Vanessa wrote a letter one day that changed her career and her life. In August 2018 she relocated her young family from London to Plainville, Massachusetts where she now lives and works for international best-selling author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney.
Can you tell us how you came to have the opportunity to work abroad?
I had a terrific job working as Children’s Marketing Director at Penguin Random House in the UK. I’d worked there for over a decade and found myself at a career cross road. I’d wound up in a leadership role where I ran a team of inspiring and capable marketers, and although I loved the business itself, I hugely missed ‘doing the doing’…
I took a risk. I’d been pondering my dream job for a long time and I knew exactly what it would be doing and who I’d be working for. I started mapping out the job and thought hard about the service that I might be able to provide. I wrote a role profile and a cover letter on a long car journey back from Exmoor! I decided to sleep on it and send it at 8am. The role profile was for a Global Brand Manager for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the company being based in Massachusetts, USA. I felt I had everything to gain and nothing to lose and wrote exactly these words in my covering letter… I honestly, thought it wouldn’t amount to anything. It was fun to fantasise and I felt like it was a first step to exploring how I might be able to pivot my career in some way.
Jeff Kinney, the best-selling author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and my now Manager, wrote back within 24 hours and to my shock, he was interested.
“We were presented with an opportunity that is once in a lifetime… a dream job with an inspirational boss, in an attractive part of the US in which to base ourselves.”
What were the biggest considerations in making your decision to go?
We knew that my husband wouldn’t be able to work on my visa type in the US, which would mean he’d be a full time Dad to our two young sons, a 5 month-old baby and a ‘just-2-year-old’ when we first arrived. And we knew we’d be facing a world where we’d have no help with childcare which would be a challenge given our kids are both part sweet-small-human and part wild hyena!
Of course, we also knew it would be tough living an ocean away from our nearest and dearest.
Yet, flip the flop and we were presented with an opportunity that is once in a lifetime… a dream job with an inspirational boss, in an attractive part of the US in which to base ourselves. We’ve always been travel-thirsty and we thought that New England would be an amazing place to travel with a young family.
What are the best and worst parts of living and working as an ex pat?
The best part of our experience has been the sense of adventure and opportunity to explore New England. We’ve been fortunate to make all sorts of whimsical memories already from horse-sledding at Christmas in Vermont to watching the sunset on Martha’s Vineyard and cheering on the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden. ‘Fall’ here is mind-blowing – it has to be seen to be believed. At weekends we can easily get to a beach or mountains and I often can’t really believe this is my life, I feel so lucky.
“We are really enjoying living ‘someone-else’s life’ for a while… (at least, that’s how it feels!)”
Beyond this we love the outdoor lifestyle in general, it’s wonderful with young children. We have such good quality family time out here given we are shorter on the supply of family and friends. We love the space, gyms that offer ‘child watch’, how Americans GO LARGE on festivals and dress their doors and houses for each. I love the dairy farms everywhere; home-made ice cream is never far from reach in New England, year-round. We are really enjoying living ‘someone-else’s life’ for a while… (at least, that’s how it feels!)
And the worst…
Nappy bags aren’t a thing over here. On arrival I resorted to dog poop bags. I had two children in nappies and I couldn’t manage.
Missing family and friends. We miss them the most when the kids hit milestones and their kids do too and we can’t be together to share them. Saying goodbye to grandparents is awful!
Winter (we’re talking 16 inches of snow, not 6!)!
The impossibility of being understood when you ask for a ‘waTer’.
Having to parallel park in the US driving test! (And having to retake it!)
A Christmas without mince pies!
The cost of living is high. A loaf of bread costs 3 dollars and in Massachusetts you can’t buy alcohol in most supermarkets, which took me a while to get used to!
What does the future hold? Do you have a five-year plan?
Our visas do have an end date but we’re always reviewing the possibilities. We’ll stay whilst the going’s good and we’re trying to live in the here and now. Right now there is so much to be excited about working on Wimpy Kid, it’s been a career highlight to be in the US to help oversee the launch of Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, which became an instant global bestseller!
