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Green MP Holly Walker was go­ing to have it all – a ca­reer in Par­lia­ment and bliss­ful moth­er­hood. That’s not how it worked out, she tells Michelle Duff.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

Have you ever been wor­ried your boobs will start leak­ing in a room full of peo­ple? Been on the way to a high-pow­ered meet­ing with baby goobers on your shoul­der? Re­alised you’re so tired from wak­ing five times the night be­fore you can barely see, let alone read the jar­gon-filled page in front of you?

When she was preg­nant, Green MP Holly Walker thought she could con­tinue work­ing in Par­lia­ment af­ter she had a baby. The speaker of the house, David Carter, al­lowed her and Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta to take 16 weeks of ma­ter­nity leave – a gen­er­ous con­ces­sion, in par­lia­men­tary terms. It was or­gan­ised that Walker’s part­ner, Dave, would be the pri­mary care­giver for their daugh­ter.

When she went back to work, her daugh­ter Es­ther was 4 months old. Walker was ready to be a role model for other women, to show it was pos­si­ble to be a mother and be in Par­lia­ment. She was go­ing to prove we can have it all.

Then came the sleep­less nights. The un­re­lent­ing pres­sure to per­form, both as a mother and an MP. De­mands from con­stituents and col­leagues. Con­stant anx­i­ety. Even­tu­ally, fright­en­ing in­ci­dents of self-harm.

“I had to pump milk ev­ery two hours just so I wouldn’t leak all over my work clothes. I’d be duck­ing out of se­lect com­mit­tee to pump and that kind of thing.

“I’d work from 8am till 6pm, and Dave would bring Es­ther in for me to breast­feed at lunchtime,” says Walker.

“There are no lim­its to what you could do as an MP, be­cause you’re al­ways be­ing in­vited to events. So I was like: ‘Let’s fit in as much as we can, let’s put these meet­ings back to back,’ but I was also re­ally sleep de­prived, re­ally over­whelmed, re­ally stressed, re­ally anx­ious.”

Nei­ther had Walker planned for the strength of the emo­tional bond be­tween mother and child.

“I had not an­tic­i­pated the bi­o­log­i­cal and emo­tional pull of me as her mother, still breast­feed­ing, and be­ing away from her when she was so lit­tle. I felt like I was tear­ing my­self in two ev­ery time I went to work in the morn­ing,” Walker says.

“On a day-to-day ba­sis I would just be like, ‘Why am I do­ing this and not be­ing with my baby? It’s crazy.’ If I was work­ing I’d feel guilty for not be­ing with Es­ther, and when I was with her I’d feel guilty for not work­ing.”

Im­ages of Ital­ian par­lia­ment mem­ber Li­cia Ronzulli with her baby, once so en­cour­ag­ing, now seemed con­fir­ma­tion of fail­ure. “It was just so far from the re­al­ity of the baby I had. If I had brought her into the House she would have been throw­ing up ev­ery­where. She would have been scream­ing.”

Wel­come to the co­nun­drum of mod­ern moth­er­hood. Thanks to sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism, we women – the­o­ret­i­cally, be­cause it also helps if you’re white and priv­i­leged – have more “choices” than ever be­fore. We can work; we can stay at home; we can do a mix of both.

Only, the re­al­ity is far more com­pli­cated. It is pos­si­ble to con­tinue to pri­ori­tise our ca­reers, of course; it just means we can’t be as phys­i­cally present with our kids. We can stay at home with the kids, and risk los­ing touch with the work­force. We can try and jug­gle both.

All of this, with the added pres­sure of ex­ud­ing the im­age of “per­fec­tion” that so­cial me­dia re­quires: feed­ing your chil­dren or­gan­i­cally sourced mung beans in or­der not to os­tracise your­self from other mums in the an­te­na­tal group, keep­ing some sem­blance of a happy re­la­tion­ship with your part­ner and be­ing able to see the floor in your house. It is, as Walker de­scribes in her new book The Whole In­ti­mate Mess: Moth­er­hood, Pol­i­tics and Women’s Writ­ing, ex­haust­ing.

“At the time, I felt like I had set my­self up to other mums that it was pos­si­ble to have a baby in Par­lia­ment and carry on, and with the right sup­port it was achiev­able,” she tells me. “So when it started to get re­ally hard, I couldn’t tell any­one it was hard and I couldn’t stop be­cause then that wouldn’t be true.”

When she went back tgo work, Walker was ready to be a role model for other women, to show it was pos­si­ble to be a mother and be in Par­lia­ment.

So Walker kept go­ing, telling her­self the way she felt was nor­mal even as she was falling apart.

“I had started to do this thing of hit­ting my­self in the head as kind of a re­lease valve when ev­ery­thing got too in­tense,” she says. “It was hor­ren­dous. I re­mem­ber say­ing to Dave in the car one time when we were on the way back from the Kapiti Coast: ‘It’s like I don’t have a self any more.’’’

Then one morn­ing, she hit her­self in front of Es­ther. Her baby let out a blood­cur­dling scream. “I was like, this is ter­ri­ble, this is re­ally bad. There is noth­ing nor­mal about this, even un­der the cir­cum­stances.”

