Benefits, Budgets and b***s***

Are they going to do it?

At long last, isthe Labour government going to significantly increase base benefits and ensure that people actually have enough to live on, reversing the stagnation that’s existed since the horrors of the 90s?

People say the signs are there. I hope they’re right. I desperately hope that after so long, we will see genuine action, a real shift, something that we can hold onto during the lean years when National inevitably get their acts together (sorry, that was an unintentional pun) and regain the Treasury benches.

But the bar is pretty high.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group report recommended increases to the various benefits of between 12 and 47% (note this is from 2019 and just think about something random like how much housing costs have increased since then.)

The head of the Auckland City Mission put the figure at $200 a week.

Either of those would be pretty amazing, and change a lot of people’s lives. And while I find it a bit gross how often we talk about “child poverty” as though it’s fine for adults to go cold and sick and hungry and homeless in our country, it would do incredible good for thousands of New Zealand children.

It might even be enough to save Jacinda Ardern’s legacy as the Prime Minister who anointed herself Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

But still … I’ll be a bit angry about it.

Angry because it has simply taken too long. It is year four of the Great Transformational Kindness Ardern Government, and I simply reject the idea that the first three years don’t count because mean old Uncle Winston said “no” and there was just no way to negotiate, bully, build popular support to shift the narrative, or otherwise make it happen despite him. To accept that excuse would render all those global accolades for the PM’s amazing leadership meaningless; and that would be terrible. 

Angry because I know how the story will go. Labour will trumpet it from the rooftops. Look at us, the bold, the brave, the transformational (or whatever word we’re using now), we are the good ones, we understand how terrible poverty is in this country, we are the government who cares and will make a difference, let’s do this, hashtag he waka etc.

And it will be like the last four years never happened.

Because this is one of Labour’s weird psychological foibles: they cannot never acknowledge that their decisions to date are in any way flawed, or insufficient. Until they do a u-turn, and then it’s like it never happened.

That is why even a week before this Budget (assuming this Budget does significantly increase benefits) the answer to any criticism of their failure to substantively deliver on welfare was still “but we did a $25 a week increase. We introduced the Winter Energy Payment. We indexed benefits.”

Sometimes they throw in a line like, “we know we need to do better” or lean hard on the phrase “we’re making progress” so the audience infers that more things are happening behind the scenes. But the overall tone is still: look at what we’ve done! We’ve done the good things! Stop asking questions about the other stuff, it’s so unimportant I’ll ignore it entirely!

There is never an acknowledgement that $25 a week ain’t much; only a Steven Joyce-esque assertion that it’s “the biggest increase made by any government” (biggest doesn’t mean sufficient). There is never an acknowledgement that the Winter Energy Payment is a pretty sad $20-30 a week for only five months of the year. The indexation of benefits – which is good insofar as it stops the increasing cost of living from creating real-life benefit cut, but does nothing to repair the damage done in the 1990s and 30 years of stagnation on top of that –  gets cynically trumpeted as “increases” rather than adjustments.

But here’s the thing: if we get what we want on Thursday, all this will be wiped away like tears in Grant Robertson’s rainy day.

It happened with the hated 90-day fire-at-will “trial periods”, which Labour resolutely campaigned against for years, only to turn around and suddenly decide really, the issue was “fairness”. They ultimately retained the trials for small businesses. 

It happened with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which saw massive popular opposition, leading to Labour setting down five strong bottom lines prior to the 2017 election. These were possibly mostly met, if you believe Stephen Jacobi, and mostly weren’t if you believe Jane Kelsey, but either way it took Newshub to check because Labour never mentioned them again.

It happened in record time recently with the public service pay freeze: on day one Chris Hipkins was bold as brass, calling out the Public Service Association (the largest union in New Zealand representing more than 75,000 workers) in Question Time thusly:

I’d also say to them that the guidance is consistent with the decision last year by the Remuneration Authority that Ministers and MPs would not be getting any pay rises for the next three years because of COVID-19 and the decision by the Public Service Commissioner, who sets the pay of Public Service chief executives, who will also not be increasing any of their pay.

…directly comparing a pay freeze for staff on $60k+ to a couple of other pay freezes for elected officials and CEOs on $150k+.