I used to plan for the future but, honestly, I’ve never done well on having a five-year plan! We’re delighted to be utterly off course for the plan set 5 years ago!
“There’s really nothing stopping you from returning home. I’ve discovered that London will always be there waiting.”
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Think what you’d do if you weren’t afraid. And then do just that…
What advice would you give to anyone else who had the chance to create a new life and career abroad?
Remember it’s not an opportunity that many people are handed. Based on our experience, I’d encourage embracing it! And there’s really nothing stopping you from returning home. I’ve discovered that London will always be there waiting.
What is the biggest challenge that you face on a daily basis and how do you overcome this?
The biggest challenge is easily my husband looking after the kids full-time, particularly given my role involves a significant amount of international travel. He’s nothing but supportive to me and a brilliant dad but it’s very hard for him to not be able to work and I’m sure it can be lonely. We make an effort to ‘stop-check’ during the ‘highs’ and have found ourselves a great babysitter! And there might be a time further down the road when I’m supporting his career in a similar way. We’re both open to that.
“Be sure to cherish crumpets, marmite, cheddars and chocolate digestives. And TREASURE the NHS. Living in a country without a universal healthcare service is enlightening and frightening.”
What are you most proud of?
Jeff once asked me what I thought the likelihood of this job happening would be when I wrote to him. I said less than 5%. I’m proud that I plucked up the courage to hit ‘send.’
What makes you feel happy or helps to lift your mood?
When my friends and family living in different time zones leave me WhatsApp voice messages overnight and I listen to them as I get dressed in the morning. I guess the format lends itself to hilarious long monologues, which can be charmingly entertaining!
Any wisdom you’d like to share?
Be sure to cherish crumpets, marmite, cheddars and chocolate digestives. And TREASURE the NHS. Living in a country without a universal healthcare service is enlightening and frightening.
And remember who’s in charge of your life. You are! And you can change things. I hope our tale might help others believe anything is absolutely possible.
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Right now I’m…
Watching – Les Miserables, the BBC’s 6 part mini-series (on a British Airways plane wherever I can!)
@happyfitmums Lauren Hyett has left full time employment to launch fitness classes for women (and spend a bit more time with her sons). A daring plunge that I know she’ll soar at.
@studio.eris Rose Gardner, escaped the rat race to lovingly make sustainable jewelry from her London studio. A really inspirational story and creative start up. Add some goodies to your Christmas list!
Liv Thorne was perpetually single at 37, she wanted a baby so she bought sperm, went to a clinic but didn’t get pregnant x 3. Eventually (after buying more sperm) she went back to a clinic and got pregnant. Now 40, Liv has a one year old son, Herb and is the co-owner of a digital branding agency in Oxford.
Can you tell us a bit about how you became a mum to Herb?
It is a pretty long story, not an overnight decision, but in short: My problem was the primal desire I felt to become a parent and the lack of sperm in my life! So, in very basic terms, I bought some online from a clinic in Denmark, got it shipped to a clinic in London and on the fourth attempt got pregnant. My treatment was IUI (Intrauterine insemination), rather than IVF. So, essentially turkey basting. Really romantic. There was no reason why I couldn’t get pregnant as far as I knew, it was just that I didn’t have a partner. So, as I didn’t want the extra expense and physical stress of fertility drugs if that was something I could avoid, I tried IUI first (against the ‘wants’ of the clinic. I really don’t think I can call it advice. They are a business after all).
I told myself that I would give IUI four tries before opting for IVF. I got pregnant on my fourth try. I was very, very lucky. Especially as, statistically speaking, I was unlikely to get pregnant at all as I was ‘old’ (in fertility terms, being over 35 is genuinely called ‘geriatric’) and overweight (I eat my feelings!) However I think most fertility stats are bullshit, but that is a story for another time … don’t get me started!
What were your biggest considerations before making your decision to become a single mum?
I needed to know that I had the support of my family. My parents died when I was a teenager, so my siblings mean everything to me. If they were to tell me they thought I couldn’t /shouldn’t do it, then I would’ve had to really consider whether or not I should go ahead. Needless to say, they have been truly amazing.
