What does it mean to be a Pasifika parent in Aotearoa / New Zealand?

This is an interesting question and most certainly, the open question - asked to many ears -and the dialogue that follows - is far more interesting than any monologue response that forecloses on a plethora of answers.  Resist reading this piece of writing as a singular answer that seeks to speak on behalf of many…

I am one Mother, among many, that provides one thread in a larger conversation that weaves us as parents in the 21st century, indigenous to the larger Moana, islands, atolls and land masses belonging to the largest ocean in the world, growing up here, non-indigenous, and yet not quite settler.

We are the migrants of the Moana and our history reaches back all over the Pacific Ocean.   We stretch to every corner of the wind compass.  We have been here for a long time, living on small islands mostly, learning how to survive and thrive through centuries in this region, enduring through wave after wave of change.

I am of multiple heritages, so even my one voice speaks through many bloodlines.  I have Palangi, white settler heritage from my Mother, as well as a connection to Samoa which is ‘afakasi and traces back from my Great-Grandmother Florence King and my father is Tongan, and he also has ancestral connections to Samoa.

Becoming a Mother has changed my whole life experience.  I have to admit that I was ill-prepared.  I had never had a pet.  I had never babysat other children or raised siblings.  I was a total newbie.  I had never changed a nappy.  I had smiled and cooed over babies, but I had barely held them and I had certainly never been in sole charge.

I did not plan either of my boys.  Both of them were determined to come into the world when they did, regardless of the contraception I was using.  They were an unexpected joy.  Even now, I recall the days that they were born and the weeks that followed as the most intense joyful times of my life.  When a baby is born, everything intensifies, everything else fades away – they say time never stands still – but for a moment – when a baby is born, it does.  It has to.  You have to adjust and that baby becomes all-absorbing.  I often describe the first six weeks of that baby’s life as being on the ultimate confidence-course of your life.  You are sleep deprived, body wounded and sore, you are pushed past every biological and emotional limit that you’ve ever encountered.  Nobody tells you!

NOBODY TELLS YOU!  How hard, how life-changing, how challenging, how interruptive the whole experience is.  Nobody tells you how responsible you have to become, how dependent that baby is on you for life – one missed move – and there could be dire consequences.  I remember being wide awake, my body completely taken over, my nipples like dark moons, afraid to pee because of the trauma of birth, everything upside down, inside out – especially my body – no longer my own.

It is not just the loss and sharing of your physical body in ways that is a shock, it is the way that you are policed and regulated by those “who know”.  In swans everyone with advice, “do it like this” and “do it like that” with their firm ideas about what is right and what is wrong.  Plunket nurses, midwives, Mother-in-laws, breast feeding consultants, nurses, friends, cousins, mothers, sisters, strangers, everyone has an opinion and they are often not shy to share it.  I found this difficult, trying to make my own choices about what felt right in the wake of everyone else’s freely given advice.

There is a lot of touch in the way you raise Tongan children.  A lot of holding, massaging, cuddling, keeping warm and safe, Dr Langi Kavaliku writes, about the Tongan proverb – “Olunga he Kaliloa - which literally  means "to rest one's head on the long pillow". But the proverb means "to rest one's head on the mother's arm." In the evening in Tonga the children rest their heads on their mothers arm while she tells them  legends, values and norms of behavior, the problems of the family and  of the country, soothe their fears, heal their wounds, answer questions  and be a mother, philosopher and provider.”  Having a close relationship with your mother is seen to be a key of growing up healthy and wise, nurtured and knowing who you are.

I have enjoyed that constant contact and have relished the joys of lying with your children at the end of the day, where my small boys would talk about their aches and pains and the small humiliations of their day, the last few things on their mind before they fell to sleep, a time to pray, and talk of stars and rest and comfort, this became increasingly precious to me - more precious than watching television while they self-settled.

