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’

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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.

MILE­STONE MO­MENT

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

BA­BIES, EH?’

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.

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