Home truths: Former MP Holly Walker on ‘having it all’
A new book to mark the suffrage movement in New Zealand asks leading Kiwis to write essays based around objects from Te Papa’s collection. In this extract, former Green Party MP Holly Walker talks about trying to ‘have it all’
II’m hours away from giving birth to my second daughter, leaking amniotic fluid into a giant maternity pad, and marching through a labyrinth. I’m not lost: the labyrinth is a two-dimensional mosaic, set into the grounds of Hutt Hospital. There’s one meandering path into the centre and out again, intended for people to walk in quiet contemplation as they await news of a loved one, perhaps grieve a loss, or, in my case, wait for a baby.
Half an hour ago, my midwife Suzanne broke my waters with a blunt instrument resembling a crochet hook. We’re hoping this will be enough to get things moving. Even though I’m 15 days past my due date, I’m determined to attempt a vaginal birth with as little intervention as possible. The duty obstetrician thinks I’m crazy, especially because a scan has indicated the baby is unusually large. “There’s a reason you haven’t gone into labour on your own yet,” she tells me. “Your baby is very big and there is a risk she may get stuck.” I politely say I’d still like to try it my way. She looks exasperated but she agrees.
So now I’m stomping around the looping path, willing the baby to move down in my pelvis, trying to prove that obstetrician wrong. Every so often there’s another gush of fluid, but I’m still not having contractions. While I stomp, I’m listening to Hillary Rodham Clinton reading her book What Happened, a post-match dissection of the 2016 US presidential election. It’s a question women (and men) around the world have been asking in increasing horror as we watch Donald Trump’s surreal presidency unfold.
RUN THE WORLD
I feel fortunate that the baby I’m hours away from delivering, and her big sister, will grow up in New Zealand, the country that, 125 years ago, was the first to recognise women’s right to vote. We’ve already had three women prime ministers, the latest of whom, my contemporary Jacinda Ardern, provides a welcome and hopeful antipodean counterpoint to Trump’s presidency. The Labour-led government elected in 2017, with its commitments to paid parental leave, equal pay, addressing sexual and domestic violence, reducing child poverty and combating climate change, leaves me a lot more hopeful about my girls’ future than the previous National-led government did. Later, when they hold their mother’s life up to the spotlight, my daughters will also see that I was once a Member
of Parliament, one of the youngest women ever elected in New Zealand, and dedicated to making change on these same issues. That’s something.
When Hillary announced her candidacy for the US presidency in 2015, she said, “I wish my mother could have been with us longer. […] I wish she could have seen the America we’re going to build together. […] An America where a father can tell his daughter: yes, you can be anything you want to be. Even president of the United States.”
Conceding to Donald Trump in the early hours of November 9, 2016, she tried to reassure those daughters: “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.” In the light of what had just happened, this promise struck a hollow note. Of course, every little girl deserves the chance to pursue her dreams, but they had just watched the most qualified candidate ever for the office of president of the United States lose to a sexist, racist, bungling fool. What hope is there?
I complete the labyrinth just as Hillary completes her chapter on women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Still no contractions. Resigned now to a chemical induction, I head up to the maternity ward. I am preparing to hold my new daughter − with all her potential and possibility − for the first time, and I’m thinking about the ways in which my own sense of possibility has shrunk since I gave birth to her sister four years ago.
I grew up believing women can do anything. What will I tell my daughters?
GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING
As a child, I wanted for nothing: a safe home, healthy food, warm clothing, books everywhere, a secure attachment to first one and then two loving caregivers, a great education, time spent outdoors, and lots of extracurricular activities. Some of these things were precarious at first − Mum relied on the DPB, the Training Incentive Allowance and council housing when she found herself unexpectedly on her own when I was born − but I count it among my list of privileges that these supports were available and sufficient.
My mum, joined later by my step-dad, parented me largely free of traditional gender assumptions. I had ballet and piano lessons, yes, but also played with Meccano and electronics kits, and spent holidays tramping and leaping off high branches into rivers. I was a bright kid, given every opportunity, and I thrived. At primary school, I drew the meticulously straight lines under the titles in my exercise books with a ‘Girls can do anything’ ruler. I don’t remember how it came into my possession, just what I thought in response: Of course we can. I’d never considered otherwise.
School reports were glowing, my parents were supportive, and I was encouraged to follow my ambitions. These took me to study law at Otago (swiftly traded in for the more enjoyable subjects of English and politics), saw me become editor of the student magazine, got me a job inside Parliament advising the Green MPs, won me a Rhodes Scholarship, and ultimately saw me elected to Parliament in 2011, aged 29. Once there, and happily shacked up with my partner Dave, having a baby simply seemed like the next step. I knew it might be challenging to combine parenting with Parliament, but I didn’t see any reason not to try. Our first daughter, Esther, was born in October 2013.