There were other practices that I watched other Tongan families who were friends of ours observe that we were less successful in perpetuating.  For example, good friends of ours always massaged their babies after their baths with coconut oil, religiously smoothing their skin and ensuring that their muscles were relaxed and smoothed.  These children have grown up so comfortable in their bodies, so used to being touched and adored and have the most beautiful skin.  This video on youtube reminded me recently of the power of that loving touch and what is natural for us - and what we have moved so far away from:


If I was to start over, I would do the same.  At least I have boys that are used to being comforted physically, who are used to being touched, and even though they might be a bit light on the self-soothing front, I guess we all make our choices about how much we want to be in our children’s lives and orbits.

I was / I am a working Mum.  I completed my PhD while my two boys were small.  They would talk about losing me to “Massey Universe” and there were plenty of times that I put them in front of Baby Einstein or whatever was randomly on tv for their age group and wrote another few pages.  I myself used television fairly therapeutically as a child, loving my Scooby Doo after school, my quiet time, not quite my “happy place” as Sky likes to promote itself, but most definitely, tv time was zone-out time.  It was also time with my Dad, who could not read or write, and took great pleasure out of television.  Most of the world beyond my own city was mediated to me, via television.   I’m pragmatic, realistic, but also disappointed that to a large extent this may be the case for my sons also.

We try to get out into the wild, into the world, into the leaves and trees of the forests that are not so far away from us.  We try to get into the ocean and waves and beaches that are less than a ten-minute drive away.   We try.  Often we stay, in the confines of our four walls and I Facebook with my friends and write my papers and send emails and they watch tv and play Minecraft and perhaps use their imagination less than I did when I was a child.

My children have two upwardly mobile parents who have tried in different ways to improve things for the collective of Pacific peoples who grow up here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.  Both of our comfortable careers have been dedicated to this cause.  At the end of the day, we are also committed to ensuring that our own children are a positive outcome, not another statistic that we have both been involved in collecting, creating, analyzing and reacting to.

We are among the few Pacific home-owners and our incomes place us into a zone that is out of reach of many, meaning that my experience is one which is not representative of the vast majority of Pacific peoples.  They cannot sit comfortably, working from home, at their brand new Apple computer, waiting to meet up with a friend at a café, in the new top I have just bought on a work trip to Hawaii.  We are the privileged who have not come from privilege, who have come from the wrong sides of town, from the ‘worst’ schools, who have educated, worked and pushed our way beyond glass ceilings and low expectations, beyond the gradients of under-achievement to the world of role-models, and speaking at graduation ceremonies, and becoming ministry of education ambassadors, being mentioned in speeches by politicians and all that guff that is said, when hope is called for.

What does that mean when it comes to being a parent.  When you are off the stage and your child is telling you that you have the worst job in the world, because you have to travel so much and leave your children a lot.  When you are in a city far, far away speaking to young people about their future, and wondering about your own children and how they are feeling tonight.

All parents wonder about their choices.  All grown-ups learn that at our age, when you experience a reasonable amount of plenty – you have moved beyond just trying to survive – that ultimately it is all about choices, about prioritizing what is important.  I decided, with a full belly and a manageable mortgage, that I would cut my hours to part-time so that I could pick my boys up from school each day.  There are small decisions that are made, that less money was ok, and more family time was priceless.

We could not afford to do a solo-income and maintain our present lifestyle.  This blog recently heartened me about those who defiantly choose to value the role of Mother.  Not all of us are in this position.


My Mother was a fulltime playcentre stay-at-home Mum and her example often haunts my parenting.  There is a whole generation of us who have full-time mother examples that betray us as part-time, as preoccupied, as unable to whip up a batch of play dough without googling the recipe and never really having enough salt in the house to make it.  There is a whole generation of us who walk in the shadows of Mother’s who’s only job was to raise us, love us, educate us, cook and clean for us, make a home for us.  Now we are so often time-poor which does not necessarily translate into income-rich, and we make do, the best we can with the limited time we have available.  We are driving through traffic to the next thing on our list, dropping off babies to caregivers, dropping off preschoolers to daycare, attending meetings, expressing milk, freezing breast milk, writing strategic plans at our computers with our babies in pods sleeping against our tummies.  This is it.  The ‘girls can do anything’ dream and do-anything even while we are pregnant and have-a-child-in-our-laps generation.  It is often exhausting.  It is often disheartening.  We spend our whole time feeling guilty, trading, stealing time, giving time ungenerously, saying no, working out how to say no, learning the hard way what to say no to, feeling guilty, compromising, justifying our lives and rituals and routines to ourselves.  Jumping on planes, contracting ourselves out by the hour, losing gst receipts, making espresso at home to save money, hiring nannies, hiring cleaners so we have some zen in our cluttered homes which are our places of work, play and whatever it is that anybody does in their nonexistent spare time.

