Jenny-May Clarkson’s Rarotongan family hideaway

Jenny-May truly feels she's found her home away from home.
Jenny-May Clarkson Dean Clarkson sons Te Manahau Atawhai

Stepping off the plane on her first visit to Rarotonga a few years ago, Jenny-May Clarkson knew she had landed somewhere truly special. There was just something about the little island nation that made her unwind and go straight into relaxation mode.

On her next visit, to celebrate her 40th birthday, she found a sprawling but simple house to rent with a BBQ, a pool and plenty of beds for family and friends to come visit. Jenny-May truly felt she’d found her home away from home.

In the years since, the TVNZ sports presenter has made the trip to the same spot several times over, but she’d never have imagined that in the space of a few short years, she would be able to fill up all those beds with her own family members.

It’s here, in their little beachside hideaway, that the Weekly catches up with the Clarkson family, where they’re staying for a much-needed week of R&R.

Jenny-May (43) is joined by her husband Dean (42), their two-year-old boys Atawhai and Te Manahau, Dean’s daughters Libby-Jane (13) and Leah (10), Dean’s parents Maurice and Jocelyn, her nephew Samuel, family friend Danielle and Jenny-May’s mum Paddy. Unfortunately, her dad Waka couldn’t make it as he stayed behind to look after a sick family member. It’s busy, but for the Clarkson family, it really is a slice of paradise.

Jenny-May and Dean with sons Te Manahau (left) and Atawhai

“It’s nice to have a break from reality,” smiles Jenny-May.

“I love it here so much – we all do. I’d come up here whenever I could, but now we have to plan things a bit more carefully. Now we have a big family, we have to look at these things about a year out and save for it!”

But the family has learnt that it’s essential to take some time out – particularly with such a busy household.

“The boys are… well, they’re independent little guys,” says Jenny-May.

“They’re proper little boys who are loud, boisterous and like to play fight now.”

Interjects Dean with a sigh, “People talk about the ‘terrible twos’, but they were like this before they even turned two!”

As they told the Weekly earlier this year, their sons have been suffering from health issues during the past year, with both boys having developed allergies, particularly Atawhai, whose egg allergy is regarded as severe.

Jenny-May says the boys have been pretty healthy over the last couple of months, although their eczema has been playing up and they’ve had some late-night visits to the A&E with Atawhai.

Just a couple of nights before they were due to fly out, while Jenny-May was still in the Gold Coast working on the Commonwealth Games coverage, Dean was in hospital with Atawhai, who was having trouble breathing. It was touch and go whether Jenny-May would have to stay back with him, but thankfully, he was fit to fly and is now running around the garden with his step-sisters.

It’s an ongoing battle, though, and makes the pair truly grateful for the support they have from their family – their gorgeous girls who dote on the boys and their incredible parents. Last year, the family made the move to a new home, which they share with Dean’s parents, who provide incredible support to them.

“That’s really why we’re here,” says Dean.

“We wanted to bring both sets of parents over to say thanks for what they do for us and the boys. I mean, it’s probably not hugely relaxing because the boys are tearing the place up,” he laughs. “But it’s great we can do this and get some time to unwind.”

Jenny-May and Dean with their extended family.

It’s come just at the right time. It’s been a busy few weeks on the job for Jenny-May, who last week became the co-host of SKY Sport’s dedicated netball show Netball Zone on-top of her TVNZ commitments. But Jenny-May says she has it pretty easy at work, really.

“When you’re a mum, nothing at work really compares to it in terms of stress! It’s not even close to the work involved in dealing with little humans. Having to deal with a two-year-old – and two of them! – whose brains haven’t developed yet. They can’t really grasp what you’re saying, they just know that they want something and they want it now, but you’ve said they can’t have it, so it’s absolutely the end of the world, that’s tough!”

The boys are finding their feet at the moment, enjoying exploring – and testing some limits – but they’re like little sponges, learning something new every second.

The week prior to our tropical catch-up, Dean took the boys over to the Gold Coast for a few days to be with Jenny-May while she was reporting on the Games. And, as Dean explains with a sigh, all it took was for the boxing to be on screen a few seconds for the boys to learn a new trick.

“Suddenly, they both had their fists up, walking around. You have to be careful!”

Jenny-May says it was fantastic having the boys there and she loved every minute of the Games. But it wasn’t entirely without controversy, though.

A question she posed to Silver Fern captain Katrina Grant as she came off the court after another crushing defeat led to a heated discussion online, with some viewers unhappy with her line of questioning.

