When New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced she was pregnant soon after taking up office, it prompted a debate about her ability to continue working in the role she’d spent the majority of her life preparing for.
Although the mood in New Zealand was mostly congratulatory, with scores of people starting a #knitforjacinda movement to make baby clothes for the needy in honour of the new arrival, responses from across the globe were more varied. More than 800 newspapers and magazines reported on the pregnancy worldwide, with some columnists suggesting Ardern should step down for longer than her intended six-week maternity leave. Others branded her “selfish”, while some suggested the pregnancy was a betrayal to voters.
Well, since then, Ardern has successfully given birth to her daughter and officially resumed her role as PM last Thursday. During Ardern’s pregnancy and short absence her government has implemented a couple of noteworthy laws, including legislation to grant victims of domestic violence 10 days paid leave to allow them to leave their partners, find new homes and protect themselves and their children. The country hasn’t collapsed or been invaded. Everything is fine – the prime minister just happens to have a baby at home.
When it comes to our own country’s attitude towards working mums, we should all really look to New Zealand as an example. Of course Ardern is going to be able to effectively run the country as a mother. She has repeated time and time again that her partner will step in to care for the baby, stating last week: “I have a partner who can be there alongside me, who’s taking up a huge part of that joint responsibility because he’s a parent too – he’s not a babysitter.” Go Jacinda.
To doubt Ardern’s ability to do her job while raising a child is an insult to every working mum. Yes, motherhood is challenging, but to question Ardern is to question every woman who straps her baby to her back and picks rice for 15 hours a day, it’s a smite on the mother who commutes an hour to work after being up all night nursing a sick child, it’s an insult to the mums who power through day in, day out to put bread on the table – because that’s what women do. Every parent I’ve ever met has been forced to multitask, wing it, hustle, juggle one million things at once on occasion. It’s just part of being a parent, and Ardern has a bigger support system around her than many new mums.
She is proving that a woman’s career doesn’t have to end as soon as she starts a family. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Women can still take a leading role in the workplace, or in Ardern’s case the country, as long as they have the support around them to help them achieve whatever it is they want to do.
Instead of questioning whether women can continue to climb up the career ladder once they have children, we should be discussing what provisions we can put in place to ensure that returning to work is as seamless as possible. Motherhood doesn’t have to signal the end of a woman’s old life – it’s just the start of a new one.
Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy