Tāmati Coffey on fatherhood and stepping back into politics

Now his family is complete with the arrival of daughter Taitimu, Tāmati Coffey is stepping back into politics with husband Tim’s support
Michelle Cutelli

It’s a normal afternoon for the Smith-Coffeys. Tāmati is in Wellington, while Tim is home in Rotorua, playing sticky monsters with four-year-old Tūtānekai. The newest family member, six-month-old Taitimu, is asleep next door.

“When I first entered politics in 2017, I made a quip to Tim about having kids,” says Tāmati, who spends the week in Wellington and weekends in Rotorua. “That wish came true – we’re now a family of four.”

However, where “home” is has taken new meaning after Tāmati announced on July 30 he’s put retirement on hold and is looking to relocate to the East Coast to stand for the electorate following the departure of his friend and colleague Kiri Allan from politics.

“Since I announced my retirement in March, I’ve thrown myself into parliamentary work and it’s really enjoyable,” tells Tāmati. “Some people felt I had signed out too early, so when Kiri resigned, I talked with colleagues, and with Tim, Mum, Dad and my village of whānau, who gave me the green light. They’ve promised to wrap around as a family so I can do the job and still be a very present dad.”

Tāmati makes a point of acknowledging Kiri for going public about mental health in politics.

“Parliament can be brutal,” he says. “We are told daily that we are doing a terrible job, and it’s other people’s jobs to yell at us and try to bring us down. I love what I do and I feel very privileged to do it, but it’s a vicious environment. It can be easy to forget that politicians are just as human and as vulnerable as anyone else.”

The East Coast region is very familiar to Tāmati.

“Our whakapapa connects us to the area – my nan was born and bred in Gisborne – and I’ve represented Waiariki for the past six years,” he explains. “The East Coast has its challenges, but I’m ready. I think I’m at the right place, at the right time.”

Tāmati’s husband Tim Smith, Tūtānekai and Taitimu will be by his side.

“Tim has always known politics is a career of change – he’s always open to new ideas and opportunities, and is genuinely excited for me,” enthuses Tāmati. “He was the first person to say, ‘Well, it was your decision to step back from politics. If you decide to go back into the ring, I’m behind you.’ He’s my rock – and my sense-checker!”

And Tāmati is ready for the ride. “Since I’ve been in politics, we’ve had a pandemic, the Whakaari/White Island eruption and a mosque shooting. Tim and I also owned two hospitality businesses, which were very difficult to manage during Covid. Dealing with such unprecedented events in Wellington during the week, then coming home at weekends to manage the Rotorua businesses was incredibly hard.”

Despite the tough years, Tāmati and Tim, who married in a civil ceremony in 2011, have a couple of life-changing miracles – son Tūtānekai and daughter Taitimu, both of whom came about via surrogacy. The couple’s friend Danae Bernard is both children’s biological mother, however, Tūtānekai was carried by Natasha Dalziel, while Danae carried Taitimu.

“We have formed an amazing bond with Tash and Danae,” shares Tāmati, who is Taitimu’s biological father. “In New Zealand, best practice surrogacy is that the egg donor is different from the carrier, as it’s easier for her to hand over the baby if it’s not her DNA. But the second time, we had such a strong relationship with Danae, we were comfortable for her to carry the baby from her embryo that was frozen in 2017.”

Tāmati and Tim’s relationship with Tash and Danae – and the roles they play in the children’s lives – remains warm and honest.

“Having Taitimu was Danae’s idea,” says Tim. “She said she thought Tūtanekai should have a little brother or sister. We agreed but said it was harder for us and she offered to carry the baby.”

Tāmati and Tim stayed close to Danae and her partner Ray during the pregnancy, and were with her during the birth – but only just!

Baby’s here! Tāmati and Tim with good friend and surrogate Danae, who little Taitimu will call Mum. “There are a lot of beautiful people involved,” says the star.

“Danae was carrying well, no problems,” recalls Tim. “Our due date was March 2, so in January everything was business as usual.” Except it wasn’t.

The pair had just returned from Labour’s January away caucus in Hawke’s Bay, where then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made her resignation announcement. Danae told the parents-to-be she was a bit worried – she had been to hospital the previous week for a check-up and wanted to revisit.

“They kept her in overnight to monitor her, but the next morning we got a call to say they were taking baby out,” explains Tāmati. “I remember asking when they were thinking – tonight maybe or tomorrow? But they said they were scrubbing in. We were having a baby now!”

