Nursing back to health – in praise of breastfeeding a sick toddler

First published in Aroha Magazine, September 2015.

Like many parents, I spent a full week of the winter school holidays taking care of a sick toddler. There’s nothing quite like it, is there?

It started with a cry in the night, just as I was getting ready for bed. I the door to my 22 month old daughter Esther’s room to find a sad little face peering at me from between the bars of her cot, pointing to her mattress.

“Spew,” she announced plaintively.

Spew indeed. And more spew, five minutes later while I was changing her pajamas, and more again 30 minutes later, and every hour after that until she finally crashed out, exhausted, at 4.30am. When it became apparent she was not going to keep even breastmilk down, I gave up trying to feed her and rocked her back to sleep on my lap until I could lower her gently back into her bed and slink into mine for an hour or so before getting up to do it all again.

They’re called the wee small hours, and now that I have a child, I understand why. If your child needs you, those hours between midnight and dawn shrink, and fly past with disorientating speed. I don’t mean to suggest they pass easily – they can feel like a hell from which you might never escape – but you become so task orientated (wipe up that vomit, change that nappy, put that load of washing in the dryer, change those sheets, feed the toddler back to sleep) that you can look up and be startled to discover five hours have passed. You know the sleep deprivation will catch up with you later, but right now, you’re too busy keeping your child alive to worry.

That might sound a little melodramatic, but I realised during the week that Esther struggled to keep anything but breastmilk down, that that is exactly what I have been doing – keeping her alive – using the best parenting tool I have: my body.

Before having a child, I never realised what a physical experience motherhood would be. It’s obvious when you’re pregnant of course – a small parasite has literally taken over your body – but I didn’t know it would be the same nearly two years on. If I thought about it at all when I was pregnant, I think I assumed that within a few weeks or months of the birth, my body would feel like my own again. But of course that’s not what it’s like when you’re breastfeeding.

I’m sure all breastfeeding mothers have times when they struggle with this apparent loss of bodily integrity, and for many it plays into the decision to finish breastfeeding, whenever that comes. I’ve certainly had my moments. Sleeping in a crack between my bed and my Esther’s cot for months with her permanently plugged in nearly drove me to distraction, and there have been times when my breasts have been shredded by sharp kneading fingernails that I’ve thought “no more!” But I’ve never been more grateful that I’m still feeding her at 22 months than when she gets sick.

Once she could keep fluids down again, breastfeeding became my best ally. She still didn’t eat any solid food for several days, but I never worried about dehydration or nutrition because I knew she was getting what she needed. She needed heaps of sleep to recover, but was clingy and unsettled in her cot, and I knew if I pulled her into my lap for a feed at the right time she’d be guaranteed an hour’s nap, and I could listen to a podcast and drink a cup of tea. As she slowly returned to her usual livewire self, she nevertheless needed extra connection and reassurance, and because I was around (having taken the week off work to look after her) she could get this from frequent feeds. And even when she couldn’t feed, I knew that the physical closeness of just holding her would comfort and help her to fall asleep.

Yes, I ended the week exhausted, and I was relieved when our nights went back to normal, and my days involved some physical autonomy again. But I said a silent thanks to my past self at all the points when I could have given up breastfeeding but didn’t: at three days when my milk came in and turned my breasts into hard, sore rocks that it felt like this tiny baby could never empty; at four months when I was struggling with an oversupply and stuck in a vicious cycle of pumping and feeding; at nine months when I nearly lost my mind from the sleep deprivation of existing all night in a half-sleep of constant feeding. The intense physical experience of breastfeeding can be challenging and overwhelming, but pays for itself at times like this week!

Me and Alex

First published on my blog the she-book reader, 24 May 2015, and then on The Spinoff, 10 December 2015.

I had seen it on the shelf in the Waterloo School library many times. I was drawn to the cover, which shows a striking, androgynous swimmer emerging from the water, short-cropped hair slick with droplets, an unreadable expression on her face. The tagline hinted that she had experienced something darker and more adult than my child self had yet encountered: “Alex is a champion – and a survivor.” Perhaps for this reason, I never took it out of the library.

alex cover

My copy was gift from Mum, a consolation prize for a ten-year-old who had survived belatedly losing her privileged “only child” status. “To Holly, our own champion, with love from Mum and Dad,” she inscribed in the front cover.

