Real Life

Mojo Mathers: making history

New Zealand’s first deaf MP on being a mother and joining Parliament.

She changed history when she joined Parliament after the last election, caused a storm of controversy in her fight for equal rights in the House and combines the long working hours of an MP with being a mum of three.

But Green MP Mojo Mathers, New Zealand’s first profoundly deaf parliamentarian, says her current job is not as difficult as her first years as a mum, unable to hear her small children . “There were times I would be quite an anxious mother,” Mojo admits.

“I wanted to see where they were at all times. At night I take my hearing aid out and one time, when my husband was away, I took my baby to bed with me in the hope I would hear her cry.

I woke to this screaming baby beside me and I hadn’t heard a thing. I felt terrible.” Mojo won her first political victory last month, getting Parliament to provide funding for electronic note-taking so she can join in political debates. The devoted mum was never expected to join the Green Party in Parliament but was a late addition to the list after special votes were counted.

She’s seized her new role with relish, despite the wrench of her family life in Christchurch. Her eldest daughter Bethany (18) is studying at the University of Otago and her son Timothy (12) lives with Mojo’s ex husband, but her middle daughter Meagan (16) is still at home.

So far Mojo (44) and her family are coping well with her commuting from Christchurch to Wellington. But it will be easier when Mojo’s mother shifts from Auckland to Christchurch to help care for Meagan, who is currently at home with Mojo’s partner.

“I feel like I’m being taken away from my daughter because I have to work but I also know my children are well-loved. If anything came up I’d be there. “I have to make sure I keep one day in my weekend free for my children – they come first,” says Mojo, who moved into her mother’s house after damage to her own flat from the 2010 Christchurch earthquake.

Mojo’s hearing-loss was caused by a difficult birth and a lack of oxygen affecting her hearing. But it wasn’t until she was two and a half and had started kindergarten that a teacher noticed her disability. After Mojo’s diagnosis her mother spent months teaching her daughter how to speak by playing with dolls.

“She spent hours with me. She would pick up a bed and say, ‘This is a bed. Let’s put the dolly in the bed.’ It was part play and part intensive therapy to teach me how to speak and copy back,” Mojo explains. “She also taught me how to read before I started school, so I owe her a lot.”

Mojo’s biggest challenge in Parliament is following debates, because of all the interjecting, but the electronic note-taking will allow her to keep up. “The reality is, in the House I can’t lip-read across the large room,” says Mojo, whose excellent lip-reading skills helped her to interpret a conversation when the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup at Eden Park last year.

“One of the All Blacks was remarking to another about their well-deserved plans for celebrating winning.” If she was born today, Mojo believes her hearing disability would be even less limiting because it’s likely she would have had a cochlear implant inserted as a child, allowing her to speak with more clarity and hear sounds she’s never heard before.

“I can’t follow TV. I can’t hear the radio. I’m extremely limited on the phone. I can’t hear birds singing, except roosters crowing. I can’t hear cicadas. I can’t hear lyrics in music. There’s a whole world I don’t have access to.” However, she’s ruled out getting a cochlear implant at her age because there’s a risk it wouldn’t work – but she’s a big supporter of children having them.

Currently the government only funds an implant for one ear. Mojo has been supporting the Hearing House’s bid to get the government to fund implants of $50,000 for both ears, which she says are proven to be more effective.

“It’s important to have the bi-lateral implants at the right age to get the maximum benefit from it. I’ve met preschoolers at the Hearing House who were using age-appropriate language before they got to school. That just didn’t happen for me or my generation,” she told New Zealand Woman’s Weekly during a visit to the organisation.

The environment is another worthy cause for Mojo and she’s keen to do her bit at home. “I do all the standard environmentally friendly things such as composting, recycling and waste reduction, using energy-efficient light bulbs and environmentally friendly detergent. I also try to buy organic and fair-trade food as much as possible.”

She’s a vegetarian and raised her children the same, but she’s not strict about it. “I’ve been relaxed about what they eat outside the home and allowed each of them to make their own food choices. My eldest daughter was vegan for four years, which meant I had to substantially alter my cooking style to accommodate her needs.

“My second daughter is vegetarian but doesn’t eat eggs, while my youngest son is a meat-eater and loves eating salmon sushi and beef sausages. “One of the hardest parts of becoming an MP is the long hours,” the dedicated mum says. “You have to be on the premises until 10pm. I can feel quite tired and drained when I get home and then I’ve got to re-gather my energy to be there for my children.”

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