‘The Thief…’: Investigating PND

So I spent a good chunk of 2016 working on a series of articles about postnatal depression (aka postnatal distress), which finally went ‘live’ at Scoop.co.nz on Friday 21 October. The research and writing were funded by the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. (Thanks!) You can support the Scoop Foundation’s efforts here.

Here are links to the articles, anyways:

  1. The Thief that Steals Motherhood
  2. But I’m not Depressed
  3. Finding Someone Who ‘Gets It’
  4. Quick Facts and Links
  5. Rough-cut audio of women telling their stories

And there was an interview with Kim Hill on RNZ, Saturday 22 October.

Thanks so much to the women to talked to me about their experiences. I’m very grateful. And everyone else who helped in lots of ways. It’s a big complicated important (I think) issue that remains (like so much to do with women’s reproductive lives) stigmatised and hidden. I know there are a lot of people doing a lot of great work, some of it funded by the public health system, a lot of it not.

There were lots of ‘take-aways’ for me from all this. One was: there are undoubtedly a lot of women out there suffering from what can be a very scary illness who aren’t getting help — help that could really go a long way toward getting them well. Another was: getting help can be a bit of a crap-shoot, depending on where you live, who your midwife or Plunket/Tamariki Ora nurse is, how confident you are about asking for help, how confident your whānau is about asking for help — or even realising you might need it…and so on and so on…

But PND is coming out into the open, thanks to the mums and the people who are their champions. Kia kaha!


Cross-Post: Who Was That Woman, Anyway?

[This was originally posted on 20 May 2013 at The Hand Mirror]

It’s trite to say that books take you places. But true nonetheless. With books, you can disappear into other times, cultures, imaginary worlds. “Foreign” fiction is better than any guide-book at introducing you to a place and its people, and sometimes even better than going there if you want to see beneath the surface.

But if you live here and read enough of the stuff (say novels from the two Anglophone powerhouses – the United States and the UK-plus-Ireland) then a different feeling starts to kick in. Like what you’re getting to know is really life inside the American novel, not life inside America. At about the same point, for me anyway, “local” fiction itself starts to feel a bit foreign. Not in the way “foreign” fiction is foreign, but in the way local fiction feels rare, like something you don’t see very often. Which, when it’s good local fiction, also makes it feel precious and exciting and new.

Who was that woman imageI felt this way reading Aorewa McLeod’s new book “Who Was That Woman, Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life.” It’s a novel, yes, but as McLeod explains in the book’s front matter, it’s inspired by real life events. “Some details happened in real life, some did not,” she writes. “The characters are fictionalised and given fictional names.” The book’s 10 chapters, ordered by date, span roughly 40 years in the life of Ngaio, McLeod’s protagonist who, like the author, is an English lecturer at a university in Auckland.

The subtitle is sweet in the way it undersells the book. These are not only snapshots of a lesbian life, but of life in New Zealand, and life in Aotearoa. Snapshots of what it can be like to grow up here, and live here.

Its starting point is the 1960s with Ngaio, a university student, heading to Nelson to spend her summer break as a nurse’s aide because “an ex-schoolmate’s father was someone high up in the mental health service and he had suggested that nurse-aiding in psychiatric hospitals was a lucrative way of earning money in the holidays”. Ngaio is put in a ward with bedridden, severely disabled children. “There were enormous hydrocephalic water heads, tiny pinheads, huge slobbering mouths, bent bodies, contorted hands waving in the air, grasping blindly, clutching as if there were something to reach for. They could grip me with such desperate strength that I had to pry their fingers off. Many were blind. I couldn’t tell how old they were.” McLeod’s writing, particularly in the first half of the novel, is like that: direct and piercing.

It’s while she’s working in Nelson that Ngaio meets Suzy, her first love. Suzy is a Māori woman from a Mormon family who works as a charge nurse at the children’s ward in town. “She only goes for white girls,” a friend tells Ngaio. “All her family’s married white. That’s what the Mormons encourage them to do, to make it in the white world.” Who cares! Ngaio is in heaven. “This was it; this was what it meant to make love. This was the transformational moment of my life.”

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More Writing: Joe Harawira; Women’s Rights; Books

I first saw Joe Harawira speaking last year at the CTU-Iwi leaders hui in Tauranga. He seemed such a quiet, unassuming man, but the story of his struggle, along with fellow former Whakatane timber mill industry workers (SWAP, or Sawmill Workers Against Poisons), was quite mind blowing. It took them decades to win recognition for their claim that their exposure to PCP (pentachlorophenol) in the timber mills was causing some pretty severe health problems. In addition, that the poison-laced waste used as landfill (often around marae) was an environmental problem.

12305714041500807562choochus_Wolf_Head_Howl_1.svg.medI kept meaning to contact Joe — since I live not too far from Whakatane, in the Bay of Plenty — and catch up on where he and the former mill workers were at, how the clean-up was going and were their health issues being resolved, something I finally did this March. He came to my place, managing to drive himself here despite having an arm that doesn’t work too well — one of the many health problems he himself has developed. (He’s 67 now.)

