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24th Feb 2015

Gillian Cotter on raising baby Mahia in New Zealand

New Zealand

Katie Mythen-Lynch

Gillian Cotter hails from Ballincollig in Co Cork. She lives with her Kiwi partner, Chris Malone and their three-month-old son Mahia in the little surf town of Raglan on the West Coast of New Zealand.


Why did you move to New Zealand?

“I moved at the end of 2009 when New Zealand was advertising for teachers. I had been teaching in Cork for a couple of years on the basis of my Masters, but I didn’t have a formal teaching qualification. NZ was regularly held up as an education model that was forward thinking and holistic, and I felt that if I was going to become an educator, that I might as well train somewhere that seemed to be at the forefront of the field and develop a strong teaching practice. It was also time for the next adventure, the wanderer in me had been getting a bit restless and I wasn’t quite ready to put my roots down at that point. I can honestly say that I haven’t looked back.

Is your move temporary or permanent?

It’s a permanent move. New Zealand is definitely home for me now. Chris, my partner is from Gisborne, on the East Coast and I want our little Irish Maori, Mahia to grow up enjoying all this beautiful place has to offer. Having said that, it’s also very important to me that Mahia will be connected to his Irishness and his Cork roots. I’ll make every effort to ensure that he experiences all of the loveliness Ireland has too. Ireland is a huge part of me and I don’t imagine ever losing that. I think because I have had such a strong foundation in Ireland, I’ve been able to move out from it without fear. I think of Ireland as my fulcrum, around which all the other aspects of my life turn. Though I am at the other end of the world, it’s still the centre of who I am.

What were your first impressions of your new country?

I arrived in December, so I immediately loved the sunshine and the laid back attitude that seemed to define this place. There were quite a few similarities to home in terms of how people interacted with each other, lots of banter and chatting, which made me feel at ease straightaway. I remember being quite struck and impressed early on by how truly bicultural NZ is in the very real sense of the word and how the indigenous Maori culture is valued and respected. There are a lot of similarities between Ireland and here; both island nations with a colonial history and the singing, story telling and musical traditions that exists in Irish and Maori culture helped me feel like I was in a familiar place when I wasn’t. Looking back on it now, I think it was a pretty smooth transition, though there were moments at the time when it felt like moving so far away was a huge challenge.

What’s the local attitude towards breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding in New Zealand is very much the norm and is highly promoted and advocated for.  In general, it is something that is respected and endorsed across the board through all national and local channels of health care, which, as a new mother, I’ve found to be incredibly encouraging. There is a huge range of support here for mothers starting out on their breastfeeding journey and I find that so incredibly important and positive. Your midwives will take a significant amount of time with you teaching you and your baby the most effective ways to feed. Should you run into any issues along the way, there are a lot of different options available, such as appointments with lactation consultants and various support groups. Public places generally would have quiet areas designated for nursing mothers, but because it’s very much the norm here, it’s extremely common to see mothers feeding their babies everywhere. I find the awareness and positivity around breastfeeding empowering and I’m so glad that there is no stigma around it here in NZ. It’s been great for me to be in a place with such a healthy, accepting attitude towards breastfeeding, as it’s meant that I had a relaxed attitude towards it also. It seems strange to me now, but I don’t think I have any memory of ever seeing women breastfeeding their babies at home in Ireland, as I don’t think it was the norm for a long time. I hope that’s changed or is beginning to change. I did read recently that the breastfeeding stats in Ireland were quite low, which I think is really sad and most likely bound up in some kind of unhealthy relationship to the body that has been prevalent in Ireland over the years. Even if it wasn’t something a woman was intending on doing in the long term, I still think it would be fantastic if more women would try it, even for those initial crucial few weeks. Something I didn’t realise at all before starting to breastfeed, was how much you and your wee babe have to learn how to do it. It’s definitely a team effort and something you work at together, taking patience, practice and time… it can be challenging, frustrating, tricky and at times, even painful…but pretty amazing when it all comes together. My mind is still blown when I see Mahia’s little belly and little legs fattening up and I know that it’s my milk that’s keeping him healthy and well fed.

I feel like breastfeeding is celebrated here as an awesome natural thing that women can do.

What are your opinions of the local health system/ pregnancy care?

Again, I’m incredibly grateful to have been the recipient of the amazing pre and post natal care that NZ has to offer. It is completely free and I’ve been amazed at the high level of care extended to pregnant women in this country. Birth centres, which are independent midwife-led centres, would probably be the primary place for women to give birth here. The focus is on the optimum experience for mother and baby which I think is so important. Home birth is also common here, and what we opted for with Mahia. It was an incredibly empowering, special and positive experience…again, because it is an established and accepted practice here, I felt entirely at ease choosing to have him in our own home. I find that birth, in general, in NZ, is a lot less medicalised and sterile than in other places and I feel very lucky to have experienced pregnancy and labour here.

