In the prime of life

New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth yesterday to a beautiful baby girl. Mother, baby, and soon to be stay-at-home Dad are reportedly all doing well. She will take six weeks’ maternity leave, and her husband will take over childcare duties after that.

The overwhelming reaction online was ‘Woman gives birth. So what?’. But it’s not a ‘so what?’ because this is a rarity. An enormous rarity. The last world leader to give birth in office was Benazir Bhutto, in 1990, and she was reportedly back at work the next day. Ardern, 28 years later, will at least be able to take six weeks off while her deputy steps in to the breach.

Women are very rare at the top tier of international politics. Women of childbearing age, even more so.

In Ireland, there is still no entitlement to maternity leave for politicians, whether at Oireachtas or local level, a situation that is patently out of step with the times. There is no other job where that is acceptable; self-employed women are now entitled to statutory maternity benefit for six months, although of course many can’t leave their businesses untended for that long.

(Note: This was true at the time of writing but according to a story in Sunday’s Mail, there are moves afoot to introduce this soon – definitely a welcome move)

Politics needs to adapt to the radical notion that politicians are people, with all the messy life events that entails – sickness, childbirth, and bereavement. It has to adapt to cope with politicians who have uteruses and want to use them.

Having said that, in the cut and thrust of Irish politics, I can imagine a situation where a female Taoiseach would appear back in the Dail right from the labour ward, for fear of the Tanaiste orchestrating a coup in her absence. It happens in a lot of high stakes workplaces, but in politics there’s no such thing as a secure leadership role.

Ardern is 37, just one year younger than Leo Varadkar, who is our youngest ever Taoiseach. It’s not very common for world leaders – male or female – to still be in that phase of life. Obviously, most people don’t hit that level of success that young. Those who do clearly have some exceptional talents.

Having a baby is a daunting (ok, terrifying) experience, no matter how professionally capable you are. Combining it with a new and surely equally daunting job, as Ardern has done, is no mean feat.

We all try to figure out how best we can juggle work and life and home, but juggling the kind of decisions a country’s leader makes with the chaos and confusion of a new baby is a whole other ball game. Sort of like juggling with knives and dirty nappies at the same time. The very thought of it stresses me out, but the fact that it’s a choice available to a young woman shows how much has changed.

Many of us, including an increasing number of men, decide when we are knee deep in nappies that for now we’re just fine where we are. That multitasking is a skill but nobody can do everything perfectly, and that this period in life is one that might involve a bit of slowing down on the career ladder. And that’s another option.

In the past too many people, mostly but not exclusively women, have had to choose between work and family life. At least now, although none of the options will be perfect, we have more of them.

Much of the discourse around women returning to work when they have small children focuses, of necessity, on childcare. Luckily this isn’t an issue Ardern and her partner face, because they’re in a position for him to give up work, something many couples would envy.

But what about the woman herself? My own reaction, deep in the trenches with a toddler and a second baby on the way, is somewhere between awe, admiration and a feeling that I can’t quite describe, but probably has a name in German. It’s a feeling of, well, fair play… but… how? And where does that leave the rest of us, who would hardly remember our own names six weeks after giving birth, not to mention feeling capable of going back to work? Clearly, we’re not all cut out to be world leaders.

I love seeing a female prime minister anywhere. I’d like to see one here. And it’s only through normalizing baby bumps and breastfeeding in high places that we’ll see more of them. I couldn’t do it. Not because of some moral high ground about who looks after the baby, or preciousness about the sanctity of motherhood. I just wouldn’t be able for it.

So, hats off to you Jacinda, and just one word of advice – get an independent observer to check you up and down for baby puke before you go back. Been there, done that, binned the t-shirt.

From The Herald, 22.06.18

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