The reaction to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy in office is two-pronged. First, the standard woke response. Of course a woman can be prime minister and a mum! Women are multitaskers! This whole fierce story represents all that is anti-Trump about the world! As Ardern herself put it: “It’s what ladies do.” Sample that, Beyoncé.
Second, the standard misogynistic response, which will be given all the attention it deserves.
The truth is, both prongs are too weak to prise open the can of worms that is motherhood. Yes, a woman can be a prime minister and a mum … with enough support, better maternity pay (one recent study found universities with generous policies employed twice the number of female professors), an equal partnership and so on. The question, and it’s one that feminism seems to want buried, is whether she wants to.
Ardern has said she will return to office six weeks after the birth (when her partner will take over), during which time she will remain “contactable”. Let’s be honest: this sounds bloody stressful. Six weeks after the birth of both my babies, I was still bleeding, barely sleeping and losing entire hours marvelling/angsting over the rise and fall of the baby’s chest. Or looking for muslins. This doesn’t mean I was less competent, only that I was utterly consumed with the hard graft of parenting. I did not want to go back to work. I wanted to be a full-time mother, to be able to afford it and to not be made to feel ashamed of it.
If Serena Williams hadn’t wanted to return to tennis four months after the birth of her daughter, that would have been a victory for feminism, too. When France’s justice minister, Rachida Dati, returned to work five days after a caesarean in 2009, it was not a triumph for women. It was a triumph for capitalism (and any triumph for capitalism is a triumph for the patriarchy).
The uncomfortable, intimidating and joyous truth is that becoming a mother – not for all, but for many – changes everything, for ever. It is a life’s work. Until we acknowledge both the enormity of this unpaid, undervalued and unseen job, we continue to do motherhood and the women who choose to do it (or want to, but are not able) a gross disservice.