Politics

Ardern, Neve and the elephant makes three

After six weeks of looking after her newborn daughter Neve, Jacinda Ardern is back running the country. Sam Sachdeva spoke to the Prime Minister about second-guessing herself as a parent, caring for a baby and a growing elephant, and the song that will soundtrack her 2018.

From the outside, Jacinda Ardern’s Sandringham home seems disconcertingly nondescript for the residence of a prime minister.

The only features which distinguish it from the rest of the street are a newly-installed white fence, with the burly plainclothes protection officers lurking nearby and occasionally clasping a hand to their earpieces.

As children stream out of a nearby school at the stroke of 3 o’clock, a far more recent addition to the world is being looked after inside the house - Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford.

Neve will have a new home, at least temporarily, when Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford move into Premier House in Wellington this weekend ahead of the Prime Minister’s return to Parliament.

But for now, this is still home, with a newly bearded Gayford preparing some food in the kitchen and a smattering of baby clothing around the place.

Ardern, a well-known music fan, has spoken about how the song This Year by the Mountain Goats got her through a particularly difficult 2014.

Its bleak yet defiant chorus, “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me”, must have been a perfect fit - but what song will she remember from a year with more to celebrate?

“I’ve just added sleep deprivation to it, so maybe the same song but for different reasons,” she laughs.

Instead, she chooses “something quite sentimental”: Hold Her Close, the lullaby gifted to the Ardern family by Neil Finn and son Liam after Neve’s birth.

“That'll be my song. That'll probably be the thing that’ll mark Neve’s arrival for me.”

Long nights, fast years ahead

So how have the last six weeks gone? “Faaaast,” she whispers.

“A friend of mine said the nights are long but the years are fast when it comes to kids, and I can see how that would be the case because it feels like it’s been incredibly short but in this space of time even how much she’s grown, it has surprised me.”

She has been happy to leave the cut and thrust of politics behind for a while, focusing on the time she’s been  gifted - “and it did feel like a gift” - with Neve and Gayford.

There have been no major catastrophes so far, but Ardern says she is “constantly second-guessing” herself.

“Is this what I’m meant to be doing, will I get judged for this? I think that’s probably everyone [who] does that, so am I the same as any other parents who's gone through it, absolutely.”

One thing that has gone well is the use of a wahakura, a traditional Maori flax basket for babies to safely share the same bed as their parents.

“It’s beautiful as well, but just from a practical perspective, being able to move it easily but just when you're feeding in the middle of the night, having baby safely sleeping right next to you has been fantastic.”

She would have had any number of wahakura to choose from, given the number of gifts from well wishers and members of the public.

Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford are putting to use one of the many wahakura they received as gifts for their baby. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

That sense of public “ownership” of Neve must weigh heavily - literally, in the case of the hefty tome of Kiwis’ messages gathered and collated by Labour which sits on a shelf in their house.

But Ardern seems relaxed about the clamour for Neve news, saying there is a balance which those she has met already seem mindful of.

“I love that people have shared in this joy with us, and that’s been because I have a really public role and so I accept that means that our family life will be quite public.

“But at the same time, I’ve chosen a public life, Neve hasn’t, so at a national level we will try and do our best to keep her privacy.”

One demonstration of that has been her Facebook videos while on leave, which offer the illusion of greater access to Neve than actually is the case: a bundle swaddled in a blanket here, an offscreen gurgle there.

“I haven’t been posting photos particularly of her, I’m always alluding to her of course and  you can see her in my arms, but I am really mindful of that.”

That doesn’t mean her daughter will be hermetically sealed from the world: Ardern says she plans to be an “active parent”, so it’s inevitable the public will run into her or Gayford with Neve.

“It's not going to be easy and I'm not going to pretend it is, and I’m only going to be able to do out with the support of people around me, so I'm not going to create this model of something unattainable.”

She already has some high-powered protectors on her side: Speaker Trevor Mallard has issued a stern directive to media against any unauthorised photos of Neve while she’s at Parliament, warning that offenders may get their access removed.

Exactly how involved Ardern was in that decision remains an open question - she certainly seems surprised at the suggestion the rules had been tightened, and indicates there will be some give and take required.

“If I’m out doing my job and she’s with me, I understand that means that she’s with me in the public domain.

“What I hope us when we’re out doing things that are just part of our routine, getting to and from work, I hope in those cases we might have a bit of privacy.”

It may be a moot point: Ardern doesn’t anticipate taking Neve into the debating chamber, and her office space on the ninth floor of the Beehive is well away from the prying eyes of any unscrupulous journalists.

There will be plenty watching though to see how Ardern handles the dual responsibilities of parenthood and the highest political office in the land.

She’s quick to deflect any suggestion what she is doing is unprecedented, pointing to “plenty of people” in high-profile positions who have done the same, but acknowledges the rarity of a country’s leader giving birth.

“What I hope is that in the future it won’t be unusual, it won’t be something that people will have such a keen interest in because it will be much more normalised.”

She’s also clear that anyone looking to her for “superhuman role modelling” should look elsewhere quickly.

“It's not going to be easy and I'm not going to pretend it is, and I’m only going to be able to do it with the support of people around me, so I'm not going to create this model of something unattainablei."

An expanding elephant

If caring for a newborn baby isn’t enough, there’s also a growing animal for her to deal with.

The elephant in the room, as Ardern described business confidence levels in a pre-Budget speech, has been expanding in size with the release of each negative survey and is now threatening to blow out the Beehive’s windows.

The Prime Minister says she will deliver a speech within the next month directly aimed at assuaging the fears of the business community.

“I want to confront that head on...our economic priorities and strategies are incredibly important to our agenda, because we can’t achieve the things that we want to achieve around social well being without having a strong and growing economy.”

Don’t expect any policy U-turns though: Ardern is clear that her perceived solution is not a reversion to the norm, but explaining how the Government’s planned reforms will help, not hinder, underlying problems such as skills shortages and an overreliance on certain sectors.

“If we’re going to tackle all of those issues head on, it means modernising our economy - it means change, and if you generate change you create uncertainty.

"I absolutely understand the agenda we have could be causing that within the business community, but actually it has the ability to generate the positive outcomes that they want at the same time.”

“You can stick it out and slog it out and serve your political career and complete that and still feel like actually you didn’t maintain that relationship there and fulfil that role at the same time, so that is part of the pressure I feel and I think that’s probably what people want to see, that you can do both.”

In recent years, New Zealand politicians have been increasingly outspoken about the toll the job takes on their family lives.

John Key’s voice quavered during his resignation speech as he spoke about the sacrifices made “from those who are dearest to me”, while former Green MP Holly Walker has written movingly about the difficulty of life in Parliament as a new mother.

While Mallard has spoken about his desire to make the precinct more family-friendly, is it possible for a new parent to not just survive, but thrive?

“That's probably where some of the pressure comes: if we want to demonstrate that it can be done, then trying to make sure that it’s not just about staying in the job, it’s about staying in the job and feeling like you’ve done right by your family at the same time.

“You can stick it out and slog it out and serve your political career and complete that and still feel like actually you didn’t maintain that relationship there and fulfil that role at the same time, so that is part of the pressure I feel and I think that’s probably what people want to see, that you can do both.”

Does she feel like she can do it?

“Time will tell - I’m certainly going in with the expectation that I can and that I will. Will I be guilt-free? Absolutely not, but what parent is?”

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