Babies in the Beehive
Our Prime Minister has recently had her baby, but she won't be the first Kiwi MP to combine parenting and politics. We talked to Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime about juggling new motherhood with a demanding role in government...
Interview Noelle McCarthy
Photography Tim Onnes
Are babies in parliament the new normal?
It’s becoming the new normal. When we arrived the place was pretty sterile. It didn’t feel family-friendly but over time, we’ve settled in and bought baby gear and really made it homely. Not only is [my baby daughter] Heeni here but we also have Hiwa-i-te-rangi, Kiritapu Allan’s baby, who often comes in.
You and Bay of Plenty MP Kiritapu Allan are office neighbours aren’t you?
Yes. They dubbed this the maternity wing of the parliament offices. A lot of thought went into where to put us to support the work that we’re doing and our families that come and go to support us. These rooms have kitchens. There’s a shower, and we can bath the babies up here in their bucket baths.
Were you nervous, the first time you breastfed in the debating chamber?
I was. Parliament is televised 24/7 and it is such a new thing. I knew that it would get comment and feedback and be visible. Breastfeeding is completely natural and something I do all the time but I was still getting familiar with the place. That was our first day of sitting in the House, and I happened to walk through the doors with the baby, and then she woke and needed feeding. It all just happened – I had no time to prepare, I just had to respond. That was perfect because if I had to overthink it, it would have been more challenging. I just had to calm myself right down, my heartbeat right down, and focus on latching Heeni on and feeding, and then we were doing it, and it was amazing. Doing something for the first time is always a challenge. It got so much easier after that. As a new mum, I find the first time doing anything is terrifying. Absolutely that’s how I would describe that feeling. Terrifying the first time and then you get more confident. My attitude to it is that babies will be babies, and nothing goes as planned, so we just have to test the situation. It’s one thing to say we want parliament to be family friendly, and then it is another thing to actually be that, in all of the actions. So I’m not doing anybody a service if I don’t just do things normally as any parent would. That’s what we do when we’re here, and sometimes it goes amazingly well and sometimes it doesn’t. Society needs to understand and support that, and not put unrealistic expectations on our parents and our babies.
You mentioned being supported by family. Does that make a difference?
It makes all the difference. I don’t think I could do it if it was just me by myself. I have done days myself, or one part of a day. Having Mum here means that I am able to do the job day-on-day and week-on-week. Having my husband back home with our two-and-a-half-year-old Hihana means that she has stability and continuity in terms of her Kohanga Reo and her home life [in Northland]. I believe it takes a village to raise a child, and I’ve brought my village with me down here.
That image of the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, holding baby Heeni – I sent it to my friends all over the world. It made me feel proud to be a mum in New Zealand. What was it like for you?
People will know that nobody is allowed in the Speaker’s chair except for the Speaker! But he’s made an exception for the babies – and I think possibly that is a first in the world. I know that it went international. It’s symbolic but it also is showing our commitment to role modelling and leading in our society. I thought it was a beautiful thing. Since then he’s held other babies up there, which is great, and the thing about Trevor is he doesn’t just do it for a media stunt. I’ve got pictures of him pushing my baby around in her pushchair. He’s come swimming with us in the parliamentary pool. That image is symbolic but it also is genuine and showing what a difference they’ve made to this place.
How much thought did you give to timing when it came to planning your family?
It took almost five years to get pregnant with our first baby, Hihana. We had planned her, but she didn’t come according to plan. My pregnancy with her was confirmed just after I was announced as the Labour Party candidate for Northland in the 2014 election. I was shocked, as was the rest of my family. People say, ‘Oh you just need to relax and have a holiday.’ I was the opposite. Give me more to do and baby will come at the time when I’m the busiest and most stressed in life! Hihana is a gift, and we just thought, what will be, will be, and we will just have to come together as a whanau and support one another through it. Hihana was then six days old when the Northland by-election was announced. I think I had a cry. Probably being hormonal, but also just that my baby was only six days old, and I’d just come off two campaigns, so I knew how demanding it was going to be. My midwife rang me within five minutes of the midday news and said, ‘Oh my god, Willow-Jean - I will be there shortly.’ We had a discussion about expressing, because she knew I wanted to breastfeed, and the advice that she gave me, which has stuck with Heeni as well, is: ‘All baby needs is somebody to be 100 per cent focussed on them, but that person doesn’t always have to be Mum. It can be Dad. It can be Aunty. It can be Nanna, Papa. Whoever. Just that person needs to be 100 per cent focussed on baby and then baby won’t know what craziness is going on around her.’ And that was true. That’s what we experienced in the by-election.
