In which Susan Strongman talks to former Greens MP Holly Walker about babysitting, cats, anxiety, and her memoir The Whole Intimate Mess.
The whole intimate mess.
There’s something wonderful about the way these words make me feel as I’m sitting on my bed trying to calm a friend’s screaming baby.
There is snot and drool everywhere. My ears are ringing. The cats are hiding. I have severe PMS. I am hungry. I had thought I’d make myself some food while I watched the baby. Ha! I had thought wrong. The baby and I are traumatised.
I look down at a book lying on my bed next to a box of tissues that the little crying girl keeps trying to shove into her sad wee mouth.
The book is The Whole Intimate Mess. Motherhood, Politics and Women’s Writing. For a second, I feel like I understand how its author Holly Walker felt.
The source of the title of the former Greens MP’s book comes from an interview with New Zealand painter Jacqueline Fahey. In the interview, Fahey describes her painting Final Domestic Expose - I paint Myself:
“Oh, stuff it, I’m sick of this, let’s take all my clothes off, put it all out there in a whirlwind, the whole intimate mess, so there is nothing left…If I am honest about what’s going on in my life then it’s got to be relevant to other people’s lives.”
The painting is both intimate and chaotic, as is Walker’s book, in which she discusses her time in Parliament, and her attempt to juggle parenting with politics.
Of course I can’t even begin to understand what it's like to be a mother struggling with post-natal depression and an MP in their first term in Parliament. So I ask Walker some questions.
While reading your book, it struck me just how appropriate the title, ‘The Whole Intimate Mess’ is. Because it is incredibly intimate, and honest, and messy. Are you OK?
I am OK, and thanks for asking!
The title actually came from a quote I read by New Zealand painter Jacqueline Fahey, describing one of her paintings called ‘Final domestic expose – I paint myself’. She gave an interview to Deborah Shepherd for a book about notable New Zealand women, and in it, talking about that painting, she said she got to the point where she just thought “stuff it”, decided to put “the whole intimate mess” out there, on the basis that if she was honest about what was going on for her, it might be helpful to other people.
When I read that, it really became my mantra for why I wrote this book – it was scary and exposing to write so candidly about what had been going on, but I figured if it had happened to me, it must have happened to other people. And a very cool thing has happened since it was published, which is that people have written to me and sent me messages telling me exactly that. Often it’s a different manifestation, but the issues have really resonated with people, which leads me to believe there’s a lot of private torment out there – about all sorts of things, but about motherhood and the “choices” we make around it in particular – that we don’t talk about enough.
So I am ok, because the people I wanted to read the book and feel helped by it have read it and they do seem to find it helpful, and that’s what I was hoping for.
You suffer/ed from anxiety, as do I. As someone who can find it difficult to publish my own work, which is written about other people, I wonder; How did it feel opening yourself up in such a public way? Was it terrifying? Was it cathartic? Were there sleepless nights?
Present tense – still dealing with anxiety! Yes it has been a bit terrifying, and there have been some sleepless nights – one before I appeared on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill, mainly because she is such a hero of mine, and one before a piece about me and the book aired on TVNZ’s Sunday programme.
The fear has been not so much about people reading what I wrote in the book itself – because I had control over that – but about how it will be covered by others. You know “Ex-MP says Parliament drove her to self-harm” and that kind of thing. That fear has come true to some extent – that angle around self-harm has been prominent in the coverage, and that’s not surprising. But it hasn’t been all that comfortable for me to watch. It’s weird to see your own story repackaged and retold by others. It all happened, but in the book I was able to put it into context in a way that doesn’t come across in a TV piece or review. Having said that, I’m grateful for the interest in the book, because it is prompting exactly the kinds of conversations that I hoped it would.
And yes, the actual writing of the book itself was extremely cathartic. I decided I wanted to start writing seriously about two years ago, and I had this very strong feeling that I just had to get this stuff off my chest first. In doing so, I’ve processed it and made peace with it. Putting it out there publicly, and reconciling the public version of events with what was going on in private has been an important step I think.
You stepped down from politics in June 2014. At the time you said it was due to “a recent unexpected change in my family life,” upon which you would not elaborate. Having read the book, I now know at the time you discussed sharing the fact that your partner Dave was suffering from chronic pain, but chose not to. What has changed that’s meant you and Dave feel comfortable sharing this now?
Mainly that I’m also disclosing what was going on for me too.
