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‘I really admire that you have been open about mental health as a candidate’: Chlöe Swarbrick in conversation with Holly Walker

All this week the Spinoff Review of Books is covering the new, very candid memoir by former Green MP Holly Walker, and the mental health issues she experienced in parliament. Today: an interview conducted by Green candidate Chlöe Swarbrick.

Read an excerpt from Walker’s book, The Whole Intimate Mess, here.

Chlöe Swarbrick: What was it like deciding to put this out there? I’ve talked to people who were in the House during your term who had no idea what you were going through. Is there, for lack of a better term, any sense of fear or apprehension? Or is it just completely cathartic?

Holly Walker: Writing it was completely cathartic, and really beneficial therapeutically.

The few people that have read it to date – some of my family members, my partner, my mum, and a couple of test readers, have really, especially the test readers, who are mothers too, have had really encouraging responses. They’re saying, “I felt like that at different times,” or “I thought I was the only one who had done that”, so I was really encouraged by that because I thought, yeah, this is what I wanted to achieve. I want people to get this feeling of, “Oh, someone else has been through this, or feels the same way as I do.” Which is a feeling that I get from reading other people’s writing, especially about this kind of experience.

So I was really pleased with the response of those readers, but that’s a really small pool of people who I’m close to. It’s definitely terrifying to be at this juncture, knowing that it’s about to be read by a wider audience.

That’s very scary, and I think that, part of what I had to figure out with this book was how I could reconcile the parts of myself that are public with what’s actually going on for me privately. Certainly, when I was in Parliament, I didn’t feel like that was something that I was able to do at all. So I’m not surprised to hear that my colleagues had no idea what was going on because I wouldn’t have wanted to share it.

I really admire that you have been open about mental health as a candidate, because it’s really important for people to hear that other people feel the same way – that people in public positions, people with high profile – are having those experiences too.

It really felt to me like there was a barrier to doing that for me; like it wasn’t possible.

Holly Walker gives her maiden speech to Parliament, 2012

We’ve got this notion – it was reinforced in the US election as well, with Trump going, “Hillary doesn’t have the stamina,” consistently inferring ill health or mental health issues or otherwise. Do you think that we need to make it more okay for people in those public positions to speak openly about these things, or would that shatter an illusion – an illusion which is perhaps necessary to a certain extent?

It’s a really tricky question. I’ve come around to the view that it’s really important for people from all walks of life to be able to talk frankly about mental health, and what it’s really like, and in my particular case, what it was really like to be in Parliament and be a parent of a young child.

All of those things, I think, we gloss over in the dominant narrative. I think it would be great if public figures spoke more openly about it, but there remains still this risk for doing that, because although we’ve come a long way at reducing stigma around mental health and being more open-minded as a society, we still have a long way to go.

It’s not a coincidence that I’m no longer in parliament now that I’m saying this kind of thing. It certainly didn’t feel possible to me then.

That’s one end of it, being completely open with our flaws as human beings, but the other side of things, which you also touch upon in your book is when you talk about walking your baby in Petone, and taking a photo and posting it on Twitter, and then receiving a well-meaning message from someone in the media or press informing you that the optics weren’t great. That prompts two questions. The first is about the curation of our lives on social media – you’re going through a really hard time at that point – and that’s a good day for you, and you’re putting it out there which serves to for all intent and purposes reinforce the facade, or curated perception of you.

The other is, the perpetuation of this notion that politicians always need to be working, and can’t be perceived as “slacking” which in turn lends itself to the dominant paradigm of our time – that you need to be working all the time.

How do you feel about social media, and the imperative to only share the positive? Because, I guess, there have been a few studies that have indicated that social media has made us perhaps more miserable.

Yeah, it does. I mean, certainly around parenting I think. It can be hugely isolating for new parents. This is true of me; before I had had kids, I would have seen my friends and their pictures of the good times. You know, lovely family moments, and cute babies, and reinforcing things, which actually are all true – family life can be amazing, and babies are cute, and those are the things that you want to celebrate. But there’s a whole other side of that experience which simply isn’t part of that narrative. So it can feel really isolating when you’re in it, and it seems like you must be doing it wrong or there must be something different about your experience because it doesn’t match up with the Instagrammed narrative.

Campaigning with baby

Do you think that’s changing with the likes of bold parents and mothers, such as Emily Writes, opening up about the holistic experience, warts and all?

