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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

A pregnant prime minister and the enduring sexism of the way we portray parenting

New Zealander Jacinda Ardern is actually walking a well-trodden path because being a mother is work in itself

How will New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cope with being a working mother? Just like any other mother, says Shelina Janmohamed / AFP
How will New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cope with being a working mother? Just like any other mother, says Shelina Janmohamed / AFP

Nearly 30 years ago, Benazir Bhutto became the first woman in modern history to give birth while in office. Her daughter Bakhtawar was born after the Pakistani prime minister went into a hospital incognito, had her child via Caesarean section and returned to work the next day.

Fast forward 28 years and it seems the world is still losing its mind over a woman having a baby while in employment. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she is expecting a baby in June. She will take six weeks of leave after the birth and then return to work. Her husband will look after the baby.

There has been much hand-wringing for the poor baby and even more wailing about how on earth Ms Ardern will cope with being a new parent. And let’s not forget the job. How on earth will the job get done?

In 2000 then British prime minister Tony Blair had his fourth child while serving in office. David Cameron also had a child while ensconced in 10 Downing Street.

Nobody at the time urged them to think of the baby, wondered how they would be able to get the job done or how they might cope.

Naturally, there’s a physical impact of pregnancy and labour that affects a mother in a way that doesn’t affect a father. But six weeks is often enough time to recuperate.

Not every woman wants to go back to work. But to suggest that somehow a woman can't or shouldn’t and that being a parent and having a job are incompatible, simply by virtue of being a woman, is ridiculous. "How is a new father going to do the job justice?" asked no headline, troll or commentator ever.

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Ms Ardern will forever carry the label of being a "working mother", a description that has stood fast in the last decades, despite the gritted teeth of mothers everywhere about the criteria with which we clarify who counts as a worker. Being a caregiver to a child is actually work. Because it is considered "women’s work" and is not paid, it is considered as having no value. Hence, when a woman has a paid job, the adjective "working" is applied to her as a reminder that being a mum is not really work and it’s not paid for anyway because it should be done for free. Being a mum is still seen as her primary descriptor in a way that the phrase "being a dad" is never used. Motherhood has become a singular definition for some women. By contrast, how many times have you word the phrase “working dad"? Never.

The explanation is simple: we see children as the responsibility of the mother.

While the issues are serious, we find ourselves using language that is frankly hilarious when it comes to parenting and households. Have you ever heard of a mother babysitting her own children? Yet we talk about fathers babysitting their children all the time when their wives go out. Pause for a moment. A father’s job is to look after his children. He’s not the paid help. He is not an outsider. He is not someone yanked from the street to supervise the young ones. A father looks after his children. That’s just normal life. But deep in our collective psyche, this terminology is used because we think it’s all down to the mother.

The same extends into the household. Men too often are described as "helping" around the house. “Isn’t it great that your husband is so helpful around the house and with the kids," people gush. But men aren’t "helping". Just as women do the work, men should be doing the work.

The saddest part of the frenzy over whether Ms Ardern will be able to manage this entirely precedented situation of being a parent in office, is how little focus has been placed on her partner and dad-to-be. Given his global standing, he is a prominent figure in the shift towards men taking a bigger and more prominent role in the parenting of their children. He’s not just babysitting; he’s a global pioneer, as is his wife, mother-to-be and Prime Minister. And yes, she can be all of those things.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World