The general attitude to birth here is very open, healthy and centres around agency and control for the pregnant woman. Which is exactly as it should be. I love that living here has meant that I have been able to own my experience and be an active participant in what is fundamentally a natural process, without any unnecessary intervention. In NZ, women would labour in hospital if there were any complications around their birth or pregnancy or if it was their own personal preference. Each woman has a midwife or midwives who are with you from the time you are about eight or nine weeks into your pregnancy. You are free to shop around, so to speak, until you find a midwife that you really click with. I waited quite a while and met quite a few, until I found the two amazing women that were with me through my pregnancy and birth. It’s an incredibly unique, special  relationship with so much trust involved and I have so much admiration for the midwifery profession and the care, knowledge and expertise midwives give to their birth clients.

Throughout your pregnancy, you see your midwife every couple of weeks, and then weekly, in the last stages of your final trimester. Following the birth, there are daily visits to help establish breastfeeding, checking in on mama and baby and making sure that both are safe, happy and comfortable. You are signed off after eight weeks, at which stage, you come under the care of the Plunket Foundation, which is a national not-for-profit well child scheme. This comprises of monthly visits until your child is four; again, a pretty amazing resource and support to have.

How does the education system compare to Irish schools/day care?

I’m probably a little bit biased when it comes to the NZ education system, because it forms the platform for my profession. Unless the Irish system has changed quite a bit in the five years since I’ve been gone, I would say there is quite a bit of difference. The NZ system focuses on continuous  assessment over the course of a school year so the students are assessed over a much longer period of time. That unhealthy focus on one single exam at the end of your schooling does not apply. The NZ system is one that I would have thrived in at school. I also like that the system here recognises a range of intelligences and the forms of assessment allow for that. Assessments aren’t always carried out in the traditional exam hall format I would have been used to. Here, students bank credits over the course of a school year, which all add up to a final grade, coupled with some exams if the student so chooses. I guess I feel that it sets our school kids up for success and it acknowledges the different ways people learn. It’s not as prescriptive or rigid as the system in place when I was at school. I’ve never understood the purpose of all that short term irrelevant knowledge, that disappears from your brain once your exam is done. That’s not learning, it’s regurgitation. It’s also a very narrow minded way to look at teaching and learning. It’s such a shame that education systems haven’t been more imaginative and reflective about what learners need. As a teacher too, I feel that here in NZ, I have a huge amount of freedom in my text choices and how I choose to deliver the material. I’m excited for Mahia to experience it when the time comes.

What’s the best thing about living in your adopted home?

The best thing is the proximity to the ocean and so many beautiful beaches. We are never short of somewhere to adventure to. The worst thing is the distance from so many people I love… especially on the days when the sun is out and Raglan is at its best.

Does your new city offer an improved work/life balance?

I think NZ in general might offer an improved work/life balance. I find that success is measured differently here. The focus is not necessarily on what role you’re in or what you’re earning, it’s more to do with how many swims you’ve packed into a day, how many hours you’ve spent at the beach or how many waves you’ve caught in an afternoon. I like that attitude, it suits my personality better than an obsession with clocking up hours at work. Life’s too short for that. I teach in Hamilton, which is the nearest city to Raglan, and it’s about a 35 minute drive each way. I love getting home to walk the beach or get a swim in, which happily the weather allows for quite a few months of the year. Before being on maternity leave, the distance in the car each day going over the hills gave me time to prepare for or wind down from my day, which I also liked. I think I had quite a good work/life balance in Ireland too- though the weather didn’t always allow for the same scope of activities and outside time that I have access to now that I’m here.

What do you guys do at the weekends?

​Every day is a weekend since Mahia’s come along and I’m trying to make the most of every moment. For the most part, our weekends would comprise of getting in some morning yoga and a yummy brunch at The Shack in Raglan. If the weather’s good, the beach will figure prominently in our weekend. Chris was a professional surfer in his heyday; he still rides for Quiksilver, so activities will usually be water based-swimming or surfing. Thankfully he’s super patient and happy to take time teaching me on the board.

Raglan is best known for its waves, it’s famed for having the longest left hand point break in the world and in the evenings, we might head out to Whale Bay or Manu Bay to watch the waves, see the sunset and catch up with friends for some sundowner drinks. A lot of it is probably quite similar to what I would do at home… except here we are under sunnier skies and now toting a little person along for the ride.”