I do think it is. The blog that I found, by Janelle Hanchett, was about becoming a mother, and about the person that you are before you became a mother, who kind of dies actually when you become a mum. Yes, you’re still the same person, but you’re also somebody else. That was the first time that I’d seen that articulated in such a real way. And there’s been a proliferation of that since then. It’s really positive and healthy because it’s just reassuring to know that actually what you’re going through – the good and the bad and the ugly and the messy – is all normal, and everyone is doing a good job.

People like Emily, who I think has been hugely beneficial and helpful to mothers, I think they do a huge public service. And at some risk to themselves, it has to be said, because there’s a lot of online blowback for that. But it certainly helps to know that what you see on social media is one quite sanitised version of events, and it’s quite normal to struggle and to be exhausted and tired, and you know to shout at your kids doesn’t make you a bad mother or a bad person.

It makes you a complex human being. The other part of it, with the want or the need to perpetuate this story that politicians are always working. Where do you think that originates from, and is that still the case, do you reckon?

I think it originates from the fact that politicians are not a trusted profession, generally. And, we do pay politicians well, so the public feels like they’re sort of entitled to a high degree of service and availability from their elected representatives. I think most members of the public probably think we have too many MPs and we pay them too much money. I don’t agree with that, but I understand why that’s a commonly held belief. So in return for that, there’s an expectation that you are available, that you work hard. There’s a perception I think, that apart from a few high profile hard workers, that there are a bunch of MPs that are kind of cruising.

Most people in Parliament work really hard. It’s a job that doesn’t have clear boundaries; there’s the times that you’re in parliament, which is reasonably straightforward, but when you’re not, there’s all number of other things that you could be doing. You could be attending every event in your community. If you said yes to every invitation, your whole diary would be full.

And, somehow within all of that, you’ve got to also keep on top of all the reading and material – you know, reading papers for select committee, for the House, and you have to be a subject matter expert in your portfolios, and keep in touch with stakeholders in those areas.

So there’s absolutely no limit to how much work you can do in that job. And I think if you’re a concientious person who feels that responsibility then you kind of feel like you should be always working.

And then when you’ve got a young family, there’s also no limit to how much time that could take up. So they’re two pretty incompatible propositions really.

You do speak about it in your book – the difference between male and female MPs, and also prime ministers, both in Australia and New Zealand – who’ve had children, and the women who’ve progressed in politics actively choosing not to have children. How would we go about supporting more women with young families to become MPs? Is that something you’d support?

Absolutely. If someone was to come to me now, with young children and ask for my advice about whether they should go into Parliament, I wouldn’t say no don’t do it, because my experience is only my experience and others have had different experiences and been more successful at combining those things than I was. But I also would be very frank about how incredibly difficult I found it.

When I met with [National MP] Katherine Rich while I was still pregnant, and she didn’t say this in so many words, but when she said, “If you ever need someone to just come and hold the baby I will do that,” and I barely knew her, she was signalling the same thing to me I think. You know, signalling this was going to be really really difficult.

So, yes, I think under the current settings that we have, more women could do this, but they would find it really hard. Things need to change in order to make politics available to a larger and more representative group of women, including women with young children.

Some of the things that I think would be great were if we enabled MPs to job share. So, when I ran in 2014, although I withdrew from the list during that campaign, Susanne Ruthven was running in the neighbouring electorate, and she had three children and was pregnant with her fourth – and I had had my baby – so if there had been a way for us to run on a joint ticket and say, if elected we will share the role of MP, and do half time each, that would have been awesome.

It might have still been really difficult, and I’m sure it would’ve been in lots of ways, but it probably would’ve made it possible for both us to do a job that would’ve been impossible for either of us as individuals.

So I think we should think about that, and I think we should also think about the list system. In New Zealand, we’re lucky to have proportional representation, and to have a list of candidates who are poised there ready to come into Parliament, if somebody decides to take an extended period of leave, for family responsibilities, or even to care for a sick partner or parent, or for any reason that they may decide they need a leave of absence, why not allow the next person on the list to come into their spot.

It’d be a great training opportunity for that new person to have training in Parliament. For some, I guess it would be difficult to leave their job or whatever the circumstances, but I’m sure there would be a number of people on the list who would be keen to do that. And that would actually allow a decent period of leave so we don’t have people coming back before they’re ready, or when they’re still trying to juggle key responsibilities at home.

You touch also on the glass ceiling of sorts, with 35 or so percent being the stagnated proportion of women in Parliament.

