Comment

Ardern: Symbol of generational clash

My phone was buzzing like mad after the news broke. Messages and calls from many of my women friends all sharing their joy at the news that our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern and her partner, Clarke Gayford, were expecting their first baby, writes Anna Connell. 

To describe the reaction as elation wouldn’t be hyperbolic. We talked about feeling hopeful, like anything was possible. The Prime Minister was once again an icon and inspiration for our generation and this was another watershed moment for those wanting freedom from prescribed gender roles and the way things have always been. 

While most of the reaction has been positive and full of joy, there has also been a flurry of comments that range from old-fashioned views about women, men, work and children to well-meaning but off the mark to downright disgusting and hateful.  

Critics and ‘questioners’ roughly fall into two camps: There are the mother-haters, misogynists, sexists, religious opportunists, and those who are barely concealing their partisan perspectives beneath their worries for the country.  

Then there are those for whom the progressive march onwards feels too fast. The well-meaning and the worried who are perhaps over-awed by the task ahead for Ardern and Gayford. Those who have experienced the ‘juggle’ and regret it and wish they’d done it differently. Those who have never seen anything like this in their lifetime. Those who never had those choices, and those who struggle to see how anyone would do both things. Ardern herself acknowledges that “…if my grandmother was still here, she might be one of the people expressing that view".  

Both camps have been condemned for their views, with some commentators issuing pre-emptive strikes against anyone planning on expressing them. And while much of that is justified (see Camp one - strike away online warriors), there is perhaps something missing from this reaction, something which I think is part of the Prime Minister’s special sauce. 

More often than not, the way people react to news like this says more about them than the situation. People are pinning their colours to a mast or projecting their own experiences, wounds and battle scars onto the situation. And this situation is something every single person can somehow relate to – we were all born, we were all kids, we all have mothers and fathers and many of you are mothers and fathers. That’s a lot of different lives, scar tissue and collective experience to try and regulate during a national discussion. There are still plenty of women alive in New Zealand who had no choice about when they got pregnant or whether they had a career and plenty of men who were conditioned to believe their job was to provide.  

Thankfully, so much of this has changed and is changing – quite rapidly but not without some pain as we flex and grow and aspire to new ideals and different kinds of lives. And much of this is now able to be bled out and worked out across Facebook pages, Twitter and far too many comments sections. There’s a part of me that finds it ironic that much of the prodigious public discussion about what’s happening in the Prime Minister’s body is rooted in the feminist ideal that a woman’s body is not public property nor a political instrument. 

Ardern has handled all this with grace – acknowledging that some things are just part and parcel of being a public figure. She has always been honest about her desire to have children and was even more so in her sharing of the little detail about having been told ‘they’d need a bit of help’. She has been kind in her comments, humble in her recognition that she and Gayford are in a privileged position, and dignified in her responses to everyone who’s thrown their ten cents into the mix. 

I have written before about what Ardern becoming Prime Minster meant to me, particularly as a woman of the same age as her. A symbol of generational change! The beginning of the end of the patriarchy! I said as much on Twitter after the baby announcement but issued a quick chaser about the weight this loaded upon the PM and her family.  

That thought has stuck with me over the weekend. That she hasn’t collapsed under the weight of the many expectations, mantles, monikers and flags she’s been carrying since becoming leader of the Labour Party is a miracle. Since the pregnancy announcement, she’s had many more thrust upon her. She is simultaneously loaded up with hopes and dreams while also representing a mighty and somewhat fearsome wind of change. It’s also what fuels the comments sections – she is emblematic of a bigger generational clash. It’s a hell of a burden that she bears with relative ease. 

Ardern is able to be a feminist, a role model for women, a staunch advocate for women’s rights, a mother and the Prime Minister and we can appreciate and celebrate the strength and confidence it takes to do all that – the balls of steel and the fist that smashed the glass ceiling. She is also able to be a kind person and we can find inspiration in that too.  

What once would have been regarded as ‘feminine traits’ and ‘signs of weakness’ are now part of the winning hand she and other women have to play. Ardern’s kindness is part of her special sauce as a leader and for all that recent news might represent in the grander scheme of our generational narrative, I have been struck by that more than anything else. That’s not to say a fist won’t be required from time to time but taking a leaf out of Ardern’s book and trying a little kindness might also be the balm we require as we navigate rapid societal change and increasingly come up against points of view that are not the same as ours.  

So, a watershed moment? Maybe. An icon for our generation? Sure. A bloody good example of what the world might look like with more women at the helm and a bit of kindness balm to boot? Now that’s the true escape from the way things have always been that I’m looking for. 

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