children have needed very few pep talks. It was me who resisted most, not least because for my husband to have his ‘dream job’ at an international fashion house, I needed to give up mine as a magazine editor. I’m freelancing now – and hugely proud of him – but when Nick first mentioned the job, our conversation was over pretty quickly.

Standing in our kitchen one evening, he told me that he’d been headhunted for an amazing role – before adding the punchline – ‘in Amsterdam!’ We laughed, listed the many reasons it wasn’t for us, from my career to the lack of a weather upgrade, then moved on. ‘If it had been in London I’d have jumped at it,’ he said, shrugging. It was that comment that stuck in my head. Back in our twenties I’d felt the same about a similar job offer, and Nick had given up a burgeoning career in TV to come with me to Dubai for three years. Shouldn’t I at least try to be as open-minded?

Also, the more I thought about it, the more attracted I became to the promise of a better work/life balance (the Dutch work the fewest hours in Europe) and the chance for an adventure. Our decision to move wasn’t about prioritising his career, but prioritising our lives. We made some joint promises to each other. I was going to work, but not straight away – I felt strongly that the children needed some stability first. We were to maintain the domestic equality we’d established – I wasn’t signing up to be a housewife with a ‘hobby’ job. And, of course, the clincher – a joint bank account so I’d never need permission to have my hair done.

A year in, though, I can safely say that never mind the language barrier or learning to cycle a bakfiets (a popular cargo bike with a box for children to sit in), leaving my office job has been by far my biggest culture shock. As an editor on a weekly magazine, my days were a flurry of meetings and deadlines, beautiful images and brilliant ideas. Sure, they could be long and stressful, but negotiating interview time with the Prime Minister, say, or mentoring a young writer felt important and fulfilling.

In my new role, I wasn’t so much out of practice as woefully inexperienced, having returned to work full-time when my eldest daughter was nine months old. I was excited to have more time with the children, but struggled with the never-ending role-playing and loading of the dishwasher. Instead of exploring a new city, I stubbornly stuck to two tram lines for fear of getting lost. The smallest #parentfail suddenly felt very significant. If I was going to rip them out of their happy life, I reasoned, I had to make the landing as smooth as possible.

But as everyone tells you, kids adapt. And it seemed simple for my husband, too. He’d swapped his Oyster card for a bike, but otherwise it was business as usual – his company even operated in English. I’d listen to his work drama and weigh up whether to tell him that I’d discovered a cool brunch spot. On bad days it could feel a bit 1950s, but once I learned to value my contribution to our new life, the differences became easier to bridge. I was our researcher, translator (I take Dutch classes twice a week) and social secretary – and those were duties I needed to own and value.

Still, there were difficult moments. I exploded one night a er spending weeks watching Nick’s schedule creep closer to London hours. ‘I didn’t give up my job to make it easier for you to work late,’ I yelled through tears, a tidal wave of panic rushing over me. ‘Perhaps you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in a big job,’ he spat back, hitting where it hurt. It took several weeks to work through how we were both feeling: how he was proving himself in a new company – aware that our new lives depended on it – and unpicking years of presenteeism, and how I felt vulnerable having gambled so much. These days, we’re more mindful of each other. We’ve committed to midweek family suppers but keep the days flexible in case of work crises. And I’ll sometimes treat myself to a guilt-free morning at a gallery (freelance benefits!).

We’ve also discovered how much we love time spent as a four. We miss friends and family at home – and FaceTime is no substitute. But a year in, friendships are starting to blossom here and we’ve realised that we don’t need to replicate our old life for this one to feel fulfilling. I now find myself imitating the direct way Dutch friends express themselves, not least because British self-deprecation and sarcasm only lead to misunderstandings – like the time I told a stranger at Pearl’s swimming lesson that, truly, this was ‘my favourite way to spend a Friday evening’. While it can look like the move has put Nick and me on different paths, it’s crystallised what we’ve always known: his optimism is the partner to my pragmatism. We’re proud of each other for remembering the dreams of our twenties, when we breezily said we’d live abroad with children one day. And we’re proud that when we jumped of a cliff, we held hands. Yes, I wouldn’t be in Amsterdam if it wasn’t for him, but he wouldn’t be here without me

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