In being both the mother of a small baby and the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern is proof that the world has come round to the extraordinary notion of a woman having both a career and a child. But this week, she met criticism for daring to combine the two.
Ardern, who became only the second world leader to give birth while in office in June, was forced to defend her decision to travel to the Pacific Islands Forum separately from her deputy in order to minimise time spent away from her 11-week-old daughter.
While her deputy went to the island of Nauru on Monday for a three-day visit to the event, Ardern has arranged for the air force Boeing 757 that took him to return to New Zealand to return and pick her up to take her to the key meeting today, so that she can stay with her newborn for longer.
Her child, Neve, is too young to have the immunisations required to visit Nauru, and Ardern is still breastfeeding her, leading to the PM deciding she couldn’t go away for three days.
Critics have baulked at estimates that the extra trip cost NZ$50,000 to NZ$100,000 (£25,000 to £50,000). But, when asked whether the flight was a good use of taxpayer money, Ardern gave the kind of level-headed, cheeringly unapologetic response she’s become known for when responding to questions about combining her professional life and parenting.
She said she looked for other ways to get to the forum, including asking if she could hitch a ride with Australian officials who were also going, but couldn’t find one.
“The other option was for me not attend at all,” she explained to the NZ Herald newspaper, going on to say this wasn’t an option given the importance her foreign policy places on New Zealand’s relationship with the Pacific Islands. “If I didn't go, I imagine there would have been equal criticism... damned if I did and damned if I didn't."
If I didn't go, I imagine there would have been equal criticism... damned if I did and damned if I didn't
Not everyone was in assent. While New Zealand’s finance minister explained that the cost was not an issue, as funds had already been allocated for the trip, talk-show host Duncan Garner felt Ardern should “just pull out of the meeting”.
He advised that she let her deputy, Winston Peters, go by himself. Which, if you ask me, sounds like a thinly-veiled command to “leave the politics to the men, ladies”.
Because, let’s face it, this isn’t about the money. Nor, indeed, about the environmental impact of taking an extra flight. It’s about the impossibly high expectations laid on the shoulders of working mothers, who just can’t win.
If Ardern hadn’t attended she’d have been slammed for neglecting her professional duties. And if she’d gone for the full three days and left her young baby alone for the entire time, instead? Cue confected outrage about what an icy-hearted mother she must be.
Ardern is caught in an impossible double bind that sees her castigated whichever choice she makes. She should be praised for moving mountains to attend a key meeting, not criticised for her decision by men who think they know better, apparently undeterred by the fact that it is she who is prime minister, not them.
Of course, this story wouldn’t exist if she were a man. Should a male leader decide to rearrange a work meeting in order to spend more time with a young or unwell child, no one would blink an eye. Well, actually, scrap that, a large amount of figurative blinking would ensue: he’d be applauded for the commitment he’d shown to his family.
Just as dads are praised for taking the smallest interest in their children’s lives – changing the occasional nappy, wearing a responsible expression while standing next to a playground slide – the global media would go gooey over the sensitivity displayed. Certainly, there’d be no talk of him not attending at all because the costs might be a bit steep.
Ultimately, Ardern is blasting apart stereotypes of what leaders look like. The reaction to her giving birth while in office has overall been one of exuberant support, giving women hope that raising a family doesn’t have to spell a halted, or less fulfilling, career.
But this week’s reaction to her travel plans is proof that there’s still a long way to go before women are truly treated equally in the workplace – whether you’re an office pen pusher or the prime minister.