We’re pretty much stuck at that 30 per cent mark. MMP was really good for getting us to there, from around 20 per cent, but we haven’t moved a lot since then. And I don’t buy that there’s a natural ceiling for that. I think there are a lot of capable women who look at Parliament and the kind of proposition of running as a candidate or being an MP and think, “No, that’s not compatible with my other responsibilities.”

That means we need to change some of those rules and constraints to make that easier.

Do you consider yourself a millennial or a Gen X-er?

Probably closer to a Gen X, but just on the cusp.

The reason I ask is that I was having a great conversation with a brilliant Green Party candidate, Kate Fullton, down in Nelson, and she was talking about the notion that perhaps Gen X were the guinea-pigs of the “neoliberal experiment”. You know, born in the 1970s and 80s, during reforms, and somehow their voices are largely ignored in popular and political discourse, especially in the generational warfare framing, which pits Boomers against millennials, those who knew life before those reforms and arguably capitalised on their uptake, and those who are witnessing the wheels fall off of the only system they’re ever known. Perhaps that Gen X experience of being sold a pretty capitalist version of feminism, that you could have it all, and having it all looked like working all day and parenting all night, which seems to be what you’re speaking to in what was your goal before having kids.

What do you make of that?

Yeah, I think that’s spot-on. My generation were that guinea-pig generation. When I was born, most of the welfare supports were still in place. My mum was on the DPB, and we lived in a council flat, so we were supported in that way. And I definitely benefitted from that.

And it was after we needed that support that the Mother of All Budgets came through with its cuts and really started outlining the hard edge of change.

If you look at an issue like student loans – when I was at university, I was still on the cusp of being able to credibly argue for free tertiary education and universal student allowances. My generation of students were like, “Yup, we can see the benefit of that”, but we are deeply embedded enough in the student loan system that we began switching to see education as a private good that perhaps we all need to take responsibility for. And I noticed once I was in Parliament, and the student spokesperson for the Green Party, talking about free tertiary education and universal student allowances, most of the students I spoke to were like, “Oh, but why would you do that?” So we were right on the cusp of those policies and their ideologies becoming entrenched and just becoming the way things are.

You’re totally right. In this intergenerational warfare at the moment, we hear all about the boomers and the millennials, and we’ve got this generation in the middle who are mostly quiet because they’re getting on with raising children.

I always found it difficult, as the Youth and Students Spokesperson, I felt inauthentic talking to millennials, because I was at a different stage in my life. I was parenting a baby, and buying a house – which I only was able to do because I had an MP’s salary.

Holly Walker with her daughter

You just touched on your mum. In the book, you discuss your political stump speech, which I found somewhat funny because of the parallels in your upbringing with John Key, which he used as rationale to say we should strip state support, and which you used as reasoning for why we need it. You say that the stump speech sat a little bit uncomfortably with your mum though, because it was potentially inauthentic. If you had to produce a same stump speech today, would it be a different one?

Yeah, it would. It’s an interesting thing about being a political party candidate, and I’m sure you’ve had this experience too. There’s a bit of a need to craft a narrative about yourself. I guess, initially for the members throughout the list ranking process, especially for those who don’t know you well, and then later for the public. In terms of who you are, and why we need your particular voice in Parliament.

And when you’re young, especially, that can’t necessarily be drawn from a deep and vivid history of work experience, so it has to be from something else. I suspect what was probably going on for me at the time, aside from that somewhat precarious beginning, I had a pretty privileged, middle-class Pakeha childhood that lead to a lot of opportunities for me. Including a Rhodes scholarship – and that’s obviously that bastion of privilege, right?

So, was probably thinking whilst that experience was beneficial and helpful for a potential politician, I needed to demonstrate that I wasn’t just a privileged white girl who had gone to Oxford, then come back and said, yep, I’m ready to go into Parliament. I needed to demonstrate some authenticity in my background, which probably led to an over-reliance on that narrative about the beginning of my life.

But it’s complicated, because none of it is untrue. It is the reason that I believe in state support and public education and public housing, and I know these things worked for me, and they worked for my mum, and they worked for other people I know. I guess the complex reality of who we are as human beings is difficult to boil down into a few sentences, so which ones you choose are important. And can be used to emphasise some elements over others.

It’s a difficult juxtaposition, eh. I’ve been finding it difficult to find this middle ground somewhere between a really complex, messy reality of your life, and as you say, boiling it down and distilling it essentially into this narrative and sometimes even soundbite, which is ultimately used to try and progress a progressive agenda, which is something we genuinely believe in as Green Party members and candidates.