With the Ferns experiencing their worst-ever performance at the Games, Jenny-May – a former Fern herself and now a top-level coach – brought up the feelings of disappointment back home, saying, “A lot of people back home are saying that there doesn’t seem to be any pride in the black dress.”

Katrina cried as she explained just how much pride she and the team all felt – and her disappointment was palpable.

“The whole thing was hard to watch,” reflects Jenny-May now. “I know those girls and I know how hard they work. To see them not achieve the results they’d gone there to achieve – and that was hard.”

Dean’s daughters Leah, with Te Mnahau and Libby-Jane, right, with Atawhai.

But she certainly doesn’t regret posing a difficult question to them.

“I’d say, well, I know they were copping it and it’s my job to ask questions, but I also wanted to give them a platform to answer the criticism they were receiving. And, as a result, I copped it. But I’m happy to cop it because the public got to see how passionate and dedicated those girls are to wearing the black dress.”

Jenny-May says she didn’t think about the backlash online or react to it. Dean admits he found it tough to encounter some of it online, though.

“I wanted to retaliate because people may see a few seconds of it, but they don’t know my wife and her heart for the game and for those girls.”

Jenny-May says she couldn’t imagine how tough it would have been for the team to return home without a medal. “She’s still hurting that she didn’t get a gold – even though they came home with a silver!” Dean tells.

“Yeah, I don’t even know where that thing is,” she admits.

“I do, but she doesn’t ever want to see it because it’s the wrong colour,” teases Dean.

“But that’s it,” nods Jenny-May. “That’s how much pride you take in being on that team, representing your country and all of the history.”

Regardless, reporting for the Games this year gave Jenny-May a thrill – the greatest of which she got, not from the medal ceremonies, but meeting the families and hearing the stories of how they got there.

“I loved meeting Alana Barber – who did the 20km walk – and her parents. Her mum went to the Games in 1974, the same year I was born, and her dad hadn’t left the country in 40 years, but they were there to witness the whole thing. I loved talking to them, seeing their pride. It’s those human interest stories that give me a buzz.”

It’s what makes us tick that fascinates Jenny-May – it’s why she joined the police force and why she had enrolled for a postgraduate psychotherapy course at AUT this year. Unfortunately, with everything that’s on her plate, she’s deferred it, but is determined to do it in 2019.

“I absolutely love that stuff. For the course, you have to do your own therapy alongside it – looking at your own life and experiences, and how they’ve shaped you to think the way you think or react the way you do to certain things. When I’m coaching netball, that’s what I’m looking at. I’m looking at the human behaviour stuff, what’s going on with the individual because if you get that right, you get the team right.”

In the short-term, she believes she’ll be able to put those new skills to good use in her current roles – coaching the Northern Mystics, mentoring and interviewing people for the telly. In the long-term, Jenny-May and Dean would love to work together on some projects.

Dean took time out from his career to stay home with the boys, but now he’s picked a few work projects and is enjoying having a bit more balance in his life. He worked as a truck driver when he met Jenny-May, but previously was a pastor and is now putting his skills to work helping other people.

“One project I’m working on is with the Parenting Place, co-writing a programme for men who want to re-establish a relationship with their children and whanau,” he explains.

Dean’s other role is as a facilitator with the Manukau Urban Maori Authority, where he sits on a community iwi panel, Te Pae Oranga.

“It’s really what Maori have been doing since the start of time – if someone has a problem, they come together on the marae, the elders discuss it and make recommendations. We have people who have been referred to us by the police and haven’t yet been charged. Our job is to hold them accountable and, as far as possible, repair the harm they have done to the victim and community. That stuff really lights me up.

“I love helping people. I’m there to show them there are lessons that they can learn from and give them the tools to move forward.”

Together, the couple make a formidable team. “We definitely have skills that complement each other,” says Dean.

“We do,” agrees Jenny-May. “We don’t know exactly what our future looks like, but I think the ultimate thing for us is that we’re together and have each other’s back. I think we’ll end up doing something together.”

But their priority is their family, which Jenny-May says has entirely shifted her perspective in life.

“It’s the absolute best job in the world. Even when I’m interviewing someone, I think, ‘Wow, you’re a gracious, good person – I hope my boys grow up to be like you.’ It often makes me think about how I want our kids to be raised, to make sure they become good people – to be gracious and to appreciate the opportunities they’ve had. I look through a different lens now.”

And for the next week, it’ll be all about slowing down as a family. “We’ll do nothing,” laughs Jenny-May.

“We’ve got a pool, a BBQ and the people I love most – there’s nothing more we could want. It’s truly paradise.”

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