For some reason, when I opened it in front of the aunties and uncles assembled for the celebrations, I pretended I had already read it. This is a habit I’ve never been able to break – nodding along in conversations I’m not following, laughing at references I don’t understand, knowingly meeting people’s eyes and smiling when I’m not even sure what shared meaning we’re exchanging. I’m trying to appear knowledgeable, and to please. In this case, it didn’t work; Mum just looked disappointed that she’d bought me a book I had already read. I hurriedly assured her that it was so good I wanted to read it again and again, which was true. I just didn’t know it yet.

I can actually remember the exact moment when I did. SPOILER ARERT! Alex’s boyfriend, Andy, is killed by a drunk driver about two thirds of the way through. Reading it for the first time, I was devastated. But through my tears, looking up from my bed at the boxes of junk stacked on top of my big oak wardrobe, I had an epiphany – if I didn’t want Andy to be dead, I could just go back to the beginning and read the bits when he was alive again. It was like magic. I hurried to tell mum about this momentous discovery. I think she knew then that I was reading it for the first time after all.

I swam competitively for a little while when I was growing up, but that wasn’t why I connected so strongly with Alex. Like me, she was an over-achiever, and she was hopelessly over-committed. She was a first daughter. Success came easily to her, and when it didn’t she felt aggrieved, like the rules for everyone else shouldn’t have to apply to her. She was headstrong, opinionated, and non-conformist, but she didn’t enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb. She was a proto-feminist. And she could fall apart in a screaming heap when it all got too much. She was further down the path than me – I was only ten, the character was fifteen – but holding that book was like holding up a mirror.

I read the novel (and the three that followed it) again and again through my childhood and early adulthood. I couldn’t shake the sense that Alex was me; that Tessa Duder had somehow seen right inside my head and heart and precisely captured what she saw there.

I took this seriously. When it seemed like my first relationship might turn into something, I gave my boyfriend a copy of Alex. When he handed it back to me he said “I get it.”

During another re-reading, not long after accepting a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, I found the postscript to the final book, which notes that Alex went on to study at Oxford and become a public figure in New Zealand. I felt a shiver of recognition. It felt like pre-destination.

In Oxford, I made a new friend. I felt we were connected on a deep, spiritual level. To check this, I drunkenly interrogated her in the courtyard of the Turf Tavern. Had she read the Alex books growing up? Did she love them as much as I had? Bemused, she played along. I fell off my bike on the way home.

A few years ago, a press release came across my desk. It was the 25th anniversary of Alex. It was being reissued. I was an MP at this point, self-important enough to feel I could email authors directly without appearing ridiculous. I wrote to Tessa Duder and attempted, clumsily, to tell her how much these books, this character had meant to me. She wrote back, charming. Many others had written to her with similar stories over the years. She was taken aback but delighted that her writing had meant so much to so many.

I felt a bit put out – surely no-one else could have identified with this character as strongly, as completely as me? She was me.

But of course, it wasn’t my head and heart Tessa Duder had reached into and reproduced on the page. It was her own. What I had recognised so clearly as a ten year old was authenticity. It should have been no surprise that countless others had had the same response.

Lately I’ve been playing with words, trying to put exactly the right ones on the page in exactly the right order. I want to join that club of magicians who can convey an emotion in words so precisely that readers feel like it was their own. So I reach, as I have so many times for comfort, courage or reassurance, for my dog-eared copy of Alex, this time for inspiration.

We’re off to see the Wizard.

Becoming a grown up

[First published on The Ruminator on 26 June 2015].

I used to think that no-one ever really grows up. There are all these milestones that are supposed to signify maturity, but as I passed each one – turning eighteen, leaving school, turning twenty one, graduating a few times, getting married, turning thirty, having a kid –I didn’t really feel any different. I concluded that everyone must feel like this, and the grown-ups are the ones who figure it out and get on with faking it.

I was wrong. Maybe it doesn’t happen to everyone, but suddenly, at 32, I do feel like a grown-up. I’m pretty sure there’s no going back, but that’s okay. It’s nice over here. Bittersweet.

It happened on a Friday night. I was at a Don McGlashan gig with my partner Dave and his best friend from high school. It was our second night out in 20 months (not coincidentally, also the age of our toddler).

It wasn’t just that our big night out was a seated gig that started at 8.30pm, nor that my first reaction to seeing the audience assembled in the foyer of the Paramount Theatre was “wait, these aren’t our peers are they?”. It definitely wasn’t anything as predictable as the fact that we’re now those parents with nothing to talk about at social events but whether our kid sleeps through the night (she doesn’t). That’s just par for the course when you do nothing but work, manage a chronic illness, and parent a toddler.

