Hayley Holt on Sobriety, Her Son Raven And The Bravery Of Pregnancy After Baby Loss

In Hayley Holt’s new book, Second Chances, she speaks with unflinching honesty about her battle with alcohol, falling off the wagon after having a miscarriage – following the death of her son Frankie – and the bravery of pregnancy after baby loss. “You have to face your fear; you have to face your shadows and accept them as they come.” She speaks to Emma Clifton.

(TW: This story contains graphic details of baby loss and miscarriage)

“It’s pretty difficult, when someone asks you ‘what does your life mean?’” laughs Hayley Holt. “It’s like… I don’t know! It’s just a whole series of accidents.”

It was towards the end of 2021 when Hayley was approached by some book publishers to write a story about her life. It is a big life – at age 42, she has been in the public eye since she was in her mid 20s, in many different ways. There’s the sporty side, the Dancing With The Stars years, pivoting into a fully-fledged television career with The Crowd Goes Wild, Back Benchers and the time she ran as a local MP for the Green Party. Then there are the harder headlines – the on-air radio slip-up that spotlighted her off-air battle with alcohol addiction, her consistent work in recovery, and then, in early 2020, during those surreal first pandemic months, the life and death of her first child, Frankie.

To put it mildly, there was a hell of a lot more life experience to cover than most people find themselves with at 42. And during those meetings, Hayley also knew there was another angle getting stronger every day – she was pregnant again, with another baby boy. Raven was born in July 2022, and her book, Second Chances, comes out this April. From a narrative point of view, the publishers were of course thrilled to find out there was another baby on the way – “there’s the happy ending, that everybody loves!”, Hayley laughs. But it also meant that for the entire book-writing process, she was having to relive her pregnancy with Frankie and his eventual stillbirth, while pregnant again.

Photos supplied, main photo credit: Lisa Matson

The hardest part, Hayley says, was reading through the drafts of the book when she was three months post-partum with Raven. “I wanted to pull the plug on the whole book,” she says. “Three months post-partum is when they get a little bit worried about postpartum depression, because your hormones all leave the building… and I felt it. I felt depressed. I thought, ‘I hate myself,’ reading some of those parts. But it really was just a hormonal thing.”

Through the entire book-writing process, Hayley says she questioned whether or not writing the book was the right thing to do, if she had done it the right way. “But I feel like being vulnerable is just saying: ‘this is me. this is the meat behind the façade.’ And now, I actually think I have found my greatest strength through being vulnerable.”

The Rise of Fame & The Rise of Drinking

As anyone who has either lived through addiction or watched someone you love experience it, you’ll know that it can be an all-consuming force. Hayley writes with extreme clarity about her slowly increasing reliance on alcohol, which coincided with her rapidly increasing star power with the New Zealand public. Dancing With The Stars, dating Richie McCaw, starting her television career… her drinking was the ever-present hum behind the scenes, but it was starting to spill out in public, as well.

In one of the parts where she writes about dating Richie, Hayley talks about his understanding of fame in NZ – an understanding she truly appreciates now. “Richie had discovered something I didn’t know yet: that being well known in New Zealand was its own concentrated brand of fame,” she writes.

On the advice of the publisher, Hayley sent Richie all the pages where he was mentioned. “His only comment was, ‘Totally fine, you’ve got a good memory, and you’re very brave,’” Hayley says. Completely lovely – as you would expect – but also, she laughs, his use of the word ‘brave’ panicked her. “I was like, ‘oh god, what have I said?’” she laughs.

Hayley writes how her need to prove herself as ‘one of the boys’ meant learning to drink like them too. But the book also shows a different story of what female drinking is like. For the most part, she was a functional alcoholic in industries that support that behaviour – or, at the very least, are inclined to look the other way as long as the work is getting done.

“A lot of my [drinking] story is New Zealand’s story – and especially of our generation.”

In the book, when Hayley tells her parents she is stopping drinking, they are thrilled for her. When she continues by saying that she’s joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), they are alarmed. They think it’s an overreaction to something she’s just slightly lost control of. But, as Hayley says, just because she didn’t look like the stereotype of an alcoholic doesn’t mean that she wasn’t.

“People think that an alcoholic is no job, no home, you’re really at rock bottom… you smell,” she says. “Whereas a lot of my [drinking] story is New Zealand’s story – and especially of our generation.”

The Life & Death Of Frankie

The vulnerability of those AA meetings was also Hayley’s first introduction to a kind of spirituality, something she became more and more interested in. And as her drinking stopped, her career continued to thrive. So did her personal life as well. She met Josh Tito – her now fiancé – just around the time that she decided she was ready to start trying for a baby. Quickly, it worked.

The pair were friends at first, but the conception of Frankie helped them both realise they wanted more, and so the growing of the pregnancy mirrored the blossoming of their relationship. Both of them moved in with Hayley’s parents on the family farm as Aotearoa descended into that first 2020 Covid lockdown. But then the pregnancy took a turn – there were a few inconclusive scans around Frankie’s size, and then fluid was discovered around his lungs.

