Dr Mary English

It’s been a whirlwind four months for Dr Mary English, but she’s proved adept at juggling her new role in an already busy life. Sharon Stephenson caught up with her about keeping her career and what she plans to do as First Lady.
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It isn’t easy getting into Premier House. There’s a complicated tangle of phone calls and emails to be made, security clearances to be obtained, a six-foot-high fence and, often, a couple of policemen to get past before you’re allowed anywhere near the official residence of New Zealand’s prime minister.

But once inside, the 174-year-old villa is as beautiful and serene as you’d expect one of the most famous houses in the country to be.

It’s so quiet, in fact, I wonder if I’ve arrived on the wrong day. But in a sun-splashed room off the main entrance, Dr Mary English, the wife of Prime Minister Bill English and New Zealand’s First Lady, is waiting for me.

The couple don’t actually live here – home for them and the youngest of their six children, Xavier, 17, is the comfortable Karori house they’ve owned for a decade. But the former children’s dental clinic is as good a place as any to chat to the 54-year-old.

I should probably nail my colours to the mast: English has been my GP for six years. She has seen me through a breast cancer scare, chronic insomnia and a sprained ankle; she does my annual smears and ensures I have the correct injections before I travel.

We’ve bonded over handbags, exotic locations and clothes. She’s gentle, efficient and always impeccably dressed. But, along with the rest of the country, I don’t really know that much about New Zealand’s First Lady.

So on a warm Friday morning – her one day off a week from the Kelburn medical practice she bought in 2013 – English sits down with NEXT over a cup of Rooibos tea (milk, no sugar). It’s been four months since her husband was sworn in as New Zealand’s 39th prime minister and English admits she’s “still getting her head around it”.

“To be honest, I was in a state of disbelief when it happened,” she says. “I didn’t know whether to be sad, terrified, excited or nervous. But the kids were fully supportive of their father, as were both our extended families. And now we’re in an election year, so it’s full on.”

Being married to the prime minister is, as you’d imagine, quite a challenge. As is juggling six children aged 17-29 and a busy medical practice, but English has adapted with her usual grace and poise.

“Yes there are big challenges and my life has changed, but being the prime minister’s wife is a privilege and I’ve learned over the years, both through personal experience and from my patients, that life is too short not to begin each day with a positive attitude.”

English is adamant she won’t be giving up either her patients or the management of the clinic, which is staffed by three female doctors.

“I think some of my patients thought I would disappear overseas most of the time. But being a doctor is very important to me, it’s who I am and it’s something very separate from Parliament. I enjoy the financial and management side of the surgery as much as the clinical work and I’m keen to keep growing the business.”

English admits there will be times when she has to travel with her husband or attend functions, but her colleagues have said they’re happy to fill in.

It’s fortunate that juggling work, family and political commitments is second nature to English who believes women, in particular, are more adaptable than they think.

“When you’re faced with lots of different demands, it makes you stretch the elastic band of your capability more than you might originally choose to. In the end, it’s really a case of getting on and doing it.”

The one casualty of English’s new role is her part-time work at a sleep medicine clinic, a special area of interest for which she recently undertook extra study. But ask her about her strategy for keeping so many plates spinning and she’ll admit it’s about not being afraid to ask for help.

“Bill has been in politics since 1990, so over the years I’ve had to learn to accept help. That includes having nannies when the children were young, and relying on the kindness of friends to get the kids to their various sporting events.”

If there had been a bucket list when English was growing up, being New Zealand’s First Lady would probably not have been on it. She was born Mary Scanlon at Lower Hutt Hospital, the oldest of 13 (six boys and seven girls) to Jean, an Italian immigrant from the island of Stromboli, and Joseph, whose family had not long arrived from Samoa.

“I consider myself a first generation New Zealander,” says English with pride, although she admits she speaks neither Italian or Samoan: “That’s a project for later on.”

Xavier, Bart, Rory, Mary and Bill English, Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, Reddy’s husband Sir David Gascoigne, and Luke, Maria and Tom English.

Her father worked two jobs to pay the mortgage on the family’s modest Lyall Bay home where her parents still live – one as a school caretaker, the other as a diesel mechanic for Wellington’s red buses. Every child was also expected to have two paper rounds each, to help pay for groceries. But while money may have been tight, love wasn’t.

“It was a really happy upbringing and we were taught from an early age not to be selfish,” recalls English.

“My parents were passionate about family, their Catholic faith and education.”

Like her siblings, English won the educational trifecta, being bright, hard working and a high achiever (her family went on to produce two doctors, a lawyer, an architect, accountant and dietician).

English has wanted to be a doctor since she was 12, inspired by the medics at Wellington Hospital who looked after her mother when she was ill.

“My father said, ‘no one in our family has ever been to university but if you want to become a doctor, we’ll support you.'”

Although she gravitated more towards languages at college, she was determined to get into Otago Medical School.

“There was no plan B so I knew I had to be the best in every subject.” If she hadn’t got in? “I would have kept applying.”

