Hours after 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern was elected leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party in August, two television hosts asked about her plans for a family. One of the hosts specifically asked whether it was acceptable for a nation’s prime minister to take maternity leave while in office.
“It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace,” Ardern fired back. “It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.”
In October, Ardern became New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in more than a century. And on Friday, she announced that she would be taking on another role — that of a mother. Ardern and her partner, Clarke Gayford, are expecting their first child in June.
“I am not the first woman to multitask. I am not the first woman to work and have a baby,” Ardern said in a news conference Friday. “We are going to make this work, and New Zealand is going to help us raise our first child.”
The pregnancy was unexpected, Ardern acknowledged. She and her partner had “been clear we wanted to be parents but had been told we would need help for that to happen.” Once she became the nation’s leader, those plans were put on the back burner, she said.
Now, she wrote in a social media post, the couple will be “joining the many parents out there who wear two hats. I’ll be Prime Minister AND a mum, and Clarke will be ‘first man of fishing’ and stay at home dad.” He is the host of a television show about fishing. Asked whether the couple planned on getting married, Gayford said, “I like the idea that we’re doing everything in reverse.”
Ardern said that her pregnancy would not get in the way of her leadership and her goals for the country.
“I want us to be known for what we achieved for New Zealanders,” she told reporters. “This will only be another addition to the history of this government.”
Ardern said she will be taking a six-week maternity leave, during which New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, will take on her duties. After that period, she plans to return to her job. Her partner will be the “full-time caregiver,” she said.
Ardern, who is New Zealand’s third female prime minister, will become one of the few elected leaders in world history to hold office while pregnant, according to Reuters. The most recent example was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, who gave birth while she was prime minister in 1990. Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007.
Ardern’s announced pregnancy and commitment to going about business as usual prompted a wave of support from female leaders and women’s rights groups. For women around the world, Ardern has set a powerful example, showing that a woman should not have to choose between motherhood and a position of leadership.
“Every #woman should have the choice of combining family & career,” tweeted Helen Clark, a former New Zealand prime minister.
“This is first and foremost a personal moment for her — but it also helps demonstrate to young women that holding leadership positions needn’t be a barrier to having children (if you want to),” tweeted Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland.
“In fact I’m kind of speechless for what this will come to mean for women of all ages — but in particular, girls who will grow up seeing this as normal for working women in complex leadership roles,” tweeted Esther Anatolitis, a writer in Australia.
Announcing that her partner would be the primary caregiver might also open up “a national conversation about how entirely possible it should be for men to take more paternal leave,” said one New Zealand writer. “It shows little boys there are other ways of being men, too.”
After a closely fought election last year, Ardern, leader of the center-left Labour Party, became prime minister through a coalition deal with the right-wing populist New Zealand First party. She found out she was pregnant less than a week before Peters announced his support for her for prime minister, she revealed Friday.
But throughout all of these post-election negotiations, she kept the pregnancy private, she said.
In response to critics who might question her ability to juggle both roles, she said: “None of them detected I had pretty bad morning sickness for three months of establishing the government.”
How did she manage that? reporters asked.
Ardern shrugged. “It’s what ladies do,” she said.
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