Then after the apparently unexpected backlash it became (from Grant Robertson):

“I understand this has caused distress and upset, I obviously regret that deeply, but we are not talking about a pay freeze here, we are talking about a process or guidelines for negotiation.”

It’s not a pay freeze, it’s just guidance, a starting point for negotiation (unless you’re a nurse) and frankly we should be apologising to him for the misunderstanding.

The trick Labour does is not to simply change their minds – anyone can do that, and if it follows reflection, research, fact-finding or a change in circumstance, it’s admirable. No, instead Labour engages in a form of gaslighting – pressuring people to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes and experiences by insisting that reality is otherwise. We never said 90-day trials were completely terrible, we just want them to be fair. We have bottom lines – no, we just want a fair deal for New Zealand. We’re implementing a pay freeze, take that, unions – the unions are our friends and we love working with them and also never announced a pay freeze (it’s the media’s fault you think so!).

Let’s do this. Actually, we’re not able to do this and never made any commitment to any particular timeframe. 

And so it will be, after  Budget. If (and I still would not put money on it)* the Government delivers a massive boost to benefits, we will be scolded for daring to suggest that the past four years of inaction happened at all, that the WEAG report has largely languished, that concrete steps to implement it have been actively countered,** that the child poverty indicators are going nowhere. “We’re tackling child poverty and ensuring New Zealand is the best place in the world to be a child!” the social media accounts will announce. That will be the new reality and you will be the obstacle to real progress for remembering differently. 

Why does this matter? Because Labour’s consistent refusal to actually be a progressive, transformative, caring-for-people government is a recipe for disaster. It is an open door to National’s penny-pinching benefit cutting ways. It is an excuse for every swing voter to say The Two Parties Aren’t Really That Different, Right? Wouldn’t Mind A Tax Cut Actually. It is tinkering at the edges, leaving the shattered, gutted sense of community and fairness lying on the floor instead of taking the opportunity they were given – four years ago – to reshape this country in a better direction. To actually do all the good things they campaigned on doing! To live the values they happily slap on tea towels and Facebook shareables.

I really hope they start to prove me wrong tomorrow.

~

*Okay, I’ll put $1 on a marginal, but insufficient, increase in benefit levels nevertheless touted as the biggest, best, most poverty-eliminating increase ever, and then next February the Salvation Army’s State of the Nation report will point out that too many families still can’t actually afford the basics and Jacinda Ardern will furrow her brow and insist that those statistics don’t count because the Budget 2021 package hasn’t been fully implemented yet.

**Yes, that is the Labour government pulling the same “fiscal veto” that Bill English used to defeat increasing paid parental leave to 26 weeks. 

Baby talk: the needles

(Content note: infertility, IVF, injections)

I definitely didn’t plan it this way, but here we are carrying on with the anniversaries: because it was a year ago today that I found myself wandering down Victoria Street carrying five thousands dollars’ worth of the less fun kind of drugs.

The first big piece of the IVF puzzle is the eggs. You need to stimulate the ovaries to produce as many as possible, then collect them so they can be fertilised in the lab. And that means playing with hormones – which is exactly what you need on top of all the emotional and psychological pressure of nearly a decade of trying and failing to have a baby.

Put it this way: I needed to start taking the first set of jabs on day 1 of my menstrual cycle. And as everyone with a period tracking app knows, day 1 is counted from when you get full or “normal” flow – for your typical cycle – before noon.

So when my period started at 12:30 on a Saturday, I naturally had a minor breakdown about how to count days, and also time. Did that count? Was it day one??? How heavy was a normal period for me anyway????

J gave me a very firm look and said “It’s full flow before noon. That means day one is tomorrow.”

On the plus side, I impressed the Fertility Associates nurse with my quick command of popping a needle onto the drug pen and jabbing it into a weird beige eight-by-five centimetre piece of demonstration “belly” skin. It felt like a weird magical ritual, and also too easy, but also the most difficult thing in the world. At least I knew that my feelings were very normal, based on how many times the nurse reassured me that I definitely wasn’t going to screw it all up.

I didn’t. My hands didn’t even shake. But that didn’t stop at least some part of my brain from freaking out anyway; I spent the rest of the evening walking around with incredibly tensed posture, like my belly was made of porcelain and any movement might shatter it. Porcelain with a very very sharp little mosquito bite in it.

