Little Zeppelin Ward totters around like a man on a mission. Whether the 20-month-old’s wielding a hammer, carefully constructing – and not-so-carefully obliterating – building blocks or tidying away Mum and Dad’s chocolate wrappers, there’s a “boy logic” to the adorable tot’s actions.
His mum, seasoned Kiwi actress Debbie Newby-Ward, grins, “He looks like a combination of me and Brenny [her husband Brendon Ward], but he’s definitely a chip off Daddy’s block.”
The 36-year-old, who recently arrived on TV2’s Shortland Street as downtrodden mum-of three Margaret Hannah, adds, “He’s a very practical boy, always copying Daddy. They even mow the lawns together – Zeppy has his own little toy mower. He’s hilarious!”
That goes for his music tastes too. “He only likes Kenny Rogers, Elvis and Michael Jackson,” grins the former Nothing Trivial star as Zeppelin bounces back and forth to the jaunty beat of Kenny’s “The Gambler”.
“We don’t own a CD player – we love vinyl and have a record player. The only downside is that I have to keep turning over the record to keep him happy!”
But while Zeppelin, who goes by Zep or Zeppy, has kept Debbie busy as a full-time mum since his birth in November 2013, her Shorty role has brought an end to “20 months of baby bliss”.
“I thought I should probably start going to a few auditions – get back into practice – so I was by no means expecting to work. Then, suddenly, I got the call. It was amazing, but it’s also like, ‘OK, how are we going to make this work?’
“In the beginning, it felt like I’d lost a limb,” she says, gazing lovingly at her son, who was conceived after two years of IVF treatment.
“Before I had Zeppy, I just couldn’t comprehend the guilt you can feel once you’ve got a child. I know I’m lucky to have spent most of the last 20 months with him. But in the first few weeks of filming, I spent most days driving to and from work sobbing in my car!
“I know some mothers say they can’t wait to go back to work, but that wasn’t the case for me – I was very torn.”
With Brendon, 38, leaving for work at his pool-building business “before the sun’s up”, Debbie says she’s “called upon my village” to take care of Zeppelin. And she’s not kidding!
First up, on the “dawn shift”, is her former Nothing Trivial co-star and brother-in-law Aaron Ward, 41, who played quiz master Bob Batchelor.
“Aaron is the coolest uncle in the world,” she grins. “I woo him to the dawn shift with beautiful cooking and chocolates.”
The actor and MC sometimes stays the night at Debbie and Brendon’s central Auckland villa, so when Zeppelin wakes at 5am, he’s in charge. “As soon as Zep sees his uncle, he thinks it’s party time!” laughs Debbie.
Her mother Gayle, who runs a childcare centre on Auckland’s North Shore, is next, picking up Zeppelin at 9am. When they arrive back at the centre, the tot, who’s still too young for preschool, is looked after by Debbie’s sister Sharon, 42, a mum-of-three. Debbie’s brother Mike and his wife Sherene also lend a hand when needed. Come the afternoon, Sharon heads home to her family, so Debbie’s dad Gary drives Zeppelin home, where he waits until either Debbie or Brendon walks through the door.
“If I’m first, I drop my bags and scoop up Zeppy. It’s me and him until bedtime,” says Debbie.
Then it’s time to learn her lines. “I’ve walked into one of the most dynamic families that has ever been on the show,” she enthuses. “They are phenomenal. Margaret is so different from my previous role [as kind-hearted teacher Emma on Nothing Trivial]. But I rarely bring old Mags home with me – unless I’m really grumpy.”
Come here, wife!
Despite having briefly acted in Shorty 20 years ago, Debbie was nervous when she rocked up for her first day this time around. But she needn’t have been.
“All I could hear was my on-screen husband Jarod [Rawiri] shouting, ‘Where’s my wife? I want to meet my wife!’
“There was an instant connection. He kissed my cheek and said, ‘Aah, there she is!’ Same with my two strapping sons and my teenage daughter. It was massive hugs and kisses all round.”
With so little time, Debbie muses, it’ll be a while before she and Brendon are able to have a little brother or sister for Zeppelin. But she remains philosophical.
“Look, I’m 36. I’m not 31, but I still have some time up my sleeve. We’re very busy at the moment, but we are really keen to extend our family in the future.”
And if having more children means more IVF, Debbie isn’t backing down. “We definitely want another little one, that’s the dream,” she concludes. “We are ready for another emotional journey – we’ve already been through it once, so if there’s another journey ahead, we’re ready for it!”
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