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‘Unacceptable Choices’

Book Review | BWB Texts
The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, politics, and women’s writing
by Holly Walker (BWB Texts, paper $14.99; e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

bwb1000_walker_the_whole_intimate_mess_tip_aw-1When I saw Holly Walker, MP, speak at a meeting in Tauranga, I remember thinking how confident and together she was. That was a few years back, and she must have been barely 30 years old. “Whoa,” I thought, “I could never have done that at 30-something.” When she decided to step down as an MP, I confess to being a bit disappointed. Having read a fair bit over the years about the struggles facing women in Parliament, I had started to think that was then, this was now and things had finally changed for the better. I mean, look at Holly Walker. This book makes very clear that’s not the case.

Walker’s résumé is impressive, Bachelor’s degree, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Member of Parliament, all before she turned 30. And all of it following an origin story about her mother’s struggles as a single parent and her own lifelong dream to make sure every child in New Zealand had the kind of safe, secure, opportunity-rich childhood she’d enjoyed. It was a story that, by the time she left Parliament in 2014, she had come to doubt as inauthentic. “The reasons for this lofty ambition,” she writes, “were as much to do with celebrity and approval as they were about public service.” Holly Walker wanted to excel, to exceed expectations, to be approved of, to be liked.

The book takes us through her and her partner’s courtship and civil union, then the 2011 election that propelled her into Parliament as a Green List MP. The job was tough, but Walker ploughed ahead trying not to dwell on her feelings of being overwhelmed, paralysed, indecisive. In mid-2012 she had her first panic attack, while speaking at a meeting in Nelson, then in October 2013, gave birth to her first child, a daughter. In the months that followed she suffered what she later came to believe was post-natal anxiety and depression.

Walker’s account of what she went through is harrowing and intimate, and, at risk of sounding trite, very brave. Like the other titles in the BWB Texts series, this is a short book — a personal essay, really. It suffers at times from a wandering focus, primarily because of Walker’s attempt to use the writings of other women to tie her own stories together. She says she set out in 2014 to read only women writers for a year, and now it feels like she’s trying (too hard) to find a way to make use of it all. Because it’s not other writers’ stories that makes this book worth reading, it’s Walker’s.

In a chapter titled “Self-Inflicted Injuries”, she describes a family argument that ended with Walker turning her fists on herself.

“I’m on the floor, raining blows on the side of my own head, and then smashing it into the ground. I’m screaming, crawling up the hallway, sobbing. I’ve lost hold of my tenuous grip on myself, becoming something wild, animal.”

Like I said, brave. (She later explained the swelling and bruising to colleagues as the result of emergency wisdom tooth extraction.) That wasn’t a one-off incident. Walker writes that ever since her daughter’s birth, “I had found myself finishing arguments with Dave by hitting myself in the head. Usually flat-handedly on the top of my head, so that sometimes I had a bit of a headache and a sore spot, but not visible injury.”

The next challenge, as if that wasn’t enough, came in the form of her partner’s worsening illness — what she describes as a rare and relatively mild form of muscular dystrophy called FSH. That, coupled with the realisation that she was not coping — “I was frightening myself with the things I found myself doing and saying at moments of extreme stress” — prompted Walker to announce, in June 2014, that she would step down from the Green list for the 2011 election.

It’s sobering to wonder whether — were Parliament actually organised around real people’s lives — Holly Walker might not have had to suffer in the way she did, and might still be pursuing her dream career. And if that were extrapolated to all workplaces and communities, to wonder how much of the post-natal distress other women suffer might be eased, or better acknowledged, or treated. Not all of it, certainly. But some of it. (I wrote about PND last year in a three-part series for the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism: See Parts 1, 2, and 3.)

Walker herself addresses the “Unacceptable ‘Choices'” women who want to be mothers and work in politics often face (or those who don’t want children being cast as “cold, heartless, or lacking in the essential female quality of caring”). “It should be possible,” she writes, “for women with young children to serve as successful, effective members of Parliament without having a mental breakdown. Not only should it be possible, if we’re ever to correct the gross gender imbalance and have a Parliament that truly represents us it is essential.”

But it wasn’t just Parliament. Walker makes clear that things were tough after she left, and some of her “worst instances of rage and self-harm came after I left Parliament, not before”, as she struggled to deal with her partner’s illness, and the need to find a job and childcare.

She writes two endings for the book, one in which she still struggles but no longer hurts herself; the other — the “truer ending” — in which she is much better, but still wrestles with self-harm. “In the moment, it feels like a release valve, an escape hatch out of an intractable situation, but in reality, it makes everything harder. It frightens me how close to the surface this wild, alien self is, how little it can take to set it loose.”