What have you learnt about yourself along the way?
That I didn’t need as much sleep as I thought! Seriously though that is a really tricky question. I am sure that I have learnt a plethora of things, however I am not sure I will realise what they are until I am out of the thick of it. So maybe ask me again in ten years!
“Whilst it is has been mind boggling, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Would you do anything differently?
Nothing. I have been really lucky. Herb is a happy, healthy, funny boy. I think the first year (and probably the subsequent thirty!) is an absolute minefield, it is all encompassing, it changes you, you dig deeper than you ever thought you could. If I had changed anything, it might have had a Sliding Doors effect … would I still have had Herb? So whilst it is has been mind boggling, I wouldn’t change a thing.
What keeps you up at night?
Money. Pathetic isn’t it? I have a one year old child and for 10 months it hasn’t been him that wakes me up, but the worry of money. I have always been bad with money, it isn’t Herb that has made this happen, let’s be clear! However currently there is a perfect storm brewing from the last few years’ monetary situations that is about to implode! For example, before I had Herb I worked out my childcare costs (I work full time, I have to) based on the old working tax credit system, not the new Universal Credit system. With the new system I am not eligible for any help. I earn a good living, but I earn a good living in the most expensive city in the UK (outside of London), with a big mortgage and on top of that the same again in childcare expenses. Without any help, could you find an extra £1000 a month? It’s hard but let’s face it, I am really, really fortunate that I own my own house, so things could be much worse. It is just the one thing that is always on my mind. So if I’m lucky enough to do an Instagram ad, don’t hate me …
“You do you”
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
You do you. If you want to breastfeed, great. If you don’t, great. If you want to co-sleep great. If you don’t, great. If you want to let your babe play in the mud, great. If you don’t, also great.
Unless it affects anyone else, then it is your decision to work out how to best live for you and your baby.
P.S. No-one knows what they are doing, there are NO answers.
“Just work out if that fiver in Starbucks is worth it? Instead chuck it in a savings account. You will be SO grateful you did.”
What advice would you give to anyone else who is considering trying for a baby as a single mum?
Save. Every. Single. Penny.
Seriously. Apart from the cost of getting pregnant (it cost me £14k in total), everything that comes after that; childcare, shoes, clothes, food, nappies, books, bedding, entertaining them day after day… nearly everything costs money. So just work out if that fiver in Starbucks is worth it? Instead chuck it in a savings account. You will be SO grateful you did. Needless to say, I did not do this.
Other than that, I really cannot give advice it is too huge a decision.
Oh wait, one thing I would also advise is to get second, third, fourth opinions in terms of speaking to fertility clinics; they are a business, they want your money and some prey on your vulnerability, so make sure you are truly happy with what they are suggesting before going ahead with anything.
What are you most proud of?
Herb. I made him. I did that. He is bloody wonderful.
What is the biggest challenge that you face on a daily basis and how do you overcome this?
Loneliness and money problems. Both are manageable. Both are possibly fixable. However both are very, very real. I don’t know how to overcome either, but I am working on it!
“My best friend who always anchored me, held me, encouraged me, supported me even though we didn’t live in each others pockets, died in a car accident when I was 7 months pregnant. I have felt slightly at sea since and I am not sure if it is grief or motherhood.”
Do you have any tips or habits for happiness? You always seem so upbeat 🙂
That is so funny, as I have suffered from anxiety and depression to varying degrees for years and I suspect many of my friends wouldn’t say I am upbeat! Tears of a clown and all that. If I am it is because I have learnt to say no. For example if there is a party and I don’t want to go because it will make me anxious, I don’t go. I used to go and drink my feelings and wake up angst ridden for days. Now I just say no like the good people of Grange Hill told me to! I am aware it makes people eye roll, but it keeps my mental health on the straight and narrow, which is the most important thing. I’m difficult.