My medication plan involved taking the injection (Gonal-F) for a week, and on day 6 adding another one (which hurt like hell) to make my ovaries hold on tight to all those precious eggs they were (hopefully) prepping.

When it came to it, I once again forgot what counted as day 1 of my cycle, and/or how to count to 6, and ended up calling the clinic just to double-triple check the very clear instructions I had already been given verbally and in writing.

They are very, very accustomed to those kinds of phone calls and were very, very kind about it. It didn’t stop me feeling bloody silly. How on earth was I qualified to have a baby if I couldn’t manage something this simple?

You’d think that by day seven it becomes old hat, nothing to worry about, you’ve nailed this process. You’ve got your little prep ritual ready, with a comfortable place to sit and a cup of peppermint tea at the ready to stave off the nausea.

But with IVF there’s always the next step in the process to worry about. And the next step was an ultrasound scan to see if my ovaries were cooperating. Something I could not see or control or have any sense about until it happened.

No pressure.

Mother’s Day

(Content note: infertility, mental health, motherhood)

My first post about our ~parenting journey~ is here.

Mother’s Day has never been the most problematic artificially-hyped-to-sell-stuff-parental-celebration holiday for me. I grew up ~without a father~ (he bailed; his loss) so it was always the unthinking way we/marketing departments assume that everyone has A Dad to celebrate, and the consequent erasure of dudes who play an amazing role in kids’ lives, which irked me on an annual basis.

But once we’d started trying to have a baby, and the years of it just-not-happening ticked over, Mother’s Day took on a more personal impact. I wanted to be a mum, and it felt further and further away every year, which was only added to by the doom-and-gloom messages that are constantly around about Women’s Fertility Crashing And Burning Further And Further Every Day You Age Past 35 27 23 18 your own birth.

(This cropped up again last week when TVNZ Breakfast were doing a series of stories on infertility, which were really important but also managed to screen each morning at exactly the time I was feeding the baby and trying to find something to watch on TV. Here’s the thing: the “at 35 your fertility dies” trope is not exactly scientific and we need to have way better conversations about why people actually delay having kids – even if you don’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for fertility treatment.)

A part of me assumed I would just never be a mother. Even once we had the resources to do IVF, the odds felt too great. If the grand narrative of my life was going to go one way, it just felt far more likely I’d end up with She Desperately Wanted Children But Could Not Conceive than the Hallmark/Lifetime/TLC movie After Years And Against All Odds, A Miracle.

I’ve had anxiety and depression all of my adult life, so the horrible little voices at the back of my brain telling me I’m doomed are so familiar it’s almost comfortable. And they just got louder every time the TV filled with images of blissful mums-and-bubs and saccharine time lapses of The Most Important Relationship You’ll Ever Have.

(Shout out to the current Pandora jewellery campaign for casting a mother and daughter so close in age appearance that I still can’t quite parse the timeline of your ads!)

Often it felt like a grand signal from the universe to just give up. Because the odds are so against you. Because the obstacles are so real and so high. Because if it doesn’t happen – especially after putting yourself through the ordeal of IVF – haven’t you just wasted years, and money, that could have gone to something better, something more productive?

(I still haven’t even begun to unpack the way my brain obsesses about “productivity”.)

I have many friends who did exactly this. Drew the line in the sand and said, enough. But always with a huge amount of sorrow. That was why we struck that deal with ourselves: three rounds. Enough to say we tried, we gave it our best shot, but it wasn’t meant to be and let’s now focus on what the rest of our lives look like without children.

I honestly don’t know right now if I would have been able to stick to it, or how long it would have taken me to let go, if I could even let go. I didn’t have to find out. We got very, very lucky.

So this year, I celebrate my first Mother’s Day. But not just that: it’s my mother’s first Mother’s Day as a grandmother. My grandmother’s first Mother’s Day as a great-grandmother. As horribly commercial and transparent as it is, that feels very important. At the same time, it brings up everything I’ve been through not just over the past year, but all the years of trying before that, and all the years of wanting and hoping before we could even try. I’m an only child: if I didn’t have a baby, my mother would never be a grandmother. I’m the eldest of my cousins and none of them seem to be interested in having kids any time soon: would we ever have gotten that gorgeous four-generations-in-one-photo?