I guess that kind of leads to – do you follow politics at all?

I do. It’s been interesting. When I decided to step down off the list in 2014, I felt somewhat unwilling to do it, because while it was the right decision and that was clear, it didn’t immediately feel like it was what I wanted to do. But as the months passed and I began to process that experience, I felt a great deal of relief as I realised I was no longer in that environment.

At first I thought, “I’ve stepped down from Parliament, but I’ll still be really active in the party, and I’ll go on a million committees and things like that.” But then I thought, “Actually, I still haven’t really processed all these things that have happened and this experience in Parliament and all of the changes that have taken place in my family.” I realised I actually needed to step right back, and just let the dust settle a bit, and get my own mental health in order, then figure out what I would do next.

I’m still a member of the party, but I haven’t been involved in committees or my local branch. I do follow politics in the news like anybody else, but now apart from catching up with old friends for coffee, I don’t have a particular insider’s track into what’s going on.

And that has been a great relief to me, I have to say. I mean, I guess I have a particular perspective when I read or hear or watch an interview, or a list comes out, or there’s a campaign launch, but it’s actually really nice to not be personally invested in that.

I’ve been waiting to feel a really strong push to come back in some form, but I haven’t yet felt that, so I’m just going to wait until I feel it.

You’ve alluded to coming back in previous interviews or blog posts. What would that look like?

 I don’t know. When people have asked if I ever want to go back into politics, I haven’t said no way, because I don’t think you can ever be 100 per cent definite about that. But I feel no compunction whatsoever personally to do it. I mean, I feel really invested in the outcomes and I obviously look at what’s going on in the world and internationally and feel very strongly about what I don’t want to see happen, but I feel like my contribution at the moment is through my day-job, in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

I feel like we do really good work there, and contribute to solving a whole host of issues that are really most motivating for me. And I feel through my writing, which is less overtly political, or not really political at all now, that I do contribute to discussions on gender and feminism.

I honestly don’t know if I would ever want to get back into politics with a capital P. If I did, it wouldn’t be until my children were much, much older. I’m pregnant with my second child now, so I’m about to go back into that experience again.

How do you feel about the Green Party in 2017, having left your seat not long ago?

It’s full of people that I love and admire. I’ve seen the list come out and felt really encouraged about people like yourself and Golriz and the number of women who are ranked highly on the list.

And I still believe in our vision. That hasn’t changed. I guess I have a bit more distance in being able to look at the Green Party alongside the other parties, with a bit more of a view about what members of the general public would see.

The same debates get had, actually, like the one about the North & South cover. We had a version of that debate in 2014, and a version of it in 2011, around you know, “Are the Greens too corporate, and blah blah blah.” None of it’s new. It feels very familiar.

I guess the best thing to do is just keep on trucking on, and I think it works over the long term.

Are you still reading solely women writers?

No. I’ve relaxed that rule, although I’ve found interestingly that the experience of those two years has changed what I’m drawn to. So, I’m less likely to pick up a book by a male writer unless I have another reason I want to read it. I’d say 80 per cent of my reading is now written by women. I guess it reset my brain in terms of what I look for in a book, and what kind of writing appeals to me.

Towards the end of the book, you talk about your daughter modelling your behaviour, and you saying to her that “We need to be kind to ourselves.” Are you being kind or gentle to yourself? How are you going about learning to do that? I found it just an interesting thing to say in the context of a book where you are very hard on yourself – you speak about all of your flaws, and even now in the context of this interview, you said other women could be more “successful” doing what you did. How do you balance this deep, possibly cynical introspection with learning to be kind to yourself?

That’s very perceptive. It’s something that doesn’t come easily to me. My instinct is always to sign myself up for things, and then to beat myself up when I find it difficult to do it all. That’s been a really tough lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again, but I think I’m a long way there now.

A busy day for me now looks a lot different to a busy day three years ago, and that’s a good thing. To be honest, a lot of that is to do with the lingering affects of my mental health, realising that I do suffer from anxiety and I do need to be realistic about what I can set out to achieve, and that’s a lot smaller than it used to be. Which is difficult to come to terms with, realising that your limits are maybe different to what they used to be, and different to what other people’s are, and not seeing that as a problem or a flaw.