In retrospect, Dave was absolutely right to ask that I not go out and say “I’m stepping down because my partner is unwell,” because that wasn’t the whole story. It was part of what was contributing to making things so hard, but it wasn’t the only thing – obviously, because I was having episodes of rage and self-harm even before that happened.
I felt very torn about stepping down, and like I was admitting failure, so it would have been very convenient to blame it on Dave’s illness, but it wouldn’t have been fair. Fortunately Dave had the clarity to see that before I could. I guess he has also had time to process the events of the last few years too, so that he now feels quite comfortable about me writing publicly about his illness, as it relates to my own experience. He’s been an absolute champ about the degree of exposure in the last few weeks, taking it all with incredible good grace and good humour. Reading one reviewer’s interpretation that our “marriage turned to crap” wasn’t easy, but we’ve been able to laugh about it together, which is great.
Last night I looked after a baby with Angelman Syndrome for an hour. She is usually the world’s happiest baby, but she cried the entire time. After her mum came and picked her up, I cried for about an hour too. How do parents do it?
I had to Google Angelman Syndrome, that sounds full-on, especially the disrupted sleep!
I remember babysitting once for a friend’s one-year-old before we had kids. She cried the whole time her parents were out and I felt such huge relief when I could hand her back.
It’s definitely very different when it’s your own kid. Those breaks become so important, but they are always tinged with the knowledge that when they are over, you are back in charge again. It’s relentless, and at first it’s very overwhelming, but I think basically you cope because you have to.
My friend Emily Writes has a great post about this called “The Just Fucking Doing It Club” which I think sums it up really nicely – you just do it because you have to. And you often surprise yourself by what you can do under those circumstances. Having said that, I don’t want to feed into the mothers as martyrs myth either. There’s a fine line between what you do because you simply have to and no-one else is going to do it, and recognising the times you need to step back and ask for help. I was terrible at that when Esther was little, which probably contributed a lot to my anxiety and stress, but I think I’m a bit better now. I know to accept help when it’s offered, to prioritise sleep when I can, to carve out time and activities that are just for me – all that good self-care stuff. Grandparents who can take their mokos for sleepovers are a big help!
You said it was hard to leave your daughter and go to work in the morning. I have a similar feeling about my cats, but I concede it is probably more intense with a human child. For the sake of women who are yet to experience this, is it possible to describe this feeling?
Haha, I used to feel like that about my cat too, before I had a baby! Poor Catface.
How can I best describe it? It’s like the umbilical cord is still attached. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you are acutely conscious of where your baby is and what they might be doing at that moment too. I used to imagine that I could see that cord stretching across Wellington Harbour from Parliament where I was working to Petone where Esther was. Part of you is always somewhere else. I’ve also heard it described as though your heart is on the outside of your body, which is a bit dramatic, but also rings true. It gets less intense as they get older, but it’s still there. At least that’s how it feels for me.
What should first time mothers expect that you wish you’d known before Esther was born?
Oh if only I could package it up in a lovely little kernel of advice!
I guess it boils down to this: try not to have too many expectations. There’s no way of predicting what kind of baby you are going to have, nor how it is going to affect you. I had all kinds of ideas before Esther was born – mostly ridiculous ones about how little Dave and I would change as a result of having a baby – that went out the window completely.
As much as possible, try to go with the flow and let what will be, be. That’s how I am trying to prepare for the birth of our second child in September (some might also call that “denial”!).
Trust your instincts and be kind to yourself. You will do a great job, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
Deborah Coddington refers to your book as being part of a cliche genre (her word is actually “meme”) of people who are “breaking their silence on depression/suicide attempt/what-have-you.” What are your thoughts on her describing your book and other people’s books in this way?
Hmmm. It’s a dismissive way of describing a whole genre of writing, isn’t it?
I spent two years reading only books written by women – of all different genres, but many of them falling into the category of what we might call “confessional” memoir or personal essays – and I found them incredibly helpful.
I think it’s GREAT that there’s been a proliferation of women writing in this way, for making people feel less alone in their own struggles, for bringing women’s concerns and issues to the table, for starting conversations, breaking taboos about certain topics. Of course, there are great examples of the genre and others not so great, as will be with all writing. But I find the growth of this type of writing incredibly heartening and important. I hope to see much more of it.
The Whole Intimate Mess by Holly Walker is published by Bridget Williams Books.
It should cost you $14.99 in print, $4.99 for the ebook, or free from the library as long as you return it on time.