And, yes, he is a quiet, unassuming man. (I asked him about that: he said, well, if he’d seen me “30 years ago, probably 20 years of those 30 years, I would probably cut your neck off out there. We were shocking, but after thinking about it now, we needed to go down that track.”) We talked for an hour and a half or so, and I wrote up a wee piece for Werewolf.co.nz, Toxins in the Timber Mills. The full story of Joe and SWAP has been told elsewhere, including in a documentary called The Green Chain that was shown on Māori TV in 2011. (There’s a link to that in the Werewolf piece.)

In the wake of the Pike River mining disaster, and the calls that followed for more oversight and better regulation, it struck me while listening to Joe that his story had a lot in common with other community-level struggles I’ve heard about over the past year or so — like the Waihi residents battling plans to mine under their town; and the iwi challenging the Port of Tauranga’s expansion plans, to mention just two.  They share that sense of being powerless in the face of business interests, who usually also win over public sentiment by talking about how many jobs their project will create. (Sometimes that’s true; sometimes it’s not. But the ‘economic growth’ at any cost has been widely seen as contributing to what happened at Pike River.) It’s nigh on impossible, for example, to conclusively prove links between things like chemical exposure and health problems (think agent orange or dioxin in Taranaki), and when you’re a group of blue-collar workers — well, good luck with that. Similarly, in all the RMA hearings over mining, the local groups are up against well-resourced companies with experts on tap and reports that a lay person can barely make head nor tail of. True, the residents are supposed to have moderately well-resourced local government looking out for their interests, but ask the Waihi residents what they think about that. Whoa! A lot of them actually see the council as the biggest problem,  not the mining company.

Among other things, the RMA is supposed to even the playing field a little bit. But most everyone has bought into that “there’s too much red tape” and “decisions take too long” narrative, hence the current legislation that’s designed to speed up some of the decision making. Sounds innocent enough, but unless a lot more effort is put into actually listening to and acting on the concerns of the people on the ground, there are surely more costly clean-ups in our future (be they health or environmental).

Other Recent Stuff

I had a much more in-depth piece in the Werewolf before (27 February 2013) about Policing Pregnancy, (I’m convinced the official and unofficial surveillance of pregnancy is a human rights issue that should be on more people’s radars) and some more book reviews up at The New York Times in February. Also, at The Hand Mirror, UN ‘Family’ Resolution Raises Concern, (20 March 2013) looks at a proposed UN Human Rights Council Resolution on “Protection of the Family”, and the potential  impact it could have not just on reproductive health and rights, but on those of LGBTI people; while in  ‘Careless Driving Causing Death’, (4 March 2013) I report on a case before the courts in Wellington in which a husband has been charged with careless driving causing death after a relatively minor accident that apparently led to the death of his wife’s 31-week fetus. A heart-breaking case in every possible way!

Fighting to Choose: Almost Print Ready

“Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand” (Victoria University Press) is almost print ready, and due to be officially launched on May Day, 1 May, in Wellington. I’m going to be giving a talk/having a discussion on the book at the Women’s Studies Association Conference in Wellington the weekend before 26-28 April, where ALRANZ and the Prochoice Highway will have a stall with books and lots of other nifty stuff. Please stop by, and find out more about the book and the Highway. And if you’re an ALRANZ member, it’ll all be at the AGM on April 30. (If you’re not, you could always join…)


Defend Family Planning, Again

The Sunday Star Times (see 1 Feb update at the end of this post) has a piece today on Right to Life’s attack on Family Planning’s charitable status, something I blogged about a couple of weeks ago over at The Hand Mirror in a post titled  Defend Family Planning. It’s good to see some serious reporting of the constant attacks being lobbed at organisations like Family Planning LogoFamily Planning, doctors, screening programmes, etc. etc. by Ken Orr et al., and the SST’s Marika Hill has been doing some great work on that score. Which of course means that Ken has probably already written and posted a complaint to the newspaper with a Press Council follow-up waiting in the wings. Orr is one of the most prolific letter-to-the-ed writers, OIA requesters, complaint writers in the country. Nary a news report touching on reproductive health care goes by without it sparking a bit of outrage. And some of the outbursts would be mostly entertaining, as I wrote in the “Defend FP” post were it not for the chilling effect this has on orgs like FP. Which is just what Family Planning’s Chief Executive Jackie Edmond said in that SST article:

“The biggest concern for me is it makes people nervous to address the real issues because a small number of people are very vocal,” Edmond said. “It makes government officials nervous about moving positively forward on things like abortion law reform.”


The campaign to defund Family Planning, which started here in around 2010, never really took off like its Defund Planned Parenthood counterpart in the U.S., but FP’s recent tentative  yet welcome comments about the need for abortion law reform  have renewed at least Right to Life’s enthusiasm for another go.