Time is so precious that work must become beloved or life is impossible to live.  We work out how to live our passions and be paid for it, because life is too short.  We work out how to include our children in our lives of passion, so that they do not end up drawing the short sticks all the time, in our busy lives.  We speak of ‘quality time’ and we try to give it.  We compromise.

We also, as Pasifika people, try and work out – like everyone else on the planet – what will have continuing energy from our past – and what will change.  We recognize that in these new conditions, sometimes the way we change, will be informed by the ways we want to stay the same.  We will practice cultural continuity.  We – like I did once – might demand to see the peer-reviewed journal articles that argue that feeding children from masculated food, the way our grandparents did for us, is associated with poor dental hygiene.  We will sometimes keep secrets from the Plunket Nurses, and tell them only what they want to hear believing that they possibly won’t understand our values.  We will do our best with the information at our disposal, recognizing that a lot of our information and our intuition are informed by ideas that are not written down in the baby guides full of blonde cherubs.  Our information and ideas are often half-formed in something that has been loosely passed down to us in ways that were not clearly articulated.

We do these things, because they make sense to us, because they feel natural to us, because on some level it resonates as the right thing to do.  Our choices often don’t make sense or seem rational according to the logic that informs the Plunket Nurse.  But like the stroppy, yoga-pants wearing mothers who insist they are going to do things in accord with attachment theory, we make our choices and it is often not what is dominant, not what is considered to be ‘normal’.   We make less fuss about our choices, recognizing that they are somehow considered ‘high-risk’ or are worth ‘health-promoting out of us’, by someone who ‘knows best’ but does not consider us their equal.  These messages come - when it comes down to it - from someone who does not love our children in the way that we do.  This lack of love for our children, so often appears to inform these policies, that see them and us, as a threat, as a problem, to be risk-managed and minimized.  We know our children deserve better.  We know our children are insanely beautiful and gorgeously talented and we want the best for them, in a world that might not, in its arrogance and limited vision, see them as whole hearted, as deserving, as vital, as the possible solutions to so many of their problems.  These are the children that we are not waiting for, but creating, against all odds.  The kids who feel entitled, without entitlement driving every agenda.  The kids who will one day save this world, collectively, with values from our ancestors, but feet firmly planted in the compromise and complexity of this world.

One of the things about being a parent, and particularly a Mother, in this contemporary context, is that you are constantly trying to prioritize and optimize everything.  Learning what to prioritize has been the endgame of my thirties, what is important?  A certain level of income and financial security, which may or may not include a mortgage and life insurance, which may or may not (but usually does for most people I know) mean two people working most of the time.  It is quality family time, it is enough time spent with your children so that they don’t get chucked into reading recovery and manifest obvious diagnosable problems that stop them functioning well in society.  Bedwetting may or may not be a part of this, learning to how to potty train that requires extended focus and regularity may be done on a family holiday.  You too, may have pulled your child out of a perfectly good daycare centre because your baby came home and word-less, still unable to speak, lay on your body in collapse – and cried himself to sleep, missing your body and presence in every ache of his sob.  You may have pulled another child out of a mediocre childcare centre when the caregivers said such stupid things to your four year old that even he could call it for what it was, and that may have involved the word ‘bullshit’.

There are these little moments when everything you’ve prioritized and compromised collapses and a whole lot of re-jigs are required.  You are constantly weighing your own personal happiness and small freedoms up against the wellbeing of the family collective.  Families are challenging and parenting is not a peak-performance sport, it is the long game.  It is the everyday endurance, the ground-down regularity of routines that can take more than a bit of your skin when things graze awkwardly, too tight against the bone.  Some days the machine grinds us down.

