Most parents have to balance the needs of their family with the demands of their job, but working as an MP comes with special challenges, as Green MP Gareth Hughes explains.
Since the start, my political career has run almost in tandem with my parenting career. In fact, the week I entered Parliament in early 2010 I had a toddler at home and my wife Meghan and I had just announced to the world we had another on the way. On my Twitter bio it reads “I’m a dad to two kids and a Green MP”. I took off the “and I like scuba diving” part a wee while back because between those two full-time demanding jobs, I haven’t been underwater in years and I felt like a fraud.
A month or so ago I posted on Facebook a little secret I’ve been using for years to marry the two sides of my life. Not many people know it, but there’s a small pool under the Press Gallery, next to the Beehive, of which I’ve been a constant user ever since I was elected. It’s hardly ever used and I often take my kids, Arlo, (9), and Zoe (5) in on the weekends. It’s a great excuse for me to get into the office and it’s a place that the kids love. One time we were there, a veteran journalist who will remain nameless walked in on my son and I riding a large inflatable killer whale in the pool. He turned around and walked out; we haven’t talked about it since. There are three or four two-week parliamentary recesses every year – I call them “school holidays”. During these latest school holidays, I took Dad MP-hood to the next level and built a standing desk out of towels at the pool so I could work on the laptop while they played in the water.
Hanging out at the parliamentary pool with my kids is fun, but in reality this life has meant sleepless nights and early starts, constant travel, and bringing sick kids into important meetings. It has been a constant juggling act and a battle with feelings of failure.
Both jobs are challenging and important. I deeply care about the issues I work on and it’s easy to feel you’re failing when you aren’t spending every waking moment working on them. Politics is a competitive world where everyone from voters to the Press Gallery to Twitter trolls are judging your every move and comment.
That feeling of failure is the same I get as a father when I miss the school talent quest or another important family moment to attend yet another “important” political event.
My kids have spent their lives in and around Parliament. I think I’m a better politician for it and they’ve had experiences I never had growing up. I love seeing them tear around the “corridors of power” feeling like it’s just another fun place to explore, to run and yell in.
It is New Zealand’s Parliament and I like the idea that anyone’s children can run around being kids in a place that’s packed with marble, staff in white gloves and security guards who call you “sir”.
But I’m also conscious that one day they might bowl into John Key walking down a corridor, so I’m constantly running behind them, telling them to be quiet and slow down.
Once I walked into my office and found several serious security guards inside talking, taking notes. With papers and stuff flung everywhere, they genuinely believed my office had been broken into and ransacked. No, it was just the destructive power of a toddler the day before!
I’m lucky that as a list MP, I was able to make the choice to move from Auckland, where I was living when I was elected, to Wellington. It means I can be home most nights. Other MPs with kids sometimes don’t see them for a whole week, which I can’t imagine.
I do tend to miss out on many of the official political functions, especially over the dinner recess, because I’m racing home to walk the dog, feed the kids, read them stories and put them to sleep in the hour and a half before I have to race back to Parliament, which sits until 10pm.
It’s great that the kids can be part of my work and can come down to Parliament or accompany me to a TV interview. The journos often indulge their appeals to speak to the camera – as well as being cute, I reckon they give better, less politician-y answers than me.
They’ve also been a political asset. While campaigning against Japanese whaling, my then-three-year-old son accompanied me to an event gathering origami whale petitions to send to Japanese sister cities. He’d walk up to a stranger and adorably ask: “Could you help the whales?” No one could turn him down.
Sometimes marrying the two roles barely works. I don’t know how many media interviews I’ve stressed out over when a child’s scream, cry or shout is audible in the background. The worst is when a child or two stalks me at home, following my every move throughout the house, threatening to shout as I do a live interview on some odd subject. Five years ago at the time of the Rena oil spill I did a live interview with the BBC and, because I was home alone with my toddler, I had to do it standing over his cot, patting him on the back, daring not to stop the entire length of the interview so he didn’t wake up.
I love my job and believe I’m making a positive difference but sometimes you can’t help wonder if it’s worth it. During the last election campaign I was travelling six out of seven days and over the course of the Green Party co-leadership election last year there were some 40 candidate debates. At those moments, leaving home before everyone was up and coming home when everyone was in bed, I seriously wondered if it was worth continuing in this job and missing out on seeing my kids.
I grew up in Gisborne and my parents split up when I was nine. I’ve got great, loving parents but divorce proceedings, legal battles and years of them not speaking to each other left a mark on me. It makes me want to try to be as present and close with my wife Meghan in parenting as I can. I think it’s important for modern dads to be equally involved in the fun stuff and the drudgery; the nappies, the cleaning, the sick days, and the school drop-offs and pickups.
It’s a constant challenge but also a constant joy. I don’t regret my choice to be a dad and an MP, and I know other parents have it so much harder. My kids are both at school now, which makes things easier, and I feel like over the years we’ve developed a good balance. Now I just need to find the time to go scuba diving again.
Gareth Hughes is a Wellington-based Green Party MP who’s passionate about healthy oceans, clean energy and nerdy tech stuff. When he’s not keeping the Government honest in Parliament, he’s at home with his two kids, Arlo and Zoe, and wife Meghan.
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