Can the Prime Minister Have a Baby?

Asking if a 37-year-old woman can have a baby and run a country smells of misogyny. But not asking men or women how they balance family and work reinforces the impoverished status of the caring domain in our society.

Jacinda Ardern takes over the leadership of the Labour Party. (Image/NZ Labour Party.)

A New Zealand story appeared in my Apple News feed recently. As an expat from a couple of islands at the bottom of the world it’s always thrilling to make the news, even if this is the headline; New Zealand Political Leader Quizzed On Whether She’ll Have Kids

Eight weeks before the General Election, the opposition Labour Party had changed leaders after some less than promising poll results. The new leader, and prospective Prime Minister, was 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern, and some men decided to ask her if she would have kids.

“A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career or continuing their career at a certain point of their lives, late thirties. Is that a decision that you feel you have to make or that you maybe feel that you’ve already made?”asked a male host on the TV show The Project.

As the NPR article pointed out it this is not a question that is usually asked of male politicians in their thirties; “The double standard is closely tied to misogynistic assumptions about parenting and ambition.”

This is true. The current New Zealand Prime Minister, Bill English, a devout Catholic, has six kids and a working wife and he doesn’t appear to have had any problems juggling his family and the nation’s direction. He’s been asked about it on occasion, but the questions hardly amounted to a grilling or posed family and work as an either/or dichotomy. Any discussion of Bill English’s family life quickly comes down to him being internationally lampooned for feeding his kids canned spaghetti on pizza.

It is even more frustrating that it is a question being asked in New Zealand, a country with a long history of promoting women’s rights. In 1893 it was the first nation to give women the vote. In 2005 all three branches of government were headed by women; the Prime Minister was Helen Clark, the Chief Justice Sian Elias, and Governor-General, the Queen’s representative in New Zealand, was Dame Silvia Cartwright. Hell, in the 1980s the future finance minister, and member of the conservative National party no less, made news by beast-feeding her baby outside the Parliament chamber.

But this question is also absurd. Jacinda Ardern is clearly a high flyer. She has the necessary combination of drive and talent to be in position to lead a country at the age of 37. It is that, not her gender, which should be the primary consideration in any assessment of her ability to be a Prime Minister and a new mother at the same time.

Most people experience the demands of parenting, but most people never reach the pinnacle of their chosen career. Even fewer manage that before they are 40. At a visceral level this lack of experience makes it easy to question the capacity of someone like Jacinda Ardern to take it all on. Call it the ‘Parenting is hard enough, I couldn’t imagine being Prime Minister at the same time’ response.

Like most people I can’t imagine being Prime Minister. But that doesn’t mean being a new parent and being on top of one’s game can’t be done by someone with the necessary qualities. I’m married to a woman who did it.

My wife rocks out on the Wii at night, while leading the recovery of Gatorade during the day.

My wife gave birth to three children in three different states. During that time her career took off. She was pregnant with our third child when we moved to Chicago and she embarked on the post-Recession task of turning around Gatorade. The G branding, the pre-game fuel and post-game recovery products, and from a New Zealand perspective, the first moves that lead to the signing of the All Blacks rugby team, all came to be under her leadership. She turned around a $500 Billion business while she had three children under five running around at home.

It wasn’t easy. She took maternity leave, but like many people in this hyper-connected world, she found time out of the office was not necessarily time off work. I remember her breastfeeding while on conference calls. Her maternity leave was much like the “holiday mode” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair went into when his fourth child was born while he was in office.

My wife is a woman of extraordinary energy and determination. I don’t know where she gets it from. Sometimes it is tiring just being around her, but it is the thing that has made her successful. She will say she couldn’t have done it without my help. As our family grew I shifted to working part-time and then not “working” at all, but there are plenty of couples who raise kids while they both work.

There is a double standard here. But the original question asked of Jacinda Ardern does clumsily get to a truth. I suspect a woman is more likely to think about juggling work and family than a man. My wife frets about it all much more than I do. That makes writing this off as misogyny a little too easy.

The issue is not so much asking a woman how she will deal with having family and a high-powered job, but not asking a man in the same situation. Men also move between the worlds of family and work. They might be better at separating those domains, but how much of this is because we don’t make the same demands on men to focus on both home and career at the same time?

In a very real sense the caring domain is under-valued in our society. That is a problem and ultimately it is to the detriment of both genders. While calling out this out as misogyny is a valid criticism, it could have the unintended consequence of sweeping this conversation about families and caring under the rug.

We have to stop framing these issues in terms of what we can’t ask women, and start thinking about what we should ask men.