But English was admitted on her first attempt and, a week after arriving in the deep south, met her future husband, then a commerce student, at a university orientation ball. It wasn’t love at first sight. Not only was the future prime minister hobbling on crutches, his social skills were a little rusty.

Mary and Bill English on their wedding day.

“Bill had been living on his family farm and hadn’t spoken to a girl in a year, so he was very shy,” recalls English. Worst of all, though, was his “terrible” teenage acne which English admits is the worst she’s ever seen, including during her medical career.

“I know that sounds a bit shallow,” she laughs. “But it was fine because we ended up really good friends.”

It wasn’t until her final year that the friendship turned into something more. “By then we knew each other really well. He was highly intelligent and handsome, so why would I not want to be with him?”

English’s parents weren’t so convinced by the Southland farmer’s son, the 10th of 12 children. They suggested to their eldest daughter that she shouldn’t get married until she graduated.

By that time English was studying in Wellington and visiting Bill, who was managing his family farm in Dipton, halfway between Queenstown and Invercargill, during university holidays. Although the enforced long engagement wasn’t ideal, English says now that she’s a mother, she understands why her parents made her wait.

Four years after Bill popped the question, the pair finally married in St Patrick’s Church in Kilbirnie. By then English was in her first year as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital, and the couple lived in staff quarters, next to a brothel and behind a drug and alcohol clinic.

“I’d be hanging out the washing and drug deals would be going on in front of me!”

Their first child, Luke, was born a year after they married and English took a year off. For her, this meant juggling a newborn with studying philosophy, ethics and legal papers at Victoria University.

“I also did a diploma in obstetrics because I knew we’d be returning to the farm and a rural doctor needs to know how to deliver babies.”

When English was 27, and her husband 28, they moved to Dipton so Bill could launch his political career. It wasn’t the easiest of times.

“I cried when I moved down there! Bill was on the road campaigning and I was trying to adapt to life on the farm, which was a huge culture shock. Bill likes to say I’m the most urban person he’s ever met and I was always worried about being too precious or saying the wrong thing.”

Mary and Bill at her university graduation.

It was also a steep learning curve – one day English called the fire brigade after she saw a paddock on fire. “They calmly told me it was just the stubble being burned off after the harvest, that it was normal practice.”

Eventually English returned to medicine, first at Gore Hospital at weekends and then for a medical practice in Lumsden. “I enjoy being a GP; it’s interesting and flexible, which is important for women in medicine.”

She has certainly had to call on that flexibility, having worked around the births of her six children.

“Both Bill and I come from large families and we’ve always wanted to have a few kids. I told Bill I only wanted girls but that didn’t quite work out for us!”

Three of their children now live in Sydney (Tom is a doctor, Maria a business consultant and Luke works in admin), while Rory is learning Mandarin in Shanghai, Bart is in his last year of a BA at Otago University and Xavier is at his final year of high school in Wellington.

Despite their various locations, English says they’re a close family.

“They were pretty boisterous kids growing up and it was never boring in our house. I remember once when we were living in a ministerial house in central Wellington there were several frantic calls from surroundings office buildings to say the kids had climbed out of the third storey fire escape onto the roof! When one person goes into politics, the whole family does, which can be challenging at times. But the kids seem to have survived so far and we’re incredibly proud of them.”

As our interview slips past its allotted time, English admits there are some downsides to being the First Lady.

“There are things I have to do, events I have to attend, when I’m tired or not really in the mood. I also need to be more self aware, given that people are more likely to be watching me now.”

Probably one of the biggest changes, though, is getting used to the presence of her husband’s security officers.

“Policemen accompany the prime minister wherever he goes so, for example, it’s harder to enjoy the luxury of a good argument while we’re out for a walk! But that’s part and parcel of being married to the prime minister.”

It also means changes to English’s domestic routine, with Bill not pulling his weight as much when it comes to sharing the household chores.

“We have turns to cook and Bill has always been in charge of Monday night’s dinner. He makes a great lasagne and also does the Sunday roast, but of course his time is more limited now. Thankfully, Xavier has started to cook more.”

English is hoping her husband’s packed schedule won’t eat into their exercise routine. The pair regularly walk two or three times a week (“It’s our couple time”) and train for marathons.

“I ran my first half-marathon at 48 and have done seven half and full marathons since then,” she says. “I think I’ve got one more left in me.”

Having been a political spouse for so long, English isn’t fazed by meeting people from all walks of life and says she doesn’t get tongue-tied when introduced to public figures.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the Queen on our recent official visit to the UK but I would like to meet her one day. I’d also love to talk to Michelle Obama and the Pope.”

Earlier this year English spent time with Venus Williams and was astounded by the tennis player’s poise and serenity. They bonded over their mutual height (English is 179cm) and having the same shoe size (41).

But if there’s one thing English is hoping to achieve during her time as New Zealand’s First Lady it’s to inspire young women, particularly Māori and Pasifika women, to achieve their dreams.

“I know what it is to come from a large family where things aren’t always easy. I want young women to look at my background and feel that a) they can have aspirations and b) they can make those aspirations come true. That’s my wish for the young women of New Zealand.”

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