It rained the night Rona’s* baby died.
All through winter, we’d waited for a break in the southerlies and the cold mornings when the frosts set in leaving condensation trails on the walls and the damp wallpaper curled up at the edges.
We’d sit at our windows and watch the wind lashing at the trees in the park.
Those days seemed to go on forever and there was often nothing to do on the long, dark afternoons except put our children in their strollers and walk through the howling gales in search of each other.
Then this terrible thing happened and nothing was ever really the same after that.
But it was cumulative. Every day, there’d be some small shift in the pattern of our lives, and we didn’t really notice until afterwards that things were changing and we were becoming different people.
I think it’s because, when something really bad happens, it’s often all the boring bits that come later that you remember.
It was 1984, and there was a weird plasticity about the things that were going on around us.
The social contract was changing.
The country was still reeling from a serious constitutional crisis that had summoned forth new players in the recently elected Labour government.
People like Roger Douglas, the Minister of Finance.
There were eddies and currents in the Beehive, and conversations going on in high places that foreshadowed what would happen in the years ahead as the entire economic system was dismantled and rebuilt.
And there was a creeping sense of unease about the things that were happening that were beyond our control.
Earlier in the year, a bomb was detonated in the Wellington Trades Hall on Vivian Street, killing the caretaker — a man called Ernie Abbott.
They never found the culprit.
In August, in a leaked statement, the American president Ronald Reagan announced that he had outlawed Russia and would “begin bombing in five minutes.”
For a heart-stopping half-hour, the Soviet army was placed on high alert.
It turned out he was only joking though.
And in Ethiopia, thousands of people were dying of starvation each day. Every night, the six o’clock news brought us images of dying babies.
All those dying babies.
It was as if we were holding our breaths and waiting for what would happen next.
There were five of us that year — young mothers, and all of us single.
In Newtown, where we lived, there was a park by the zoo where the pōhutukawa trees cast long shadows over the grass in summer and, in winter, they gave shelter from the wind.
We’d congregate there late in the day, when our babies were tired and fractious.
We were part of the eddies and currents of those times, too.
During the 1980s, Māori teenage pregnancy rates were on the rise.
The Domestic Purposes Benefit had been introduced a decade earlier, and there was a grudging acceptance that unmarried mothers didn’t have to “go north” for a while, or put their babies up for adoption.
In our part of Wellington, a growing number of young wāhine Māori were heading their own households. But they were very different households from those of their grandmothers, who raised their children while their husbands were away at war.
Because we weren’t waiting for our men to come home.
Ours were women’s worlds and, young as we were, authority within them sat with us.
There were men who we loved in the deep backgrounds of our lives — fathers, brothers, cousins — but, in the day-to-day run of things, they were largely absent.
And we were careful. There were ongoing campaigns to “dob” in beneficiaries, and single mothers were especially vulnerable.
We were aware of the latent hostility of certain neighbours who saw us as “bad women” and kept the Social Welfare hotline number taped to the wall by their phones.
But there was a kind of freedom, too. At that time, Newtown was a place of hostels and halfway houses and Salvation Army centres and high-rise council flats.
There were evangelical churches and rehab clinics and charity shops selling stained furniture and musty second-hand clothes. There were services for refugees and places for AA meetings and tinny houses and car repair workshops with madly erratic opening hours.
It was a place where people in the know could buy a foil or a carburetor or even a Bible on a Sunday afternoon, but you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee any day of the week.
The Alexandra Home for Unmarried Mothers was also in Newtown and a lot of young women stayed on in the area after their babies were born.
Newtown Park was a gathering place for a lot of the “Alex” women, as they were called back then, as well as a lot of other solo mothers.
On the morning I became a single parent, that was where I went.
I picked up my baby and walked out of the house and went down to Newtown Park.
I saw them there, laughing and talking and playing with their children, and I asked if I could sit with them.
That was how I met them.
Over the months, I learned from them how to budget when there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills, how to fix a fuse, how to talk to Social Welfare workers, and how to deal with loneliness.
Because it was lonely, too.
For many of those women, there was very little support. A lot of the intergenerational networks had loosened since the post-war years, when large numbers of Māori moved to the cities for work.
In some families, those distances widened with each passing generation, and the pā was an increasingly distant memory.
So Newtown became our papakaīnga. It was where we built new lives for ourselves and our children.
There was simply no language then, and there isn’t now, for the huge, sprawling web of whānau these women created.
It stretched across the council flats and tenements of Newtown and into Berhampore and beyond.
Older women who had hit tough times and washed up in Newtown along the way were held in high regard in our circles.
Ex-prisoners, recovering addicts, sex workers. All of them became whānau.
I was part of a close-knit group of five single mothers. But there were many others around us who were part of our everyday lives.
Rona and her newborn infant joined us in late winter, just as the first crocuses began to flower beneath the trees in the park.
Our relationships were always messy and chaotic. People came and went.
Mostly it worked.
But we harboured our own private fears, too.
As first-time mothers, our greatest fears were reserved for our babies.
We were consumed by those dreadful games of “what-if” that I think most young mothers play late at night, when they are alone and the children are sleeping.
We fretted and worried about the worst things that could happen to them.
The worst possible things.
And we each made our own secret deals with fate about keeping them safe.
