Being an All Black takes training, focus and a lot of teamwork – a bit like raising a family.
Valentine Tauamiti got to chat to Elliot Dixon and his partner, Paige, about both.
Elliot Dixon was 12 when I first met him. We were both students at Christchurch South Intermediate School at the time. He was the kid famous for running laps around the field while the rest of us were in class. I’m not sure if he was being punished for something, if it was Ms Culpan’s attempt to burn off some of his energy, or a get-out-of-class-free pass for the school’s leading athlete.
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Throughout our teenage years, Elliot grew bigger and stronger (boy, did he get bigger) but many things stayed the same. Even now, he is still the playful, high-energy, adventurous boy from Kaiwara Street. And it is these very traits that hold him and his partner of eight years, Paige Smith, in good stead as they parent their two boys, Huxley and Toby.
Fast forward to 2017, and I find myself hanging out with my old friend and his whānau. 22-month-old Huxley is busying himself with toy trucks, ‘talking’ to Odin the German Shepherd, and depositing dribble all over a window as he pulls faces at Elliot. Toby, less mobile at six months old, is splashing around his ball pit, and every so often, finds himself the recipient of an earnest big brother’s kisses.
“I always wanted to be a young parent. In fact, when I met Paige I told her I wanted to be a dad at 25 or 26,” Elliot laughs. To which Paige quickly responds, “Yeah, he did, and I thought, ‘Rightio!’ I’ve always wanted a family. You know when you’re a little girl and you see those wee families in the movies? I love that I have my own wee family now.” Elliot got his wish, by the way – both his boys were born before he turned 27.
Young Huxley, firstborn, caring, full of energy and an avid dancer, is always armed with a toy tractor. When quizzed on how they chose his name, Elliot exposed his book-loving side – “I was reading a novel by Aldous Huxley and liked how unique his name was.” He admits that the grandparents weren’t immediately sold on the name, but soon came to like it – no doubt as a result of the small boy attached to it. The story isn’t too different for Toby, whose big brown eyes could make even the toughest of front row forwards clucky, and whose name his mum stumbled upon in a book – the night before giving birth.
“For years, I thought I was too big to interact with kids,” Elliot reflects. “I didn’t know how to hold or handle them but as soon as I became a dad, it surprised me how naturally it came.” Natural kicked in early, in fact. After Huxley was born, Paige was rushed off to surgery and Elliot found himself alone with a newborn who didn’t even span the length of his forearm. “I didn’t know what I was doing. They left me in the waiting room with him for a long time, which was kind of scary.
But it was quite the bonding experience.” Paige later emerged from surgery to find a sleeping Huxley nestled in Elliot’s arms, the whole situation well under control. Paige’s surgery aside, the new parents were thrust into parenthood with another challenge – Huxley suffered from colic, and as a result, spent most of his first days on earth screaming.
“It was rough – everything was brand new. I’m still surprised how well we got through it. It could have been much harder on our relationship, but amazingly, we never really fought (probably because we didn’t have any energy left to argue). We came out the other side better for it. When it comes to parenting, you’re just far more capable than you think.”
Over the many years of their relationship, Paige has watched Elliot evolve from the fresh-faced teen (high on life following his first contract with the Southland Stags), to the devoted dad of two boys. His priorities have shifted in tandem – even while juggling the challenges of being a professional rugby player and the frequent travel that goes along with the job. “He’s a big softie and so good with our boys. He’s home as much as he can be and family time is extra special in between his trips away for work. There has never once been a time when Elliot has put anything above the boys,” says Paige.
“On my days off, I catch a glimpse of what looking after two little kids (or sometimes, even just one) is like and I’m more knackered after that than I am after a day of training. I’ve come to learn that it’s the little things – like cleaning up, that make a big difference,” the dynamic loose forward elaborates.
One of the things that has surprised Paige about becoming a parent is how much she finds herself worrying for her boys. “Parenting can be scary – when you become a mum, it feels like the worry is constant, even over the silly stuff. Sometimes I check the oven 10 times before I go to bed, just to make sure it’s off. When you become a parent, it’s not just you anymore – now there are these little people and their safety is always on your mind.”
For Elliot, it’s not the oven that concerns him but a fear common to so many parents – “The thing is, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t get given a wee booklet when they arrive telling you the steps to raise a kid who’s respectful and nice. You just try instil those values and live them out too, which is actually quite hard! There’s never a day off with parenting – there’s always something to learn or a lesson to teach.”
Although Huxley and Toby’s grandparents are involved from a distance, not having extended whānau around has been part of the sacrifice of moving to Dunedin for the Christchurch natives. Last year, Paige’s younger sister, Brylea, relocated to Dunedin from Auckland for a few months to look after Huxley, while Paige was pregnant with Toby, and Elliot was on the end-of-year All Blacks tour.
Despite not having family around for everyday support, Paige has found some relief in the community of mums involved in the Highlanders’ team. “A few of us girls in the team had kids around the same time and we’ve become quite tight, which has been a great support network. Being able to say, ‘Hey, what do you guys think of this?’ or, ‘I’m having the worst day’ or, ‘Look at this cute photo!’ is really nice.”
All of this has left the pair with a newfound awe and appreciation for their own parents. Elliot, in particular, has been profoundly impacted since becoming a father. “I wasn’t very close to my parents. I left home pretty early and moved to Southland. As soon as we had kids, I realised just how much they gave up for us. Sports days, practices, school drop-offs every day – so many selfless acts that I didn’t recognise till now. It was a big wake-up call.” Paige couldn’t agree more – “You get to have a different relationship with your parents once you have your own kids.”
Elliot’s hopes and dreams for his boys are simple. “I want them to remember their childhood as a blur of happiness and feeling secure. I want to set them up for great teenage years and adulthood. The dream is that whatever they want to do as adults will be achievable because we have raised them well.”
After spending a couple of days with this family, I have no doubt the boys will look back on their childhood with fond memories. They will remember parents who loved them, and took them for adventures through Peter Johnstone Park, a father who was never afraid to get down on their level and clown around with them, and a mother who gave her undivided attention and love to the upbringing of her boys.
This is an excerpt from the bespoke edition of Parenting magazine created by Parenting Place in collaboration with New Zealand Rugby | Written by Valentine Tauamiti | Photography by Kimberley Cheyne
Attend a Toolbox parenting group
The four Toolbox groups – Early Years (0-6), Middle Years (6-12), Tweens and Teens (12-18) and Building Awesome Whānau (0-12) are available throughout the country. In an informal, relaxed and friendly environment participants are equipped with practical skills and strategies that can be immediately put to use. Over six sessions, key parenting principles are explored and participants are encouraged in their parenting. Find out more and register here.