Wedding day

This perhaps relates back to the curation of self, pertinent in the context of our social media bubbles, where we’re all kind of competing, for lack of a better word, on a very superficial level, and not necessarily realising or empathising with our shard day-to-day struggle. You know, our society looks up to the outliers, the Mark Zuckerbergs in place of the hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs who had similar ideas or have grinded through to create smaller businesses. Your book focuses on part of the process, I guess, in trying to open up the conversation about the private and potentially painful or even mundane, do you think?

I think it’s also probably true that I find that easier to do in writing than I do in person or on social media, so it’s the medium in which I’ve found I’m able to express that full range of experiences. I still don’t find it particularly easy to talk in conversation with someone about it.

I try to share a bit more of a range of things on social media, more slice of life than those curated experiences, but I’m guilty as much as the next person with wanting to share the pretty things, the cute things and the nice things.

So this is the medium that I’ve found in which I’m able to be frank and honest, and now I have to talk about it – a lot!

So how are you finding that? Because now you do have to do all of the interviews, and I guess promote this deeply personal piece of writing.

This is the first interview that I’ve done. It’s not an unfamiliar experience – I did a lot of media as an MP, and I feel comfortable in front of a camera, and on the radio or whatever.

But I haven’t spent a long time talking about myself, or my mental health, so that is a bit daunting.

A TVNZ crew is coming to film a piece about the book, and they’ll be coming to my house and filming the daily routine, and dropping Esther off at kohanga reo. I’m just looking around the lounge now and seeing the piles of unfolded washing and toys everywhere, and I have to make a decision about how much of that I’m going to curate before the TV cameras turn up.

So it’s not comfortable, but it’s part of the project to be able to share with people and be honest and hope they feel a connection in their own lives. And to hope it helps people feel like they’re not alone, like this kind of writing did for me.

Do you have a hard and fast rule about what’s public and what’s private?

No. I admire people who have that hard and fast rule, and sometimes I think I should’ve made a more definite rule about that, you know, before Esther was born, about whether I will or will not put her on Facebook or have media come to the house.

I’ve had a few experiences like that, where I’ve done the interview and then thought, “Hmm, that wasn’t the right call.” But most of the time I just make it up as I go along.

That’s what I’m finding difficult to be honest, at the moment. I’m trying to be totally open and honest but if you’re not discerning about what you let “out there”, it can feel like putting your whole life on a platter for people to pick at.

It’s tricky, and I think for me what I’m finding so far is that the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and that outweighs any niggly negative stuff at the edges. But I know for a lot of women who do this kind of writing, or are in the public sphere in different ways, that positivity is not always the case. I think perhaps the higher profile you become, the more potential negativity you attract, and then the trolls and the sexism and all of that may come out of the wood work.

What do you want people to get out of your book?

The main thing is for other people who’ve had similar private experiences of personal turmoil that feels kind of incompatible with the public job or professional life to feel like they’re not alone – that other people have similar experiences and there’s value in that connection, with others who feel the same. That’s the main thing.

And a little bit for me personally is about I guess, is to be able to say frankly and honestly now, after three years, this is what was going on when I left Parliament as opposed to the sanitised version of events that I relayed at the time.

I guess people will take what they want from it in terms of the bigger questions it raises, the notion that we could do things differently or how Parliament could change. I have views about those things, but I didn’t go into great detail about them in the book. It was more about presenting my personal experience.

I hope it sparks a conversation about those things, but I didn’t want to make it a polemic about “This is what should change in parliament.”

I wouldn’t presume to make a prescription of what needs to change based on my singular experience. We all have different experiences, but if there are common threads in there, they could lead to positive changes and that could be great.

I guess that’s what you point to in the bravery you found in other women’s writing, their telling of their own stories. Even though there may not be explicit parallels, just knowing other people go through stuff and life can be hard. 

Exactly. I’m not sure where I saw it now, but a maxim that I came across during those two years is that “The most personal is the most universal”, and I think that’s true, because obviously my experience is pretty unique in being in Parliament at the time that I was, having a baby, and with a partner with chronic pain.

It’s not likely to be replicated by anybody else, but at the core, some of those responses that I had to the situation are universal ones, that will hopefully resonate with people.

More about Holly Walker and women in Parliament this week on The Spinoff Review of Books:

Monday: An excerpt from Holly Walker’s memoir The Whole Intimate Mess

Wednesday: An essay by Tessa Duder in response to Walker crediting Duder’s classic novel Alex as a formative experience.

Thursday: The Whole Intimate Mess reviewed by former Act MP Deborah Coddington

The Whole Intimate Mess by Holly Walker (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99) is available at Unity Books.


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