I have also learnt not to be arrogant enough to assume a gathering will be a horrific disaster without my sparkling presence! Turning up because you don’t want to disappoint people, is very rarely a decision based on their feelings, it is about yours. 97% of the time they will have a great time regardless. I don’t drink as much as I used to as that used to spike the anxiety, so that has really helped. That is not to say I don’t drink, just I don’t drink at home as I think that could be my slippery slope. Instead I am sliding, head first into the snack cupboard.
Don’t get me wrong I am happy loads of the time, I am very lucky and have a massive circle of friends, but I do have to work at it, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t have that one person that would call me if the world was going to end, be it a partner, a best friend or a parent and that is an odd feeling. I would absolutely be on the list of people to call, but I am not at the top of anyone’s list. My best friend who always anchored me, held me, encouraged me, supported me even though we didn’t live in each others pockets, died in a car accident when I was 7 months pregnant. I have felt slightly at sea since and I am not sure if it is grief or motherhood.
It is well documented that many comics have had / do suffer from depression and I get that. Social awkwardness is very real to me … I will always be the one ‘helping’ in the kitchen at parties! Also, have you seen Herb? Of course I look happy!!
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Right Now I’m….
Watching – to be honest I think I completed Netflix months ago … I live alone with a toddler, I watch a lot of TV!
I absolutely love the real life crime dramas like The Staircase (which is ridiculous for a girl who still sleeps with the light on!) Also I have watched Home & Awayevery day since it started. I record it! It is the only soap I have ever watched and is my daily dose of vitamin D. Yes, Alf is still in it. No, I am not sorry.
Ultimately I will watch most things, from what might be considered high brow to the lowest (yep, I am a Love Islander.) My truly happy place is watching people interact, so programmes like 24 Hours in A&E & 7UpSeries absolutely break me … how people care for each other, hold each other. People are amazing.
Reading – I am terrible at reading, I have some sort of reading narcolepsy, so for years I have listened to audio books. The last one I listened to and genuinely loved was The Wild Other by Clover Stroud. We have both suffered loss & trauma and we dealt with it in very different ways. She is now a friend. How cool is that?
Of course there is also the endless rounds of Oi Frog! too.
Listening to – I did my degree in radio production. I am obsessed with radio & its intimate place in people’s lives. So now podcasts have changed my life. I wish they had been around twenty years ago when I did my degree, then maybe I would have stuck with it! I would LOVE to do one, but it needs to have a really great hook, the market is getting saturated.
The ones I religiously listen to are Adam Buxton (everything about it is a brilliant; a dog, batshit jingles, intelligent chat, laughs, tears, stupid adverts … it’s the best!); Desert Island Discs (because WHY wouldn’t you?); Table Manners(it is based around food & peoples life stories. I am a nosey glutton, so what is not to love?) and The High Low(Pandora & Dolly are often intimidatingly bright, but it’s like reading The Week, they find out all the interesting stuff for you and point you in the right direction!)
Music-wise … I listen to everything, it is really important in my life. I first went to a festival when I was 14 when you used to go in your very worst clothes, it blows my mind that people now buy jazzy outfits specifically for festivals! I bought my first house for its proximity to the local live music venue as I figured it was save me in taxis. It did, eventually. My favourite album is a tie, I cannot choose: Nevermindby Nirvana and Gracelandby Paul Simon. I am a white, middle class cliche. Sorry Kurt.
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Pass it on:
Who would make brilliant guests on the Muse? Please suggest up to 3 people with their Instagram and Twitter handles and we’ll invite them to join us.
@thehotcrossmum – Jess is as brilliant and as honest as they come. Regularly documents about her mental health which is so important.
@remi.sade – would happily listen to her talk about ANYTHING alllllll day. She has taught me so much already.
@alright.bab – she’s brilliant, and setting up Godiva to help people in situations like she was once in is, whilst looking after her son and just bossing life, she is bloody amazing
@ultimategirlgang – Liv is a hugely supportive friend and is pregnant with her fourth little girl! But mainly follow her because she is brutally honest & hilarious!
@themindfulbirthgroup – I met Emiliana at a hen do years ago, she now runs this hypnobirthing company but mainly she is becoming a surrogate for her best friend who could not carry her own child. How amazing????