How Karyn Hay is coping with ’empty nest syndrome’

The former rock music presenter talks about her latest chapter, empty nest syndrome and why she refuses to become “resigned to ageing”.

She’s best known as an outspoken radio host, the rebellious rock chick who fronted Radio with Pictures and an award-winning author – but Karyn Hay is also a mother-of-two who is facing the wrench that comes with a looming empty nest.

With her eldest son Seth (21) in the Air Force training to be a fighter pilot, and 18-year-old Fabian moving to Wellington next year to study at Victoria University, the West Auckland home she shares with husband Andrew Fagan is set to be a lot quieter.

“I’m a bit sad about that,” she says.

“It goes so very quickly. You hear it all the time – ‘You don’t want to miss your children growing up’ – but I don’t think you really understand or realise that until you are at the end of it. When they are eight, 10, 12 it is so busy and then it is over, it is gone. They still need you but you have a different relationship with them – they are not physically there.”

Karyn, who left RadioLIVE in March to write books, says while she is delighted to be doing what she loves, she is also preparing to spend a lot of time alone.

Her husband Andrew, frontman for celebrated Kiwi pop band The Mockers and a keen sailor, is currently at sea working on a supply boat to the Pitcairn Islands. On his return he plans to pursue some personal sailing ventures.

Like many in the same position, Karyn is wondering if she should be simplifying her living quarters – a thought that came to her recently while she was on the roof, at night, clearing gutters during a storm. In her gumboots.

Karyn and her husband Andrew Fagan in 2008.

“I do like being in nature, although I wouldn’t mind living in an apartment for a while. It would be easier than climbing up on the roof on a winter’s night when it is gale-force winds outside and bucketing down.

As I was up there I was thinking, ‘Hmm, I didn’t tell anyone I was up here and I may slide off the side,’” she says in between hoots of laughter.

“Dinner was cooking downstairs and I thought perhaps if there is a burning smell and there’s no one in the kitchen someone will realise that I am lying under my rimu tree with a broken neck!”

She likes that she can still get up there though, and, at 58, says she doesn’t want to become “resigned to ageing”. She certainly hasn’t so far. Dressed in a glossy silver suit for The Australian Women’s Weekly photo shoot, she looks half her age, with the swag of her Radio with Pictures days still strong.

“I like having the ability to still get up on the roof. I love that pioneer woman aspect – not being helpless or hopeless. If I have to do it on my own, I will. I know it is a bit foolhardy at times though!”

She’s always been practical – she had to be handy when living on canal boats in London, where she and Andrew were anchored on and off for about a decade from 1987 (with some return stints home to New Zealand). She moved there after five years on Radio with Pictures. She’s said many times that fame was not her thing.

“We did two lots of six years. It was Andrew’s idea – a very good one, because it is so expensive living in London and it was a better environment than a flat. We actually lived in a boatyard for a long time because we were having the boat done up, so it took years to get into the water; it was up on blocks.”

Like her physical health, she says her mental health is strong these days, but she did struggle earlier in her life.

“Breakdowns are par for the course in the artistic life; you have got to have a breakdown or two with a bit of agoraphobia thrown in for good measure!

“It is incredibly frightening because it is unknown,” she continues more seriously.

“But if you overcome that, you just become stronger. I had depression and anxiety and I did get a severe case of agoraphobia in London, but eventually I learnt what all those things were. I put a name to them, found out why they happened. I learnt the nervous system is just another part of the body, the electrical part of it, and how that can get out of kilter.”

She needed more assistance with post-natal depression, which she had for two years after giving birth to Seth. “It’s harder with post-natal depression – you just can’t stop, and it’s exacerbated by lack of sleep.”

How did she cope with that?

“Pills. And you have to carry on; stoicism comes into it because you have someone dependent on you so you don’t have any choice.”

In Karyn’s case, knowledge has been power.

“I came to a point in my life where I thought that’s never going to happen to me again, because I understood what caused [mental illness] for me – not necessarily in other people, but I knew how I set myself up for that. The line in [her book] Emerald Budgies, ‘Books have saved me again,’ is very much me.”

Karyn in 1992.

