New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is busy doing all manner of prime ministerial things, including negotiating trade deals with the European Union, expressing her opinion on the Iran nuclear pact – she thinks it brings stability to the Middle East – and overseeing policies on immigration and homelessness. She’s even managed to find time to film a funny ad about why New Zealand keeps dropping off global maps (and no, it’s not because it’s on the bottom).
But this is not what’s caught the world’s attention: Ms. Ardern is in the spotlight because she’s LWP, or leading while pregnant. This is not an acronym with much currency – in fact, I just invented it – since there have been so few women who have LWP. Ms. Ardern, 37, will be only the second woman to give birth while heading a government when she has her baby in June; the first was the late Benazir Bhutto, who had a daughter in 1990 when she was prime minister of Pakistan.
It is an event so shocking that it gave birth to headlines such as this one, from NBC News: “New Zealand’s prime minister is unmarried, pregnant and going on maternity leave.’’ In fact, Ms. Ardern plans to take six weeks of maternity leave, handing over the reins to her deputy in New Zealand’s governing coalition, after which her partner, Clarke Gayford, will take over main parenting duties. There will undoubtedly be any number of articles outlining whether this is too much or too little maternity leave, and whether the baby will be permanently damaged or enriched by its mother’s devotion to her job. The fact that Mr. Gayford will need to juggle fatherhood with his duties as host of the TV show Fish of the Day has not generated nearly so much curiosity.
Is six weeks too little maternity leave? If you live in Sweden, you might think so. For female politicians, though, trapped in a system designed long ago by men who probably only noticed their infants when the nanny brought them from the nursery for a visit, those are the rules of the game. Around the world, including here in Canada, the rules are slowly changing – a necessary bit of progress if we’re going to attract young women and men into political life.
Last year in Australia, a senator from the Green Party became the first woman to breastfeed while sitting in Parliament (an act of Cirque de Soleil-ish dexterity that will be familiar to anyone woman who’s juggled a limpet-like baby while trying to get some work done). In the United States, a woman running for Congress in New York has successfully won a fight to use campaign funds to partially cover her child-care costs while she’s on the trail. And in Canada, where we’ve just had the landmark event of the first cabinet minister to give birth while in office, the fight for a family-friendly Parliament has just begun.
Political life is gruelling enough without a baby on your back: There is travel to and from ridings, constituency and committee work, public events at all hours, all of which is complicated by emergency trips to all-night drugstores for diapers. As it currently stands, Canadian MPs get no paid parental leave, because they don’t pay into the employment-insurance program. They can take 21 sick days, but may be docked pay for any time off after that. They’re required to be in the House at odd and unpredictable hours for votes. As any new parent knows, unpredictable work hours plus unpredictable infants equals minimal brain activity.
In Ms. Ardern’s home country, the Green MP Holly Walker wrote of the wrenching decision to give up her political career when she realized that she couldn’t make motherhood work with the crushing demands of the job. Crucially, she felt guilt that she wasn’t able to live up to the ideal of other female politicians pictured holding their infants on their knees while they voted: “There was no way my kid would have slept peacefully in my arms if I’d tried to take her into the debating chamber,” Ms. Walker wrote. “She would have screamed the House down with reflux and vomited on my papers.”
Instead of making women feel guilty for not having 20 hands and the magical ability to be in several places at once, why not change the system to make it easier for new parents to be good at both of their jobs? NDP MP Niki Ashton, who brought her twin boys to their first public event at 11 days old, has said: “If we want a Parliament that truly reflects the population, including women … we need to be prepared to make adjustments.” Her words were echoed by Karina Gould, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, who said this to CTV not long before she gave birth to her first son in March: “If we’re going to be really intentional about encouraging young people, and particularly young women to run for office, we need to have that conversation about how maternity and paternity leave work as well for Members of Parliament,”
Some of those changes are on the way. The most recent federal budget contained a promise to bring in parental leave for parliamentarians. Other ideas to make life smoother include increased teleconferencing for MPs, less unpredictable voting times, and electronic voting. Will there be the resolve to fight for these changes, or will legislators cave to grumpy constituents who see this as a ploy to slack off on the job? Grumpy voters, I might add, who have forgotten just what a time-suck babies are (they’re adorable, but a time-suck nonetheless).
Above all, women have to be easier on themselves – and each other – about what constitutes a healthy life as a public servant and a mother. There is no one formula that will work for each woman, but there is a way to make the system fairer for all. As Ms. Ardern said, “I am no superwoman, nor should any woman be expected to be a superwoman. We achieve what we achieve through grit, determination and help.”
I’m sending her an early Mother’s Day wish: I hope she gets that help, and many nights of uninterrupted sleep.