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Family

Bill and Mary English on why family comes first and their 30-year marriage

The PM and his wife spill some home truths.

It's been a big week for Prime Minister Bill English when Woman's Day descends on him and his wife Mary on a sunny Saturday morning in Wellington.
Jacinda Ardern has just been made leader of the Labour Party and the upcoming election has suddenly got a whole lot more interesting. But if the veteran politician is feeling rattled, he's certainly not showing it as he arrives at Premier House direct from the airport after a night away on the campaign trail.
"Where is she?" he asks, eagerly scanning the room for his wife. Fresh from the make-up chair, she's looking stunning and Bill, who became PM last December after Sir John Key resigned from the top job, is clearly impressed. "Wow!" he whispers, before giving her a warm hug and kiss.
With just a few weeks to go before the September 23 election, Bill certainly wasn't expecting the last-minute change of leadership in the opposition camp. Not to mention latest polls putting the two parties almost neck and neck. But he insists it hasn't changed much for him and the National Party.
"Politics is unpredictable, particularly when there's a lot of pressure on. It was always going to be a tough campaign and a tough election to win. It's still going to be an election decided on a handful of seats and a few thousand votes. That's why we have to focus on getting all the support we can."
The couple on their wedding day.
Both devout Catholics, Bill and Mary, a GP, have been married for 30 years and are parents to Luke, 29, Thomas, 27, Maria, 26, Rory, 23, Bart, 20, and Xavier, 17.
Raising six kids while Bill climbed the ranks of Parliament and Mary built her medical career was no easy feat, but they put their success down to a unified approach.
"He's always been backing me up. We wouldn't have survived if we didn't have that team approach," tells Mary, who is wearing a stunning black pearl ring that Bill had made for their milestone wedding anniversary in January.
He might be PM, but the 55-year-old still has to pull his weight at home – cooking dinner every Monday night and folding the washing in the evenings. The devoted dad becomes animated when the topic moves to babies.
"Someone asked me recently if I'd ever changed a nappy. Changed a nappy?! I could change a nappy in the dark – and that's a cloth one with safety pins! I actually think there's nothing quite as satisfying as when you hang up a stained nappy on the line and you come back and the sun has bleached it."
Hands-on parenting comes first for this couple – in fact, our photo shoot has a strict finish time so that Bill and Mary, 54, can make it to the sidelines of their youngest son Xavier's rugby game. While Mary's the on-field medic for the day, Bill will be chief cheerleader.
But it's a bittersweet time as they come to the end of almost 30 years of having children in the house. When Xavier – a Year 13 student at Wellington's St Patrick's College – finishes school at the end of the year, he'll be spreading his wings like the rest of his high-achieving siblings.
Tom is a doctor in Australia, Maria is heading off to do an MBA at Stanford University in California, Luke is studying at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Rory is at language school in Shanghai, China, and Bart is studying English at Otago University.
"Xavier still hasn't quite decided what he's doing next," tells Bill. "He keeps mentioning people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who didn't finish uni, but I think we've finally persuaded him he should go. He wants to carve his own path and do something different to the others, which we can totally understand."
Being parents to older children has brought a new kind of freedom for Bill and Mary, but they admit they're certainly not off the hook yet. Nappy-duty has been replaced by "the role as an ATM", Bill jokes, while Mary says the older kids still need their parents.
"When they were little, it was about watering, feeding and vaccinating them. But now it's about emotional support. I thought I'd get to my 40s and that hard work would be over. But the job description changes – you're still very much involved."
She admits facing an empty nest is a confronting prospect and she can't yet imagine their home in Karori without the noise and mess of family life.
"I'm not quite sure whether to crack open a bottle of the good stuff or pull out the tissues," says Mary, who is of Samoan and Italian descent. "I'm trying not to think about it. As a mother, you just think, 'Wow, they're definitely on to the next stage.' It's challenging but it's a good thing."
Bill's advice to her is to "make peace with it".
At the time of our interview, a debate over sexism is raging after Jacinda was asked repeatedly about her plans for starting a family. Mary hopes the 37-year-old won't put off motherhood.
The whanau at Bill's swearing-in ceremony (from left): Xavier, Bart, Rory, Governor General Patsy Reddy and her husband David Gascoigne, Luke, Maria and Thomas.
"What I'd say as a mother coming out the other end of bringing up children hands-on is it's a wonderful job to have and do, and I just hope she'll give it a go at some stage because she'd be a really good mum and she'd really enjoy it."
But given their inside knowledge of the top job, do they think becoming a mother while PM would be possible?
"That's an unknown," says Bill. "Everyone makes their own choices, it's their business. Everyone who's involved in politics has relationships and families, and occasionally there's public discussion about that."
He adds that having children while working in Parliament isn't hugely different to other families juggling their home life with busy careers.
"Sometimes it's been pretty exhausting," he tells. "And it needs a lot of organisation. I'm fortunate that Mary is the sort of person who gets things ready the night before. I'm a bit less inclined to do that."
Mary dismisses excitement around the Labour leadership, telling us that seeing women at the top should be expected in 2017. "We shouldn't be so surprised. Listening to my daughter and her peer group, you can see that it's not such a big deal for them. It's not like it was when Jenny Shipley first became our prime minister and I think that's good."
As the discussion moves to the importance of personality in politics, Mary insists that her Southlander husband is not boring, as his critics often assert. "Everyone is so surprised at how amusing and witty he is when they actually meet him," says Mary.
And Bill, who describes himself as a "droll Dad", blames his eight years as Finance Minister for the unfortunate reputation.
"You get pigeon-holed and it takes a while to change the view people have," he says.
"I'm proud of the work I did as Finance Minister and I don't mind if it somewhat limits the expression of your personality. But it is nice to be able to get out and let people get to know me better now. I'm really enjoying that side of the role.
"In the end, people vote on their broader interest and not just on personalities. They take into account the policies and what's required for the time."
Mary adds, "They want consistent and credible government, and a team that can hang together."
The couple are still giggling about the response to Bill's photo on Facebook of a recent dinner effort – pizza topped with tinned spaghetti. Perhaps surprisingly, given Mary's mother is Italian, she's full of praise for her husband's cooking efforts.
"I thought it was fantastic. I didn't think it would make the international stage but it's been great," she laughs, referring to the photo being picked up by overseas media.
"Usually, he does a lasagne but we didn't have the right stuff, so he improvised. And it was great. It was hot, which is good because I hate cold pizza."
And Bill says he's still being stopped in the street by spaghetti-pizza lovers, but admits that some of their Italian friends have been less than impressed. "They were speaking of the need to rehabilitate me," laughs Bill.
Mary will continue working full-time in the lead-up to the election, but plans to join her husband at various points on the campaign trail. She jokes that Bill has plenty of "substitute wives" in the form of his office staff.
Bill agrees, adding ruefully, "I get more advice in a day than most people get in a month!"
He stays on top of stress by keeping fit and getting enough sleep. The couple – who have both run marathons – regularly march to the top of Wrights Hill together or go for jogs around the neighbourhood.
Bill laughs when asked if being prime minister has earned him more respect from his children and 60 nieces and nephews ("our very own focus group"), saying, "No such luck! When I became prime minister, the first thing one of the boys said to me was, 'Just goes to show that everyone gets a turn if they wait long enough.' It was one of those lovely father-son moments," he jokes.
It's 1.30pm and Bill knows if he doesn't leave now, he'll never make it to Xavier's game on time. As always throughout his 27-year political career, he's adamant that whanau must always come first.
"The job is a huge part of our life but the more important part is what we've done together as a family. And that won't ever change."

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