“Having it all” – my speech at the launch of The Whole Intimate Mess

On 22 June 2017 my publishers at Bridget Williams Books put on a delightful launch event for my book The Whole Intimate Mess at Vic Books Pipitea. The incomparable Emily Writes was the guest speaker. Emily spoke beautifully – you can see what she said here. And below is a rough approximation of what I said. It was wonderful to be so supported by family, friends, colleagues and readers. Thank you to everyone who came, and all those who bought a copy.

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Photo: Dave Crampton

Ka titiro atu au ki Pukeatua e tu mai rā.

Ka whakarongo ake au ki nga ripo o Te Awakairangi.

I tupu au i raro i te raukura o Te Ātiawa i Pito-one.

Tēnā koutou katoa.

Tēnā koe Emily, for your beautiful words. The words you have spoken tonight, which have rather bowled me over, and the many true, funny, furious words you have written about parenting in the last two years. Time and again I turn to them for comfort and connection, as I know so many other tired mothers do. I know it’s not always easy for you to speak your truth; that there are people out there who try to make your life difficult when you do. Please, don’t let them win. We need you. I have loved getting to know you, loved every minute of the tragically short-lived podcast we made together, and I am delighted to call you my friend, and to have you here tonight. Thank you.

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Photo: Dave Crampton

To the many friends, family, loved ones and past and present colleagues here tonight, nga mihi aroha ki a koutou. It is quite overwhelming to see you all in one place – almost as good as the moment I describe in the book when Dave and I walked up the aisle at our civil union and saw many of the same faces beaming back at us.

Sometimes it’s very good to be reminded, in the flesh, of our support networks, of all the people who love us and care for us and want the best for us. As those of you who’ve already read the book – or some of the more sensational coverage of it – will know, Esther and Dave and I went through some pretty hard and lonely times in the last three or four years, and during some of those times I forgot, or didn’t let myself remember, those support networks.

Many of you have said versions of “if only I’d known, I would have done more to help,” and to all of you I say, I’m sorry.

I became very adept at pretending that everything was fine – even to my closest family – until it wasn’t. Leaving Parliament felt like a hard decision at the time but with the benefit of some distance I can now say that I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It feels good to be going into this parenting journey a second time on a much more sustainable footing, and you can all trust that if things get hard, this time I WILL come asking for help when I need it! So watch out.

When I’ve been doing media interviews about this book – and I’ve been quite humbled and a little bit embarrassed by the level of interest in it – there have been a few recurring themes in the questions, and chief amongst them is this old chestnut: “Can women really have it all?”

This question makes me pretty mad, as I’m sure it does many of you, but these days it makes me mad in different ways than it used to.

Before I went into Parliament, before I had a baby, it used to make me mad because I would think “What kind of a question is that? Of course we can! Anything men can do, women can do, and probably better!” Driven by that outrage, I charged blithely into parenthood while still in Parliament, determined to put the question to rest once and for all. “Just watch me,” I thought.

But what I discovered was that parenthood changes you in ways you can’t possibly predict. It was wonderful, breathtaking, amazing – but it also made me anxious, guilty and terrified a lot of the time.

I had also not anticipated the sheer physical pull of the biological and hormonal imperative I would feel not to be separated from my baby. All the rational ideas I had about how we would organise our lives and care for our daughter went out the window in the face of that. I realised there was more to this whole being a mother business than I had bargained for. It was changing who I was.

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Photo: Dave Crampton

I love the slightly creepy way Miranda July describes this process, in her novel The First Bad Man, and I quoted her in the book:

I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being molded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother. It hurt. I tried to be conscious when it happened, like watching my own surgery. I hoped to retain a tiny corner of the old me, just enough to warn other women with. But I knew this was unlikely: when the process was complete I wouldn’t have anything left to complain with. It wouldn’t hurt anymore. I wouldn’t remember.

I have done my best to remember, and to write down what it felt like for me, in this book. And in the end, when we come back to the question about having it all, it now makes me mad in a different way: it makes me mad that our idea of “having it all” is so brutal, so ruthless and inflexible.

When we say that, we mean can women work full time, even in high powered careers, spend enough time with our children and parent them in meaningful, authentic ways that feel right to us, while holding onto our sense of ourselves as autonomous beings in the world, with likes, interests, hobbies, and a social life outside of our work and our family?

The answer is of course we can’t! No-one ever has. Men who have “succeeded” against our traditional measures of masculine success don’t do all that shit! This shouldn’t be the yardstick that we measure women’s success against.

Instead, let’s redefine what “having it all” looks like for everyone, men and women and everyone else. I think it looks like more part time and flexible work for everyone (work that’s better paid for most people), acceptance of the idea that all genders might share duties of care and domestic labour without this being unusual, acceptance that undertaking care responsibilities is a real and valuable contribution to our economy and society, understanding that we all have different abilities and our own versions of success will look different depending on what these are, and designing our institutions – like Parliament – to reflect these realities. That’s what I would like to see.

If this book contributes to advancing that conversation, even a tiny bit, then I’ll be very happy. And if even one person reads what it was like for me when I was anxious and overwhelmed and losing it, and feels less alone in their struggles, then I’ll be even happier still.

Now there are some thanks that I need to say publicly. Tēnā korua Bridget and Tom. Thank you for publishing this book, which is quite different from many of the others in the Texts series. I’ll never forget the first meeting I had with you two, when I had come in to pitch you a very earnest proposal for a book of interviews with women writers.

You listened politely, then quietly put my chapter outline to one side and said, “that’s all very nice, but we’d like to hear more from you Holly. What other stories could you tell?” When I, floundering, proceeded to blurt out my innermost secrets, you didn’t bat an eye, just calmly said, “we think the story about you leaving Parliament and reading women writers is worth telling.” And so it was, in the end. It’s an absolute honour to be published by BWB, and to be amongst the stable of writers whose powerful voices you have amplified out into the world over the years.

I am part of two incredible groups of women writers – a close-knit group of 10 (all American except for me) who have become some of my closest friends and confidants, and all of whom contributed hugely to this book being written. I wish they could be here today.

And the Brilliant and Amazing Mothers and Writers, many of whom are here today, who are the most supportive online community I’ve ever been part of. My early readers – Jen Hamilton Hernandez, Jessica Gilkison and Nadine Millar – came from these groups and provided wise and perceptive feedback on an early draft.

BWB arranged for Anna Hodge to edit the book, and she was an absolute joy to work with. I knew we would get on fine when she told me how much she also loved Alex, and I am very grateful for her close-reading, careful suggestions, and big picture thinking, all of which improved the book immeasurably.

Julia Wells from BWB has worked tirelessly on the logistics, media coverage, launch, and publicity for the book, and done an outstanding job. Thank you Julia.

The bulk of the work putting the manuscript together was done over summer, with the help of both my dad Tim and step-mum Roz, who were visiting and took Esther out on lots of outings so I could write, and my parents-in-law Lesley and Rick, who were away, and whose lovely Days Bay home became my own personal writing retreat.

To my mum Wendy, my dad Simon, and my siblings and siblings in law, thank you for your unconditional support, even when the things I do or say or share with the world come as bolts from the blue. I’m working on that!

To Esther, who changed everything, ultimately for the better, I love you. And Dave, who has put up with having so much of our life together exposed with incredible good grace and good humour, I’m sorry, and I love you too, more than ever.

Thank you all so much for being here tonight, for supporting me, and this book, and our family.

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

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Photo: Dave Crampton