(And again: let’s talk about how saddling young people with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, in order to get jobs with no long-term security or career path, while housing prices skyrocket, might have the teensiest impact on why millennials and zoomers keep Putting Off Having Children, yeah?)

It should feel like a happy ending. It does. But at the same time I don’t know when I’ll ever stop being just a little bit in mourning for all the grief and stress and painful, painful absence that this day represented for me for so long.

So this one goes to all the people who are still there. Who want to be mums, and can’t for whatever reason, and have to deal with the unthinking assumptions of our culture not just on this day but every other day of the year. It sucks. It doesn’t necessarily get better. I know there’s nothing that can really soothe that hurt because even holding onto hope feels like self-harm sometimes. Look after yourself.


I wrote the above a few days ago. Today, Michelle Duff published an incredibly important article about the Corrections department’s practice of shackling and handcuffing prisoners as they are giving birth, or breastfeeding.

It was probably a mistake to read that on my phone, with baby in arms, right after a feed.

Like I said on Twitter: everyone involved in this – the officers in the room, their direct supervisors, their direct supervisors, and anyone else who had knowledge of this and did nothing to stop it – needs to be fired, possibly into the sun.

It is simply unacceptable that we keep getting these stories coming out of Corrections. It is simply unacceptable that Corrections, and its Minister depending on where we are in the media cycle of any given scandal, thinks they can treat the public like marks who’ll swallow any horror if it has the phrase “security concerns” slapped on it.

This practice is against Corrections’ own stated policy and yet, AND YET,

Children’s Commissioner OPCAT inspectors found prison officers had varying interpretations of when prisoners were “pregnant” or “giving birth”.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

The officers involved in these situations are either ignorant of the basics of their own jobs, or know they’re doing the wrong thing. Either way, they have no place holding those jobs. And their senior leaders, including Kelvin Davis as the Minister responsible, need to stop pretending there’s some third option where oopsie, well-meaning people with the best of intentions just accidentally did a human rights violation oh well let’s commission another review to tell us what we already know: Corrections is not fit for purpose. It is not keeping New Zealanders safe by repeatedly and deliberately brutalising prisoners and lying about it to the public. It is not delivering care to the people it laughably euphemises as such. When pregnant, labouring people are shackled like animals and bullied in their most sensitive moments, Corrections is actively undermining any chance for those people and their families to rehabilitate, to build positive relationships, to feel like they can be a part of our communities.

This cannot be reformed without drastic and immediate action. Call it some kind of transformation rooted in kindness and strengthening the Māori-Crown partnership.

So, Kelvin?

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis was not available for an interview.

Oh.

A year ago today

(Content note: infertility, IVF, fatphobia)

A year ago today, my partner and I “properly” began the journey to become parents. We’d been on the path for a very long time: first trying, and trying, and trying, and failing, then trying to get help, and facing some pretty gross obstacles to that; and finally being in a position to overcome those (with money, which tells you how unnecessary those obstacles were in the first place) and then having incredible good luck and at long last, after wanting and hoping and waiting and longing, just over a month ago, she arrived. Our baby. The tiny helpless bean who has completely turned our lives upside down. (Sorry, spoiler alert: this one has a happy ending.)

Of course, I wrote it all down. Even the bits I don’t even want to look at, myself, because they’re too raw. But there are parts I do want to share, and thus my blog is getting resurrected because I’m too much of an old school millennial to do Substack even if they weren’t currently tanking as a platform after pandering to transphobes.

(Yes, even in the posts about how much I love my baby, there will always be politics. You know where you are, right?)

As for the timing: I couldn’t bring myself to post this stuff earlier, unlike my good mate Dave who had the incredible courage-slash-lack-of-filter to write about his and Kim’s journey as it was happening. On top of all the other layers of anxiety we were going through, it just felt like it would be unlucky; or at the very least, it might force us to reveal things we weren’t ready to, even if just by the lack of posting at a critical moment.

But she’s here now, and she’s as close to perfect as she needs to be, and even though I still have that fretful voice in the back of my mind telling me not to count my baby chicken even though she’s already hatched, I think it’s the right time to start pulling all these scattered drafts and notes together – not to mention an essential outlet for my brain as I’m at home on paid parental leave, desperately trying to work out what my life looks like now I’m a mother, and feel almost incapable of considering myself having any other role in the world.