When it came to Heeni, our second baby, we knew it had taken that long to get pregnant the first time, knew the next election was coming upon us, but I didn’t want to have to choose between politics and being a representative for my community, and having a family. I had a sneaky suspicion that she would come, and sure enough, as we got closer to the election, and I was counting the months, and what would that mean… bang! It happened. I did angst over it a little bit. I was 33 or 34 at the time, and because of my experience with Hihana, I didn’t want to take any risks.
Were you conscious of sending out a message that you are a visible mum who is also a working MP?
Yes, absolutely. My midwife, sister in law, cousins, were hopeful that I would just continue to do what I did when I got down here to Wellington. They didn’t want me to be put off by it, scared by it, intimidated. They hoped I would be able to find the courage to be a mum in this place.
You were the person who said you wanted a different caliber of debate around the questions Jacinda Ardern was being asked about motherhood. Do you still think we have the opportunity to have those discussions?
Absolutely. The question should have been around how can she do both, not whether she should do both or not. How can our mothers, our families, be supported, so that there doesn’t have to be a choice?
No matter what job you’re doing?
No matter what job they’re doing. If there’s a will, you can find a way to support families. I’m really interested in our legislation around flexible work arrangements, and those conversations, and what I want to see are organisations that are doing that, and how they’re doing it. We can share that with others who might be considering whether that’s something they could do. The legislation isn’t mandatory, and doesn’t require anything other than having a conversation and a think about it. That's a really good start. That's been the test here in parliament. We say we want to be child-friendly and family-friendly. What then do we actually have to do structurally to achieve that? We've changed rules. Some of them are big things, some of those are little things.
Coming at this from a Te Ao Maori place, culturally and from your family background, does this make for a different experience?
I think it does. We’ve reflected on this and talked about it as a whanau. I’ve always taken my baby to hui with me on the marae. I’ve seen others always bring their children. It showed me that it can be done, and so when somebody says it’s inappropriate or it can’t be done, I challenge them back and say it can be done. I’ve seen it being done. That’s where the wider whanau, the village, steps in and helps. The children are encouraged to be part of it all, not to be out of sight, out of mind. They’re encouraged to make noise, they’re welcome to be part of the hui and the kaupapa that are going on. Things like, we’ll be having a cup of tea afterwards, and people will see and they will offer to take the baby and hold the baby so you can eat with two hands. Amazing!
To know how to ask for help or receive it when it’s given is a talent.
Absolutely. A lot of people offer it, but I find we often will turn it away because we don’t want to be an inconvenience. But they are genuine when they offer it, and I find myself just saying ‘yes’ a whole lot more. It means you can go to the bathroom, you can have a drink of water, you can have a proper meal. You can make that phone call. The support has come in many, many ways. My colleagues in caucus are always offering to lend a hand. Can I push the pram for you? I say, ‘Thank you, I really appreciate you pushing the pram for me!’ It’s the little help and the big help we get that makes the difference.
What’s the hardest thing about being a new mum in parliament?
Lack of sleep. Doing this all day, then doing night-time feeds, or having a sick baby and you need that much more work and care. The distance from Dion and Hihana, emotionally, is hard, and Dion essentially is a solo parent for four or five days a week and then we all get back together on the weekends. Sleep deprivation is just such a cruel thing.
What are your hours like here?
Typically, the first meeting is at 8.45 in the morning and the house sits until 10 o’clock at night. Those hours for me, for mum, and for Heeni, are really challenging. It’s taken us a long time to get a bit of structure in the day that works for everybody. My mum needs a break as well. We work together so that she can also have lunch, watch some TV, have a rest. For me at the moment it’s doing the long days here, and then being the feeder, doing the nights as well. Most mornings we’re up around five o’clock. Time management is hard. I thought I could express but expressing takes 15 to 30 minutes a time, and sometimes I would need to do that five times in a day, and sometimes you don’t have that time on the run, so it’s easier to have the baby delivered for feeding, wherever I am.
Things will change as Heeni gets older. The great thing about this age is they’re portable.
I know, look at Hihana, my two-and-a-half-year-old. I haven’t attempted to bring her in the House yet.