PM's baby: No need for a public poster-child for perfect parenting

2:14 pm on 19 January 2018

By Finlay Macdonald*

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is set to become a very public example of a new normal with her newly announced pregnancy, writes Finlay Macdonald.

Jacinda Ardern posted this photo to Instagram along with the news of her pregnancy.

Jacinda Ardern posted this photo to Instagram along with the news of her pregnancy. Photo: jacindaardern/Instagram

It's not often that news stories hit the sweet spot where politics and parenthood intersect. So it wasn't surprising that, within seconds of the announcement by Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford that they are expecting a child, the cultural significance of the happy event was being examined.

Alas, it came slightly too late for the women's magazines' deadlines, although you can bet next week's covers are being revised as I write. We will be treated to regular instalments of "baby bump" and "baby joy" from now until June.

But a cursory sweep of social media revealed an almost instantaneous willingness to freight the event with deeper implications for public perceptions of gender roles, family values, even the hated patriarchy itself.

The great thing about babies, of course, is that they remain blissfully unaware of their considerable impact on adult lives, and this one will be no different.

The mother and father, however, must resign themselves to being symbolic avatars within our unending culture wars - champions of modernity on the one hand, flag-bearers for the breakdown of traditional domestic norms on the other.

My hunch is, however, that our pregnant Prime Minister is a very public example of a new normal.

There may well be enclaves where her decision to raise a child while running a country will be disapproved of. Yet, like most of the rear-guard actions ultra-orthodox social conservatives occasionally fight these days, it will be a footnote to the victory already claimed.

If anything, this may hasten the decay of all manner of antediluvian preoccupations, from the ability of women to work and be mothers simultaneously, to the fantasy that affairs of state should somehow be separate from the intimate business of having and nurturing children.

It won't be easy - having babies rarely is - and let's also hope that those well-meaning proselytisers for breast-feeding and immunisation can restrain themselves from demanding the first baby be a public poster-child for perfect parenting.

But as Ardern observed in her first announcement, there will be an element of the village raising this child, so everyone will need to stand back and allow her and her partner to be mum and dad, first and foremost.

As an aside, I hope that Gayford's vaunted role of "stay at home dad" is simply shorthand for "freelancer with lots of parenting duties". Having been that person myself, it often seemed more mysterious to others than the cliché of the bloke who swaps his suit for an apron and nappies.

The concept of the "working mum" is culturally embedded, but the idea of a "working dad" - which is literally what most fathers are - has none of the same connotations. That too is changing, and the first couple (albeit, no doubt, with some gold-plated child care) can also help shift a little of that thinking into the silicon age.

But there I go too - loading expectations on the ones expecting. Enough already. Let's all just wish the happy couple all the best, and let nature and history take care of the rest.

* Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1997 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand (2003-2005), columnist for the Sunday Star-Times(2003-2011), NZ Publisher for HarperCollins (2013-2015). He is a regular contributor to RNZ as a writer and commentator.

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