By. Holly Walker, as printed in Stuff.co.nz
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.
When I found out I was pregnant in early January 2013, I was full of hope and excitement, about both the new life growing inside me and the possibility of being a mother in Parliament. I felt strongly that women should be able to combine parenting with politics, and I was looking forward to showing that it could be done.
A few others, like Ruth Richardson, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, Katherine Rich and my contemporary Nanaia Mahuta had done it before, and it seemed like each trailblazer had made it a little easier for those coming next. Parliament’s Speaker, David Carter, granted me fourteen weeks’ parental leave and, for the first few months after my return, the ability to go home at 6pm instead of working until 10pm.
My Green Party colleagues arranged to cover my portfolios while I was away and keep some of my workload after my return so that I could ease back in. My partner took time off from his job as a manager at the Waitangi Tribunal to look after our daughter full-time.
People kept sharing photos of an Italian European Parliament member, Licia Ronzulli, to my Facebook timeline. These showed her daughter growing from a newborn to a toddler on her lap while her mother voted in the chamber.
Though I didn’t plan to take my baby into the House with me – with a parents’ room across the hall where I could breastfeed, it didn’t seem necessary – I expected to seamlessly integrate a small person into my busy professional life. I probably hoped people would send articles about me to each other in a few years’ time.
I was used to functioning highly, packing a lot into my days, excelling at everything I tried. I assumed that combining parenting and politics would be no different.
I was wrong.
BACK TO REALITY
In the months after I returned to work, those images of Licia Ronzulli began to haunt me. They just didn’t compute. There was no way my kid would have slept peacefully in my arms if I had tried to take her into the debating chamber. She would have screamed the House down with reflux and vomited on my papers. She certainly disrupted many Green Party caucus meetings this way.
Each morning it felt like I was tearing myself in half leaving her, even though my partner brought her in for a feed at lunchtime.
I left caucus and select committee meetings at regular intervals to express milk, and found myself with an out-of-control oversupply problem (don’t ask). She was not a “good sleeper”.
My nights were spent in a kind of half-life, wedged in the crack between my bed and her cot. I was chronically sleep-deprived and increasingly anxious. I checked myself against an online post-natal depression scale and got a score that I didn’t want to think about.
Then my partner developed chronic pain as a result of a neuromuscular disorder, and things really turned to custard. For most people, being an MP is actually a two-person job: partners provide a huge amount of behind-the-scenes support. When my partner was suddenly unable to support me, let alone take care of our baby, it became clear that we had officially moved from “just coping” to “not coping”. Something had to change.
In July 2014 I announced I would relinquish my place on the Green Party list. The relief that came with letting go of the job was palpable. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have been able to do it. Maybe if my family hadn’t suffered a tragedy in 2012 that called on me to provide a lot of support. Maybe if I hadn’t had a baby so soon after becoming an MP. Maybe if Dave hadn’t got sick.
Maybe if I was a man.
In the wake of my departure I was asked a lot of questions about whether my experience showed that it was too hard for women to have babies in Parliament. For reasons that I couldn’t articulate at the time, it seemed important to emphasise that there were no structural barriers. I wanted people to know that I had simply experienced a particularly difficult run of bad luck. Others could – and should, I insisted – do it in my wake.
WITHDRAWING FROM PUBLIC LIFE
When I was still pregnant I had invited Katherine Rich up to my office for a coffee.
I didn’t know her well. In 2012 I had a Members’ Bill pulled from the ballot that would have introduced a lobbying disclosure regime to New Zealand politics. I invited prominent lobbyists – Rich, in her role as chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council, among them – to meet with me to discuss how the bill might affect them. Our conversation was amicable.
So when I fell pregnant, I felt like I could approach her to pick her brains about what it had been like to become a mother in Parliament. She was generous, honest and encouraging, though perhaps for my sake she held back a little on the difficult reality. At the end of our conversation she said something that struck me as strange at the time. “If you ever need anything,” she said, “even just someone to stand in your office and hold your baby while you work, I would do that for you.”
This was a woman I barely knew; a lobbyist I was trying to regulate, and a former MP from the opposite end of the political spectrum; a woman who was very busy with her own job and family. Yet in that moment, she was simply a mother offering support to another mother. I’ll never forget it. Now, I think that offer was Rich’s way of telling me that she knew how hard it would be. Parliament is not an easy place for women, let alone new mothers.
Looking back, there are ways I felt silenced by Parliament right from the beginning. When I delivered my maiden speech, my usually strong and confident voice threatened not to come out at all, so daunted was I by the occasion and the place.
