Reflections on women in public life

I read Holly Walker’s book last week, but first I read Deborah Coddington’s review, and I think we must have read different books.

Deborah would approve of my choices. Had first baby at 26. Took a big chunk of parental leave. Went back into a mum-track job part-time. Got a promotion, quickly had another baby, more parental leave, then a new job with equally family friendly conditions. If you subscribe to the idea that women should have babies first, and keep a career on a steady simmer before roaring to a boil once kids leave the nest, I’m doing everything right.

But I reckon there must be a way to change how we work so that a steady simmer is the maximum setting. We don’t need anyone to be at a roaring boil, at risk of flooding over and drenching the flames and ruining the whole thing. It’s actually inefficient, really risky, and it means that some of the people at the top get there based on whether they can put in total life commitment long hours – not on other more important criteria.

Holly writes of her time as a politician “what did I know about how plumbers, gasfitters, and drainlayers should be regulated?”, and I had to grin because, well, there are people whose job that is, and I’m sort of one of those people.

Last night, my previous six months’ work on some very complex and technical regulations came to a close. It was my home-with-the-kids day, so I dropped them at my dad’s work in the late afternoon, then went in to sit in the Beehive waiting to see if the Legislation Committee had questions of the legal and policy team. They didn’t, which was good but anti-climactic, so instead we all went out for a drink, and it felt awesome, we had got the work done – this multi-agency team, thousands of emails, long meetings, a million intricate issues nailed out into a result that had finally crossed the finish line!

In our current roles, Holly and I are part of an enormous cadre of civil servants who combine motherhood with meaningful careers. We make a hellava contribution but get modest recognition at best. Mid-tier public sector roles can be fantastic for working parents, and it’s almost a guilty secret just how much of a non-issue the parenting/career juggle can be when the workplace culture supports it.

My current team manages a huge output with not many people, and a third of us work part-time. It runs smoothly because the workload is arranged so that no-one is ever sole charge on something both urgent and important. It becomes self-reinforcing, everyone buys into the culture of making space for life outside work, expectations around deadlines take that into account, and yet the work gets done!

I saw today that 13 new Queen’s Counsels have just been appointed. Only three are women. That’s so bad you almost gotta laugh. Three? Three of thirteen? When judges are pretty much always drawn from that pool?! THREE?!

The private legal sector, and of course politics, does not have vast cadres of women. Holly writes that she fancied herself entering politics from an early stage in her career; for me, that flight of fancy was about entering the top ranks of the legal profession and maybe becoming a judge one day. And I’d be damn good at it! But there’s no way I can see myself increasing my hours any time soon, no way I can see myself re-entering a working environment with onerous expectations of constant availability. It’s not compatible with the amount of time the kids and I need to spend together. I can’t squeeze the kids into the small part of my life leftover after work eats almost all of it, that’s not the life any of us want.

Which is fine, like, that’s totally fine. Could I become the first Solicitor General to work a 30 hour week? Maybe but probably not! Could I find my life is happier and more fulfilled remaining at a moderately senior level which provides interest but not too much pressure, while having the main focus of my life located outside paid work? Almost definitely.

I can think of literally dozens of extremely talented lawyers in exactly the same position as me. Dozens and dozens of women I’ve worked with who have fabulous minds for legal analysis, who would be brilliant on the bench, but who’ve consciously made career choices that step away from the track that would end in a position of top influence, and toward the track that gets us home in time for cuddles. And we’re in great jobs, don’t get me wrong. Interesting jobs where you can make a big difference. Sure, you’re name isn’t in flashing lights, but you can point to things you’ve achieved, and credit is overrated anyway.

But, y’know, also, three of thirteen?! 

 

If we don’t smack kids, maybe they’ll turn out like this

Tonight, B hit D on the head with a stick, and D cried and came to me in another room demanding cuddles and sympathy. B followed in his toddle toddle way, husband put the stick out of reach and did a little “for show” lecture of B that was way too advanced for a 15 month old’s understanding, but placated D.

