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Bernadine Oliver-Kerby: How I got through my toughest year

Bernadine Oliver-Kerby talks about love, loss and why slowing down is the last thing on her mind.
Bernadine Oliver-KerbyNEXT

Bernadine Oliver-Kerby speaks in capital letters. Her enthusiasm is big. Every single sentence is punctuated with at least one emphasised word.

She LOVES her job. Her family is her PASSION. Her alarm clock has been going off at 4.30am for TWELVE years. She worked over the summer holidays filling in for the weekend shifts, which was FABULOUS. Back in 1991, when she got her first TV role opposite Oscar Kightley on a teenage news show called Life, she couldn’t believe her luck: To land a PAID JOB at TVNZ as a TV PRESENTER? It was a DREAM.

There are people who are cheerful because they have led relatively untouched lives and there are people who are cheerful because they have lived through dark times and they know how to value the good. Oliver-Kerby is the latter category.

She is so upbeat it feels like you could probably set her feet on fire and she wouldn’t complain, apart from to tell you it is WARM in here. And you would be forgiven for thinking no-one can truly be that resolutely positive, until you see it in person and realise it is legitimate.

Oliver-Kerby has been a broadcaster in New Zealand, not to mention a household name, for more than 20 years but she still seems to be someone who pinches herself at how her life has turned out.

This is a good thing for all of us to aim for – but particularly when you keep in mind it has not been an easy couple of years for the 45-year-old.

A TVNZ reshuffle saw her long-term One News job made redundant last year, but before that she had already suffered a far more devastating loss: her beloved father died of motor neurone disease in 2015, an illness as cruel as it can be swift.

Her mother died when Oliver-Kerby was 24 and now she is in that weird position where she is the mother to young daughters, but is now the oldest generation of her family.

Getting older, as she jokes, is “better than the alternative”. But it’s a conscious choice to decide how you take on the challenges ageing will bring. Do you await the bad, or focus on the good?

Whether she has been on the screens for One News or behind the microphone on the radio for Newstalk ZB, Oliver-Kerby has been in the business of news for a long time, and it’s still a career choice that gives her great energy. Which is good, because with “survive on four hours, happy on five” as her sleep motto, you’d imagine energy would be in short supply.

Life at home sounds like very controlled chaos.

Her husband Mark Lendrum, a police officer, takes the morning shift with her two girls Scarlett, seven, and Maisey, eight, and then Oliver-Kerby takes the afternoon/evening shift after she finishes at work.

She describes her broadcasting career as “horrible hours for me, great hours for the kids”. And no – you never get used to waking up at 4.30am, she laughs.

“Pippa Wetzell once described it as being constantly jetlagged and she’s correct. You’re always in catch-up mode – I feel like my brain isn’t as sharp, isn’t as quick as it could be. But I think every mother goes through that – our kids are put on this planet to torture us and make us feel old.”

The trade for getting four hours of sleep a night is that she has always been able to be the mum who can go to the school activities and coach the team sports, as well as working a full day.

“It’s been an absolute blessing and triumph. I’m pretty tired at the end of the day, but I’m always there to pick them up at the end of school. I’m able to be very present, very hands on – which is a real gift, as a mum. But… yeah. I’m actually 25, I just look 45.”

So when your day starts at 4.30am and you often don’t get home until 12 hours later, how do you keep from burning out? Easy, says Oliver-Kerby. You only burn out when you stop.

“And I don’t stop.” She jokes that an observation she often receives from friends is that she walks really fast and talks even faster. “That’s me. It’s in the DNA.”

“You know that saying, ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person?’ It’s so true. There are times when you think you can’t throw another ball in the air, and then you do and you juggle it quite successfully.”

One ball that Oliver-Kerby has added to the mix is her charity work. She has been involved with Child Cancer Foundation and Westpac Rescue Helicopter for years and is now raising awareness for motor neurone disease.

It’s been a little over a year and a half since her beloved father Grant died at age 67, and the grief is still very raw for Oliver-Kerby.

It’s hard, she says quietly. That enthusiastic voice has briefly disappeared, the exhaustion of loss still very present.

“It doesn’t matter how busy you are, you can’t escape what’s in your head.”

There’s a long pause, and then an even quieter voice.

“You’re never too old to stop needing your mum and dad.”

The pain of losing a parent is an inevitability for us all, but Oliver-Kerby has lived it twice, in two very different circumstances. Her mother Diane died suddenly of an aneurysm when Oliver-Kerby was just 24, leaving behind a shell-shocked family. And then 20 years later, her and her older brother Brendan had to watch their remaining parent die slowly.

