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Dr Hinemoa Elder's most important lessons

Taking care of others is more crucial than ever, she shares

By Nicky Pellegrino
Once she was known for being a children's TV presenter and wife to Paul Holmes. Now at 56, Dr Hinemoa Elder has found her place in the world as a psychiatrist, health researcher, successful author and proud Māori woman. She will mark Matariki by taking the stage at M9, a new speaker and performance event.
Are you excited to be involved with the inaugural M9 event?
I'm so looking forward to it. M9 is the work of musician Ria Hall, who has put together an eclectic combination of Māori women to present a really extraordinary night celebrating Matariki and matauranga Māori. I'm honoured to be a part of it.
You'll join women like Anika Moa and Stacey Morrison on stage to entertain audiences with unique stories. What will you be speaking about?
I'm going to share some things from my new book, which is coming out in October. It's about the Māori moon Hina, the female deity that guides us through each day and night of our Māori lunar calendar. I wanted to write a book that I wish I'd read when I was younger.
Did you expect your first book, Aroha: Māori Wisdom for a Contented Life Lived in Harmony With Our Planet, to be such a huge success?
I wasn't sure how it would be received, but I did think some of our Māori communities might be interested, particularly those on their reo journey. Now I get messages every day from people all over the world who have found parts of it have resonated deeply with them. I'm so happy they've found the book useful.
'I felt ready. I knew I was doing the right thing and I was with the right person'
Your mother Ina, who died of breast cancer 30 years ago, continues to be your greatest influence. How do you keep her in your life?
I look at her photos around my house every day, talk to her and often ask, "I wonder what Mum would think of that?" I giggle to myself sometimes when I remember the fun times we had together when I was younger. It's a daily regular thing – she's with me all the time.
Your own children Millie and Reuben are grown up. Have you struggled with empty-nest syndrome at all?
That hasn't been an issue for me. My kids have come back home to live as adults, then moved away and come back again at different times. So, I've actually seen a lot of them. Millie was here for a while over the pandemic and it was wonderful to spend that time with her, but she's moved back overseas now. She's great, doing really, really well. My son's also really well. So, I'm lucky that they're healthy, happy and doing things they love.
Back in the '90s, you gave up a successful TV career to study medicine. That was a brave move!
It didn't feel incredibly brave at the time, although looking back,I do think "Wow!" I don't think I ever saw myself as having a long-term career in television. But I did have a choice. I didn't have to go to medical school. It was something that was very meaningful to me, a way to carry on my mother's legacy, to honour all the things she had taught me and very much part of the next chapter following her passing.
Working in mental health with young people, along with your other roles, sounds like a busy life. Do you enjoy being busy?
I like being focused and purposeful. And I do feel driven to use all the opportunities that I have to try and make other people's lives better. But there's a whole other conversation we could have about this word "busy" because I think it's a bit of a trap. So, I try to make sure that I'm not buying into busy for busyness sake.
How do you look after your own wellbeing?
I go to Pilates and Zumba. We have wonderful classes near where I live on Waiheke Island, so when I'm around, I try to get to those. I like gardening and I've got a couple of dogs, so it's great spending time with them. I like cooking, listening to music, reading for pleasure. And I enjoy being outdoors and in nature, taking time to breathe and think. Those are the things I do to settle myself or reflect on what's going on. I'm very fortunate to live where I do. It has a real sense of sanctuary and the natural world is right here – you notice the tides and the moon, the birds and the bush. Also, our local Māori community here is very strong. We're tightly connected and support each other. So that's another element that is very important to me.
'I'm very disciplined, careful with my time and I get good sleeps!'
Five years ago, you had your moko kauae (traditional Māori woman's facial tattoo). What led to that decision?
It had been on my mind for quite a long time. I talked to my whanāu about it and to the moko artist who created this taonga, James Webster. I was cautious, unsure whether I was worthy. A friend asked what was stopping me and I told her that my reo wasn't really good enough and I hadn't achieved the things I thought were appropriate. And she basically said, "Get on with it. I want this for you – it's the right thing to do." On the night of M9, it will be exactly five years to the day that my moko kauae and I began to travel together visibly. When I was young, I had seen pictures of kuia and thought, "Oh, yes, I've got one, I just can't see it yet." That was my child-like thinking.
What was the experience of having the moko kauae like?
I felt ready. I knew I was doing the right thing and I was with the right person. We had karakia [prayer] and the power of karakia is amazing. It was a very precious, sacred time.
Do you think writing your books and making speeches are all part of the process of finding your own voice?
Without a doubt. I think life is a process of finding out who we are. As a woman in my more senior years now, I've been in my role as a psychiatrist for nearly 20 years, and I have a different voice, a different perspective. I think it's important to write and speak about the different stages of our lives and how we change and develop, and pass on some of that knowledge to other generations of women so they can learn from the mistakes we've made and hopefully avoid making them themselves. Life is about learning. From a mental health perspective, the more we can embrace that, the better. It's not always easy because some of life's lessons are really quite challenging, hard and harsh.
You've achieved so much in your years as a doctor. Is there more for you to achieve?
Short answer, yes. We're in the thick of health reform in this country and so I'm involved with that. It's a really important chance to do things differently and better, and to get rid of inequities that have been facing in particular the Māori and Pacific communities. So, I want to contribute as much as I can.
What else are you up to?
I'm involved with an interesting women's leadership programme called Women Emerging that's been started by a friend of mine in the UK, and I think it's a really useful thing to be doing. I've also been asked to become a member of a group the Busara Circle, which is part of a leadership initiative called Homeward Bound. I went to Antarctica with that group in 2019 and now I'm excited to join a group of senior women who are using their experience to mentor participants. I'm also mentoring a New Zealand woman writer, which has been a real joy. And I'm the patron of Share My Super, a charity working to make an impact on child poverty.
How do you fit it all in?
I'm very disciplined, careful with my time and I get good sleeps!
Do you have time for a relationship?
Yes, I'm in a happy relationship with a lovely Māori man.
Your life seems very much about giving back. Is this the life you were meant to have?
I've always been interested in taking care of other people, even when I was young. I think that was part of the values of our whānau.
With the pandemic and lockdowns, this must be a particularly challenging time to work in mental health?
We've been living with enormous stress and uncertainty for more than two years now. It's distorted family relationship and how whānau traditions are formed, how they evolve or break down. These are conversations people in my sort of role are having around the country all the time. And I think perhaps we've recognised how much we need to be connected, and how much the lack of closeness and connection has affected us all. Certainly, that's a major theme in my new book and what I'll be talking about at M9.
M9 takes place on Friday, June 17 at Auckland's Civic Theatre. Tickets are available now. Visit Ticketmaster for more details.
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  • undefined: Nicky Pellegrino

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