In the first few months, I was often required to speak on bills I knew nothing about. The days were so full, I would have only a few minutes to frantically scan a bill before delivering the Green Party’s position. Once, late at night, faced with a particularly obscure heritage bill, I begged the colleague who had held the portfolio before me to give my speech, certain I would otherwise crash and burn. She generously obliged, even though she also had her own bills to cover. It was a stunt I could pull only once.
Gradually, as I listened to the quality of debate in the House, I realised that aside from ministers and one or two subject experts, most MPs knew very little about the bills they were speaking on. Most simply riffed off one or two talking points to fill their ten minutes. Knowing this, I got better at thinking on my feet, but I never shook the feeling that my utterances were not worth recording as a legally admissible part of Parliament’s proceedings.
When I had finally discharged my responsibilities in the 2014 election campaign, I turned off my already diminished voice altogether. I drew the metaphorical duvet over my head. I hated it when people asked me about politics, Parliament or my experience. I developed a fear of public speaking and a phobia of situations where people looked at me to lead. Gradually, I withdrew from every other position of authority I held – community boards, committees, my local Green Party branch – the lot. I found a fulfilling new job with no public-facing aspects, and kept my head down.
WOMEN IN PARLIAMENT
As the Green Party’s electoral reform spokes-person, I spent a lot of time thinking about MMP. The introduction of a proportional voting system in 1996 saw a rapid improvement in the percentage of women in Parliament, one of the strong arguments for retaining MMP at the 2011 referendum.
Yet after leaping from 21 per cent in 1993 to over 29 per cent in 1996, the proportion of women in Parliament has remained largely static for the last twenty years. Many politicians and academics have debated how to resolve this. Most of the solutions proffered encourage more individual women to put themselves forward, and challenge political parties to identify and foster more women candidates. To their credit, most parties are attempting to do this.
Ultimately, though, this approach requires individuals to put themselves and their families through the wringer of an election campaign and then, if successful, to subsume themselves to the sometimes absurd demands of a parliamentary career. For me, these included working from (at least) 8am until 10pm on sitting days; a punishing travel schedule; nights and weekends full of public events; being expected to accept phone calls from journalists at any time; conversations about welfare policy at the supermarket; bruising encounters in Question Time; being shouted at by angry members of the public; and having my body and clothes criticised online.
Sure, the pay’s pretty good, but everyone knows what it is, and they won’t let you forget that you’d better work hard to earn it. The subtext is: if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. But what if, instead of waiting for people to burn out and get out, we threw open a few windows and doors and tried to bring the temperature in the kitchen down a few degrees?
Until we figure out how to do this, I don’t think Parliament will achieve gender equality, let alone welcome the more diverse voices of those with different abilities, ethnic backgrounds and gender and sexual identities.
I’ve got a few ideas about where to start, although this is just a personal wish list that needs to be part of a wider conversation.
We have a list-based political system. Why not let an MP take an unpaid leave of absence for a year, to be temporarily replaced by the next person on the list? This would allow a more manageable early parenting experience, while also providing invaluable training for up-and-coming politicians. The same provision could also be used by MPs needing to care for sick relatives or recover from illness.
Could electorate MPs run on a joint ticket and job-share? I ran a joint campaign in Lower Hutt with another candidate. We stood for adjacent seats, although she actually lived in the same electorate as me. She has four children; I had a new baby and a sick partner. We are both highly capable, articulate women with a lot to offer but also a lot of care responsibilities. The Green Party only elects list MPs, but theoretically, if a job-share was available, I’m confident we would have been fantastic.
Can we review the days and hours that Parliament sits to make them more family-friendly? Late nights are difficult for Wellington-based MPs with small children, and so are spending thirty-plus weeks away from home for parents from other electorates. What if Parliament sat for fewer weeks in the year, five days a week, finishing at 5 p.m.? The same number of constituency days could be preserved, parents could spend more weeks at home, and those whose children are with them in Wellington could spend the evenings with their family.
What about the draft code of conduct for MPs that’s been floating around for years but going nowhere because the major parties refuse to sign it? Is it really too much to stipulate that it’s not okay to shout people down when they are speaking, make rape jokes in committee meetings, or comment on a woman’s body hair in the lunch line? (All of these are real examples, by the way.)
BACK TO PUBLIC LIFE
As for me, and my voice, I’m pleased to say I found it again. I spent a year reading only words written by women.
I took an online writing course and met a group of fierce women on the other side of the world who I could safely share all of myself with, precisely because they knew nothing about me or my thwarted political career. I practised on them, and slowly, tentatively, I started sharing pieces like this one.
These days, I have no desire to resurrect my political career, at least not in the foreseeable future. But now that I have found my voice again, I have every intention of using it.
Copyright © 2016 Holly Walker Extract from The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, 2016, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, Chapter 8, pp.112–125
04/30/2016 – 06:00