When I was an MP, I used to tell people that I went into politics to use my voice. Yet at the end of three years in Parliament, I had lost my voice completely.
This essay first appeared on The Wireless on 12 February 2016.
You never regret a swim. It was our mantra, a code for the way we would live our lives and define our relationship. We preached it to others. I used to imagine giving interviews and being asked, “What’s one piece of advice you would give to a young person starting out today?”
“You never regret a swim,” I would say. “That’s something to live by.”
Practicing what we preached, we swam everywhere. Midwinter in the Marlborough Sounds, breath steaming as we ran down the hill to the pontoon. In Cook Strait at the bottom of our street when we lived in Island Bay, chests seizing up from the cold. In a park in Switzerland, floating down the river with naked Europeans before clambering out to do it again. I nearly lost my engagement ring this way (back when I still took it off); Dave did lose his greenstone. But we didn’t regret the swim.
We made others come too. When my brother stayed with us for a week before starting an Outward Bound course, Dave dragged him down to Petone wharf every morning and heaved him over the side, calling it “training.” We took part in the “polar plunge” in the midwinter carnival, joining a hundred or so others to run shouting and costumed into the harbour in a howling southerly.
After Dave’s 30th birthday party at Waikawa Beach, we led the late night stragglers through the dunes to go skinny dipping. After my 30th birthday party three years later we did the same at Petone beach. We added arbitrary rules along the way: three times under or it’s not a swim.
You never regret a swim. But what if you can’t even get onto the beach?
Last summer was hot. We live less than a minute from the beach. But I didn’t go once.
I had been excited about last summer. The year before, we’d had a newborn. The invisible cord between me and her was short. One night we walked down to the beach after dinner and Dave took her in the front-pack so I could have a swim. I dashed in, dipped my head under quickly three times, and ran back, imagining I could hear her screaming on the beach. I almost regretted the swim – a first. It will be easier next year, I thought.
In late spring I attended a La Leche League meeting where the icebreaker topic was what we were looking forward to that summer. “More time at the beach,” I said confidently. “Now that Esther is bigger and I can actually enjoy it.”
Miraculously, having a baby and breastfeeding had helped me shed years of unfounded self-consciousness about my body. I was proud of my curves, the belly that had borne my daughter, the breasts that sustained her. I bought my first bikini. I couldn’t wait to wear it.
But I couldn’t seem to get onto the beach.
Dave was sick. Six months earlier his previously benign neuromuscular condition had developed into chronic back and shoulder pain, probably as a result of hefting Esther around at home while I tried to keep up my duties as an MP. We spent our savings on a nanny while we waited for it to go away, but it didn’t. Eventually, we reached breaking point – not just financially – and I announced that I would step down from Parliament at the election.
By the time summer was in full swing, I had left my high profile job, but in many ways I was under even more strain. Dave was either in pain, exhausted, or sick from his painkillers most of the time. He barely got up off the couch. If I wanted to go to the beach, it was on me. I felt crushed by the weight of it. The idea of taking a toddler to the beach by myself, without another adult pair of hands to lift, chase, catch, change, wipe, spread sunscreen, make sandcastles and fend off overfriendly dogs terrified me.
Instead of being a source of joy and relaxation, the thought of the beach made my heart race and my palms sweaty.
I spent many hours walking parallel to the beach with Esther asleep in her buggy, protected by the shade cover. It was beautiful. Families played together in the shallows, shared picnics and fish-and-chips. Couples snuggled on blankets, beers in hand. I so desperately wanted to join them, to be them, but I couldn’t cross from the concrete path beside the sea wall onto the sand. I could actually see a force field stopping me, shimmering like a wall of heat between the path and the sea. Behind it, my peers enjoyed the record-breaking summer. On the other side, I trudged on, waiting for my baby to fall asleep so I could put on another podcast, sweat trickling down my back.
I did make it to the beach once. Between Christmas and New Year I took Esther to Nelson overnight to visit family and catch up with some friends. The friends had a baby six months younger, and they were already in the habit of taking her to the beach for early evening swims. I was insanely jealous, but intoxicated with the idea that maybe if I went with them, I could break through the force field.
I could actually see a force field stopping me, shimmering like a wall of heat between the path and the sea.
We drove to the beach. Outside the car, I became paralysed with indecision, trying to figure out which bags to carry, where Esther’s hat was, and whether to bring my togs, or change into them later. My friend gently suggested that while it might be reassuring to have everything with me, we weren’t going far and perhaps I didn’t need to bring it all. Flustered and embarrassed, I left the lot in the car.
By the time we had walked several hundred metres and chosen a place to swim, the idea of walking back, getting the gear, and changing myself and Esther, only to end up in wet togs with a sandy baby, had become insurmountable. I demurred at my friends’ offers to keep an eye on Esther and watched them play in the shallows with their daughter, hovering nervously over my own child as she toddled on the sand in her singlet and nappy. I wanted to cry.
You never regret a swim. But there’s plenty else to regret.
As the summer went on, I thought the force field might recede. It didn’t. My mum came to pick Esther up one Sunday morning. “I thought I might take her to the beach,” she said. “Your sister can come too. It’s easier for me to take her out when I’ve got another pair of hands.”
“Great. She’ll love it,” I said, though it felt like salt in a wound.
Dave’s mum was looking after Esther when I came home from work one hot Friday afternoon. “You two should go for a swim,” she said. “I can stay a bit longer.”
Dave and I looked at each other. “It’s ok,” I said. “It’s not that hot anymore.”
One Saturday morning in March as the summer was drawing to an end, we went out for breakfast first thing. We often do this when Dave wakes up sore. It’s a distraction for him, and means I don’t have to try to entertain a toddler and prepare a meal by myself. Afterwards, we drove to the park by the beach. “I’d like to see what she can do at the playground,” Dave said. “I think I’m up to it.”
We got out of the car. Esther charged off, overjoyed. She went down the slide a few times, crawled through the tunnel. Dave was amazed with how much more she could do than last time he’d seen her at a playground. Then she took off towards the steps that led up the sand dunes and down to the beach. We followed. She climbed to the top of the steps. The beach unfolded in front of us.
“Wowowowow!” She ran onto the sand. The wind caught her curly hair, whipped it around her face. She laughed and squealed with glee. She ran towards the water, stopping to pick up shells and sticks, poke fat fingers into grey sand. We followed.
I winced. She was so close to the force field. But she didn’t see it. She ran right through it.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
I 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.