I should have had an inkling that having a baby in Parliament might be more complicated than I expected when my mum, who up until this point had wholeheartedly encouraged my political ambitions, started saying things like ‘It’s not going to be easy, Holly’ and ‘If only you didn’t have to go back so soon’. She was right, of course, but I didn’t want to hear it.
What do we tell our daughters? It seems it’s never easy. It did not go well. There was extreme anxiety. There was rage. There was self-doubt. Most frightening of all, there was self-harm. And in the middle of the chaos there was a baby watching my every move. It was too much. I stepped down ahead of the 2014 election. I had discovered my limits.
‘SHE BELIEVES I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER
THAN TO TRY HAVING A BABY IN PARLIAMENT’
ON ‘HAVING IT ALL’
My heart is racing and I’m short of breath as I’m ushered into the studio. It’s not the first time I’ve been live on Radio New Zealand − I did it many times as an MP − but this time it’s different. I’m about to be interviewed by Kim Hill for the Saturday Morning programme’s 277,000 listeners about the book I have written about my experience, and I know she is going to ask me about the most personal
things: my marriage, my mental health.
The book’s only review so far, by former ACT MP Deborah Coddington, has proved controversial. While Deborah thinks the book is worthwhile and praises my candour, she believes I should have known better than to try having a baby in Parliament, wonders why I didn’t see the hard times coming, why I didn’t let on the extent of my fear to family and colleagues and accept more support. She herself had her children young and started her parliamentary career later, when they were grown. She concludes, ‘You actually can have it all. Just not all at the same time.’
‘Having it all’. That old chestnut. The evil cousin of ‘women can do anything’; now we must do everything. My contemporaries are outraged. Green candidate Golriz Ghahraman tweets: “I can’t wait for the twin piece telling young male MPs they can’t have it all at the same time, ‘Wait and raise your kids first, guys’. Right?” Others contact The Spinoff’s books editor, Steve Braunias, and demand he remove the review. Deborah even leaves Twitter temporarily in the aftermath.
I know that Kim will want to get into this and I’m not sure what I will say. She’s gentle − she seems concerned to know whether I’m being kinder to myself than I was during the events the book describes − but she also leaves me exposed. The interview turns on that question of whether women can ‘have it all’, or whether there is in fact a biological imperative that makes it easier for men to work while women stay home and care for babies. I don’t know what I think. I want to defend the right of women to be supported to try, but I also know I won’t be going anywhere near a place of work with my second baby for as long as I can afford to stay away. “You haven’t figured this stuff out yet, have you?” Kim asks, and she’s right. I haven’t.
The thing is, while I appreciate the support (I, too, found the review judgmental and condescending), I’m not entirely sure Deborah is wrong, at least about the having it all at the same time part. Yes, there’s a deep and unfair double standard, but the way Parliament (and most other workplaces) is currently set up, it’s just not true that it’s as easy for a woman to become a parent while maintaining a career as it is for a man. This is why we don’t see paid parental leave taken up in equal measure by men and women.
The debate will play out again a few months later when Jacinda Ardern, newly elected prime minister, announces she is pregnant and is asked about her plans for childcare, as if it may have a bearing on her ability in the job. Again, I’m torn between sharing the outrage of many, and concern that if we silence questions about how hard it is, we shut down the conversation that might lead to changes that make it easier. Somehow, we have to start talking about this stuff in public without falling into the trap of debating the choices of individual women.
‘THIS IS WHY WE DON’T SEE PAID PARENTAL LEAVE TAKEN UP IN EQUAL
MEASURE BY MEN AND WOMEN’
LABOUR KICKS IN
Back inside the hospital I agree to start the drip of synthetic oxytocin that will chemically induce labour. It takes a few hours and increases in dose to kick in, but by mid-afternoon I’m having regular contractions at last. It feels good for my body to finally be doing something productive to bring the birth closer. For two and a half hours I’m able to breathe steadily through the contractions, standing and rocking up onto the balls of my feet with each one. I can even manage a visit from my mum and Esther, who has been collected from day care. But then the contractions start coming one on top of the other with barely a break in between. It’s relentless and overwhelming. My mum and Esther clear out, and I begin to bellow.
After a while I start to talk about an epidural, something I swore I wouldn’t do. Soon I’m begging. The process is set in motion, but there are various delays. We will need 10 good minutes of monitoring, meaning I’ll need to stop moving around so much − no easy feat. Eventually we achieve this, but the doctor who will need to approve me for the epidural is expressing milk for her own baby. After 20 minutes more she arrives, signs the paperwork, and sends for the anaesthetist. The anaesthetist is doing another woman’s epidural and takes another 15 minutes. All the while I’m growing increasingly desperate. How much longer?
