The Prime Minister of multi-tasking will be fine

Working mum Lynn Grieveson argues those saying Jacinda Ardern "won't be able to do both jobs" are making an assumption that mothering must always mean carrying the mental load of parenting

The news of the Prime Minister's pregnancy may have jolted the media out of its summer slumber, but my daughters, in their teens and early 20s, had a more low-key reaction.

"Oh, okay. That's nice," they said, when told.

They didn't seem to see why it was a big deal that a brand new Prime Minister would soon have a brand new baby as well.

She's the bloody Prime Minister, of course she can.

Then the predictable columns appeared, about how hard it would be to juggle the roles of mother and PM and what an unrealistic message it sent to young women.

Again, they shrugged.

"I assume her partner will take up the role of much of what we see as 'mothering'", said the eldest.

"She's the bloody Prime Minister, of course she can," said her sister.

And there lies the flaw in those columns. It's what is being ignored by the mothers and grandmothers muttering to each other that Ardern has no idea how hard it will be.

Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford on election night. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

This is a woman in an exceptional position, who has been given the opportunity to take on an extraordinary role she has probably dreamt of for years – and it is a role that means in some ways she will be granted a pass from what makes parenting take such a toll on women's careers.

Which is not to say it won't be hard.

It is always hard to juggle work and parenting, and it is always a shock to realise how unrelenting are the emotional and logistical demands that come along with that first tiny baby.

For most working mothers, being at work is not the hard part

It's especially hard when you are used to working regular hours and spending your copious free time meeting up with friends, sleeping in at weekends, and wandering around the shops.

But that is not the life Ardern has been living. Regular hours and copious free time are not the hallmarks of life as a senior MP and certainly not of a Prime Minister. Ardern already knew her life would not, in many ways, be her own from this year on.

And for most working mothers, being at work is not the hard part.

The hard part is going to work and then spending your lunchtime picking up a prescription for one child, ringing up to make a GP appointment for another and at the same time remembering that you have run out of milk, that you need a gold coin for mufti day tomorrow, that Friday is a teacher-only day, that the school has sent home a note about nits in the class — and that you still haven't gone online to make the parent-teacher interview and now all the good spots will be taken.

The hard part is rushing away from work, feeling guilty about doing so but knowing that if you are five minutes late picking up the baby from daycare you will have to pay penalty rates.

The hard part is hoping that your partner, who 'helps out' by picking up the kids from afterschool care on the day you work late, will remember that, if he can't be on time, he needs to at least fudge the time on the sign-out sheet. Because you are on your final warning after all the times he has been late collecting them, and if they can't go to after-school care, how will you work?  

The hard part is both parents working in high pressure but rewarding jobs, and constantly battling each other for even more time to work, even though you are already both working well over 55 hours a week.

Even harder is working long hours in a factory, or scrubbing toilets or standing at a checkout and, after all that, not just wondering when you will find time to buy new school shoes or soccer boots, but also how you will pay for them without going further into debt.

Perhaps stop worrying about Ardern and start thinking instead about the assumptions you are making about what it means to be a mother.

Ardern recognised this herself when she said: "We recognise that we are very lucky, very privileged, that we are in a position where, like so many parents, we will be juggling the caring roles but we are privileged and lucky that Clarke will be able to do that full-time."

Last year a cartoon (translated into English) by a French illustrator went viral. Called "You should've asked", it was all about the "mental load" borne by women.

Ardern has numerous people organising her diary and her meetings so that she can focus on the important stuff and not waste time on the daily housekeeping and logistics of work life (as well as having ministerial cars that take her from one meeting to the next) — and no one will be expecting her to take on all the 'emotional labour' that is dumped on most working mothers.

She is, as my daughter said, the bloody Prime Minister.

So, if you are one of those people muttering about how hard it will be to do both jobs, perhaps stop worrying about Ardern and start thinking instead about the assumptions you are making about what it means to be a mother.

Perhaps we should be asking what needs to change so working parents are not either totally stressed and exhausted (with resulting implications for family violence and mental health) or withdrawing their talents from the workforce (with resulting loss of productivity).

If you are capable of holding down a job and functioning as an adult, you are capable of staying on top of at least some of the mountain of tedious responsibilities of parenting.

Some couples choose for one parent to stay home, either full-time or part-time, and take on the majority of the emotional labour as well as the practical childcare. But too often, whether the mother works part-time or full-time, fathers have traditionally drifted into letting them carry that burden, while congratulating themselves for being the major breadwinner (perhaps a little annoyed that their partner's career seemed to stall).

Worst of all, they pull the "but you are so good at it" card. Sorry – if you are capable of holding down a job and functioning as an adult, you are capable of staying on top of at least some of the mountain of tedious responsibilities of parenting.

The uncomfortable truth is that filling in school forms and remembering that the toddler needs a repeat prescription, that the baby's vaccinations are due, that the eldest has grown out of his school shoes and needs a new pair … all feels a bit too much like work. And all of us would like to leave work at the door and enjoy more of those long free evenings and weekends when we could just please ourselves, as we did before the children came along.  

Let's hope that when couples of my daughters' generation are planning to have children these things will be discussed, negotiated and the responsibilities clearly divided up beforehand.

As is, no doubt, the case with Ardern and her partner.

If Clarke Gayford is willing to take on the mental load of running the household, then Ardern will be free to focus on that exceptional job of Prime Minister and still be a loving and involved parent — just as thousands of men in demanding roles are.

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