Former Whanganui mayor Michael Laws has had to make some important decisions throughout his career. But it’s in his kitchen, while preparing lunch for his three young children, where the controversial figure is making some really tough calls.
“So, how do you want your toast,” he yells out to his clan. “In long strips or triangles?”
It’s a rare opportunity to witness Michael (56) as a doting dad, a role that has become more pertinent for Lucy (8), Zoe (7) and Theo (4) since their mother, Michael’s former partner, Leonie Brookhammer recently suffered a severe stroke at the age of 43. The couple had shared custody, and the ordeal has forced Michael into solo parenthood.
“I’m Mummy and Daddy,” Michael says. “I’ve had to step up, otherwise these beautiful children would be stuffed.”
And although he’s embracing the responsibility, he says there are limits.
“I draw the line at hair plaiting, painting toe nails, and taking my daughters to One Direction concerts,” he admits.
The polarising figure will have his work cut out for him during the next few weeks, as he juggles daddy duties with his quest to run for mayor of Whanganui. After serving two terms, Michael decided not to run for the last election because he wanted to focus on his family. But this year, despite his home situation, he’s going to give it another go. “I’m back in,” he declares. “The kids approve.”
It’s in his kitchen, as he prepares spaghetti on toast, where you see the two sides of this controversial politician, broadcaster and columnist. The loving dad, who calls his children “darling”, is gentle behind the kitchen bench, but his tone swiftly changes when he receives a phone call from a colleague. While buttering his toast, Michael is overheard talking about the “lefties” who are “nutters”, who recently covered his driveway with broken glass to discourage him from running for mayor again.
Michael knows his family will get through the tough moments – this is not the first time they’ve had to pull together during a crisis. Five years ago, his eldest daughter Lucy fought and survived an aggressive and almost deadly bout of leukemia.
“I’d be devastated now, and unable to cope emotionally as well as physically, if Lucy hadn’t overcome her illness,” he explains.
“I was an absolute wreck. I cried for a week. I remember thinking, ‘If she dies, I have every intention of dying as well’. The thought of her being alone in the afterlife appalled me."
“In this current situation, we’re grateful that Leonie is alive. She has an optimistic spirit. We’ll cope.”
Michael says that Leonie is on the road to recovery and the kids are coping extremely well.
“I’ve been direct from the first instant. I’ve told them what the problem was, what the diagnosis is and the things we need to do. I don’t go into all this counselling rubbish and make them feel sorry for themselves. We’ve got to cope and move on.”
He says the children look forward to their daily hospital visits to see their mum and to lift her spirits.
“They’ve seen her at her worst. They know that she will get better and it’s only a temporary setback,” he says.
In order for Michael to be both the mum and the dad, he’s learning to embrace his feminine side.
“I think I might be secretly gay,” he admits. “Because I love to go grocery shopping. The mummy concept is the part of parenting I need to focus on. I’ve got to be more sensitive and that’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me.“
Solo parenting has changed him, and if he’s elected mayor again, Michael says people will notice a difference.
“They’ll see a softer Michael Laws,” he insists.
The former RadioLIVE talkshow host is an affectionate father and, like the seasoned politician he has become, his parenting involves lots of negotiation. The Weekly joined the family as they fed ducks at a nearby lake. On the way to the car, all three children wanted a piggyback. He told them to wait at different picnic tables to take turns. Problem solved.
“I love these moments,” Michael says. “I’ve done things differently. It should have been father, career, parliament, but I’ve done it backwards.”
Michael has two adult children, James (33) and Rachel (32), and four grandchildren the same age as his children. He says while he thinks he failed as a dad the first time around, he’s grateful to get a second chance, especially now that he has become a solo parent.
“I was a dad in my twenties. I wasn’t a proper father. It’s one of the greatest regrets in my life. People would ask if I was a dad and I would say, ‘Sort of, but not really’. Now fatherhood comes first. I’m taking full advantage of my second chance.
“I’m only ready to be a parent now. If I weren’t a dad, then I’d be just a crusty old man.”