On the outside, Hayley writes about how she was playing the part of the happily pregnant mum-to-be – filming a special on Seven Sharp about being in lockdown, texting with friends who were also expecting babies. But her sense of dread was growing as the scans got worse.

One of the hardest parts of the timing of all of this was that, due to lockdown, Hayley was attending all of those appointments without a support person. But in a way, she says, being alone in this moments was easier. “Maybe because of my job, maybe because of my childhood – being a little starlet – I would have been performing,” Hayley. “But because I was by myself, I didn’t have to perform. I could just take it in.”

There is no way to sugar coat how hard those chapters are to read. By the end, it was revealed that Frankie’s outlook – if he survived the pregnancy – was one of 24-hour care. He would have, as the doctor put it, ‘a very difficult life’ and it was up to Hayley and Josh to decide if they wanted to continue with the pregnancy or not. But a week later, Frankie had made that decision for them – at the next check-up scan, there was no heartbeat.

On Anzac Day, 2020, Hayley gave birth to Frankie and two weeks later, it was announced publicly that her unborn son had died while she was 29 weeks pregnant. In the same way that Second Chances is unflinching in its description of alcoholism, Hayley uses this same honesty to describe the limbo that too many New Zealand parents have experienced – the surreal, sacred and devastating process of giving birth to a sleeping baby.

Hayley Holt and her son Frankie
Hayley with her parents and baby Frankie

One of the many hard parts of having a stillbirth is that the baby’s skin is so delicate, their bodies must be kept cold, to stop their skin from peeling off. So, if the parents choose to spend time with their baby, in their little basket, they must continue to change the ice that lies around the baby’s little body. And they have to refrain from touching them too much – perhaps the hardest instinct for new parents to ignore.

“Your body is elated – it thinks it’s had a bubba,” Hayley says. “But I didn’t want to pick him up, because I had been warned that he was very delicate and I just couldn’t handle it. They get a bit smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes past.”

“If you talk about it, it seems so gruesome. But in the moment, they’re the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.”

“If you talk about it, it seems so gruesome,” she says. “But in the moment, they’re the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. That whole, ‘Only a mother could love him,’ kind of thing? I would look down at Frankie and think, ‘I am in love with you, you are so beautiful.’ But actually, looking back now, there was some damage from the birth, and from those first few days.”

To be able to share her experience of that time with Frankie was not only important for her, Hayley said, but also for other parents who had been through baby loss – particularly those of the older generation, who were never given a chance to meet their babies.

“We are so lucky in comparison,” she says. “I do think people of my parents’ generation are like, ‘do we have to have all this going on about it?’ and it’s like yes, you do. Because otherwise you hold all this poison inside of you, for the rest of your life.”

The Bravery Of Pregnancy After Baby Loss

When it came to experiencing pregnancy after baby loss, Hayley said it was very hard to not play mental games with herself that it would happen again, and the miscarriage she experienced in between Frankie and Raven was very difficult. “I did fall off the wagon again, after I had the miscarriage,” she says. “It was very depressing – you feel like it will never happen, that you’re broken.”

It’s the incident that opens the book – as the anniversary of Frankie’s birthday approaches, Hayley is aware of the chasm of grief that is awaiting her and dealing with a hangover becomes an easier concept. So, she starts drinking again, in the days leading up to the anniversary. “It shut my overthinking brain off,” she says. “And it gave me a real knowing that alcohol is never going to be for me – that this is always where it’s going to lead.”

‘My therapist would say to me, ‘You just have to be prepared for something bad to happen again.’ And I just wanted to punch her in the face!’

It worked to not only push her back into going to AA meetings, but it also pushed her out of what she calls “the maudlin state” she had settled into after Frankie’s death.

It takes a lot of bravery to keep trying for a pregnancy after baby loss, she says. “You just have to jump – and you have to be prepared that it will happen again. You steel yourself for whatever will happen. My therapist would say to me, ‘You just have to be prepared for something bad to happen again.’ And I just wanted to punch her in the face! But you do – you have to face your fear; you have to face your shadows and accept them as they come.”

“The Buddhists say that life is suffering – and once you sort of accept that, you can accept whatever happens and then really, really celebrate all the good stuff.”

Hayley Holt and her son Raven
Hayley and Raven

And there is plenty of that featured in the book as well. The love story between Hayley and Josh outlasting the life of Frankie was a silver lining neither of them expected – and the welcoming of their baby boy, Raven, in July, was the culmination of so many years of hope. The photo of Hayley following her C-section, with newborn Raven pressed against her cheek, is frankly impossible to look at without tearing up; her facial expression says so much.

“You have to face your fear; you have to face your shadows and accept them as they come.”

As hard as the process of writing the book was at times – from mining over all of those details, through to picking the photos that accompany it – Hayley says it has been a worthwhile one. There is some fear, she says, that people will “feel about me how I felt about myself” when it comes to her drinking. “I was a real brat, and I didn’t like who I was, so there is shame in seeing that all written down,” she says.

“But in a way, I feel that in the process of writing this book, I’ve broken everything down and because of the book, I have the opportunity to see it for what it was, and now I can rebuild the person that I want to be.”

Second Chances by Hayley Holt (HarperCollins NZ) comes out 3 April, at all good bookstores

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