Jacinda Ardern on her extraordinary first year as Prime Minister and a mother
A year ago, Jacinda Ardern was making headlines as our new Prime Minister. She was also newly pregnant. Now, a year into her job running the country while also becoming a first-time mum, she talks exclusively to Emma Clifton about making history, finding balance in life, and her gratitude for the support of others.
This time last year Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was one of only a handful of people who knew just how historic 2018 was going to be for her. Her prime ministership was already a big deal – she was the second youngest world leader and one of only 10 female heads of government.
So the eyes of the world were already on her. But she knew the glare of that spotlight was only going to get bigger. Because last Christmas, Jacinda was pregnant with her first child – and was going to be one of only two female political leaders, ever, to give birth while in office.
“At that point, no one else knew,” Jacinda says of her pregnancy last Christmas. Keeping the secret at such a family time of year wasn’t easy, but the good news was her morning sickness had finally started to pass. “I’d felt sick for a long time, so it was great to have a little bit of time out and also feel good again. But this year is going to be a little different. We’ve got an extra member of our family, and I’m not holding any secrets!”
Every time I have interviewed Jacinda over the past four years, she has been a bigger and bigger deal
– and the interview logistics have followed suit. A quiet cul-de-sac in Auckland’s Mt Eden is lined with security cars and men with earpieces – as if something very formal and serious is taking place in the middle of suburbia. In reality, the Prime Minister is sitting down, drinking a cup of tea and chatting up a storm – her photoshoot for The Australian Women’s Weekly providing a brief respite from a day of back-to-back appointments. New Zealand has always been blessed with down-toearth leaders and you can’t get more down-to-earth than our Morrinsville-born leader. She doesn’t really do pomp and ceremony. Case in point, on the day of our shoot, she casually mentions, mid-conversation, that today is her 10-year anniversary of when she became a member of parliament at 28. Would she have ever thought that this would be her political life a decade later – Prime Minister for a year, a mother for six months? “No,” she says drily. “I would not have picked that.”
You can debate for a long time whether females in politics, or any profession, should be asked if they want children. But as a female in politics, Jacinda was often asked by journalists – myself included – if she wanted a family. And she was always honest in return. “I used to talk openly when I was asked about future leadership; I would very genuinely say that I wanted to do normal things – and that was always code for me to talk about wanting a family, without predicting whether that would happen for me or not. Because there are some things you can’t plan,” she says. “So I put priority on that [answer] because I thought, as well, there was the issue of whether or not it would be possible or whether or not it would be accepted.”
She admits to being surprised at just how well the news of her pregnancy was taken. “I didn’t expect people to be so welcoming, so positive about me being pregnant while being Prime Minister. I was really nervous about that announcement – really nervous. So that part surprised me – and then the follow on, which was, ‘And now that you’ve got her, we’re here to help.’”
When Neve Te Aroha Gayford arrived on June 21, the photo of
Jacinda and Clarke holding their baby girl, our very own “First Baby”, went around the world. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and according to Jacinda, “New Zealand is our village”.
“I see quite literal signs of that all the time,” she says. “I’ll go places and people will say, ‘Where’s our baby?’ Men too – when I went to Ratana, ‘Where’s our mokopuna?’ It’s lovely – this expectation that she’s there and that they can take care of her if she is. Even someone at the Business Advisory Council today said, ‘Next time, bring the baby – we’ll pass her around.’”
As New Zealand’s First Child, Neve has also been inundated with gifts, both from Kiwis and from around the world. Theresa May gave her a beautiful Peter Rabbit onesie. The Prime Minister of St Lucia sent a Bob Marley style hat, complete with knitted dreadlocks. The Irish Taoiseach gifted a silver rattle, and an excerpt from his favourite poem in a card. But it’s the hand-made gifts from New Zealanders that are most wellused in the Ardern-Gayford household. In the first family photo of the three of them in their new home, Neve is wrapped in a peggy-square blanket made by a local school. And one of the first gifts used for Neve has a touching story behind it. “It was a beautifully fine knitted piece by a woman who was making it for her first grandchild; but her son and daughter-in-law lost the baby and so she put it away,” Jacinda says. “When she found out I was pregnant, she got it out and finished it and sent it to me. It’s been so lovely. Anything that was hand-made, we used. So she wears a lot of gifted cardis and hats and booties – I think we’ve only had to buy her onesies.”
The logistics of being a breastfeeding mother means that Neve is often by Jacinda’s side, albeit flying under the radar. “Our general rule of thumb is that we try not to put her too much in the public eye. If she’s with us
when I’m out working, it is what it is. But we try not to. When we were at the United Nations, it’s kind of obvious we were just going about our business.”
It was in the General Assembly of the United Nations that the world got its first good glimpse of
Neve, at that stage a little three-month-old, sitting in Clarke’s lap. Her parents had no idea she was to become a global sensation. Andrew Campbell, Jacinda’s Chief Press Secretary, had found a seat where Clarke could sit with Neve and see Jacinda doing her address to the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit. It was only when they sat down, Andrew recalls, and he had heard the cameras of the UN’s press gallery go crazy for a solid 30 seconds, that they realised it was “a moment”. The photos, Clarke later tweeted, were viewed more than 195 million times worldwide. A baby in the halls of the UN is a big deal, it seems. “They have breastfeeding rooms there, but there weren’t many babies around,” Jacinda says of the UN. “It should be a place that we think about kids – having a little reminder of that’s not a bad thing. That doesn’t mean that she’ll always be there with us, it’s just that she’s small and so we can right now.”