Joseph Campbell’s writes in: The Power of Myth:

“When you think about what people are actually undergoing in our civilization, you realize it’s a very grim thing to be a modern human being. The drudgery of the lives of most of the people who have to support families – well, it’s a life-extinguishing affair…”

Campbell concludes that we must resist the threats to our own humanity, and suggests that we must work out how to “live in your period of history as a human being” which involves to an extent, resisting being ground down by the impersonal system and “holding to your own ideals for yourself”.  I would also add it involves cultivating the heart.  It involves ensuring that there is some space in your routine – so often relentless – to follow your own intuition, to resist what has been prescribed, to question, to ask “does this feel right to me?”  In the midst of a society that places very little value on parenting until the results of its absence are felt in criminal and antisocial ways, we must also resist being ground down by a system that is filled with relentless routines of working and consuming, we must live as ‘parents’ as opposed to products, as opposed to punters, as opposed to consumers, as opposed to employers or employees.

We must choose to parent and not simply assume that “kids are resilient” in the face of our own agonies that we deny and push down, in order to “get on”.  In a “keep calm and carry on” (and ideally “keep on consuming”) society, we must resist the temptation to make Sky – or any other provider of television – our “happy place”.  We must resist the ease with which it is possible to avoid nature, to avoid sunsets, miss sun rises, disengage with the ocean and the earth and the cycles of nature around us.

We must connect, in all ways possible, with life around us.  We must take responsibility for our place in the family of things, for what we nurture, what we grow, what we give and what we take.  Our children are the most human manifestations of what we have chosen to seed, nurture and plant in this universe.  How we welcome children into the world, how we pay attention to them when they are small miracles that upset every pre-existing condition, how they transform our lives and how we in turn are transformed by them – this is all part of being a parent, of being and living what it means to be “matua”, mature, and pro-creating.  None of this is easy.  It’s hard.  Nobody tells you how hard.  So often it means sucking up stuff that you really didn’t think you could.  And to some extent, this becomes a way of life.   We have to give ourselves permission to fail.  We have to recognize that some days we are not going to be that great at it.  It’s the long game.  But every moment of every day you are being watched and you are modeling something, positive or negative or neutral or in-between, to the small ones in your world.  There is no hiding the hard aspects of being human.  They’re going to work it out.

If there’s one thing I would say, it is never underestimate how smart and intuitive and onto it kids are.  If you want to teach them to zone out, fine.  If you want to teach them to avoid naming the subtext or you want them to behave like kiddies in the face of everything hard, I’m sure you will be skilled at doing this.  But raising kids to learn what it is to be human and responsible is different from expecting them to parent your own small child.  Basically our only job, as I explained to my nine year old, is for us to be the adults in ways that let them be the children.  This means we try not to let our stuff get in the way of them being our children.  This means we have to choose to be more responsible in every way, but not to the point where the child has no responsibility for what they are putting out into the world.

Empathy was very big on my list of what I wanted in my children, alongside good company, a great sense of humour, compassion and not completely taking the piss.  Some days they do.  But as long as it is not non-stop, relentless, and awful – there is enough of that going on in the world and I’ll draw a line about how much I am willing to put up with in my own home.  Because we are all responsible for the va – or spaces – we create in our homes.  We are responsible for the mauri of the spaces we live in.  We are responsible for our own inner cultures, and how this manifests in the places we live in.  I for one choose to actively practice and promote the notion of “aroha atu, aroha mai” in our house.  The flow of aroha, compassion, love and kindness that comes from us and the reciprocal flow of aroha, compassion, love and kindness that we receive from others.  This is the flow that I want to govern the spaces in our places.  Often it gets blocked, there is shouting, there is a bit of sadness and some disappointment, but for the most part, it is the flow of aroha that I am paying attention to, not so much whether the shower doors have been squeegeed.  I leave my boys to their own devices quite a lot, I have my own life - they would like more of me in theirs.  I juggle.  I compromise.  I work.  I have a creative life.  I have a social life.  I have a family.  We do our best. 

By Karlo Mila