Her son Finn is fast asleep when she leaves for work, and she’s home in time to get him up for breakfast.
It’s the perfect work-life balance for Rachel Smalley, who juggles three jobs at two different companies. But she is about to undergo one of the most heart-wrenching life moments – saying goodbye to her soon-to-be five-year-old when he starts school next month.
“Even though I work crazy hours, the work I do means I’m afforded a lot of time with my husband, Luke, and Finn – I feel very blessed about that,” explains Rachel (42).
The former TV3 Firstline anchor now presents Early Edition on Newstalk ZB, on air from 5am to 6am, works as a reporter for Sunday, TVNZ’s flagship news and current affairs show, and will work alongside Susan Wood and Corin Dann on Q&A when the new season starts on March 9.
“Firstline was my baby. I set it up and got it going, but when I left last August I really felt like I’d done my time,” explains Rachel, who was so burnt out she almost gave up broadcasting when she left the breakfast show.
“Like so many women, I was on a treadmill, living my life as it was dictated to me, and it wasn’t until I stepped off the treadmill that I realised how tired I was and how much my life had got out of hand. I had brought it on myself, working the hours I did, but I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, and in the end I just exhausted myself.”
Although Rachel remained a regular face on TV3’s The Nation until the end of last year, it’s not until now that the political journalist has felt comfortable with her life – or able to deal with the inevitable backlash she has suffered, both from being in the public eye and from being a woman in what is essentially a man’s world.
“I think there’s a perception in my line of work that women are tough, hard-nosed, aggressive and ambitious, but this is just what I do for a job. I don’t have those attributes as a person. I don’t believe that to get a good interview you have to yell and bang on the desk – you have to push sometimes, certainly, but I try to get a good interview by knowing my stuff, being well researched.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t suffered more than her fair share of online criticism. Rachel can recall with ease the times she was called a b*h, or a stupid bimbo who missed the point.
“When you’re on TV you are an easy target for people to have a crack at you on social media, and while I’d like to say I’ve developed a thick skin, I haven’t,” she admits.
“It is so awful to go online and see nasty things written about you – it actually used to make me physically ill. Over the years, though, thanks to Luke and a small group of close friends, I learnt to separate real life from a group of nameless, faceless people firing off abuse at me on Twitter or Facebook.
“And Finn brings me back to reality – it’s hard to concentrate on anonymous attacks when my little boy is asking me for an apple, where he’s put his Transformer or whether I’ll put the ball through the hoop on the trampoline with him. That always gives me perspective!”
And on March 31, five days after Finn turns five, she will pack his lunchbox and his new books, and try not to be “that embarrassing mother sobbing her heart out at the school gate” when she sends him off to his first day at primary school.
“Finn is so sweet, and so kind – he has such an interesting perspective on life. Our house is chock full of Lego, which is his passion – I’ve lost count of the number of foot injuries I’ve sustained through treading on pieces of Lego in the early hours!
“He is very ready to go to school – although I don’t think I’m ready for him to go,” she laughs.
Luckily, Rachel has several other jobs to keep her busy – returning to radio, which she loves, and television in what will be a busy political year. With the general election due to be held later this year, is she now mentally prepared for what’s ahead?
“Negativity still hurts. I haven’t developed a thick skin – and although it would probably make my professional life easier if I had, it would inevitably seep through into my personal life, and I wouldn’t want that to happen,” she says.
“Firstline dictated how my life was lived, and I was so close to what I was doing I couldn’t see how stuck I was. I almost gave up broadcasting altogether, I was so done with it. But after I left I spoke with a lot of women in senior positions within the media about what I could do, and I walked away thinking, ‘I can still do something that I love. I’ll be okay.’ I went to the Syrian border [with World Vision] – seeing how they live puts things in perspective.”
Without doubt, Rachel has turned a very big corner, both professionally and personally. She knows there will be criticism as she takes on the political might of the country’s top politicians, but unlike before, she’s looking forward to the challenge.
“In the past six months I’ve had a coming of age,” says Rachel. “I still feel self-doubt, and I still wonder if I’m on the right track, but taking a step back and reassessing the direction I was going in means that, for the first time, I know I’m going to be just fine.”
And if she did have to give up journalism? “I’d think – it’s been great,” she says. “Over the years I’ve ticked some great boxes. I love what I do, but my work doesn’t define me. Finn defines me.”
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