She re­signed a month later, be­fore the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion, and now works as a prin­ci­pal ad­vi­sor at the Of­fice of the Chil­dren’s Com­mis­sioner.

In Walker’s ex­pe­ri­ence, be­ing an MP and a mother was not pos­si­ble without sac­ri­fic­ing her men­tal health. She is not alone in leav­ing Par­lia­ment dur­ing early moth­er­hood; across the Ditch, Labour MP Kate El­lis re­cently quit pol­i­tics be­cause she found it was not com­pat­i­ble with hav­ing a young fam­ily.

“I didn’t know I was go­ing to have the most adorable child that has ever been born, but I did,” she joked. “I haven’t wanted to leave him. I like be­ing with him.”

When women are leav­ing Par­lia­ment be­cause the in­sti­tu­tion does not ac­com­mo­date work­ing moth­ers, then this is a con­cern for all of us, for­mer Green MP and Welling­ton re­gional coun­cil­lor Sue Ked­g­ley says.

She sug­gests a look at the num­bers: while women make up 51 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Par­lia­ment has lan­guished at around 30 per cent for the past decade. Cur­rently, 41 of the coun­try’s 119 MPs are women.

“Par­lia­ment is an old-fash­ioned, male-dom­i­nated en­vi­ron­ment. It is ab­so­lutely rigid in its hours and you’re sup­posed to act as if chil­dren don’t ex­ist. “There’s no at­tempt to ac­com­mo­date or be flex­i­ble,” says Ked­g­ley, whose son was 10 when she en­tered Par­lia­ment.

“It ac­tu­ally means it’s very dif­fi­cult for Par­lia­ment to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive, when it’s such a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for women with chil­dren.”

Parental leave laws re­quire other em­ploy­ers to hold jobs open for up to a year – but this does not ap­ply to MPs, she said. “Other in­sti­tu­tions are hav­ing to adapt and change, and so should Par­lia­ment.

Of course, Bill English has man­aged it with six kids and it doesn’t seem to be a problem.

“For men with chil­dren it doesn’t seem to be a problem be­cause there’s an ex­pec­ta­tion women will be the pri­mary care­givers.”

In the 1980s, Ruth Richard­son be­came the sec­ond woman to have a baby while in Par­lia­ment, af­ter Whetu Tirikatene-Sul­li­van paved the way in the 1970s.

“The first bar­rier to break was be­ing a woman in Par­lia­ment, [hav­ing a baby] just added to the de­gree of dif­fi­culty,” Richard­son says now.

She used to breast­feed on benches out­side the de­bat­ing cham­ber; her hus­band would try and set­tle Lucy, their first daugh­ter, in the dark dun­geon that was once the par­lia­men­tary li­brary. She kept go­ing, she says, be­cause she be­lieved in the mis­sion.

“I’m a strong fem­i­nist, and I had a very strong sense that women could and should play a far more preva­lent and ac­tive role in New Zealand life at ev­ery level.”

It is dis­ap­point­ing to her that, 30 years later, this still hasn’t hap­pened – whether it be in Gov­ern­ment, or cor­po­rate lead­er­ship. “We all have to look re­ally hard at what stands be­tween women and their po­ten­tial, whether this is con­scious or un­con­scious bias.”

Walker con­cedes her ex­pe­ri­ence might not be nor­mal, but she’s not alone in hav­ing it. “I re­ally don’t want to be the voice that says ‘don’t do it’, that’s not the mes­sage I want to put across,” she says.

“But I do want peo­ple to be re­al­is­tic about how hard it is to do some­thing like this, whether in Par­lia­ment or in an­other field, es­pe­cially if you have high ex­pec­ta­tions of your­self in the par­ent­ing sphere and your ca­reer. I re­alised how in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult this is, and the level of per­sonal sac­ri­fice it in­volves.”

What Walker would re­ally like to see is a shift in the way we talk about “hav­ing it all” – whether this means more equal di­vi­sion of labour at home, more work­place flex­i­bil­ity for both men and women, or just be­ing eas­ier on our­selves.

“We have to re­ally re-eval­u­ate that. I think there’s a lot of women who on the sur­face ‘have it all’ but who do not feel like that’s a grat­i­fy­ing or par­tic­u­larly ful­fill­ing or happy ex­pe­ri­ence.

“If we change the way we think about it then we might get to a place where ev­ery­one gets to work and spend more time with their chil­dren, and we feel like it’s more sus­tain­able.”

“I want peo­ple to be re­al­is­tic about how hard it is to do some­thing like this, whether in Par­lia­ment or in an­other field, es­pe­cially if you have high ex­pec­ta­tions of your­self...”

When moth­ers leave Par­lia­ment be­cause they’re not be­ing ac­com­mo­dated, it’s a con­cern for all of us, says Sue Ked­g­ley.

In the 1980s Ruth Richard­son would breast­feed her baby out­side the Par­lia­men­tary de­bat­ing cham­ber.

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