New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern redefined professional motherhood

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A few weeks ago, as I watched Representative Jimmy Gomez (D-California) gain admiration for caring for his son on the House floor, I began to think about the last time I saw an elected official engage in such a public display of parenting. It was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, recovering from a six-week maternity leave to simultaneously raise a human being and run a country.

I don’t recall Ardern gaining universal admiration for this balancing act. What I remember most was the debate that raged over her breastfeeding choices. As baby Neve was still breastfeeding when Ardern was expected at a summit in the Pacific Islands, the prime minister arranged for a separate flight from other government officials, cutting her trip short to avoid a prolonged absence for her newborn. Extra travel arrangements cost thousands of dollars in fuel. Was it a good use of taxpayer money? Should Ardern have taken longer maternity leave or avoided pregnancy altogether?

“Had I not gone, I imagine there would have been equal criticism,” she told the New Zealand Herald at the time, explaining the careful analysis that led to her decision. “Damn if I did and damned if I didn’t.”

So one lesson of Jacinda Ardern’s tenure was that mothers cannot win and that, even at the highest levels of government, a father who rearranges his work schedule for his children is seen as dedicated and a mother who does the same is seen as disorganized. But if you prefer the optimistic view, the other lesson was that if citizens are willing to accept flexibility in how their leaders get work done, they can have a leader like Jacinda Ardern.

5 moments that marked Jacinda Ardern’s passage as Prime Minister of New Zealand

They can have a leader who, after taking office at the age of 37, created one of the most diverse cabinets in the world: 40% women, 25% Maori, 15% LGBTQ – a group that, Arden proudly said, reflected “the New Zealand who chose them”.

They can have a leader who, less than a week after 50 New Zealanders were gunned down in a Christchurch mosque, spearheaded a nationwide ban on assault weapons without fuss or dismay: “Our history has changed forever,” she said simply. “Now, our laws too.”

They might have a leader who, in the face of a global pandemic, charted a clear and transparent course of action to stop the spread, calling her country “our team of 5 million,” while, in the United States, our President has publicly speculated that perhaps doctors could fight the virus with disinfectant “by injection inside or almost a wipe”. (New Zealand has fared much better than the US — and many other countries — in terms of Covid deaths.)

More importantly, they can have a leader who recognizes, without ego or pomp, when it’s time to hang things up and step down. On Wednesday, Ardern announced that he no longer had “enough in the tank” to perform the job to the required standards and that he would step down. “I am human. Politicians are human. We give everything we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time.”

“I hope in return to leave behind the belief that you can be kind but strong,” she said in closing. “Empathetic but decisive. Optimistic but focused.”

The whole speech felt like a continuation of the “politics of kindness” that defined Ardern’s term: a nebulous concept that catapulted her to worldwide fame – this nursing mother, this millennial feminist – and which drew scrutiny from her critics. How much of Jacindamania was deserved? Could his global fans even name his accomplishments, or were we just mesmerized by a leader who seemed to want to do things differently? My group of friends couldn’t have been the only ones to pass on a photo of Ardern with Finnish Prime Minister Sanne Marin – a millennial mother herself – as if we were writing the draft of a new superhero movie.

Jacinda Ardern didn’t make simultaneous motherhood and government look easy. She didn’t pretend there was a cool trick to having it all. But she didn’t scourge herself for the fight either. She simply acknowledged that, yes, sometimes the baby appears on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly. Yes, sometimes the flight schedule can change. No, none of that meant she wasn’t up to the task. This meant that we should question how we defined the task. We must ask ourselves whether elected officials must conform to business as usual, or whether we can recognize that politicians – and workers, and citizens – are human beings with lived experiences that can enrich their understanding of their countries and the way they should be run. ruled. Systems must adapt to us, not the other way around.

She worked as hard as she could for as long as she could, and one legacy she will leave is that she showed the work – what it took to be a leader and a mother and how, eventually, it cost so much that she couldn’t, in sane conscience, keep doing this, not the way she would like.

The job was huge. But for her admirers, the work was worth it.

correction

An earlier version of this column distorted the location and number of deaths in the Christchurch mass shooting. The murders took place in two mosques, not one, and 51 people, not 50, were killed. The article also misspelled Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s first name. The story has been corrected.

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