Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime's next step 'I'm being the best MP & mum I can be'

Well-known for breastfeeding in Parliament and battling period poverty, the Northland MP is a prime example of balancing politics and motherhood

By Wendyl Nissen
Most people will be aware of Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime because she breastfed her three-month-old baby Heeni in Parliament.
She was one of the first MPs to benefit from the changes in 2017 allowing parents to bring their babies into the debating chamber. Willow-Jean had only been an MP for two months and suddenly she
was in the media spotlight.
At the time, she said, "Parliament is trying to accommodate me and other parents so we don't have to choose between careers and families. I see it as role-modelling and setting an example."
Six years later, Willow-Jean, 40, continues to set an example for how a woman MP can do her stressful job and raise a family.
"I wouldn't be able to be a mum and have an impact without the support of my whānau," she says. "Obviously there's my amazing husband Dion, who works full-time as a teacher but is also the main caregiver when I'm away in Wellington."
As if on cue, there's a knock on the door behind her. "Won't be a minute," she laughs.
She opens the door and has a quick conversation with now almost six-year-old Heeni about how Māmā is doing an interview and she needs to stay with Pāpā.
It's a conversation working mothers all have had at some point as they do a day's work.
But this working mum is also lucky to have her own mother, Adrieanne Downs, living three paddocks away. "We created a pā harakeke, which is intergenerational living," she says. "My mum has her house and my sister Season-Mary, who has a 16-month-old baby, has her space there as well."
Dion gives Willow-Jean a helping hand with daughters Heeni (right) and Hihana.
Willow-Jean says both her name and her sister's were created by her parents in a rather democratic process.
"My dad loved the name Willow and my mum named me after Norma Jean – Marilyn Monroe," she chuckles.
"Mum has joked that Season was conceived in the kiwifruit season, so that has something to do with her name, but I think it was actually a reference to the four seasons."
The whānau created their village and it's been this way since Willow-Jean had her first baby, Hihana.
Hihana is now eight, but when she was six days old, in 2015, Willow-Jean had the Northland by-election to contend with.
"I had literally left the hospital and been home for a couple of days and we were out campaigning."
When Willow-Jean had her second baby, Heeni, Adrieanne travelled to Parliament with them to care for the baby.
"My mum came with me to Wellington and as a whānau we work really closely with each other to ensure that I can do the work I do, Dion can do his work as a school teacher and my sister can run her law firm," she says.
"The children live their best lives and have no idea what their parents get up to," she grins.
Willow-Jean's work day when she's not in Wellington sees her getting out and talking to her electorate and she is constantly visiting community-based organisations.
Which is how she became involved in period poverty, her proudest moment during the short time she has been in Parliament.
"I visited my local high school and had a kōrero [discussion]there about issues the kids were facing. And I found out that demand for sanitary items at the student centre was huge.
"I realised that when I was at school, I was quite shy, so I would never have been able to ask for them, so that meant there were a lot of girls not coming to school because they couldn't afford the products or even ask for them," she says.
"It wasn't right that those girls were missing out on education."
At the same time, Willow-Jean's sister-in-law was blogging about menstrual cups and she thought they could be a solution for girls in poverty as they are reusable. "We just had to get them out there and educate the girls on how to use them."
She and her sister fundraised some money and got aunties in their communities to distribute and advise how to use them.
"We called those aunties 'cup connectors', and then I took the whole issue to Parliament and talked to MPs, the Prime Minister, to the Duchess of Sussex, to anybody who would listen," she recalls.
And it worked. Prime Minister at the time, Jacinda Ardern, made period poverty a beneficiary of her Emerging Priorities Fund, a pilot was done and now more than a million period products are available in schools.
"I think I had a part to play in it, alongside many other campaigners, and I'm very proud because the ongoing implications of that is better access to education for our young women, but also in employment as well, because it's not something that obviously just finishes when people leave school."
As we head into an election, Willow-Jean is very aware that in the last election she got in as a list MP, but then when the special votes came in, she won her Northland seat by 163 votes.
"I was realistic about my chances because it had been 82 years since the seat had been held by Labour, but I campaigned hard and did the best I could to get some new enrolments."
Willow-Jean says traditionally there is a low voter turnout in the north, particularly on the Māori roll, so she knows her work encouraging people to enrol paid off and it's something she will be doing again before this year's election.
As a determined woman who works hard, Willow-Jean says it can be hard to turn off and relax. She walks with her mother or sister when they can as a chance to debrief and plan ahead, and she is also part of a walking group at Parliament.
"Ruth Dyson got us into it. She was in Parliament for a very long time and she said you just need to get out of the building, get some fresh air – and it's quite fresh in Wellington!"
Willow-Jean's downtime is with her whānau when she concentrates on quality time, not quantity time.
"When I'm home from Thursday night through to Monday morning, it's as much about whānau as I can make it. If you follow my Instagram, you'd know there are many activities out and about just enjoying our backyard, which is the Bay of Islands. It's so beautiful."
Willow-Jean is a very active Instagram poster and she says that like all women politicians, she has experienced abuse and misogyny on social media.
"I've absolutely experienced it. Having the breastfeeding broadcast to the world didn't help. Somebody gave me the advice of not reading the comment section, but I still do and it can be really hurtful. But you just have to be really grounded in who you are, what you're doing and why you're doing it. I've got the support of my whānau and I'm not an MP for myself – I'm an MP for my community.
"I have to put those hurtful comments to the side and stay focused on the job I've got to do – being the best mum and being the best MP that I can be."
  • undefined: Wendyl Nissen

read more from