It's been just over a year since he lost his role as leader of the National Party, but at his home in Tauranga, surrounded by his three children, wife Natalie and their affectionate dog Jasper, Simon Bridges has a lot to smile about.
"It's undeniable that when you work 100 hours per week, it takes its toll, it ages you," he says. "But as I sit here, I feel like a box of birds, I really do."
The 44-year-old is relishing the extra time he now has to spend with his family and the opportunity to be more involved in household tasks.
"We're just doing normal things and I'm doing a lot of firsts with my kids," Bridges says, speaking about Emlyn, nine, Harry, seven, and Jemima, three. "I'm even doing a hunting trip with the boys in October. It's not something I would normally get out of bed to do, but Emlyn is into it. I've also had a newfound – I won't say skill because that's going too far – but enjoyment of cooking."
"Having that extra pair of hands is great because I don't have any support and like a lot of women, I want to be a hands-on mum and have a career," says Natalie Bridges, a former journalist and founder of the successful agency Blink PR.
"We all know it, we all say it, but what happened has been a great reminder that family is the most important thing in my life," Simon tells the Weekly.
The former Crown prosecutor's leadership of the National Party was contested by Todd Muller following New Zealand's level 4 lockdown last year, after a political poll result that saw the party's support plummet.
Simon and Natalie Bridges made the long drive to Wellington for the caucus meeting, but on the morning of the vote, Simon told his wife, "If I win, I win, but if I lose, we win" because of the hours it would free up for the couple to spend together.
So, when things didn't go his way, he says he didn't wallow.
"I'm not that sort of person," he says. "I don't look back and think, 'If only it could have been this or that.' I look at what's next."
During the car trip home, Natalie Bridges says she was shocked at her husband's reaction.
"All I was worried about was his heart. You just love someone so much and you think they've done an incredible job, and I just had an aching soreness for him," she says. "But I just couldn't believe how utterly calm, peaceful and in a way philosophical he was about it all. I thought he might be crying in bed for five days or something!"
If there was any doubt in people's minds about Bridges' ability to move on, a social media video of him walking with a baby yak, dressed in gumboots and a Roxy T-shirt just two months later proved them wrong. The video was made while he was taking some time out in Nelson with his sister Rebekah and her vet husband Roger, and it went viral.
It was, Bridges says, his "personal renaissance".
But he isn't one to sit still for long and in November he decided to pen a memoir, National Identity: Confessions of an Outsider.
"I started writing it about a decade ago because I've always felt like I have something in me," he says. "When I lost the leadership, I went back and looked at what I had written and while I didn't like it much, it gave me a basis for the book."
Published this month, it covers his thoughts on 16 topics, from race and education to social media.
"They were my stories but also ones that I hope will resonate with other Kiwis who are asking where do I come from and where are we going?"
The book also talks about his "distant" dad Heath, who sadly passed away at the age of 87 and before the book's publication. Suffering from dementia, he wasn't in a position to read the manuscript.
"As corny as it sounds, I think the timing of the book was meant to be," Bridges says, adding his dad "would have been proud of me" and that his mother Ruth "was the real worry! But she enjoyed it, so that was a big relief".
The "outsider" aspect of the title comes from a feeling that while he has been successful in his career, and an insider in many ways, he rarely felt like one.
"There was confusion about my Māoriness because I wasn't a proper Māori in many ways because I don't speak te reo and I wasn't on a marae, but it's part of my make-up. And I'm a Westie and didn't really fit in at law firms, and I'm spectacularly unathletic."
But this sense of otherness was never felt so acutely as when his accent was mocked in the media and by the general public.
"You never know what it is that's going to upset you," he muses. "When you're a leader of an opposition party, you get a lot of things thrown at you and most of it is water off a duck's back because it has to be. You have to be sensitive to valid criticism, of course, but that really did get to me. It's not something I can brush off because it's deeply personal. Some people say I should get elocution lessons, but that would be a betrayal of who I am and my deep identity."
His wife nods in agreement. Born in working-class Coventry, England, she trained herself from an early age "not to speak like a Coventraian" because as she was growing up, it meant it would "box" her future in.
"But things have changed with the BBC and other media embracing other accents, because accents go to the heart of who you are," she tells. "Nowadays, you would be shamed if you talked about someone's accent or how they spoke. It's the equivalent of commenting on how someone looks and it's absolutely disgraceful."
There are other serious topics Simon discusses in his book as he traces both his Māori and Pākeha heritage and delves into Kiwi society.
There's also the love story of how he met Natalie while they were both studying at Oxford University, he law, she poetry of the Romantic period. He was 27 and she 21 when they wed in a thousand-year-old chapel and celebrated with a student party afterwards.
In a chapter dedicated to their marriage, things take a light-hearted turn when Bridges admits that he keeps a file of photos titled Natalie Mouth Open taken over many years of his wife sleeping with her mouth agape. In fact, he even shares one of the first photos he ever took of her while on their honeymoon in Hong Kong.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously, otherwise you'll be constantly having a grievance," Natalie Bridges says. "It's a running joke between us. When he told me it was going in the book, I thought, 'Well, why not?'"
The 38-year-old did, however, pour cold water on any plans for her husband to discuss ex-girlfriends.
"There could have been a chapter, but that's where I draw the line," she laughs.
"That wouldn't have been a good chapter," says Bridges with a sparkle in his eye.
But it was Natalie he turned to as the first reader of every chapter he wrote.
"He'd write it and then want me to read it – and I love reading, so that was fine – but sometimes I had three screaming kids and a budding author as a husband and I was tired. But that's Simon because life with him is always intense and interesting. He always has something on the go."
Which begs the question: what is next for Bridges?
He vows he won't be trying to make a comeback as the leader of the National Party.
"The honest answer is, I just don't know what the future holds," he says. "I'm enjoying politics, it is interesting and stimulating. I've had a leadership project, a book project and I know there is another chapter in there for me. I do know I've got a contribution to make.
"We could get a lifestyle block and have some alpacas and yaks, and that would be wonderful, but that wouldn't feel right. It wouldn't be fulfilling my identity."
And while he takes his time deciding his next move, Bridges' family is happy to wait.
"When he's away, we talk several times a day, but it's not the same as going to bed together every night," Natalie Bridges says. "The other night, we were sitting on the couch and we had some classical music playing, Jemima was in bed, and the boys and I were doing puzzles, and Simon and I looked at each other. We didn't have to say a thing, we both just knew that this was bliss. Right now, it's just a bit of time to live a more balanced life because balance wasn't part of the equation for so long."