And about ten minutes later, D turned to me and said with a huge beam of pride “Mummy! Mummy! I didn’t wetaliate! When he hitted me, I didn’t wetaliate! That is so good Mummy! I need to go tell Daddy too!” Off he went to tell his dad, just absolutely stoked with himself for not hitting his brother despite being provoked.

 

Another year gone

We shared a birthday, Jacob and I. The 14th of June. He would have been 32 today. And every year, every year it seems stranger that some people’s lives go on and some end so abruptly. It’s completely random, floating on the globe with our sense of entitlement to a good 80+ years, head in the sand as to the impermanence of being, ignoring our total lack of control.

Jacob was a friend of ours from university. We also worked together after graduating, and I imagined keeping in touch with him for many more years as we moved on and did different things. He died in a freak accident while living in London. It was a complete shock. He was one of those rare people who seem innately good and kind, and it is still hard to believe he’s dead and not just continuing to live his life in London. Though, he might have come home by now. He might have been a dad by now – he would have been a really great dad. Our kids could have been friends. He and my husband could have been dad buddies.

D’s middle name is Jacob. I felt like it was a blessing to pass on that name, a protective spell for a generous soul.

June is also the month my colleague Lecretia passed away, two years ago, can’t believe it’s been two years already. She was so witty and so clever. Formidable, but one of the most gracious people I’ve ever encountered. An unquestionably remarkable woman, who faced death from a brain tumour with a strength of character and a fierce love for life that has left a lasting impression on me and I suspect everyone who knew her.

Today I turned 30 and Jacob should have turned 30 before me, but he died at 27.

The baby who was conceived the same month Lecretia died is walking and talking. His molars are coming through, and on this clear June day he was crying as we arrived at the park. I lifted him out of the buggy and said “life is pain, Highness”, thinking of how baffling it must be for the baby, suddenly experiencing pain with no context for what comes next.

Later, his dad (who took the day off work for my birthday, lovely love), took him to get some Bonjela from the pharmacy, and my older one seized the chance for one-on-one time and asked to have a snuggle swing. A snuggle swing is when we swing together – we did it once and it was lovely, and now it’s a thing we do. He climbed onto my knee on the swing, cuddling up, and we swung gently together for a while. He snuggled so tight that I told him it was almost like he was trying to get back in my tummy, and I rubbed his back the way I used to rub the belly full of baby. I was singing to him when I realised his breathing had slowed and he’d fallen asleep. We sat for a while, then I carried him home – just a hundred metres down the road – and lay him in my bed. First, I took a photo of us on the swing, every time he is asleep in my arms now I want to remember it, and today especially, remember the bright blue winter day and the trip to the park.

A sunny sky in winter. A blessing, unexpected, and brief. Life’s like that.

Go-to activities

I wrote a list of activities for Wednesdays, now that B is keen to join in on stuff. Many of our regular places were easy when B was in the buggy but are suddenly much too hard now that he wants to run everywhere, with no sense of self-preservation. The central library, for example, surprisingly hazardous, as I found when they sprinted in different directions and I couldn’t see either of them among the book stacks.

You don’t need many go-to activities though. Kids like the same places over and over.

Sunny day go-to list for Wednesdays

  • The park around the corner
  • Island Bay playground
  • The zoo (D has a zoo pass)

Rainy day go-to list for Wednesdays

  • Chipmunks
  • Te Papa
  • Tiny Town
  • Active Fun Play at ASB stadium (mornings during school holidays)
  • Local library

(the rainy day list is longer because it’s June)

Figured it’d be good to do this for weekends too, add in a few favourites that are difficult during the week for some reason:

Rainy day weekend activities 

  • Tot Shabbat (monthly, Saturdays)
  • Capital E (Saturdays)
  • Active Fun Play at ASB stadium (Sunday mornings every week)
  • Southern Cross – a good one for after Tot Shabbat
  • The swimming pool (though less so in deepest winter, because the kids always seem to get sick afterwards)

Sunny day weekend activities

  • Vege markets
  • Mt Victoria – they have an amazing outdoor nature play area which is IDEAL if you have one adult per child but VERY STRESSFUL if you have one adult per two children
  • Oriental Bay, Lyall Bay, Island Bay
  • “Fying Fotz Park” (Central Park, in Brooklyn)

There are so many areas of parenting where things make complete sense now I’ve got kids myself, like going to the same places over and over again, and preferring places that are very close by. More than a 10 minute drive feels far away. Walking distance means something very different to what it used to. Maximum outing length is only a couple of hours. “We went dere a yong time ago” means last month.

