Op-ed: It’s a huge deal to have babies in Parliament. Not talking serves no one

On 2 August 2017 I wrote this opinion piece for Stuff in response to Jacinda Ardern’s election as Labour Party leader and the questions she subsequently faced about whether she planned to have children.

When I was a Green MP and pregnant with my first child, former National MP Katherine Rich stood in my office and told me that she would do anything she could to help make the experience I was about to have easier.

She would even, she said, come and hold the baby for me while I worked.

I was taken aback by this generous offer, because I didn’t know her very well.

It seemed like the kind of thing you might offer to your family or close friends, not an acquaintance from a very different political background.

I see now that it was her way of telling me just how hard having a baby while an MP, was going to be. It was very, very hard.

Continue reading “Op-ed: It’s a huge deal to have babies in Parliament. Not talking serves no one”

“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

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

Press coverage of The Whole Intimate Mess

My book The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing was published by Bridget Williams Books in June 2017. You can find out more and order it here.

I’ve been fortunate to have had wide and generous press coverage of the book, and I’ve collected some of that here. I’m pleased that it has prompted some interesting conversations about women, work, parenthood and mental health.

The Whole Intimate Mess – Holly Walker‘, Up Again with James Dann, Interview on RDU FM, 28 July 2017.

Unacceptable Choices‘, Review by Alison McCulloch, Scoop Review of Books, 14 July 2017.

I am ok, and thanks for asking!‘, Interview with Susan Strongman, The Wireless, 6 July 2017.

Torn in two: Former Green MP Holly Walker discusses trading Parliament for motherhood‘, Michelle Duff, Sunday magazine, 2 July 2017.

A Private Face‘, Sunday TVNZ, 25 June 2017.

Holly Walker: The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks, 21 June 2017.

Holly Walker – The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Interview with Kim Hill on RNZ, 17 June 2017.

Holly Walker – The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Interview with Ryan Bradley on Radio Live, 17 June 2017.

You can’t always get everything you want: Deborah Coddington reviews Holly Walker‘, Deborah Coddingham, The Spinoff, 15 June 2017.

A brief history of feminist literature in New Zealand: Tessa Duder on her classic novel Alex‘, Tessa Duder, The Spinoff, 14 June 2017.

Holly Walker and the books her kid is reading‘, The Sapling, 14 June 2017.

‘I really admire that you have been open about mental health as a candidate’: Chlöe Swarbrick in conversation with Holly Walker‘, Chlöe Swarbrick and Holly Walker, The Spinoff, 13 June 2017.

‘There is nothing normal about crawling up the hallway, screaming and hitting yourself in the head’: former Green MP Holly Walker shares her story‘, Holly Walker, The Spinoff, 12 June 2017.

An interview with Patricia Grace

My aim has always been to write about ordinary people and their ordinary lives.

Since becoming the first Māori woman to publish a book of short stories in English in 1975, Patricia Grace has always made a commitment to tell the stories of ordinary people and their ordinary lives. That just happens to be a political act when those people haven’t had a voice in literature before, and a revolutionary act when their ways of telling stories push the boundaries of conventional literary form.

Grace’s 2015 novel, Chappy – her first in 10 years – tells the story of a Japanese stowaway who finds himself integrated into a small Māori community before running away from his family to avoid capture as an “enemy alien” in WWII. It’s warmer and gentler than her earlier work, but no less political in its expectation that readers see Māori communities for what they are: strong, loving, resilient.

It’s shortlisted in the fiction category in next week’s Ockham Book Awards. Ahead of the ceremony in Auckland, I interviewed Grace from her home in Hongoeka Bay, Wellington. You can read it on The Spinoff.

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.

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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.