As a Former Green MP I spend a lot of time thinking about sustainability. My job involved advocating for a smart, green, sustainable future for all New Zealanders, and I could talk about this all day. 

But what does it mean to talk about sustainability closer to home? What does it mean to parent sustainably? These questions are harder to answer.

My daughter, Esther, wears cloth nappies. We’ve found a composting service for the odd disposables she wears overnight or on trips away. Most of her clothes and toys are gifts, hand-me-downs, or op-shop scores. We use eco-friendly cleaning products and natural first aid remedies when we can. We sling her in a frontpack or into the buggy for outings instead of taking the car when possible. She’s exclusively breastfed so there’s no waste from formula packaging, and in a month or so, when we introduce solids, we’ll avoid packaged baby foods and opt for homemade options.

These are all great ways of saving money and keeping Esther’s environmental footprint as small as her actual tiny foot.

As a passionate advocate for the environment, it’s important for me to ‘walk the talk’ and live as sustainably as possible with our baby.

As she grows up I look forward to talking to her about why we do these things, and what she can do to help.

But I’ve reached the conclusion that sustainable parenting is about much more than being environmentally friendly.

It’s about how we sustain ourselves, our relationships, and our attachments with our children, and it’s about doing things in a way that we can sustain not just in the adrenaline-fuelled rush of new parenthood, but in the months and years to come.

Parenting: exhilarating, exhausting, and overwhelming

As every reader of kiwifamilies.co.nz will know, becoming a new parent is exhilarating, exhausting, and overwhelming.

It tests you in ways you never expected. If you’re lucky enough to be embarking on the journey with a partner (and I salute every solo parent who isn’t; you have my lifelong admiration and respect) it changes and challenges your relationship daily. These changes would be quite enough without throwing in an incredibly full-on job into the mix.

When I became pregnant and contemplated combining the important roles of MP and mum, I felt very strongly that it should be possible to do both. Parliament is a House of Representatives, so it needs to represent the whole community, including mothers with young babies.

Many of the decisions MPs make daily have a real and tangible effect on young families, like whether to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks (yes please!) and whether to require sole parents to return to work when their youngest child is one (no thanks!).

With such important issues for families at stake, it’s vital that young families are represented by the MPs debating the issues. Parliament should be open and accessible to young mums as well as granddads. I strongly believe that.

But it’s one thing to believe it, and quite another to do it.

As my partner Dave and I have embarked on this journey we’ve worked hard to find ways to do it that feel sustainable for us and right for Esther. I’m committed to breastfeeding her for as long as I can and she wants to, so the two of them visit my office every lunchtime for a feed and some cuddles.

I’ve kitted the office out with change table, playmat and cot so that Esther can spend more time there if she needs to. When Dave goes back to work at the end of April, Esther will go to the Parliamentary childcare centre where I can also pop in for feeds and visits. On the days that Parliament is not sitting, I’ve made my time as flexible as possible so that I can spend time with her and give her dad a much-needed break.

Often I can take her with me to community engagements, like beach clean-ups or visits to the local kindy.

All of this means we’re starting to feel like the apparently crazy choice we’ve made to combine politics and parenthood could actually work. I can talk about big picture sustainability at work, and know that I’m not sacrificing the sustainability of my family life at home.

Of course there are moments – like the week when Esther combined cutting her first teeth with her first cold and a bout of projectile vomiting – when it all feels too hard.

But it’s my hope that we’re carving out a way to do this that works for us and for our baby. In doing so, I hope we’re paving the way for more parents of young children to contemplate doing the same in future.

For more expert advice on living sustainably, check out our I believe in sustainability section.

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Holly Walker is a Green Party MP and is currently their spokesperson for Children, Housing, Students, Arts, Culture and Heritage, Open Government, and Electoral Reform. She lives in Wellington with her partner Dave and their baby Esther and when she gets a moment, enjoys cooking, reading, getting into the outdoors, and making music.

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