No, it was something else.

Don McGlashan is currently touring his latest album, Lucky Stars. At the gigs, he plays the new album in its entirety in the first half, and peppers the pick of his other solo albums with some Mutton Birds and Front Lawn classics in the second half. It’s really good.

My epiphany started during the title track, in which McGlashan describes having an epiphany of his own after dropping his daughter off to her acting job on Shortland Street. It’s a simple song about realising how lucky you are to be standing on the forecourt of a petrol station in Henderson at five in the morning. You know. Oh, you don’t?

I’ve had to spend a lot of time in the last year learning how to find joy in the small things. Walking on a stony beach with a small child. Spreading a hot packet of fish and chips on the floor on a Friday night. The view of Wellingon Harbour from a commuter train window. I’ve never filled up in Henderson, but I know what Don means, and that knowledge was not easily won.

At half time, we stood in line for an ice-cream. We chatted to a few people we haven’t seen for 20 months. It occurred to me that we were all carrying around some heavy shit. My family is still recovering from a tragic event three years ago. A friend lost his brother last year to suicide. Another lost his partner. Someone else lost a family member in the February 2011 earthquake. And those were just the ones I knew about.

And us. It’s not just because we have a small child that we haven’t been out for so long. It’s mostly because the combination of Dave’s illness and my anxiety means that in our new reality, it’s not something we’d usually attempt (in our household a Don McGlashan gig warrants special effort). In the recent past, I’ve thought this makes us exceptional, more than usually unlucky. I’ll be honest; I’ve spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.

But I started to think, licking my ice-cream back in the darkened theatre, that rather than set me apart, these experiences are my passport to life as a grown-up. The older we get, the more experiences we accumulate. After thirty years, it’s not surprising that they start to include the tragic, heartbreaking, and incredibly difficult to bear. To bear them anyway, and go on finding the joy in small things – that’s what grown-ups do.

I know that it took me until my thirties to figure this out makes me one of the lucky ones. You’ve probably known this for ages. Like Dave, who lost his dad at fifteen.

I was thinking about that when McGlashan played “Andy”, perhaps the best-loved Front Lawn song, a letter to his dead brother. I’ve heard it many times, but this was the first time it made me cry, big fat tears smudging the mascara I’d dug out especially from the back of the bathroom cupboard. Does his heart, I wondered, still break for his brother every time he plays it? Was that what I heard that made me cry? Or was I just thinking about my own family, our friend’s brother, Dave’s dad?

Dave’s dad was also called Andy. Long before I met Dave, he learned the chords and changed the words to sing “Andy” at his sister’s twenty first:

She turned twenty-one tonight. If you were still alive you’d be just short of fifty-eight. Oh Andy, don’t keep your distance from me…

There’s a framed letter and CD cover in our sleepout: Songs from the Front Lawn, signed by Don for Dave, after Dave’s friend wrote to Don to tell him about it.

What a gift. Not just the letter and signed CD, but the song itself. To sing about something so personal, put it out into the world, and respond with grace and humanity when others take it and use it to make sense of their own lives.

They say the most personal is the most universal. I’m sure without the universal resonance of Don McGlashan’s personal songs, I would have eventually come to appreciate that the difficult events of the last few years have made me a more fully formed human, but I’m so glad I made it out of the house to figure it out in the Paramount Theatre on that Friday.

I watched my apparently middle-aged peers file out after the second standing ovation. I thought of them going home to relieve babysitters, worry about the whereabouts of teenagers, set the alarm early for Saturday morning sport, or climb into bed next to warm bodies. I thought about those who were going home instead to holes where those things should be. I held on tight to Dave’s hand as we walked to the car.

Much later, our daughter woke, distressed, in the middle of the night. I fed her in my arms, and waited until she rested, heavy limbed, completely at ease. Then I carried her to her bed, like a boat across the water.

How do you do it? Hard lessons in work life balance

First published on The Rhodes Project blog, 24 February 2015.

In her recent memoir, My Story, Julia Gillard set out to answer the question she was most often asked during her tenure as Australian Prime Minister: “how do you do it?”