14 – 15 months

He walks! He talks! Not much, but some words:

  • more
  • brudda
  • mama
  • dada
  • hot
  • mm-mm, while shaking head for no
  • mmmmm!, while nodding for yes
  • cat
  • brrm
  • ball
  • boo!
  • banana (said nahnnada)
  • nana (used for both my parents)
  • momo (for milk, meaning breastmilk)
  • hiiiiiiiyyyiii
  • assorted verbalisations and squeaks that have clear meaning in context
  • RARRRR! (when prompted to be a tiger)

This age is the final phase of babyhood, and it’s the only one I really really wish was less fleeting.

Today

3am – older one comes into our room. Husband gets up to go sleep with him in his bed.

4.30am – baby wakes, breastfeeds, back to sleep.

6.30am – baby wakes, breastfeeds, back to sleep

7.30am – fuck should be up already fuck. Play with baby in bed anyway. Baby is very charming and snuggly tickly.

7.35am – husband comes in, announces importance of me showering immediately

7.50am – husband has made porridge for everyone except himself because this is the small gesture each day that reminds me he’s a good catch. Sit down to eat porridge. Baby rejects porridge. Older one eats heaps, very slowly.

8.20am – leave house in panicked rush. 

8.25am – realise, on way to creche, that we have forgotten the important Bruno Bear. Explain to older one why we can’t turn back. Say he can borrow my woolly hat to cuddle at rest time instead. Realise we didn’t clean his teeth.

8.45 – Leave creche. Explain about the hat on the way out the door.

9.05 – Drop husband at dentist appointment only 5 minutes late.

9.10 – park car, thanking the traffic gods profusely.

9.17 – work computer slowly awakens. Outlook notification for meeting across town at 9am. Email from colleague saying he can’t come in because his son is at hospital. Fuck it is essential I be at that meeting. Leave in haste.

9.30 – 11.15 long meeting. Very thirsty. When did it stop being standard practice to always have water at meetings?

11.30am – get slice of Tommy Millions pizza on way back to work.

12pm – 3pm – frantically try and do my work and colleague’s work quickly, this thing has to be out by close of business, also yesterday was home with kids day, always backlog to catch up on. Field lots of phone calls and emails. Hit 3pm and brain dies.

3pm – buy a peanut slab

3.10pm – 4.45pm really focused on getting everything done because kids need to be picked up so can’t stay late. Get it out. Feel like a success.

4.52pm – leave office stressed kids languishing and might be last ones at creche 

4.55pm – see amazing sunset

5.15pm – arrive at creche. Kids not last ones. Put both in car. Baby cries most of the way home except when​ older one sings. Coax older one to sing.

5.30pm – home. Breastfeed baby. Give older one a pear. Turn heaters on, close curtains, make pasta. 

5.50 – husband arrives home. Finishes getting kids their dinner.

6pm – 6.45pm – hang with family / defend baby from constant onslaught of big brother, who is invasive even when well-meaning. 

6.50pm – leave to go to a dinner with current and former colleagues. Feel very Free and Adult and Casual and Fun.

7pm – 8.45pm – lovely lovely time at dinner. Wish could stay longer. Text husband. He responds that children are both screaming.

9.15pm – arrive home. Take baby onto lap in bedroom for a breastfeed. 

10.05 – baby finally falls properly asleep

10.20pm – successfully place baby in centre of adult bed.

10.20pm – now – should get up and clean teeth and come back to bed properly but haven’t.