What the modern Wellington whānau looks like

By Melody Thomas
Photography by Anthony Green

Featured in Capital #46
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Families portraits in Wellington reflect the changing shape of our society. Statistics show that the ‘typical’ nuclear family is still very much alive, but that many more have single, child-free, or other dynamics. A one-size-fits-all approach to families no longer cuts the mustard statistically and we need to adopt a many-sizes-fits-many approach from here on out.

Statistics show families that include both biological parents are no longer the norm. Back in 2008 couples (including both empty nesters and an increasing number of couples choosing to remain child-free) without children at home overtook those with children at home for the first time since at least World War II. Statistics New Zealand’s 2013 family and household projections show this trend is likely to continue, as is that towards more one-parent families.

We couldn’t capture everyone; the census already attempts to do that for us. So Capital looked into the families behind modern statistics. We then talked to four Wellington families that either fit or break those dominant trends, and asked what the word ‘family’ means to them.

Maria, Nicholas and Elliot Robertson

Opinions differ over the right time to start a family, but you’d probably agree that a 36-year-old woman six months into the ‘dark zone’ following a breakup is in a less ideal position than most. Nevertheless, that’s exactly how Maria Robertson’s little family began.

‘It was really tough and a period of genuine, deep sadness… But amongst it all I thought, “You know what, it can’t be the end of my wishes about family and children’,” she says, ‘And I’m so grateful, because if I’d left it until I felt better, possibly it would have been too late.’

At the time, Maria was commuting to Auckland each week work with a timber company. Her boss, ‘a middle-aged, religious white male with two children, a dog and VW Passat’ was not as supportive of her decision as he might have been.

‘When I told him – as a matter of courtesy – that I was about to start the process of trying to have children, the first words out of his mouth were ‘How long is that going to take?’ Followed by ‘I’ll have to talk to HR.’ I am a better leader and employer for having experienced that reaction,’ she says.

More than a decade later, Maria is Deputy Chief Executive at the Department of Internal Affairs and Mum to two boys, Elliot (12) and Nicholas (10), conceived through a sperm donor who was anonymous for a few weeks before Maria made contact and he too was brought into the familial fold. Having never met her own biological father, Maria sees this as a brilliant outcome for her boys.

‘I’ve always had this question in my own mind about what aspects of me are like my father… and I never wanted any children I had to feel that,’ she says.

While Maria’s job is hugely demanding, she says she has always prioritized family – which means being home in time to help with homework and eat as a family, then usually getting back to work emails and other tasks after the boys are in bed.

‘I have realised, without question, that family and career are not, and must never be, mutually exclusive. I will look back on my life proud of the balance I have struck as far as humanly possible,’ she says.

On paper Maria’s household would be described as ‘single-parent’, but she doesn’t consider herself a ‘solo mum’.

‘I’m Elliot and Nicholas’ mum. I’m Maria. I’m a daughter, niece, friend, colleague, coach, boss, peer, etc. I’m lots of things. None of those things by itself defines me. That said, I’ve been so strongly supported by my amazing mum. She is an outstanding woman. I also have an amazing network of great friends. I’m anything but solo,’ she says.

Saya Hashimoto and Ben Temple

While you probably shouldn’t put too much stock by the things kids tell you they’ll do when they are adults, sometimes their predictions are spot on. As was one from little Saya Hashimoto, who announced as a child that she would never have kids of her own. Now 36 years old, Saya is one of a number of women choosing to remain child-free.

‘I’ve never wanted children, I’ve always just wanted to be an aunty. I love little babies so much. I love holding them and I love to be involved – I just don’t want to take them home,’ she says.

Saya is aware that many people don’t understand her position. She’s had strangers tell her she’s selfish or that she’ll inevitably change her mind, and her own Grandmother used to share dreams of Saya carrying twins as if they were premonitions. But the people who matter – her close friends, her mother and her partner Ben – do.

‘In my previous relationship… we both skirted around it until it became a problem. So I said to Ben very early on in the piece, “What are your thoughts on having kids? I don’t want to have kids” and he said ‘“I don’t want to either”,’ she says.

Saya has read a lot about the reasons women and couples choose to remain child-free, and says that while some do so because they don’t like children or because they themselves were only children and feel unconfident around kids and babies, this is not the case for her.

‘It’s almost as deep to me as a gender thing, like I’m just not built that way,’ she says. ‘I’ve had friends say to me that they would look at women with kids on the bus and feel this ache or feel jealous and I just have no idea what that would feel like at all.”

In defining ‘family’, Saya describes a series of concentric rings, with Ben and herself plus her brother and a few very close friends in the centre, surrounded by a ring of other close friends and blood relatives, then other, less essential relationships radiating outwards from there. Notably, Saya does not equate ‘family’ with blood ties.