So here’s (most of) what I wrote after that first “proper” consultation – the one where you go to Fertility Associates with a lot of money and say “help us make a baby”. With a few editorial comments from Stephanie-Of-The-Future.

The first consultation is like an infomercial which demands your most intimate details. But wait, if you throw in even MORE money we can take time-lapse photos of the embryo to make sure its legs are on properly. And there are lots of options for freezing the eggs we HARVEST OUT OF YOUR BODY after an unspecified course of drugs and scans that get right up ya.

And all of that costs more money on top of the money you’re already putting in. And will it increase your chances of success? Those chances which are already worse than a coin flip? I could see the value for people who know they have specific genetic conditions, who have already tried and failed a few times – but when it’s your first turn on the carousel it feels like cynical upselling, and in a way, it hurts that early relationship with your doctor, because they’re not just there for you, y’know?

J hates every bit of it and I can’t really blame him. He’s “the problem”. The reason we couldn’t just make a baby the fun way.

And this never stopped being incredibly difficult for both of us.

And the money. Everyone says oh there’ll never be a good time to spend all this money – whether you have to have All The Medical Assistance or even if it just pops out of its own accord, babies are expensive – but it’s so difficult to pull the trigger when maybe if we just wait until THIS contract renews or THIS job offer arrives or THIS chunk of the mortgage is paid off … and of course the Clock Is Ticking and that stupid dotted line on that stupid fucking Probability Of Success Based On Age of Woman graph keeps edging down and down and down.

I will always wish we’d been able to do this sooner. I will always wish that we were in a situation to do it again, to consider having a second baby. What I can tell myself – now, in 2021, with my actual baby coma’d out in the living room after a healthy feed – is that things happen for a reason and if things had happened differently maybe we wouldn’t be here at all.

I’m the problem too, of course. The Aging Woman who didn’t chop her leg off five years ago to qualify for public funding – because that would have been fine, you see. It’s not actually relevant how big my belly is, it makes no difference to the chances of success. BMI is literally just picking one variable – fatness – out of the hat in order to “ration” public healthcare. The best bit is it’s completely fucking racist but our society is so comfortable with openly hating fat people we can get away with pretending it’s not a hatred fundamentally rooted in racism, classism, and body-hating white supremacy.

I could have lost a limb in a terrible accident and the health system would say oh okay, you’re obviously Healthy Enough to have a baby on us.

I could have starved myself, vomited every meal, taken amphetamines, and it would have meant we could have a baby, sooner, and cheaper, and without anyone questioning how it happened – because losing weight when you’re fat is Always A Good Thing.

Jarrod interrupted the doctor to say that I’m a pole dance teacher. I was annoyed. I don’t need to fucking prove my fitness to her. It wouldn’t matter if I’d just won a marathon. Fertility Associates are getting the money one way or the other.

So this is going to be a pretty major theme. Our health system, wonderful and public as it is (except for GP appointments and many prescriptions and don’t start me on access to contraception and abortion services even AFTER we supposedly decriminalized) uses the unscientific quackery that is BMI to ration access to fertility services, which is baseless, harmful and transparently racist. This was not our first visit to Fertility Associates, not even the fifth – this was just the first one where we were allowed to progress past the basic tests into actually doing something towards making a baby.

Because despite being the picture of health – perfect blood pressure, non-smoker, and, yes, being literally paid to perform and teach pole dancing and being able to bust out twelve burpees in a minute at one particularly energetic cardio class – my weight, alone, divorced of context or nuance was the reason we couldn’t get public assistance for our infertility. The only advice? Lose weight.

But how? It’s a post for another day, but let me simply assert a simple fact at this point: diets don’t work. Not predictably, not sustainably, not healthily. And not if you call them “lifestyle changes” or pretend that counting “points” isn’t the same as counting “calories”. And even if they did, I want to be really clear: no one at the District Health Board (adios) or the Ministry of Health was going to check how I lost the weight, if I did.