Taitimu Kitua Smith-Coffey was born five weeks early, weighing 2.89kg. Her first week was spent in SCBU (special care baby unit) at Rotorua Hospital. Due to Covid restrictions in medical environments, Tāmati and Tim were the only people allowed to see her.

Proud big brother Tūtānekai gives Taitimu her bottle.

The new dads stayed in the mothercraft area – where new mums stay – while Danae remained in the maternity ward, and Tūtānekai was at home with Tim’s mum Chris Smith, with support from Tāmati’s parents Gerald and Rangi. Also helping were Danae’s partner Ray, along with their kids, Jason, 12, and Alex, 11. Tāmati and Tim came home to tuck Tūtānekai in bed every night before returning to Taitimu.

Now home and growing fast, Taitimu shows no ill-effects from the early birth. “She’s amazing – so settled and happy,” smiles Tim, who teaches at Rotorua Girls High School. “And she laughs a lot! She’s eating solids now as well as her bottle.”

Taitimu, like Tūtānekai, will be raised knowing how she fits into this large, happy family. Tūtānekai knows that Tash is his “tummy mummy”, and calls Danae Mum, while Tim and Tāmati are Daddy Tim and Daddy Tāmati.

“We talked to Danae and Ray to ensure the naming was right for everyone,” says Tim. “Jason and Alex are our kids’ biological brother and sister through Danae, so that’s what they are known as.

“Tash, who carried Tūtānekai, has four kids under 10 [Jacob, eight, twins Oralee and Joseph, seven, and Wiremu, one, who was born after Tūtānekai], and they are brothers and sisters too.”

“It’s a complicated situation deserving a flow chart,” laughs Tāmati. “But there are lots of beautiful people involved.”

When it comes to being a great dad, Tāmati gets Taitimu (left) and Tūtānekai’s vote!

The couple will ensure the children know the truth about their parentage.

“It’s really important to us that we never lie to them,” says Tāmati. “There is a tendency, especially in adoption and surrogacy situations, for parents to lie about their kids’ origins. That doesn’t put the children at the centre of the arrangement. This isn’t about our ego.”

It may seem complicated, but to this happy family, it’s not nearly as complicated as the legal maze of getting through surrogacy.

“The hardest part of the arrangement is finding a woman who will give their body to produce a baby they won’t keep,” says Tim.

Although Tāmati and Tim’s relationship with Danae is very close, surrogacy laws required frequent liaison with lawyers and counsellors, and multiple clinic visits. After the babies’ births, the new parents had to formally adopt the children, even though they are biologically related.

The couple has learned a lot about New Zealand surrogacy laws and Tāmati is working hard to update some of the barriers.

“We have some outdated laws and very limited information on how to navigate a surrogate relationship,” he says. “Everything is done through clinics and for-profit businesses. Anyone who hasn’t been there has no idea of the number of hoops you have to jump through. There’s no flow chart on how to ‘do’ a surrogacy. People must work it out themselves.

“It’s an incredibly challenging journey, even with the amount of support we’ve had. It’s uncharted territory – nobody can really help you.”

Tāmati hopes his efforts to strengthen and streamline the surrogacy process in New Zealand make a difference.

“The Minister talked to the Law Society and that produced around 60 recommendations about how surrogacy can be better managed,” he says. “I also had a Member’s Bill about it in the ballot box which got pulled out – for a politician, that’s like winning Lotto!”

The 2019 surrogacy bill was Tāmati’s first-ever Member’s Bill. It aimed to simplify surrogacy arrangements, ensure birth certificate information is complete and provide a way of enforcing surrogacy arrangements. Under current laws, parents who intend to have a child born via surrogacy are not offered automatic rights to custody of the child, meaning a formal adoption process is required to complete the arrangement.

“I’m passionate about what I’ve done so far in this space,” says Tāmati. “At a recent surrogacy conference in Auckland, I met a few couples who said they had only found out about surrogacy because we have been open about our story. That was always what we wanted to achieve. It’s not about whether gay or straight people can have children, it’s about ensuring the pathway for people who want kids is easier.”

Tāmati knows a life in politics will always be interesting and he’s more determined than ever to find a productive work-life balance.

Citing a colleague who reads their kids bedtime stories over Zoom every night, he says, “More than ever, I want to be a present dad to my kids. My family and my job both mean a lot to me. I’ll be a better person and a better politician if I can find that balance.”

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