Motor neurone disease is the worst of the worst, a diagnosis that comes with no hope. Those with it, and those watching it happen, mourn in stages as the disease kills off muscle by muscle. Her father’s death was 14 months of torture.

“The hard thing is you see them battle. And you think ‘No matter how hard it is for you, it’s not a patch on what they’re going through.’ Because you can never escape the fact you’re not going to win. And people need hope.

“You do get in a fog,” she says. “I don’t know if it ever lifts. I just think you learn to live with it. And you have good days and bad days… you just learn to motor through. There will be some things that remind you and it can be a good memory… or it can turn and make you upset.”

With her dad on her wedding day.

Becoming part of the MND community has helped, she says.

“You realise you’re not alone. It’s a tiny little community, but it’s your best support mechanism.”

She participated in last year’s Walk to Defeat MND, where they raised $100,000 for research. Raising awareness of the disease is important she says, because people can’t support the cause if they don’t know about it.

When Oliver-Kerby was younger, her mother drilled into her that if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.

“I used to say, ‘Okay well you run with that, I’d rather have a bike or clothes,’” she says. “I was just an arrogant little 13-year-old who knew nothing; it was probably razor blades to my mother’s ears. And then I lost her when I was 24, and then my dad at 44. It puts it in perspective what is important. It’s family.”

She says she’s lucky her husband feels the same way – there is no alone time, no weekends away without the kids. Their greatest joy is hanging out together. Oliver-Kerby counts family bike rides, walks and trips to the library as her favourite ways to take time for herself.

“I know that doesn’t work for everyone – I know some women think they’re better mothers when they get more time to themselves, and that’s great. I’m a better mum when I’m happily ensconced in all roles.”

The reality of being a parent with no parents yourself to ask for input is now her life. She remembers a lot of what her mother was like when she was growing up and says that’s still a big influence on her.

“You absorb a certain amount. Because I haven’t had her around as a grandma, it’s automatically kicked in. She’s not here now to give me advice, I’ve only got how she did it with me,” she says.

She remembers her mum as “not a helicopter mum, but a woman of strong values and morals”.

And having children at a later stage has been another aspect of Oliver-Kerby’s life that’s seen her look on the sunny side.

“I do wonder if part of it is being an older mum. You’ve got more maturity. And there’s a lovely interaction where you’re a little team together.”

When your daily bread and butter also involves reporting on the series of unfortunate events that make up the news, a sense of perspective is acquired. Of the topics we discuss, however – election, earthquakes – one in particular gets Oliver-Kerby fired up.

“When you’re reading the news about death and destruction… and then you have to read something about Kim Kardashian,” she scoffs. “I know we need light relief, but that’s just comic. I could start an ‘I hate Kim Kardashian’ campaign. How could you be that self-centred that your main priority for every day is yourself?”

As the mum of two young girls, Oliver-Kerby is hyper-aware of what they’re exposed to – both at home and out in the world.

“Kids these days are already talking about their bodies and who’s wearing what. You have to always be aware that little ears are listening… they only have to hear one or two things that will give them a bad perspective on things, or impact their own image.”

She’s aware she’s in the golden age of parenting where her girls still want to hang out with her.

“It’s going to be like that” – she snaps her fingers – “and they’ll be like, ‘Can you drop me off around the corner?’” she laughs.

“It’ll just bring a new set of challenges. It’s like when you’re having a baby and everyone tells you their horror stories! You never hear the nice parts. Although I do expect a lot of door slamming.”

Her girls are already showing signs of the kind of women they’re going to grow into.

Scarlett, at seven, has developed a fashion eye and is Oliver-Kerby’s chief stylist when they go out shopping. Maisey wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps and become a police officer, but Oliver-Kerby jokes she’s so sweet-natured she’s more likely to wind up giving criminals a cup of tea than chasing them down the street.

Whatever they end up picking, she hopes they’re as lucky with their career choices as she’s been.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t really know what you want to do, just work towards it and it’ll morph into something at the right time. I really believe in doors opening and closing… even if sometimes they feel like they’re slamming in your face,” she breaks off laughing.

“You just have to play to your strengths and if you find what you love and what you enjoy, then it’s not work. That’s something you gotta stress to your kids.”

With that, our interview comes to a close and Oliver-Kerby, like all working mums, starts planning the second shift of the day.

“I’ve got half an hour to go home, grab the touch gear and be at the park. And there’s nothing for dinner!”

And off she goes, in the daily race against time, moving from one good part of her life to the next.

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