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Jenny-May Clarkson’s dreams for her boys

The beloved Breakfast presenter shares another big step in her boys' lives and the new challenge facing her family

It’s a clear winter Friday and Jenny-May and Dean Clarkson are midway through explaining the significance of the TV presenter’s new moko (tattoo), a series of stars and birds from her neck to her bellybutton, when there’s a cacophony of voices downstairs.

The couple’s twin five-year-old boys Te Manahau and Atawhai have arrived home from school, and Atawhai is eager to show Mum his large, swirly lollipop.

Jenny-May gives him a cuddle and gently discourages him in te reo from devouring the treat straightaway – after all, the whole household, including Dean’s parents Maurice and Jocelyn, and Dean’s daughters Libby-Jane, 16, and Leah, 14, aren’t far off heading to dinner at the local restaurant.

It’s a typically upbeat start to the weekend, yet for a few months, it’s been tough.

“It’s been a challenging year,” says the Auckland-based Breakfast host.

Just before the boys were due to start school in March, they’d begun to question their parents’ decision to send them to a Māori- immersion kura, just as they’d started to query Jenny-May’s commitment to speaking to them purely in te reo.

“They’d have friends over and they’d say, ‘Why don’t you speak Māori to them?” she tells.

Jenny-May with Atawhai (left) and Te Manahau, who were our cover stars after their arrival in 2016.

Jenny-May hadn’t been able to speak Māori as a child and the shame she’d experienced had made her determined for her boys not to feel the same way. Following her own immersion year when she was 38, she’d made it her mission to give the boys their “birthright”, with Dean committing to learning the language as well.

But as the boys’ protests had ramped up, she began to wonder if all those years devoted to her sons’ learning had been in vain.

The situation came to a head one day when Jenny-May says her frustration got the better of her, sitting the boys down and told them they’d get their way. For the next couple of hours, she spoke to them only in English. Eventually, they told her she “sounded funny” and wanted her to go back to normal.

“My heart was just so full when they said that,” recalls Jenny-May. “One of the lessons in that for us was that we don’t take them to enough places where te reo is normalised.”

Even so, the twins’ transition from kohanga reo to kura was made all the more challenging when several public holidays interrupted their settling-in period.

“They were like, ‘How many more days do I have to go?'” says Jenny-May. “Every morning they’d cry, ‘I don’t want to go.’ It was really hard.”

It was just as tough on Maurice, who had taken on the boys’ school drop-offs and pick-ups while Jenny-May was filming TVNZ’s Breakfast and Dean was working his community consulting role.

“He’d see them crying and have to drive away,” shares Dean.

Atawhai, the more reserved of the two, was having a particularly difficult time adjusting – and sometimes Jenny-May found herself shedding a few tears before going on air.

Off to school with Pop.

“I mean, you’re tired and all of that comes into it, but I was definitely unsettled over that time,” she admits. “My son was really unhappy. You start to doubt what you’re doing and for me, it was not being home in the mornings.

“Even though financially you know this is what we have to do.”

Fortunately, things improved when the boys’ Deputy Principal – a male – temporarily took over classroom duties. Suddenly, instead of asking how many days there were until the weekend, Atawhai and Te Manahau started to ask how many more sleeps until kura.

The couple say they couldn’t have made it through that tough experience – nor continue to work in their respective careers – without the care and support of their extended whānau.

t takes a village to raise the twins, and Jenny-May and Dean are so grateful for their live-in support system. From left: Leah, Libby-Jane, Dean’s dad Maurice and his mum Jocelyn.

With Jenny-May up at 2am in order to make the 40km drive from their home on the outskirts of Auckland into the CBD for more work preparation, plus hair and make-up, and Dean also busy with work, “Pop” Maurice and “Nana” Jocelyn take on much of the childcare during the week. Meanwhile, Libby-Jane and Leah are devoted big sisters.

“We couldn’t function without them all, to be honest,” says Dean.

Having four adults in the house can mean the boys experience a little more discipline than they might like, laughs Jenny-May, but having their grandparents and sisters living with them only adds to the richness of their upbringing.

“They’re like surrogate parents to our boys,” she says of Jocelyn and Maurice, who’ve been married for more than 50 years. “It’s about feeling safe and loved by a number of people in your life. The girls have their grandparents on tap when they don’t want to talk to us about something, and when the boys have had enough of us, they come upstairs to Nana and Pop’s and hang out with them.”

Staying connected as a couple is also something Jenny-May, 47, and Dean, 46, constantly work at, but struggle to do given their busy schedules.

While it’s not always possible to nip away for a romantic night on their own – especially given the kids’ grandparents already do so much – Dean says spending one-on-one time together is an investment in their future. They often take a walk together or spend time working out in their home gym.

And when they get the chance, they’ll head away to Northland to complete Jenny-May’s moko.

“When children leave the nest, that’s often when relationships can fall apart,” says Dean. “It’s hard to make alone time happen because of the role Jenny-May has, which to me makes it all the more important.”

Jenny-May stresses that she hugely appreciates her high-profile role helming Breakfast. but the commitment means she often has to sacrifice sleep, energy or family time. Each day must be well managed to ensure she gets adequate rest and exercise, with much of the preparation for the following day’s show taking place in the evenings – Sundays included.

Jenny-May’s mum Paddy also has a hands-on role bringing up the boys. Right: The tattoo has deep meaning for the star.

“It is hard emotionally and it’s taxing on your energy,” she confesses. But she feels privileged to tell the remarkable stories that so many New Zealanders share with her.

A recent story about a person suffering from bowel cancer had her sobbing post-interview – it was all too close to home as her older brother Jeffrey passed away from the disease in 2018.

Other uncomfortable topics have also had an emotional impact.

“My whole body responds. I have a theory that I carry my ancestors’ everything – the good, the bad, the hurt. And in some of those conversations, even though I don’t understand why, I become so emotional, I believe it’s because somewhere along the line, my ancestors were touched by that,” she tells.

Connecting with such a breadth of people through her job has helped to give her a deeper sense of self, allowing her to shuck off any lingering self-doubt she experienced during her early days on air.

“I’m too old to care what people think, you know? You have your moments, but I’ve been judged a lot for a long time for the different things I’ve done. Now I care less about the negativity, about what I’m supposed to be.”

Which brings us back to that new moko. Initially, Jenny-May had gone to see the Tā moko artist with the intention of doing her hand. But a whim caught her off-guard and next thing she knew, she was making plans for the new marking, a symbol of her connection to her past.

The significance of the line of stars and birds, she says, are that they are the guiding symbols that her ancestors followed. Then, there’s the fact they connect in a line from her throat to her naval, not only acknowledging her role as a mother, but marking a link with her whānau: her whakapapa, including her mother, and her mother’s mother, and all the wāhine before them.

Like the moko on her hand, which she kept under wraps for a long time, she’s been hesitant to reveal on air.

“Maybe it’s because it wasn’t finished,” she muses. “But it has allowed me to step into a new space that I’m really uncomfortable with. I’m enjoying the discomfort a little bit and seeing how people react to it. It’s been a journey, this whole thing of ‘becoming’. Because this,” she says, one hand on her moko, “is who I am.”

With that, there are calls of ‘Māmā!’ and Te Manahau bounds in for a kiss, a cuddle – and demands to know where his singlet is!

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