Leilani - Mother / Whaea

I was seven years old when dad’s job brought us from Fiji to New Zealand. We were the only islander family in our suburb and I was the only brownie at school. From a young age, I learnt what racism felt like. There was one girl in my class who I can’t forget. She came up to me one day and said, “Hey, I’ve seen you before!” I was so excited, I thought she wanted to be my friend. I asked her where she’d seen me, “In the toilet!” I burst into tears. My dark skin made me stand out. I was always reminded of how different I was to everyone else.

It was hard fitting in but I tried to pretend everything was fine. I lied to my family and told them stories about all my ‘friends’. They never knew about the bullying and racism. Lying in bed at night, I wondered why we’d moved over here in the first place. I was so happy back home in the islands. Eventually, we moved closer to the city. To my surprise, there were islanders everywhere! The best part? The white girls were actually nice to me.

I was young, but old enough to understand what was going on when mum and dad split up. Mum left the country. She went back to Samoa to help run her parent’s business. While we were living with dad, things started to escalate. There were a lot of arguments and it was dangerous. Our oldest brother, Richard, ended up taking care of me and my other brother, Des. He had a one bedroom place with his girlfriend, Sarah. In a funny way, my brothers had to learn how to be sisters. Richard taught me about sports bras. “You need to start wearing a sports bra when you play netball.” “Why’s that?” “Because when you run it damages your… you know?” He took me bra shopping. Not long after that, I got my period. Sarah taught me about what was happening to my body. We all had to adapt.

When mum returned to the country, I moved back home. She put a lot of pressure on me to be academic. I wasn’t made to do chores at home, I had to study instead. But I loved dancing. To make matters worse, hip hop dancing,. My dream was to be a world class hip hop choreographer. I started taking classes when I was 16. Dancing was my equivalent of having a boyfriend. It’s all I thought about! When I got home from school, I would blast the radio and dance all night, only stopping to eat dinner. It was just me in my own little world. There was no one telling me what to do. I was very, very happy.

I picked up more classes and before I knew it, I was in training six hours a day, six days a week. We would begin at six in the morning and go to school at midday. My brothers would argue with mum about it. She had the opinion that dancing could never put food on the table, especially if I ever were to ever have kids. Des always encouraged me. He talked to the principle to get me special permission to be out of school for dancing. He helped me organise night classes where I went to catch up on missed lessons and homework. My brothers gave up a lot for me. They wanted me to make sure I made the most of the gifts I had.

I started applying for paid positions within the academy I was dancing for. I was always nervous for the auditions, but when I was younger I had this ‘bring it on’ attitude. I’d be really nervous inside, but I was determined to give it my all. I remember getting my first cheque, but I didn’t spend it. My brothers told me to save. I thought they were older and wiser than me, so I listened and put it away. I saved every dollar after that and it meant that when I went out with my girlfriends, I couldn’t do half the stuff they did. I had no pocket money, so I got a part time job at the movies. Alongside dancing and all my high school studies, I worked there for over three years. I could go out in the weekend and actually enjoy myself, buy myself things I’d never been able to afford before. At the time, that meant a lot.

Things were going really well. I started teaching classes at the dance school. The director told me to not tell my students my age because some were older than I was. She sent some videos of me dancing to an academy in Sydney. She pulled some strings and they offered me a paid position. I’d just met my partner, Hash. He didn’t want me to leave and I didn’t want to leave him. Then I fell pregnant and gave birth to my son, Deaken. A year later, Hash and I found ourselves going through a real rough patch. To top things off, I wasn’t able to go back home. My family weren’t happy when they found out about my pregnancy.

I had a job and for a while, things seemed to be going well. I was able to pay the rent, bills, and put food on the table. Deaken was only two when the company I was working for asked me to travel to Australia for a week of work. I couldn’t find anyone for him to stay with. I had no support. The company wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I had to hand in my resignation. Not long after that, I ran out of money. I couldn’t get by on my own anymore.

My sister in law would always call to check how I was doing. She would say, “You know what? I love you, you’re my little sister. Even if your family doesn’t like us talking, too bad.” She said I needed to get back on my feet and show everyone what I could do. I had also just found out that mum had fallen really sick, so I turned up on her door step. I asked to be let back in to her life and she let me back in. Hash and I worked things out and we moved back in together. Things were finally looking up again.

I found a job online as a charity sales rep - door to door knocking. When I applied, they called me back straight away to offer me a job. It was hard work, I was on my feet for six, seven hours at a time. We were trying to sign people up to donate to a foundation. The money went towards an eye surgeon who performs free surgery on children in the Pacific Islands. It costs the company $25 for a 20 minute eye surgery. 24 hours later, the kid can see again. Sometimes they’ve never seen their parents before. When I thought about my own situation, I started to love the job. If Deaken needed medical treatment and I couldn’t afford it, and if someone overseas gave money anonymously, it would mean the world.

Some days on the job were hard. You could be knocking on anyone’s door. It could be a gang member, a skin head, anyone. I had a few scares, but I had to stay professional. My team leader would always be around the corner, so I would be able to text and get help if I needed.

The hours were hard. I mean sure, if I was single and living on my own, then sweet. But every night, when I arrived home from work, my son was in bed. I only got to see him in the mornings. I contemplated quitting for a long time. I needed my partner to do more around the house because I couldn’t keep up with all the work. I would finish at eight at night, catch two buses to get home and then cook myself dinner. I felt like I had two full time jobs. I’d be up at six, to get breakfast ready for my son, then he would go to my sister in law’s place while I was at work. It eased my mind, knowing he was with her. But the sacrifice was just too big.

When I tried to quit, my boss was really stubborn about it. He just wanted more and more and more from me. It was almost like the company was more my family than Deaken and Hash. That commitment came at the expense of everything else. I had to leave. I had to get back and look after my family and what’s most important to me. My son, Deaken now has all my attention and he’s loving it. It’s stress free. I can even go and watch Hash’s league games in the weekends.

I’ve had time to think about what I want to do next. I want to dance again. I’m going to open another chapter. It’s something we will decide as a family, together. Hopefully I’ll end up teaching again, but I only want to do that part-time. That would be awesome. The only thing that’s holding me back now is childcare. I need to find a place for him to go during the day, a place I know we will be safe so I can relax and enjoy my lessons.

Being a mother is hard work. I watch my child grow and know he learns from everything he sees me do. It feels good when people he’s a good boy. He’s a great listener, and that’s something I’ve tried very hard to teach him. He represents me, in a way. I might walk down to the mall looking terrible, but as long as he’s shining, I don’t care. He’s my success.

Resources

Parents don't earn a salary, but being a mother is much more than a full time job:

- If you are interested in working with children but aren't ready to have your own, you might like to think about getting into early child teaching or  primary school teaching. You might like to follow up by emailing or visiting tertiary providers and asking them more about their courses in teaching.

- Whanau Ora provide a Tamariki Ora service, as well as Plunket. Both services are highly recommended for the support you need for your under five year olds.