At last the anaesthetist arrives, and starts giving me the safety briefing that she must impart to obtain my informed consent. I give it. Then she asks me to sit on the edge of the bed with my feet on a chair, and to curve my spine forward. I try, but
it’s impossible, unbearable. Another contraction starts and I leap involuntarily to my feet. I’m now standing in the middle of the delivery room on a chair, naked from the waist down. I can tell everyone is worried I’m about to fall, but I can’t move, and I’m laughing, too, because this is ridiculous. We decide I will wait out one more contraction, then try again for the epidural. But with that next contraction comes a new sensation, one familiar from my first birth. “I’m pushing,” I bellow, and within a few seconds I’m on the bed on my hands and knees, the midwife and anaesthetist scrambling to assemble the birth kit.
‘You don’t need me anymore,’ sings the anaesthetist, ‘congratulations in advance!’ and she’s gone. It’s just me, Dave and Suzanne. I lean on the back of the hospital bed, burying my face in the starchy sheet, and push. In just a few minutes, it’s over.
I hear a little mewling sound. Suzanne encourages me to reach between my legs and pick up my baby. Her slippery little body is warm and pink, her eyes wide open, head turning from side to side. She does not cry. I turn onto my back and place her wet warmth onto my chest. I’m crying and laughing at the sheer craziness of that birth, and the elation now that this incredible creature is on my chest. With barely an effort she finds my breast, and there we stay for the next hour or so, Dave on the other side of the bed, Suzanne periodically changing the blood-soaked pads beneath me, as we stare in wonder at this girl, who is clearly from the same pool, but somehow still so different from her big sister. It is magical. When she is weighed she is 11 pounds [4.98kg].
I had thought I could not do it, and yet I have done it. I think, if I can do that, I can do anything.
We name her Ngaire, after the Mutton Birds song. When she is five weeks old, there is some hope! Parliament’s new Speaker, Trevor Mallard, holds the daughter of Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime on his lap during debate on the government bill extending paid parental leave to 26 weeks by 2020. It’s a beautiful sight, though I’m sure it’s at least partly contrived for the cameras − there’s really no earthly reason why he should be holding her at this moment. Behind it, though, sits a genuine commitment to make Parliament more familyfriendly. After all those years with a bully-boy reputation, this will be Trevor’s legacy. He will review Parliament’s standing orders, look for ways they could change to support MPs with babies.
How do I know this commitment runs deeper than just for show? Because he shows up on my doorstep not once but twice, bearing pasta meals for our freezer. They’re delicious. He tells John Campbell on RNZ’s Checkpoint that he was shocked to read in my book what a hard time I had and wants to make sure it’s easier for other MPs who are new mums.
It’s bittersweet, hearing this, watching the news of babies in the New Zealand Parliament make headlines around the world, at home with my own second baby asleep on my chest. There’s pride that my experience was at least in part responsible for some positive change. There’s sadness that perhaps if I were having a baby in Parliament now things might be different. But mostly there’s overwhelming relief that I’m not; that I’m home with my new baby, that there’s no pressure to leave her until I’m ready, and that my only obligation other than to care Holly feels relieved she is now able to focus on her two girls, Esther and baby Ngaire, and there’s no pressure to leave them until she feels ready. for her and Esther is to squeeze in the time to write this essay.
Esther asks why I am no longer going to work, but instead staying home to care for Ngaire. “So, Mum,” she says, trying to make sense of it, “the dads go to work, and the mums stay home and look after the babies, eh?”
A BETTER FUTURE
What can I tell her? She is right, both in our individual family circumstance and at the aggregate level. She doesn’t remember when I went back to Parliament when she was four months old; doesn’t remember being cared for full-time by her dad. I hope she doesn’t remember, please let her not remember, what that did to my mental health, what she witnessed.
Instead of answering, I deflect back to her, and ask what she wants to be when she grows up. The answer varies, but lately it’s been some version of “a doctor, an artist and a mum”. Today, though, she’s dropped the doctor. I ask why. “Because I will be too busy looking after my baby, Mum.”
Perhaps she’s been listening to me more closely than I give her credit for. I can’t fault her: my priorities these days are the same. I don’t know whether to celebrate her practical sense, or lament that at four, she’s seen enough of the world to reach this conclusion, even if she changes her mind again tomorrow. I can at least rejoice that she’s leaving room for creativity. And I can hope that some of the parameters will have changed by the time she’s grown. “You can be and do anything you like when you grow up,” I tell her. “Even a doctor.”
“I know, Mum,” she says. “That’s why I’m going to be an artist and a mum.”
‘THE DADS GO TO WORK, AND THE MUMS STAY AT HOME AND LOOK AFTER THE
When Esther was four months old, the former Green MP returned to Parliament, but it took a toll on her mental health and she resigned the following year.
Extracted with permission from Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage, edited byBronwyn Labrum and published by Te Papa Press, $35. Available from all good bookstores.