It’s the eternal working mother’s juggling act. As front woman of TV3’s breakfast show Firstline and co-anchor of the political and current affairs show The Nation, Rachel Smalley is at a high point in her career. She regularly interviews some of the nation’s most influential politicians and activists, and has no problem giving John Key or Winston Peters a run for their money live on air. But managing a high-profile job and a family isn’t easy for anyone – and Rachel’s no exception.
“Sometimes I do feel compromised, and sometimes the reality is that I feel like I’m a bad mother, and a bad wife, and I’m doing a bad job,” says Rachel (40), who is mum to three-year-old Finn. “Supermum I am not! Being a working parent is exhausting. As women we think we have to work full time to make ends meet, then come home and be full-time mothers. And it’s impossible.”
But while Rachel admits she has moments where handling the work/life balance seems relentless, she knows that feeling guilty about not spending enough time with her family, including her husband of seven years, TV editor Luke Johnson, makes her no different to any other mum in the country. “There are times when it’s hard to service every element of your life,” she says.
“If there’s a big news story breaking, and I’m sitting there with Finn reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I can start to feel anxious that I need to get across the news while it’s developing, but I’ve learned to compartmentalise. If I get stressed, Finn picks up on it. So I’ve stopped beating myself up about it and I know that once Finn and the family are settled, then I'll get on top of the rest."
But once the rest has been done, there’s no running back out the front door for Rachel – once it’s closed behind her, she’s not going anywhere. “I’ve reached an age in my life that it’s not important for me to be in flash restaurants or out at night – I’m nowhere near as social as I used to be,” she explains. “My home is my castle, and life is simpler there. Given the choice, I’d rather be at my own dining table, wearing comfortable clothes, enjoying New Zealand for what it is – which for me is wild, open and spacious.”
It’s a value that she and Luke share, and the pair ensure they make the most of the time they have together as a family. “My focus has narrowed significantly, as I think most working women’s worlds do – it’s basically spending time with Finn and Luke, and then there’s work,” Rachel says candidly. “Luke and I always sit down for dinner together in the evenings, which I think is really important – just to have that time with no phones, no emails, no TV. Just stopping and having a conversation.”
Rachel has plenty of special time with Finn, and loves nothing better than spending hours on the beautiful west coast beach near their home, where Finn enjoys inspecting everything from a grain of sand to the litter – “He gets very indignant if he sees litter on his beach!” she laughs.
Rachel also loves the bond her son has with his dad. “I feel very blessed with my situation, and I can say unashamedly that I’m delighted Luke takes such an active role in Finn’s upbringing,” says Rachel. “When I first presented Nightline two years ago, I had to be gone in the evenings, and Luke and Finn developed a very strong bond. Even now I’m home at that time, Luke still makes Finn dinner and reads him stories. They are very tuned into each other. I’m very lucky.”
Indeed, this is a contented family – in no small part, says the former Canterbury girl, due to their decision to move out of central Auckland and lead a quieter life. “Finn was born in London, and when Luke and I moved back to New Zealand two years ago, we took our time deciding where to live,” she explains. “We both felt that we wanted to be somewhere that, once we were home, we could just empty our minds and not hear traffic or the constant sounds of city life.
“Working on live television, there is a constant pressure to get it right, because if something does happen, you can’t fix it. Then there are deadlines, someone talking in my earpiece the whole time I’m on air. It’s very full-on, and the best way for me to come down from that is to get home, get back to the bush, into the calm, near the sea. It relaxes me quickly and completely.”
As Rachel chats happily with Finn about the native plants surrounding her home, it’s clear the energetic blonde is in her element. Her surprisingly encyclopaedic knowledge of New Zealand flora and fauna is eagerly soaked up by her curious and energetic son, who loudly greets every new discovery with an excited cry of “What’s that, Mummy?”
“Finn is like me, wanting to know about everything – but I think we’re both just nosy!’ laughs Rachel. “He is at such a wonderful age, he is fascinated by everything at the moment. He’s constantly pointing at things and naming them. We have a morepork that sits outside his window, so we hear a lot about Molly the Morepork at the moment.”
It’s a simple life for a woman like Rachel, who has a quick mind and is never slow to pick up on the significant issues when she’s on air – her robust interviewing style has even drawn criticism in the past, something she believes happens due to the fact that, as a political journalist, she is a woman in a very male world. But, she says, if she’s learned nothing else in the past few years, it’s to make the best of everything she enjoys and be in the moment – especially before Finn turns five and goes to school.
“The environment I work in means you never know what’s around the corner,” she says. “Everything could be completely different in six months, so the scenario is for now, not for life. There will come a time when things will all change.” Until then, she’s determined that Finn will get the best upbringing New Zealand has to offer.
“Living in London, I had to make sure he was by my side the whole time – there’s nowhere for a child to run there,” she explains. “Here, nothing delights me more than seeing Finn run along the beach with his back to me, completely fearless. He’s enjoying that quintessential Kiwi life a child can have here, and that’s wonderful.”
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