I know that Rona did that, too.
This is what happened.
There were yellow tulips flowering in wine barrels outside the Anglican church next to MacDonalds, and the gutters up and down the length of Riddiford Street were overflowing after the last downpour.
Walking down the street with our babies that day, these were the things we noticed.
And then, during the night, the rain just stopped.
And Rona, alone in her bed, woke to a strange and echoing stillness.
She could hear the clock in the kitchen ticking loudly, but the silence in the house was too complete.
As she got up to check on her son, the weather broke.
Through her window, she saw torrential rain pouring from a dark sky.
. . .
What happened in the terrible hours that followed, as the police and ambulance officers arrived and officialdom stepped in with clipboards and questions and stony faces, is not my story to tell.
It is not my story.
But what I can say is this: in those years, New Zealand had one of the highest rates of cot death, or Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy, in the OECD.
No one really knew why.
In later years, a huge nationwide cot death study was launched and it was accompanied by ongoing public health campaigns and media reports.
But, in 1984, none of that had happened yet.
Māori babies were at the forefront of those grim statistics. And this was something we all knew and feared.
On their regular visits to our homes, the district nurses would talk to us in lowered tones about prevention.
Our doctors talked to us about the dangers of smoking and sharing our beds with our newborns.
But the causes of these deaths were not well understood.
There seemed to be some random element that the medical people couldn’t find and we were all terrified that it could happen to one of our babies.
And it did.
It happened that night.
When a child dies unexpectedly, it affects people in different ways. It brings out the best and also the very worst.
The first task of the police is to establish if a homicide has taken place.
I can’t imagine how that would feel for a young woman whose baby has died suddenly in the night — when she is in her first moments of anguish and raw grief.
When her house is full of strangers — ambulance officers, uniformed police — and, through thin curtains, seeing blue lights flashing outside. To be asked if she is responsible.
How does one make sense of that?
The wheels of bureaucracy turn quickly in these situations. Pathologists and coroners take over. These things have their own chilling momentum.
In the weeks after the funeral, Rona became something of a pariah in the neighbourhood, and, by extension, we did as well.
No one knew much about the causes of cot death and solo mothers were widely viewed as being irresponsible and neglectful parents.
Rona was none of those things. But there were a few who believed that she was responsible for what had happened.
Those whispered doubts were like a canker that spread.
Sometimes, when we appeared in the local shops or at the supermarket, people would stop talking and watch us, blank-faced and silent, as we made our purchases.
In the end, our local GP, a good and kindly man who was widely respected in Newtown, went door-knocking at the houses and flats of the worst of those gossips.
He told them, sternly, to lay off.
And they did. Eventually.
Our problem was that we didn’t know how to comfort Rona.
Each day, we’d see her at the park. In the early mornings, we’d find her there, alone, her thin arms wrapped around herself for warmth.
Clumsily, we’d offer her our babies to hold or we’d bring her flasks of sugary tea and vanilla wine biscuits.
Once, she turned to me and said: “I’m still a mum, aren’t I?”
And I don’t know if it was a question or a statement, but it triggered a sorrow that I’ve carried with me through the years.
Earlier this year, I had a moment of insight about that time.
I was at a conference in New York, and Māori academic Leonie Pihama, in the context of a discussion about a completely different topic, was answering a question from the audience about how she survives the tough times in academia.
She said: “In the end, I think about who will bury me. Those are the people that matter.”
And, for a split second, I was back in Newtown with Rona and the others. And we were burying her child.
We were clumsy in our grief, but we were there as she went through the worst of it. And the worst of it went on for a very long time.
In the end, I think that’s what matters. Because it is about who will bury us. It’s about how we mourn. And how we say goodbye.
In the margins of our cities, the lives of women are heavily regulated.
Not just by the neighbourhood scolds but also by local and government authorities who wield enormous power over where they can live, how much income they will have to survive — and even, back then, who we could love or invite into our beds.
In the years that followed, the welfare system was completely restructured. State-owned assets were privatised. Jobs were lost.
Many Māori families were left struggling.
When the men in the Beehive had finished their work, they had exposed the raw edges of a society that was in deep pain.
The neoliberal state emerged as a new authority figure, and one with tentacles that reached deep into every aspect of our lives.
Communities like Newtown, which were already under intense pressure, became increasingly fragmented.
Connections were more fleeting.
People moved on.
The new social contract was no longer even tangentially recognisable.
We were the last mothers of that generation. The last to go through before the cradle-to-grave welfare state came crashing down around us.
After that, single mothers were further stigmatised. Life, which was already difficult for many women, got much harder.
The last time we went to the park together, we were getting ready to shed our skins.
We each had our own plans for what we were going to do next.
One had decided to move out of the area, another was looking for part-time work, and one had fallen in love and was going off the benefit. I was going to pick up my interrupted university studies.
Rona was leaving for good.
We planned to stay in touch. Always.
But the world that brought us together was changing.
I remember leaving Newtown Park that day.
It was summer, and we could hear the monkeys in the zoo next door chattering in their cages, and bright shafts of sunlight streamed through the branches of the pōhutukawa trees.
Our children were laughing as Rona chased them across the grass.
It was the last time.
Sometimes things just happen that way.
* Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy.
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