While cognisant of the unfairness inherent in that question (how many male world leaders do you think get asked that every day?), it was nevertheless a question I was keen to hear the answer to when I sat down with Gillard’s book. I had myself recently stepped down as an MP, having concluded that my own answer, while trying to combine a high-stress, high-profile job with a young baby and other care responsibilities, was: I can’t.

reviewed Gillard’s book and reflected on my own experience, and my time as a Rhodes Scholar. This got me thinking about that mantle of responsibility Rhodes Scholars feel we take on when we accept the great privilege of a free Oxford education: to give back, to contribute, to serve, to lead. Somewhere along the line we started referring to this as “fighting the world’s fight.” This was not one of the criteria stipulated in Cecil Rhodes’ will, but it might as well have been.

But how to fight the world’s fight, and still live a sane and manageable life, including raising children? I didn’t give this much thought until recently, although it was much discussed under the domed ceiling of Rhodes House during my time in Oxford. This coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Scholarship being opened up to women. A commemorative conference was held and a glossy publication profiling a range of women Scholars and their subsequent careers produced. For reasons that now elude me, I didn’t attend the conference, but I did help to edit the publication. In return, I received a “30 years of Rhodes Women t-shirt” that my partner wore around Wellington until it fell to bits a couple of years ago.

Anyway, aside from enjoying reading the illustrious biographies of my ground breaking female predecessors, I didn’t give much thought to how I personally would reconcile my dual aspirations of saving the world and raising a loving, grounded family. I had been  a high achiever, to whom good things like good exam results, scholarships, jobs, and leadership positions had come – if not exactly easily –  at least in a pleasingly seamless and sequential way all my life. I assumed that when the time came, I would effortlessly absorb the responsibilities of raising children and combine them with whatever high profile, worthy job I happened to hold in a manner inspirational to my peers. “How do you do it?” they would ask. “Oh it’s easy,” I would reply, the glass ceiling in shards around my feet. “You just need a supportive partner and good childcare.”

And that’s more or less how,  five years later and back home in New Zealand, I came to find myself an MP, working 12 hour days, travelling regularly, breastfeeding or expressing milk every two hours, and spending nights in a half-sleeping, half-waking trance in the gap between my bed and my baby’s cot, chronically sleep-deprived, losing my mind. I went back to work when my daughter was sixteen weeks old. I was doing it all. I was an inspiration. I was leaning in.

I lasted six months.

It was an agonizing decision to step down. I had invested so much in showing that I could do it all. I didn’t want to have to come out and say: I can’t.

But that was the plain truth. I had hit a wall that I couldn’t climb over. My blithe luck and self-belief had run out. I couldn’t be both an MP and a mum – at least not without falling short of my own high standards for both. It was scary and horrible. But the sense of relief that came when I admitted defeat was amazing. Driving home the day I announced my decision to step down, I had to grip the steering wheel with all my strength to stop the front of the car from lifting off the ground and floating up into the sky.

These days life feels much more manageable. I still work – it’s a financial necessity – but in a job in which my nights and weekends are my own, and I can knock off at a time conducive to picking up a toddler from daycare. I still have a supportive partner, but now instead of our household being oriented towards allowing me to carry on in a demanding job, I get to support him as well. I have the time and energy to embark upon interesting new projects, like reading only women writers for a year and reviewing them all on a blog.

I still want to fight the world’s fight. I work for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and take pride in the fact my work is making a difference for some of our littlest citizens. But crucially, I’ve realised that raising my own little citizen to be secure, happy, active, and engaged is still part of the fight.

I badly wanted to prove that it was possible to be both a great mum and a great MP, and some days I still feel the sting that I “failed” in this quest. An unpleasant voice in my head sometimes questions the return on the $100,000+ investment on my Oxford education now that I’m on a less obvious “leadership” trajectory. But I’ve realised that fighting that inner critic, too, is also important.

One day – when time and family permits – I hope to step back onto a public stage, whether in politics or in some other sphere, if for no other reason than I’m an A-type personality, and I like it. Until then, I’ll fiercely support and encourage other women to combine parenting and politics if they want to and think they can.  More representative parliaments make better decisions, so we need as many mothers in there as we can get. But I’ll also tell them straight: it’s damn hard. And if it’s too hard, it’s ok. The world’s fight is being fought on many fronts, and front and centre is only one of them.

Review: My Story by Julia Gillard

First published on my blog about women’s writing, the she-book reader, 8 December 2014.


In October 2012, I went on a political exchange to Australia as part of a delegation from the New Zealand Parliament. Towards the end of our trip, we visited the Australian Parliament, where we met with MPs from across the House and Senate, observed Question Time, and, as is customary for a delegation of this type, were formally hosted by the Speaker in his office.