Books are pivotal to Karyn’s life. They opened her world growing up in the little dairy factory town of Waitoa, Waikato, where she found her escape in literature, and over the course of her broadcasting career they have been her creative outlet.

She’s published two novels – her first, Emerald Budgies, won her the Hubert Church Best First Book Award in the Montana Book Awards in 2001; she was made a Sargeson Fellow in 2004 and in late 2016 she published March of the Foxgloves, which topped the New Zealand best-seller list.

Despite her obvious talent and love of writing, Karyn says until now writing full time was not an option.

“I don’t agree with that argument that creativity shouldn’t go out the window when you have children. I think we live in a specific environment in New Zealand, where if you are a responsible parent and you want your children to have a reasonable standard of living – school trips, new shoes and breakfast, lunch and dinner – that is going to require money.

“Elsewhere in the world there are bigger results for your work if you are good at it and it won’t affect your creativity – but it does in New Zealand. There’s no huge advance here, no four or five years guaranteed work in the art field. The people who get Creative New Zealand funding are huge names – and they probably need it. To pursue a life in the arts is still dependent on having some resources.”

Karyn (left) with actress Danielle Cormack on the red carpet as they arrive at the Vodafone Music Awards in 2011.

So she continued to work in broadcasting until her children left high school – but admits she often felt torn.

“Working requires a lot of your actual physical time; if you are really interested in doing something else, you are always yearning to do that other thing.

“You want to be able to stop, take yourself away from your desk for a while and then go back to it, but to be still thinking about it rather than having your attention pulled into something else.

“In talkback, you have to be always aware of current affairs and news – you can’t have a week when you check out, you just can’t afford to because you can miss the actual nuts and bolts of a story, and someone will know those nuts and bolts and catch you out.”

It’s a job where you have to wear a thick skin – one Karyn says it’s been nice to shed.

“Discussing and hopefully solving a few of life’s problems is a great job and that aspect wasn’t difficult, but you have got to be able to hold your own. It is like being a politician – you are going to be abused even if you are the nicest person on earth. Whatever way you look at it, someone is not going to agree with you. [Leaving that] is like coming out of an abusive relationship – it takes you a couple of months to realise you are free.”

She spent eight years on RadioLIVE hosting the evening show with Andrew before the pair were told in 2015 that their contract had ended. Karyn fought to stay on and did the show solo for another two years.

“It was such short notice and because both of us were doing the same job I had to remain because we hadn’t had enough time to really adjust our life,” Karyn explains.

“I have never been on the dole before and I didn’t feel that was a route I wanted to go down.”

In March this year, though, she left in the way she wanted to – to focus on being an author.

“It has been really good to have a break from talkback. I left under my own terms. I had just had enough of it; I wanted a bit of freedom.”

Karyn Hay first met Andrew Fagan at the Sweetwaters Music Festival, where he famously curled up at her feet during her interview with him. They didn’t start dating immediately – she was seeing someone else at the time.

“He was very unusual. I remember thinking that. I liked him because he was amusing but I didn’t spend much time with him because I was working. Then I kept seeing him everywhere – I think that might have been orchestrated on his behalf.”

Thirty years later they are still together. Asked what the secret is, Karyn is characteristically frank.

“Well, I like him,” she says. “I like him as an individual because he doesn’t toe the line and he hasn’t done that industry-wise in New Zealand or in his actual music either, and he’s really intelligent, so yeah, I like him.

“I also haven’t seen him all year [due to his sailing commitments] – so maybe that’s the secret!” she says, grinning.

Working together was by no means easy.

“It was particularly difficult being on air when we were having an argument – there was a vast difference between the mic being on and the mic being off and what you are saying to each other.”

There must have been a lot of debriefing, I suggest.

“Debriefing? That’s a euphemism for…? Yes, a lot of debriefing, plenty of it!” she says, hooting with laughter again. “Like me saying to him, ‘If you ever do that to me again I will kill you!’”

It may be three decades since she fronted Radio with Pictures but it’s safe to say the rebellious rock chick is still alive and well in Karyn Hay – and we can’t imagine her getting off that roof anytime soon.

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Karyn Hay, 56, is an award-winning author and a host on Radio Live’s evening talkback. She has just completed her second novel, The March of the Foxgloves, which will be published in 2016.