On Melissa Stokes’ first day back at work after having gorgeous son Hugo, she was on the brink of calling her bosses and saying that she wouldn’t be able to make it in.
With an eight-week-old baby unsettled by reflux, the TV One newsreader doubted that she could manage a return to the hard-bitten world of journalism that has previously seen her covering stories like the 2009 Samoan tsunami and conflict in the Middle East.
“I started back at TVNZ eight weeks after having Hugo,” she says. “I almost rang them and told them I couldn’t go, but I remember my mum and dad telling me they thought it was a good idea for me to leave the house for a bit, and it was.”
And today, there’s no greater joy in Melissa’s life than watching her 14-month-old son zip down the hall of their Auckland home on his plastic trike, narrowly avoiding the collection of toy trucks scattered on the hardwood floor.
As she runs after the intrepid toddler, in the middle of trying to get ready to leave to present TVNZ’s late news bulletin, Tonight, she feels pangs of guilt at the thought of leaving her young son. But she says she’s a better mother for it.
“Mother’s guilt is the worst thing in the world,” says Melissa (34), who now presents Tonight three nights a week, as well as filling in on One News and Breakfast when required.
“I started back at TVNZ eight weeks after having Hugo. I tell myself that I’m a better mother for having that work time. Being a mum can often be very robotic, especially in the early days. So to go and put on some makeup and nice clothes is great, but sometimes I do ask myself, am I just saying that to make myself feel better?”
Melissa’s not one to make rash decisions, and while the seasoned journalist is at peace with her choice professionally, personally, she still struggles. Despite motherhood being the greatest joy in her life, there’s a part of Melissa that will never be able to leave the newsroom entirely.
As she says, the news junkie has worked too hard in her 13-year television career to stop the momentum now. “I’m still ambitious,” the former Europe correspondent says.
“I don’t see a time where I don’t work. There’s nothing that beats the adrenaline of live news. But I didn’t expect the guilt.
“Someone said to me the other day that you never get over it. It’s a really hard thing to reconcile, and I hate that word balance, but my life is a balancing act now.”
Although there are days when she struggles to leave Hugo at home to go to work, Melissa admits that she isn’t sure that she would take longer maternity leave to have her second child. “I don’t know, honestly. I might, but I feel like I’m in an industry where you need to keep your foot in the door.”
With her husband, Dave Pierce, still working at TVNZ as a cameraman, Melissa has managed to find a happy medium between presenting the news and leaving Hugo with grandparents and family friends.
“If I’m leaving Hugo, it has to be for something that I’m really enjoying,” says Melissa. “But when I am here, we’ll go to the beach or the park. When he wakes up, the first thing he does is point to the car, because he wants to go for a drive. He’s obsessed with planes, trains and automobiles.”
After a “difficult” start with Hugo, who had to undergo surgery at four months old to correct a tongue-tie (a condition in which the tissue underneath the tongue is too short), Melissa says she’s relishing the days she spends with him now.
“He’s a different boy,” she grins. “To think that this is the same baby who had reflux and cried non-stop for hours. I just love being with him.”
Born and raised in Tauranga, before moving to Christchurch as a teenager, Melissa knew from an early age she wanted to be a journalist. She began her career in TVNZ’s Christchurch newsroom before scoring her dream job of London and Europe correspondent in 2006.
“I worked really hard to get that assignment,” she remembers. “I banged on doors for a long time before I got it, and it was great.”
Although now her days are spent running after Hugo, rather than chasing breaking stories, a part of her still longs to be back covering the big events that used to be her specialty.
“I’m actually happy to be presenting rather than reporting now,” she says, as she feeds a sleepy Hugo. “I knew when I was pregnant that if I went back into reporting, I wouldn’t be the one in the newsroom that gets to rush off to the big story at a moment’s notice. I was quite worried about that, but at least this way I can still be involved in the big stories and not feel like I’m missing out.
“I was really worried that Dave would be the one missing out, because his work has always taken him away so much. But since we had Hugo, Dave has tried to take the jobs that keep him close to home, because he just can’t stand to be away from him. Look at Hugo. He’s just the best.”