The Speaker at that time was Peter Slipper. We did not catch him on a good day. In fact, we found ourselves in the truly bizarre position of having to make small talk about the All Blacks and the differences between MMP and STV while a few metres away, a fierce debate raged in the House on a motion of no confidence in him as Speaker (he was accused of sexually harassing a former staff member by sending obscene and unwelcome text messages). The motion was defeated by one vote, but a few hours later, Slipper resigned as Speaker anyway.

Very audaciously, I wrote “historic day!” in his visitors’ book on my way out. It was one of the stranger experiences of my time as an MP.

As it turns out, 9 October 2012 was an “historic day!” but not really because of Peter Slipper. Then-Opposition leader Tony Abbott decided to make political hay out of Slipper’s disgrace by moving the surprise no-confidence motion, feigning moral outrage at the sexism inherent in Slipper’s bizarre text messages.

For Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, this was a bridge too far.

“For fuck’s sake, after all the shit I have put up with, now I have to listen to Abbott lecturing me on sexism,”

she thought. And she got up and gave this speech:

I wish I’d been in the public gallery for that instead of making unbelievably awkward small talk with Peter Slipper while his career lay in tatters on the plush green carpet. That Slipper’s misdeeds were the catalyst for Julia Gillard’s now infamous “misogyny speech” is now nothing more than an interesting footnote. Julia Gillard finally calling time on the sexism she had endured for two years as Prime Minister was the real story.

The speech went viral. Women around the world shared it with a sense of relief and delight that FINALLY, someone was saying what needed to be said, and naming as sexism and misogyny the entrenched prejudices women face in politics. It has been viewed millions of times online. School students study it. The Macquarie Dictionary even changed its definition of “misogyny” as a result of it.

Whether she likes it or not, the misogyny speech will be Julia Gillard’s most notable legacy, and it is not an insignificant one. I still get fired up when I hear it. It almost (but not really) makes me wish I was still in Parliament. It will have had an untold impact on hundreds of thousands of women and girls around the world. Years from now, successful women will cite it and her as their inspiration.

But as much as she has come to embrace her status of global feminist hero, I think Gillard would like to be remembered for more. My Story is her attempt to craft the legacy she would really like to be remembered for: education reform, better support for people with disabilities, putting a price on carbon. It is, as the title suggests, the story she wanted to tell during her three fraught years as Prime Minister; her counterpoint to the hyper-critical narrative created by the news media, the Opposition, and frequently, her own party. She wants to be remembered in the same breath as Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam as much as she does Helen Clark and Angela Merkel.

That Gillard even now feels some tension between being remembered for the mark she made as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, and not for the policies she was able to implement, is telling about the experience of women in public life generally. What was so notable about the misogyny speech was that up until then, Gillard had very pointedly not responded to the gendered critiques that came thick and fast after she ousted Kevin Rudd to become Prime Minister in 2010. She assumed, wrongly, that if she ignored them, they would go away, but they didn’t. Yet when she finally called them out, she was accused of “playing the gender card”. She couldn’t win.

Will My Story  satisfy her desire to be remembered as much for her policies as for her gender? No doubt it was important for her to get some of this stuff off her chest (she certainly doesn’t hold back her thoughts about Kevin Rudd, who eventually ousted her back), and I’m glad as a reader that she did. It’s an engaging and thought-provoking book. Her voice, unconstrained by political risk-mitigation and focus-group testing, is frank, warm, and humorous. I heard her speak a few weeks ago and can attest that in person she is as charming and gregarious as she is on the page. No doubt some readers will change their impression of her if they read it, but I suspect that the people whose hearts and minds she really wants to touch – working class Australians – won’t.

Mostly she’ll be preaching to the converted, like me, and even then there was much I disagreed with her about – her dismissive attitude towards the Australian Greens, her inhumane asylum seeker policies, and her strong belief in standardised education testing and league-tables, for example. I know people who won’t pick up this book in protest about the refugee issue, but for me that wasn’t the point.

I was most interested in the question Gillard poses for herself at the start of the book: “how did I do it?” During her three years as Australian Prime Minister, that was what most people came up to her and said – “I don’t know how you do it.” In my brief political career, I was sometimes asked the same thing. I was a low-profile backbench MP with a ridiculously small workload by comparison, but in the end, my answer was “I can’t.”

I still want to know how. That’s why I read My Story, and why I plan to read Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices soon too, regardless of what I think of their politics.

For the record, Gillard’s answer is personal resilience and a clear sense of purpose. Handy tips for the modern woman, whatever sphere she operates in.