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.
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.