It has taken a delicate balancing act involving Clarke as a stay-at-home dad and several family members on deck to help make being a parent and Prime Minister possible. Clarke is “a great dad”, Jacinda says. “He’s exactly as I expected him to be, which is completely doting. Very dedicated. Really patient. I feel like they’ve got in-jokes already, I don’t even know how that’s possible, but they do. And he of course will dress Neve, so there are a lot of ‘I heart Dad’ socks and shirts.”
Both grandmothers are “amazing”, she says. Jacinda’s sister, Louise, has only just moved back to New Zealand with her husband and two young children, so Neve is the first grandchild their mum Laurell is able to enjoy as a newborn. On Clarke’s side, his mum Peri now has eight grandchildren, so she’s an old hand at this. For all the talk about whether or not it would be possible for a prime minister to have a baby, Jacinda has made it work – with help, she is firm to point out. “I can bring my mum with me, or Clarke, and that makes me very, very privileged, so I don’t think that anyone can look at me and say, ‘Oh she’s doing it, so all of us should.’ I get that I’m privileged and I’m lucky. But I’m also in a position to try and make it a bit easier for other people.”
Jacinda also considers herself lucky, in a way, in that the timing of both Neve and being made Prime Minister was out of her hands. “Sometimes when those decisions are taken away from you, it can work out,” she laughs. “There was no question [of there being] a choice, that I could just say, ‘Oh, I’ve made the choice to go back to work.’ I have to. And I imagine there are a lot of women who don’t feel like they have a choice either, for financial reasons.” She’s also very aware that she’s in a position where she loves her job, and has the flexibility to make this new arrangement work. But it’s still not an easy situation. “It’s not so much guilt as… I just feel bad, because I’m not around as much as I otherwise might be. I have to lean on Clarke a lot, and he’s left with the moments when she’s scratchy and tired.
“I haven’t got it perfect,” she says thoughtfully. “I was just thinking about this last night… I don’t want to look back on these early months and feel like I missed out on the good bits. But there is a certain reality that unfortunately Clarke is just going to have to send me a photo of the
latest thing that happened at home.”
She smiles. “But I have her. And that’s the lucky thing.”
More women leaders
It helps immensely that it’s also been a good year for Labour. The most dire forecasts from the opposition or right-wing media commentators have not amounted to much; the economy is strong, unemployment is at its lowest rate in a decade. Both the coalition government and Jacinda are doing very well in the opinion polls, and she was able to take six weeks maternity leave without the world falling apart. The big question mark around whether a prime minister can have a baby is slowly fading away.
“I certainly hope I’ve added a little more weight to the other side of the scale,” Jacinda says. “But I’m equally aware I’m not in a normal position.”
Although she has made headlines for being a female leader who breastfeeds while running a country, the ultimate result would be to have the novelty wear off, Jacinda says. “The goal absolutely has to be for it to become more normal. And for that, we need many more women in leadership. So I get that it’s treated as a novelty but I can only hope that’s not for ever.”
She also points out that she’s one of four Labour MPs with children under two. “I’m not alone – there just happens to be a lot of focus on me.”
When asked what she’s most proud of achieving in her first year as Prime Minister, Jacinda says it’s what Labour has done for families and kids: the increases for Working for Families, the Best Start payment for families with new babies, increasing paid parental leave and bringing in the Winter Energy payment – a $5billion package that came by cancelling the tax cuts proposed by the former government. The changes kicked in in July, when Jacinda was on maternity leave. One day, when she and Clarke had popped out with Neve in the pram to get milk from the local dairy – “I was looking a bit rough, I think I was in a hoodie and jacket” – they were accosted, in a friendly way, by a mum who had spotted them while driving past. “She’d seen me, stopped the car and chased me because she wanted to tell me that she had twins and what a huge difference the Working for Families change had made for them. It just brought me back into the political world for a minute, when I was in my [new mum] bubble, and reminded me of the good things you can do in politics.”
Coming up with ideas that fix problems, that try to bring about change for those in need, is what brings people like Jacinda into politics. Passion is important – particularly when the change needed feels overwhelming. Jacinda is someone who has always burnt the candle at both ends, and having a baby as well as an extraordinarily highstakes, high-profile job has meant she just has to do it all.
“It forces you to reschedule,” she says of trying to find work/life balance in this unique situation. “It doesn’t stop you from burning the candle at both ends; it just forces you to change the way you do. I’m sure there are very few mums or dads who say, ‘Oh, my energy levels are so much better since I had kids!’” she breaks off, laughing. “But I do try… if I don’t see Neve in the morning because I’m up too early, I’ll make sure I’m there to help put her to bed. I read my papers in the weekend when she’s sleeping so I can play with her when she’s not. Just little things like that.”
This Christmas, the family of three will be in the Waikato with Jacinda’s grandfather and, with Louise and family returning from the UK, it will be the first time the Arderns have all been together for a decade. Clarke will begin filming his show Catch of the Day in the New Year, meaning there will be some quiet time with just Jacinda and Neve before Parliament reconvenes in early January. You can hardly call having a seven-month-old baby around a quieter time, but it will be a more settled Christmas than last year.
So if present-day Jacinda, at the tail-end of a crazy and successful first year of being both Prime Minister and a first-time mum, could give some advice to herself a year ago, what would she say? She thinks for a minute. “I would just say… it’ll be okay. You’ll work it out. Take each day as it comes, and it’ll be okay.”
RIGHT: Jacinda and Clarke introduce their newborn daughter, Neve Te Aroha, to New Zealand after her birth. BELOW: The family arriving back in Wellington when Jacinda returned to work after taking maternity leave for six weeks.
ABOVE: Clarke and baby Neve at the UN General Assembly in September. LEFT: Neve in her knitted dreadlocks hat from St Lucia and in Dad-themed clothing favoured by her doting father.