Op-ed: It’s a huge deal to have babies in Parliament. Not talking serves no one

On 2 August 2017 I wrote this opinion piece for Stuff in response to Jacinda Ardern’s election as Labour Party leader and the questions she subsequently faced about whether she planned to have children.

When I was a Green MP and pregnant with my first child, former National MP Katherine Rich stood in my office and told me that she would do anything she could to help make the experience I was about to have easier.

She would even, she said, come and hold the baby for me while I worked.

I was taken aback by this generous offer, because I didn’t know her very well.

It seemed like the kind of thing you might offer to your family or close friends, not an acquaintance from a very different political background.

I see now that it was her way of telling me just how hard having a baby while an MP, was going to be. It was very, very hard.

I lasted until my daughter was nine months old before calling it quits.

I had developed post-natal depression and anxiety, my partner was unwell, and I could no longer take care of myself and my family while trying to do a good job as an MP. It took me months, if not years to recover.

And I was just a junior opposition back bencher.

Before her election to the position of Labour Party leader yesterday, Jacinda Ardern had made it clear she was not keen on the role, because she and her partner hoped to start a family.

In extraordinary circumstances, she has stepped up, despite her initial reluctance.

Many people are now celebrating the elevation of a young woman to the position of Leader of the Opposition as a step in the direction of greater representation.

Many are also wondering what this will mean for Jacinda’s plans to start a family.

She has been asked about this publicly, most notably on TV3’s The Project and again on the AM Show this morning. She has been open and honest in her responses.

But the very fact that she was asked this question has raised some hackles.

Broadcasters Hillary Barry and Ingrid Hipkiss both tweeted their objection to the question and it has been the subject of much discussion today.

I understand this response. It is sexist and unfair that women in prominent careers and positions get asked this question and men in the same roles don’t.

To be fair to The Project’s host Jesse Mulligan, I think his question was prompted more out of concern for the tough choice Jacinda must have faced when deciding whether to accept the nomination, rather than her qualification to take up the role.

Unfortunately, whatever the intent, just by asking the question, the public is invited to speculate about what the answer might mean for Jacinda’s tenure in her new role.

I understand why many people think it shouldn’t have been asked.

Yet insisting that we shouldn’t ask such questions implies that if a female Leader of the Opposition, or even Prime Minister, chose to have a baby, it would be no big deal.

How I wish this were true.

Before I had my daughter, I assumed that with a supportive partner and good childcare, there was no reason why I couldn’t carry on in a high status, stressful job while also breastfeeding and co-parenting an infant.

I was wrong.

While my experiences are unique to me, I now believe there are many structural barriers that make it difficult for women to become mothers for the first time in Parliament.

Not asking questions like the one Jesse Mulligan asked Jacinda Ardern risks glossing over this inconvenient truth.

No-one is served if we pretend it would be no big deal for a woman to have a baby while leading the country.

It would be a huge deal, not only because it would make history, but also because with Parliament’s current rules and conventions and the expectations we place on our leaders to be available and “on” at all times, it would likely cause huge personal stress to her and her family.

We need structural and cultural change to make Parliament, and many other workplaces around the country, more flexible and family-friendly so that leadership roles are more compatible with upholding care responsibilities.

All of us, not just women, have these responsibilities.

If we must ask, let’s ask all politicians how they balance their work life with their care responsibilities.

When a man is in line for a promotion, let’s ask him how it might impact on his family.

Let’s all answer honestly and use the answers to change some of the rules and practices and expectations we have of our leaders to support all parents with care responsibilities in those roles.

Meanwhile, if Jacinda does have a baby in the next few years, I will do anything I can to help make the experience easier for her. I’ll even hold the baby while she works.

Because I know how hard it will be.