I doubt it will fly for lots of reasons including that FP doesn’t perform any abortions (unlike Planned Parenthood), though does act as a point of contact and referral organisation. The antis are funny about funding abortion. On one hand, they are outraged that taxpayers money is spent on abortion (here, of course, abortion is largely taxpayer funded, unlike in the U.S.) and on the other, they are horrified if the private sector gets involved, because then that’s profiting from abortion.

The charitable status attack won’t fly either because, let’s face it, FP has hardly been indulging in scads of advocacy around law reform. And no doubt for precisely the reason that it attracts this kind of spluttering from the anti-abortion people. As Red Queen pointed out, if they go after FP, we should go after all Family First, Family  Life International NZ, etc., also charities, who are campaigning like mad against actual proposed legislation (as opposed to a not actual bill to decriminalise abortion). As ALRANZ’s Morgan Healey pointed out, this just gets tiresome.

**UPDATE 1 Feb 2012. The tut-tutting and faux outrage that came piling down on SST journalist Marika Hill’s head after her story appeared begged for another wee bit of blogging, which I did over at THM under the heading “‘Truth’ In the Abortion Debate” — as in, there really isn’t much when it comes to how anti-abortionists are covered in the media, but they scream like mad if anyone, like Hill, gets close.

The Book: It Must Be Real

I was in the middle of going through my “Fighting to Choose” manuscript yet again, when a Tweet from an ALRANZ comrade pointed me to the fact that The Book is now listed on Victoria University Press’s Web site as “forthcoming in 2013”. (And thankfully, the press managed to crop the Norfolk Pine that’s coming out of my head in that author pic.) So, it must be real.

I started this journey in 2007, researching and writing. So I figure it’s understandable if I continue to pinch myself, almost exactly 5 years later. Obviously there will be a lot more to come on the book, including in the second half of 2013, a wee book tour-slash-roadshow called the Pro-Choice Highway.

Also, an article I wrote, and gave as a talk, called (links to a PDF) “The Rise of the Fetal Citizen” has just been published in the Women’s Studies Journal. This abstract essentially explains what the paper is all about:

Woman + Fertilised Egg: The Metamorphosis. (Graphic by Zenaida)

Woman + Fertilised Egg: The Metamorphosis. (Graphic by Zenaida)

The use of fetal sounds and imagery in the cultural and political struggles over abortion has expanded markedly in  the past half century. Technologies like ultrasound have not only helped us see the fetus, but have played a crucial  role in the construction of value-laden notions about it. Biological facts have been used to leverage moral notions of, for example, what it means to be a ‘person’, ultimately leading us closer and closer to the creation of a new category of ‘fetal-citizen’. Assuming a continued improvement in medical understanding of and public access to fetal development, I consider the further impact that access might have on pregnant women and fetuses. Will it simply degrade the concepts of ‘person’ and ‘citizen’ beyond usefulness, or is it likely to usher in a Handmaid’s Tale dystopia in which reproduction is ever more tightly monitored and controlled? I conclude that we have already traveled quite some distance along what is essentially an uneasy combination of these two paths, and that  this trend is likely to continue.

Shock! Horror! Agreeing With Family First!

I wrote my column this past Saturday in support of Labour MP Sue Moroney’s bill to expand paid parental leave from the current 14 weeks to 26 weeks. The bill barely squeaked through its first reading, with the National caucus and John Banks voting No, and it’s now before a select committee. One thing that I hope will come out of that are some costings on the financial benefits of expanded PPL, since the social benefits are pretty obvious.

Well, I think so anyway. But if you want more on that, check out the 26 For Babies campaign page. A few, um, “interesting” comments have already emerged from the Select Committee hearings, including this gem from Paul Clark, owner of the New Zealand Ammunition Company, who opposes the bill and was reported by the DomPost as saying that “Having a family is a choice – almost like buying a luxury car.” A dubious analogy on so many levels…

In researching the column, I asked for a bit more comment from Tauranga’s MP Simon Bridges as well as Family First’s director Bob McCoskrie. As so often happens somewhere in between gathering far too much information and trying to squeeze it into 600 words, I didn’t fit the quotes in, but appreciated that they responded to my query, so I thought I’d put their comments up here. As you can tell if you read the column, I don’t think this is a matter of affordability but of priorities. And, well, also as per the column, I’m a bit weirded out by finding myself on the same side of an issue as Bob, but there you go!

Simon Bridges, Nat.-Tauranga:

This Government is focused on responsibly managing the country’s finances.  It’s important that we get back to surplus and get debt under control, which is why we can’t have Parliament deciding to go off and spend money which we simply don’t have.  I am concerned at the financial implications of nearly doubling the amount of parental leave – Labour’s proposals would cost about $450 million over the first four years and this is money we simply don’t have.

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