‘Family is the people you choose… that feel like home for you. There’s a real joy in that. It’s not like they’re stuck with you because they can’t un-choose you. Every day they choose you,’ she says.

Roseanne Leota, Leremia Tuivaiti and Isiah, Leo, Sharquille, HoRoymana, Kaneihana, Ieremia, Sivai, Danii, Caroline, Troy and Tiana

When we roll up to Roseanne and Ieremia’s home in Raumati South, no-one is quite sure what to expect. We know we’re here to meet a big family, and the first of many surprises is that the seven children who greet us with tea and a spread of biscuits are not all of them. In fact the four eldest are running late and won’t make it in time for our photo.

From the ‘baby’ Tiana (aged 9) up to the firstborn, Isiah (age 27), there are 11 kids in total, the first five born to Roseanne’s previous partner. Eighteen years ago, after they split and while she was living in Australia, Roseanne was sharing her poetry in an online chat group called Manalounge for Pacific people when a Samoan man from Los Angeles started posting back.

‘I was born in Samoa… [but] my parents split up and my Mum and I moved to the States. So I grew up in south central Los Angeles where my exposure to Samoan culture was through my parents and the little community we had through church. Then… my mum passed pretty young and I lost contact with Pacific peoples,’ says Jeremiah.

A decade later, keen to reconnect with his roots and missing the sapasui, koko alaisa and kopai his Mum used to make, Jeremiah went online to find a Samoan partner – and found Roseanne. It was 1999, ‘when a picture took 25 minutes to load’, years before seemingly everyone would be looking to the internet to find love.

The couple chatted for a few months before Roseanne decided to take matters into her own hands and bought a ticket to the US. A few months after that, she was pregnant with baby number six – ‘and I was locked in,’ laughs Jeremiah.

The couple moved to New Zealand, living with Roseanne’s former partner and all the kids in in Cannons Creek for 10 weeks before finding their own place. Their already-large family continued to grow.

While both Roseanne and Jeremiah grew up in deeply religious families, they describe themselves as atheist and agnostic, so the size of their family isn’t the direct result of religious belief. Perhaps, though, Roseanne’s desire for a big family can be traced back to her Catholic roots, as well as her reluctance to terminate a pregnancy.

‘In every single one of our first three or four pregnancies I was like, “Ok look, let’s get an abortion, we can’t afford to have another baby”,’ says Jeremiah, ‘One time we even drove to the appointment.’

But ‘it wasn’t in me’ to go through with it, says Roseanne.

After four, the final two, born in January and December of the same year, were not questioned.

Now grandparents, they hope that the values they’ve worked hard to instil in their children will continue in perpetuity.
‘Someone once told me that if you wanna live forever you need to have kids,’ says Jeremiah, ‘Family doesn’t have to be a blood relation, it’s the ability to pass on generations of values, culture and innately what is part and parcel of each of us.’

Natalie Keegan and Ryan, Art and ‘Fonzie’ Prebble

Natalie Keegan and Ryan Prebble are one of those couples who met and ‘just knew’ they were right for each other. So they were both stoked when, nine months into their relationship, they got pregnant with their first son Art (now 5). Two years later, their second child Fonzie was delivered at home by Ryan and a close friend, when he decided to arrive before the midwife did.

If you’d asked the couple six months ago if their family was complete, you’d have received different answers. As Nat puts it, she was content with her two beautiful boys but ‘a combination of hormones and not wanting to let go of the baby phase of life’ led her to bring up the idea of a third.

‘Ryan promptly said, “Not keen” and I agreed it wasn’t a good idea to get pregnant again. And then three months later we did,’ she says.
So in January their little nuclear family will become that much bigger. It’s taken a little time to get used to the idea – and especially to come to terms with the inevitable financial and logistical pressures – but the couple are now firmly in the ‘excited’ camp.

Ryan himself is the third of four boys, born nine minutes before his twin brother, after his parents (who already had two boys) decided to try for a girl. He can’t wait to watch the sibling relationships develop.

‘When I see our boys loving each other and having heaps of fun together, I remember back to what it was like with my three brothers and it makes me feel excited for them to have another life-long friend,’ he says.

Nat is looking forward to giving birth – ideally at home again, though this time with a midwife present.

‘I can’t wait for that moment when you look at your child for the first time and everything feels so right. Nothing beats that,’ she says.

Family is obviously very important to this couple, with Nat describing it as ‘the foundation to life. Without our support and our community we would be nothing.’

Given the couple’s history it’s worth asking if there’s a chance their family still has room to grow.

‘Not keen’, laughs Ryan.


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