From London to Washington DC

They met in Surrey, but Rachel and Mark Stephens now live and run a business in the capital city of the United States.

ith so much culture on your doorstep, you couldn’t pick a better place to raise a family.”
When Rachel popped out to the pub in Surbiton, she had no idea that a few drinks with friends were about to change the course of her life so dramatically; but now she’s married and raising her two children in Washington DC.

It was 1999, and Surrey-born Mark was working in Silicon Valley. He was back in the UK for a flying visit, and when he and Rachel met in the Surbiton pub they got on so well that Mark invited Rachel to visit him in San Francisco. Rachel booked a two week holiday with a friend, but at the last minute her friend developed an ear infection and couldn’t fly – so Rachel went alone. “Mark and I had a great two weeks together, so much so that I quit my job and arrived back in San Francisco in the November. I never came back!” Rachel explains that she’d been ready for a career change anyway, and everything just slotted into place. “A twist of fate worked out in my favour – meeting a woman in a bar in downtown San Francisco turned into a job working for a British engineering firm. Was it a difficult decision? No! It seemed as though it was all meant to be.”

Mark and Rachel spent a blissful two years living in San Francisco, and got married there in 2001. “It was a special time for us. It’s such a wonderful city – nice weather, a drive to beaches and wineries, and a ride up to Lake Tahoe ski resort. We had a loft apartment, a sports car, two incomes and only each other to think about!”

Later in 2001, when Rachel was pregnant with their first child, the couple moved, with Mark’s job, to Washington DC. They arrived there five days before the September 11th terrorist attacks. “It was a very sad time,” says Rachel, “and a strange time to be living in a county that was in shock and grief.”

As well as being at the epicentre of major news events, Rachel and Mark had to adjust to a new climate in DC, both meteorologically and socially. “The weather in San Francisco is pretty much perfect. The east coast, however, is more seasonal – very hot summers, with the annoyance of mosquitoes, and bitterly cold winters. And whereas San Francisco has a very European feel, Washington DC is very governmental and corporate. We have seven lawyers on our street, and the rest work in government jobs, so that gives an idea of the mix. We’re never short of a good lawyer!”

Rachel gave birth to Imogen in Washington, and three years later to a son, Archie. Her experiences of American maternity care were good. “I had two c-sections, and comparing my incision mark, which is a neat hairline scar, to my sisters’, is like night and day. The US is a litigious society so the medical professionals know the costs of not getting things right.”

When Archie needed urgent medical treatment, the American doctors rose to the occasion. “Archie was hospitalised at three weeks and we couldn’t have asked for better care – if the doctors in the emergency room hadn’t acted when they did, we would have lost him. They gave us every test available to make sure that our son was safe and healthy.” But, as Rachel explains, all of this comes at a price. “We pay $1000 a month out of our own pocket for health and dental care, and if we hadn’t had health insurance we would have had to pay $65K for the cost of Archie’s hospital care for three weeks. Living in a country without a national health system is expensive. I think the Brits are lucky that they still have the NHS – it may not be perfect but it’s still in place.”

After moving to Washington, Rachel took some time out from her career to look after Imogen, and she noticed that many of her friends coveted the British baby items that she brought over from trips back home. She decided to look into distributing British baby brands in America. “We started our little enterprise in the basement of our home, with a $1,500 order for baby shoes, and it grew from there.” The company now has a 3000sq ft office and warehouse in DC, an office and warehouse at London Heathrow and they are opening an office in Canada in the Summer. They also have their own range of kids’ luggage, Trendy Kid, featuring designs by their son Archie.

Having managed to establish a successful transatlantic business, the family are very enthusiastic about their life in the American capital. “Washington is such a melting pot. You get an amazing mix of people in the local playground – CNN reporters, politicians, movie makers – it can be surreal! My daughter plays soccer with Sasha Obama, and goes to Easter egg rolls at the White House. Our neighbourhood is wonderful, with lots of great playgrounds and no graffiti in sight, and when the kids were smaller we would head off to the museums and the National Zoo every week, and it’s all free.”

Rachel also feels that the US in general is more family-friendly than the UK. “Restaurants always make kids welcome, and openly market to families. I remember going to a restaurant in Surbiton when Imogen was small and being told that we had to sit in the reception area, not the main restaurant, because it was after 8pm and we had a baby. I was appalled – that wouldn’t happen in the US.”

Both Imogen and Archie are at state schools, and their parents are very happy with their education so far. “We have great local schools, with great teachers and an involved parent community. There are also great after school programmes, athletics and subsidised extended day programmes.”

Though she welcomes the extracurricular activities, Rachel notes that American parents take a more hands-on approach to raising their children than many of their British counterparts. “A term used in the US is ‘helicopter parenting’. American parents in DC are very involved, and the kids have full schedules – I think many kids are over-scheduled, going from one enrichment class to the next.” However, even if the parents are a little over-enthusiastic, at least the workload is shared. “Because there are more dual working families here, the dads are very hands on and share much of the after school stuff – helping out with class parties, field trips etc. It’s always an even split.”

For the Stephens family, it looks as though life is going to continue to be split – between their jet-setting life in Washington DC and their background in the UK. “Both our kids are American, but very loyal to their British roots. They’re going to soccer clinic at Chelsea FC in Cobham this summer, and they’re always sporting the Union Jack on their clothes and school bags. They’re very fortunate that they have dual nationality and two passports, which I think will increase their opportunities when they’re older.” Says Rachel. “I’m not sure where we’ll end up eventually, given that our business is in both the UK and the US, but I’m in the process of applying for US citizenship and I want to have the option of staying. I do miss British shops, and British tea bags, though – the Americans can’t do tea!”