29 Oct 2014

What changes when a baby arrives

8:13 am on 29 October 2014
Natalie Hugill with daughter Aria.

Natalie Hugill with daughter Aria. Photo: Jamie Bowering

Before she gave birth, Natalie Hugill dazzled crowds as burlesque queen Lilly Loca.

The 27-year-old founded Va-Va-Voom Productions, which specialises in vaudeville, cabaret and burlesque shows. She teaches drama and runs a performing arts academy, Defying Gravity.

She's a wife, married at about 23 “which everybody thought was far too young” to her partner of nine years, Shane. She’s a daughter – her mother is outside hosing down the deck – and lives on her parents’ property in rural Whitford, in the south-east of Auckland.

What else? Hugill laughs. “Adjusting to being a new mum, I suppose, which has been quite a ginormous adjustment but totally worth every sleepless second.”

Becoming a parent – even with a supportive family and a stable living situation – brings complex social, professional, physical and personal identity changes.

On one level, having a child is the same as it's ever been, with the joys and terrors of Facebook, online parenting groups and Google-able symptoms thrown into the mix. But what defines a “normal” family in New Zealand has changed significantly, as have available options for support.

Couples with children now account for about 30 per cent of households, down from 40 per cent in 1986. Couple-only, one-person and multiple family households have become more common.

Marriage rates are dropping and women are giving birth to fewer children. The median age of women giving birth is now about 30 years, compared with 26 years in the early 1960s.

Teenage pregnancy is on the way down – from a rate of 69 per 1000 women aged 15-19 in 1972 to 22 per 1000 in 2013 – but is still high compared to many other high-income countries. In Australia, for example, the rate was 15.5 in 2011.

For women of any age, with rare headline-worthy exceptions, giving birth involves intense physical transformation. Hugill, as a dancer and performer, was probably more aware of this than most. Some of the changes she experienced during pregnancy were what one would expect – loose ligaments, a sore back, unusual fatigue. Others might surprise the uninitiated.

“The whole way through, my hair wasn’t growing at all. I grew like three inches of hair over nine months. My skin - it was like I’d gone back to frickin' teenage years, and hormones raging.”

Her daughter, Aria, just turned three weeks old and Hugill has just been given the all-clear to start driving again. (Using pedals requires core strength and the insurance company required a sign-off.)

“As a performer, it’s been quite hard," she says. "My body is my tool, I’ve had to decrease the amount of work that I had, that I was able to do.”

Physical changes are just the start. Candace Scrader, 28, lives in New Plymouth with her husband, Joel, who co-owns a building company, and their eight-month-old daughter, Zoe.

“I really enjoyed being pregnant,” she says. “She came early, as well. She was unexpected all the way along. She showed up four weeks before she was due. I was at work, so that was pretty crazy.”

Schrader says it is difficult to tell someone who has not had a kid or been pregnant what to expect. “It’s crazy and amazing but your life definitely changes, that’s for sure. It’s all about Bubs. Everything. She is the centre of the universe at this point in time.”

Trying to plan a phone interview for The Wireless, for example. “Everything is scheduled around nap time. If she doesn’t sleep during the day, we don’t sleep at night. It’s reeeeally important...”

At the moment, Zoe is usually awake for about two-and-a-half hours. “So in that two-and-a-half hours, we're cramming in food and play and activities and then it’s bedtime. She usually sleeps for anywhere between – a good day, an hour-and-a-half but sometimes you get cat naps for no apparent reason, which is about 30 minutes. And then she's up and we start it all over again.”

Schrader, who worked as a programmes co-ordinator for the Red Cross, says making the decision not to go back to full-time work right away has also been difficult.

“Everyone makes their own choice. There’s a lot of judgment out there over both of those choices. I know woman who struggle either way just because that’s how society is, unfortunately.

“If you choose to go back to work fulltime, you know, you’re not a good parent and you don’t want to stay home and look after your kid. But if you choose to stay home, obviously you don’t care about your career, which isn’t true. I loved what I did and I do plan to work again one day.”

Having a child young, whether as a teenager or someone in their early 20s, adds extra complexity.

“Teenagers are very much focused on themselves and what's good for them and how to meet their needs and that becomes a conflict when they become parents,” Nicky Skerman says.

“The support around understanding that themselves is really powerful. I think teenagers can be really good parents but it's the support systems that are put in place.”

Skerman, who has worked as a nurse at Plunket for about 25 years and as a clinical leader, helped develop a new support programme for young parents in Hawke’s Bay.

The programme, which grew from her Masters of Nursing thesis, supports teenage parents through extra visits by a single dedicated nurse, including antenatal visits. It is now “business as usual” in Hawke's Bay, she says, and she would like to see it extended.

Skerman says the overall service provided by Plunket has changed since she started. “We did sort of weekly and then fortnightly and then monthly and the focus was more around weighing and breast-feeding and sleeping and all the basic child stuff,” she says.

“Whereas now, you can walk into a house, and the thing on top might be something social, and you can't get to any of the parenting stuff until you've dealt with the social stuff.”

What does she mean by that? “You walk into a house and Mum's sitting there in tears because Dad's just walked out, or she was beaten last night, or the boys are on the booze out the back in the garden, or she's got no money and she doesn't know where she's going to get the next meal from.”

Skerman says Plunket still provides a universal service but now has more flexibility to work more with families with greater needs. “There is the capacity to put more resource where it's needed.”

She has mixed views on the government's new young parent benefit scheme, which connects teenage parents with a support person or agency and manages essential payments such as rent on their behalf.

The support aspect is “just fantastic”, she says – though, in her personal opinion, the effectiveness of managed payments depends on the individual. “I think for some parents it's great. I think for some parents that are onto it and can organise their money, it's probably a nightmare.”

She supports the recently-announced plan to introduce free doctor visits for children aged under 13. “Absolutely. These mums have very little money. It's not necessarily because of their age, it's because of their circumstances – whether they're 17 or 25.”

She says there is still plenty of room for improvement, including in young parents' participation in antenatal classes and in support for young fathers. “There's not a lot being done.”

Support remains important as a child grows whatever the age and situation of the parent.

Annie Tavalea, 25, gave birth to her son when she was 22 – an unexpected pregnancy and a “great surprise”. She is bringing him up with the help of her “amazing” family after George's father, Willy, who had a heart condition, died unexpectedly when George was 11 months old.

Tavalea says she was really happy with the level of support available when George was born. “There’s Plunket, midwives, lots of courses and things through The Parenting Place.”

She says it felt like that support dropped off after a few months “or maybe the first year”. Though, she adds, thinking about it, “For me, I’ve always had such a supportive family that they’ve always been my go-to, so maybe I just haven’t been looking outside that.”

Tavalea, who is about to start the final year of her BA/LLB at the University of Auckland, says daycare has been helpful but it would have been very different without family support.

“Having someone to take him for even a couple of hours or for a night has been amazing. And, you know, outside my family, I don’t know if I would have the same kind of opportunities to do that.”

How would she explain the changes that come with having a child? “I don’t really think there’s much that can prepare you for having a child,” she says. “In saying that, I don’t think it makes a difference if you have a child when you’re 18 or when you’re 38.”

Three weeks into her own experience, Natalie Hugill has a few words of advice that might just apply across the variety of situations faced by new parents today.

“Don’t over-think ... If you get up in the middle of the night and think, OK, I’m going to be awake for the next three hours, that’s going to be more emotionally taxing.

“Think about the moment and the present, and that will save you mentally. That’s the best advice I can give. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

This content is brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.

Photos of Natalie Hugill and Anna Tavalea by Jamie Bowering. 

Photo of Candace Schrader by Joel Schrader.