And that’s why I wrote that, a year ago: I could have lost a limb and as far as a health system, using BMI to ration services, is concerned, that would have been enough to get public funding for our IVF. The numbers have nothing to do with health or probability of success or anything except using our society’s hatred of fat people as an excuse to cut costs.

So.

That was a whole extra mindf*ck to take going into a process which already carried so much emotional and psychological baggage. With such low odds of success regardless of my dress size. And we knew so many people who had gone through it, and failed, and failed again and again, and seen the toll it took. So I just had to keep reminding myself, as we left the clinic that day filled with a mixture of hope and dread:

Three rounds. That’s the deal. Even though we probably can’t get the lootbox deal (pay for three rounds now, and get a refund if they all fail – or lose it all if you succeed first time). I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I don’t even want to be doing it now.

And that’s why I waited a year to write this. Because there’s been a lot of strife and plenty of tears but at the end of the road, we got her.

If you like this post, feel free to spot me a virtual coffee.

My submission on the sex and gender identity statistical standards

… wow that’s a mouthful. Also, hi from my very defunct personal blog!

There are only a few days left to make a submission on Statistics New Zealand’s consultation on (see above long title!). This represents a really important step for recognising the very real diversity of gender, including people with no gender, and giving everyone the option to see themselves reflected in government data and decision-making – while ensuring that data is only collected when necessary (gender: not really relevant to my bank account).

I’m not going to lie, it’s a technical document with a lot more nuance than a simple, “Stats NZ are going to put a gender question in the census, what do you reckon?” Which is why it’s awesome that Gender Minorities Aotearoa have put together a really comprehensive guide to the questions and considerations you might want to include in your comments.

You can be as short and sweet as you want, of course! But frequently in these kinds of consultations, especially when there’s a lot of submissions (casts a sidelong glance in the vague direction of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Rampant Transphobia) the responses get summarised or boiled down into “themes” that are common, so being really clear about why you support the standards, or why you think they should be changed, could make a difference.

And a cautionary note! It may be randomized, but at least when I filled in the submission my tick-boxes went from “strongly disagree” on the left to “strongly agree” on the right – and I’d clicked a few wrong before I realised! Thankfully you can go back and correct those if you need to, without losing the comments you’ve added.

I’m also quite proud of what I wrote in the final comment box, so I thought I’d reproduce it here in case it inspires anyone to make sure their voice is heard in support of our diverse whānau and robust data-collection. (And for my own personal edification when I look back on this in five years and think wow, I can actually write kinda well! #ImpostorSyndrome)

I support the submission of Gender Minorities Aotearoa. Stats NZ should ensure its expert advisory group be expanded to include Gender Minorities Aotearoa, ensure more participation of trans women and takatāpui. There needs to be meaningful integration of te Tiriti o Waitangi in all statistical standards, and in this instance, better recognition that the divisions of sex, gender and sexuality they codify take a very Pākehā lens.

I also wish to raise my concerns about a coordinated campaign to oppose these standards, and any inclusion or recognition of trans, intersex and nonbinary people, which has likely resulted in this consultation being overrun with submissions by anti-trans campaigners from outside Aotearoa New Zealand. These campaigners present a strict binary idea of sex and gender entirely rooted in sex assigned at birth and archaic ideas of womanhood.

As a cisgender heterosexual woman, I cannot state strongly enough that my womanhood is not threatened nor diminished by acknowledging that I am fortunate to have a gender identity and way of expressing my gender which aligns with what a doctor saw when I was born and had recorded on my birth certificate. My rights and my ability to fight for those rights is neither threatened nor undermined by allowing trans men and women, nonbinary and intersex people, to accurately describe themselves and see themselves reflected in the data used by government to make decisions which affect all our lives.

The Human Rights Commission’s PRISM report of June 2020 states “A human rights-based approach to data collection requires data to be collected for each specific population.” Though there are areas for improvement, Statistics New Zealand has developed a strong set of standards which allow for accurate data collection for everyone, regardless of sex or gender, and I urge SNZ to disregard the voices of those who are motivated by a desire to erase all gender diversity and deny the reality of our takatāpui, trans, intersex and nonbinary whānau.

Take a few minutes to do your submission now. The Stats NZ submission link and all relevant documents are here. 

The Gender Minorities Aotearoa submission guide is here.

The Human Rights Commission’s PRISM report is linked from here.