Paula Bennett’s untold story: ‘My daughter saved me’

They’re often mistaken for sisters, and Paula Bennett and her daughter Ana Aitcheson think it’s hilarious.

“We probably are more like sisters,” Paula, 51, laughs.

“But I also like that we are mother and daughter because it doesn’t matter how old Ana gets, she still needs her mum to be a mum.”

The former National MP and deputy leader, who retired from politics last year, was just 17 when she became pregnant with Ana, now 33, and she raised her alone, which meant she often felt like it was just the two of them against the rest of the world. As a result, they share an incredibly tight bond.

“I used to say to her, it’s just you and me, kid, so we’ve got to stick together,” recalls Paula.

Adds Ana, who is married with three children, Tia, 13, Nate, 7, and Hunter, 5, “And she always used to say, ‘As long as we’ve got each other’s backs, we can do anything.'”

Barely a day goes by where the mother and daughter don’t talk to each other. They speak on the phone multiple times a week “about anything and everything”, and get together at least once a week for a glass of wine.

“If I haven’t spoken to Ana in three days, I get a physical ache,” Paula admits.

“One time I hadn’t heard from her for a day and when I texted there was no reply. A day later I phoned and there was still no answer, and a couple of days after that I tried again and still nothing. Finally, I emailed her and asked her why she was grumpy with me, and she phoned me straight away – it turned out her kids had blocked me while they were playing on her phone!”

The pair are also very supportive of one another – with Ana saying she couldn’t be prouder of her mother, who has taken on a role as a senior manager for Bayley’s Realty Group since stepping down from politics. Paula, in turn, says she doesn’t know how Ana does it – juggling parenting three children with an important role as a senior manager in social services – and oversaw the welfare of positive and close contact Covid-19 cases in 2020. “Now that’s busy!” she exclaims.

The pair readily acknowledge that they’ve more or less grown up together. “I was so young when I had Ana,” Paula says. “And I was still figuring out who I was. I was one of those 17-year-olds who thought they knew everything, and I look back now and go, ‘Oh my goodness, I knew nothing.’

“I made plenty of mistakes and it was a scary, lonely time. I don’t think you’re ever really ready when you become a parent, but at that age you’re so conflicted.

“You’re watching your friends decide what to do with their lives, and supposedly have all this fun, and you’ve got this really responsible job that’s all-encompassing.”

One memory, in particular, that will never leave Paula is when she moved into her first flat with Ana.

“I remember trying to transition her from a cot to a bed, and it being the early hours of the morning, and her sitting on one side of the door crying and me sitting on the other side of the door crying.

“They were tough times, and it was a case of just having to get on with it.

“I did a lot of growing up, and I think I put a lot of pressure on myself as well because I really wanted to try and be independent as soon as I could, and I knew I had to do something to get off welfare and make a different life.”

Ana says as difficult as her mum might have found being a teen parent, she nailed it.

“Mum was always the cool mum – she was different to the others. She was always very funky, and I liked that. When I was a teenager, all my friends used to say, ‘Oh, your mum is so cool.’ We used to go on road trips and sing in the car, there were always lots of camping trips. We had a lot of fun.”

Ana was a teenager when Paula entered politics in 2005 and although she was right behind her mum, she tells, “We didn’t realise the impact it would have on our family and how public her life, and as a result my life, would be.

“It was quite confronting,” she reveals, before adding she couldn’t have been prouder when her mum’s political career began to soar.

“Gosh, how could you not be when I’ve seen how hard she works and how much passion and drive she has in everything? She fought against all odds. Nobody would have thought this young solo mother was going to become the deputy prime minister of the country.

“One thing about Mum is that she puts her whole heart into everything and that’s what I admire about her most.”

Paula, who was the social development minister during her time in office, believes there’s less judgment and more support in the community for young mums now. “I remember when I had my first scan, the sonographer literally turned the screen away and said, ‘We have a policy that young mothers don’t get to see the scan.’ They didn’t want to tell me the gender because they didn’t want me to bond with this unborn child because I may yet decide to adopt.

“That was never on the table for me,” declares Paula. “And when I look back at that time, it seems so ridiculous. I think there’s a lot more emphasis now on helping teen mums with their education, because it’s recognised that to do well by the babies, the best thing we can do is do well by the mums.”

Paula now shares a very happy partnership with her former boyfriend Alan Philps, who she split with when she was in her early twenties. The couple lived separate lives for 20 years, then got back together eight years ago after Paula realised she’d never stopped loving him. As well as being “Yaya” (Greek word for grandmother) to Ana’s children, Paula dotes on Alan’s grandkids Ivy and George, and is stepmum to Alan’s girls Willoe and Kassie, and son Isaac.

“I’m looking forward to being able to focus more on family now that my days as a politician are over,” she says. “And as the proud new mum of a puppy, I’d quite like more animals, too.”

Quick-fire:

Of all the things you said as a politician, you’re most famous for telling Jacinda Ardern to “zip it, sweetie”.

I never thought it would become as big as it has, and I didn’t know that she would be Prime Minister! It was in the moment in the argy-bargy of Parliament, so I’m sure she can look at it with a wry smile, as can I. But, trust me, it still gets thrown back at me if I say something that people don’t like.

Do you miss politics?

I do not miss it at all. Not even one little bit.

Describe yourself in three words.

I was going to say loud … smart, someone who loves fiercely and more than one-dimensional.

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