Behind the scenes of House Hunters International – trying to make an authentic statement on “reality” TV

In this household, Daddy is Parent-in-Chief and we need more role models like him on TV.  This was our #heforshe moment. We had to grab it tightly, with both hands.


Get ready for your close-up, kiddos.  The filming of the great Highland Games event for HHI at the Museumplein in Amsterdam. Sweet kilt, Aaron.

You all know by now that reality TV is not reality.  Like a weathered brick façade on a new pre-fabricated house (which is then featured on HGTV). Also, like your Facebook page. And like my Facebook page, which is filled with self-deprecating humor about my harried life as a working/studying mom to throw you off the scent of my true life as a borderline (over the line?) OCD child masquerading as a grown woman on the verge of a complete emotional meltdown at any give moment. (Both versions include hilarious calamities and adorable children and pets, however.)

Still, when I started spilling the beans about our experience on House Hunters International (HHI), you all freaked out. You all were so distraught, so deflated by this revelation. I get it. You’ve invested your time and attention in these stories and now it all comes crumbling before you. So, close your eyes, take a breath and let’s explore these feelings you’re having.

Imagine your busy life, then add the following ingredients:

+ Moving a family of 4 to a new continent, with nothing more than 8 Army duffle bags.

+ Everything you read, hear and must sign is in a language you don’t understand. It’s a language so foreign to your vocal cords that trying to speak it makes your throat hoarse and the following day you sound like Marge Simpson’s sisters.

+ You need to navigate through that other language to manage your employment contract, Visa, Work Permit, bank accounts, phones, lease, kids’ school logistics, etc.

+ Your modes of transport are limited to bicycles, trains, or buses. All in a system you don’t understand in a city you don’t know very well. You desperately miss your mini-van.

+ You self-financed the move and you’re not getting a full paycheck for the first few months. You’re living on one income for the first time in . . . ever.

+ You’re starting a new job in a foreign country.  Time to get all Sheryl Sandberg, up in here.

So, my point is – you want none of that, America. It’s exhausting and painful. It certainly doesn’t make for good TV.  You should all be grateful that HHI figured this out. Honestly, it’s better this way.  It’s difficult enough to film it all a year later and try to control frizz prone hair whilst biking through the pouring rain.  And don’t get me started on miscalculating wardrobe changes so that the summer dress you wore on Day 1, a pleasant 80+ summer day must also be worn on Day 4, in the midst of a windy cold-front.

I could go on and on about the “fakeness” of HHI. The apartment options weren’t exactly real.  We filmed our “after” scenes in our Amsterdam apartment, then had a crew move us out, and then filmed our “before” scenes all in one day.  We were advised that HHI would try to create a conflict of opinion, so it was best to create our own instead. So, we planted our storyline. I wanted a rooftop terrace, he wanted more space and an easy commute to school. These preferences were authentic, as displayed in our HHI application video, but we did play them up for the cameras.

Underlying this topical theme was the deeper narrative that we are fully committed to. In this household, Daddy is Parent-in-Chief and we need more role models like him on TV.   This was our #heforshe moment. We had to grab it tightly with both hands.  He is a stay-at-home dad supporting the family’s domestic needs.  Hence, his emphasis is on shuffling kiddos to and fro school and comfortable space within the home. But we needed to do it right.

When they asked us to film scenes of him cooking dinner for the kids while I was “out at work,” we said no (and our director at HGTV acquiesced). It doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, I’ve got a demanding career, but I’m not an absent parent and we don’t want to promote that ideal.  It was quite a journey for Aaron to feel comfortable in this role.  And just because someone is the stay-at-home parent doesn’t mean they should be constantly depicted as baking pies in an apron or fretting over which detergent to use on sensitive skin. So, instead, we filmed scenes of Daddy playing guitar while the kids danced and Daddy leading a fun children’s event in a famous Amsterdam park. (Scottish Highland Games for kids – it’s a rather strange and specific niche, which is explained in more detail in the application video and in my blog post, Flex with your Daughters).

Maybe none of this stuff matters. Maybe it will all just appear like another damn episode of another damn reality show that isn’t really reality. But it matters to us. We desperately hope this narrative comes through in the final version of the show (which we don’t get to view in advance). And maybe a few viewers will take note that our family doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes we are supposed to occupy. And maybe that will remind them that nobody’s family really fits neatly into boxes. We ALL have the freedom to redefine parenthood and reject tired notions of gender roles. And it can be a lot of fun doing it.

So, check it out on Thursday, February 11th at 10.30 EST and/or Friday, February 12th at 1.30am on HGTV.  Tell us what you think of our episode, We Dig Amsterdam.  I’m not a fan of the name – are they making an archaeology reference?  I don’t know.  I hope my hair looks ok!

*Update since the episode aired: The editing makes our conflict seem more intense and, of course, the 1 time out of 100 that you say something frivolous (standard HHI e.g. “I love this 19th century French villa, but the color of this wall is obnoxious) they play that 10x and fail to include dozens of thoughtful comments (e.g. If we balance the the lower cost, closeness to the kid’s school and quite neighborhood, I think it’s worth the longer commute). My hair looks way frizzy in some scenes, but overall, I think we done did ok. 


3 thoughts on “Behind the scenes of House Hunters International – trying to make an authentic statement on “reality” TV

  1. are spot on! Wonderful narrative of your family’s challenges, accomplishments and convictions. Betsy and I are looking forward to seeing your HHI esposide. All the best!

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