Labour MP Tāmati Coffey’s baby dream: ‘We have more love to give’

Labour MP Tāmati Coffey’s baby dream: ‘We have more love to give’

Visitors to Tāmati Coffey’s Rotorua home know the drill. Put your cell phone away or he’s likely to confiscate it.

“It’s a rule I’ve introduced,” explains the Labour MP and dad to 20-month-old Tūtānekai Coffey-Smith. “So many times you see a group of people all on their phones, and I look at my son and wonder what he must be thinking as he sees everyone staring at their devices. That makes me think that we need to do better than this – we need to talk to each other more.”

The phone ban is one of the ways Tāmati reckons he’s changed since becoming a dad. He tries to see the world through his toddler’s eyes and make things better where he can. Being an MP means he can try to do that on a national level, but even small changes at home can make a difference.

Tāmati’s quick to add that he’s not completely against screen time for his youngster, who will be two in July. “Last night, we watched The Lion King together and that was really special. Sometimes we’ll sit down to watch Postman Pat – we’ve really been getting into that. But it’s about balance.”

Parenting is a steep learning curve, tells Tāmati, 41, and he and husband Tim Smith are learning something new every day. “Tūtānekai ‘s at a really cool age where he’s growing, changing, walking and talking, and grasping new concepts – it’s just so amazing. We’re teaching him all the time about the world and how to live in it, but the more I’m around him, the more I learn as well. It’s not a one-sided thing.”

He’s come to realise that it takes a village to raise a child.

“I’ve always heard that and it’s true. We’re so lucky to have so much support. My sister Āwhina lives with us, and my mum and dad Waiarangi and Gerald live downstairs, so we’ve got our own papakāinga [village]. They help us to deal with our crazy life and it’s good that there are other people to call on because nobody on their own has the energy to match Tūtānekai’s! I really feel for anyone who doesn’t have that village around them.”

When it comes to raising their son, Tāmati and Tim have been inspired by their good friend, Rotorua paediatrician Dr Johan Morreau. “He talks about how the negative experiences babies have in their first 1000 days will be carried with them through life, as will their positive ones. So our work is to make sure that as those 1000 days are ticking by, Tūtānekai’s surrounded by positivity and support, and he feels connected to te ao Māori [the Māori world view] as well as te ao Pākehā … It’s a big responsibility, but it’s the most important thing we can do.”

One of the things the couple has had to come to terms with is that being supportive doesn’t mean wrapping their beloved boy in cotton wool.

“I’m definitely tougher on Baby than Tim is,” admits Tāmati. “He’s had to learn you don’t need to jump up every time Baby cries. They are clever little things, babies. Tūtānekai knows that crying is not as effective with me as it is with Tim.

“And you have to let them take knocks. There have been a couple of times when he’s fallen down – he hasn’t hurt himself, he’s just had a little tumble. But we don’t make a big deal out of it and as a result, you can see him becoming more confident.

“Everybody likes to have a hug when things go wrong and we do do that, of course, but I think sometimes we adults step in a bit too much with kids, when we should be picking the right time when we do need to swoop in. Tūtānekai s pretty fearless and I think a lot of that is because we’ve encouraged it.”

Tāmati also reckons he’s the tough dad when it comes to Tūtānekai’s bedtime routine.
“One of our latest challenges has been trying to get his sleep patterns sorted out because he hasn’t slept through the night for a while. One night, he was still up at 10.30pm and I said, ‘This doesn’t feel right that he’s still awake.’ I realised we needed a bit of advice.”

They consulted the staff at the daycare Tūtānekai attends. “They were great, a really rich source of information,” tells Tāmati. “One of the things they talked about was getting him into a better routine before bedtime, so we’ve been working on that.”

Tūtānekai’s cot is in Tim and Tāmati’s room (“Yes, I know, having the baby in with you is a topic of much debate!” says Tāmati) and whoever sleeps on the side closest to their son is responsible for getting up to him in the night.

“We take turns at being the person who gets up to soothe him and if necessary make up a bottle in the night, but it doesn’t make an iota of difference because when he cries, we’re both awake. It means we’re both tired, but we just tell each other to harden up and keep breathing!”

The former TV host laughs as he recalls how during a baby shower thrown for him at Parliament, his colleagues shared their parenting tips on Post-It notes. He has them up on the wall behind his desk and says he now appreciates some of the advice more than he did when he first received it. “There’s one that says, ‘Don’t worry, he will sleep through the night … one day.’ I’m hoping it’s right!”

With Tāmati often away in Wellington, Tim, 41, takes on much of the responsibility at home, but the MP reckons when he’s in Rotorua, he shares the load, including the chores.

“Of course, Tim would say that’s not the case, that I don’t even know which side of the washing machine you put the fabric softener in. But I absolutely share 50 percent of the duties and am an incredibly diligent person with the aspirations of Marie Kondo!”

Tim is also busy running the couple’s Rotorua businesses, Our House restaurant and the Ponsonby Rd Lounge Bar. The Covid lockdowns have been a blow to business, but they’ve been able to keep going.

“It was a turbulent 2020 for everybody, including us, but thankfully we had the wage subsidy scheme, so we knew our staff were going to be okay.”

As far as 2021 goes, Tāmati’s looking forward to a year with hopefully fewer interruptions. He has quite a few things on his plate at work, including chairing the Ma¯ori Affairs Committee and being on the Environment Committee, which is about to reform the Resource Management Act.

He’s hopeful his proposed Member’s Bill, Improving Arrangements for Surrogacy, will get the chance to be debated in Parliament at some stage. Making the surrogacy process easier and fairer is a subject close to his heart, as Tūtānekai was born thanks to a surrogate and an egg donor.

“It’s something I’m very passionate about, thanks to my experience, and I’d love to see some changes to the way we currently do things,” he says.

And it’s relevant more than ever now as the dads can’t wait to have baby number two. They have 13 embryos stored in a freezer in Hamilton following the fertility treatment that resulted in Tūtānekai s birth and are hopeful that one of them will become a sibling for their boy.

“We’ve always wanted to be a four-unit family and we’re ready for number two now,” shares Tāmati. “We don’t want to leave too much of a gap between our boy and the next one.

“And in terms of biology, it was always our desire to have Tūtānekai from Tim’s biology and for the second baby to come from mine. Both babies will have a biological link through our egg donor.”

The embryos are all ready to go and now they have their fingers crossed that they can find someone who’s prepared to be a surrogate for them.

“The friend who carried for us the first time is now in a relationship and on a new pathway, so things have changed for her,” explains Tāmati. “So we’re now hoping there’s someone else who’s able to do this amazing thing for us.”

Meanwhile, he’s excited about seeing Tūtānekai continue to grow and develop. He and Tim are hoping their son will start at kohanga reo by the end of the year, and he’s thrilled to report that he’s already speaking te reo.

“His first words were ‘ka kite’,” says Tāmati. “We all say that to each other when we say goodbye, and one day he just shouted it out and gave a little wave. We all had that proud look on our faces.”

Delighting in Tūtānekai ‘s achievements is one of the highlights of being a father.
“I just get so much pleasure out of these things, but it’s also the small things that are so good, like the hugs. It unleashes a kind of softness in you. You just want to try to be a better person.”

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