Returning to the workforce for new mothers is always an emotional time, and it’s no different for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Speaking to Woman’s Day from her Auckland home on her first day back in the leadership role after six weeks maternity leave, Jacinda, 38, admits she has mixed emotions knowing the precious period she’s had off work and completely devoted to nesting with baby Neve has come to an end.
She doesn’t want to pretend it’s easy for a second.
“I’m looking forward to being back and doing a job that I love, but equally I know I’ll miss having all that time with her. It’s been lovely,” she smiles as she relaxes in the sitting room of the Sandringham bungalow she’s recently bought with partner Clarke Gayford, 40.
“I feel ready to go back, but I’m not going to gloss over it. There are going to be moments – oh gosh, there will be.”
Nearby, Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford sleeps peacefully in a quiet corner of the house, the only clues she’s there are the bottles and breast pump on the bench, baskets of toys and a cloth for spills on the sill.
“It’s been the fastest six weeks of my life – it’s just flown by,” says Jacinda. “And yet when I look back on the first photos when Neve arrived and see just how much she’s grown, it also seems like it has to have been forever.”
It was June 21 when the arrival of this little cherub at Auckland City Hospital marked an historic moment that made headlines worldwide. Only once before had a world leader given birth while in office, and that woman was the late Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto, who coincidentally, Jacinda points out, shared the same birthday as Neve.
Jacinda says motherhood has proven to be “wonderful” and she’s besotted with her daughter, saying, “All the things that people say about not knowing how much you can love someone new in your life, that’s absolutely true – and how lovely that is.”
She’s pleased Neve’s hitting all her milestones, and is thankful she’s been a happy and healthy baby.
Jacinda thought Neve looked like Clarke when she was first born, but says her mother Laurell “absolutely believes” she looks like the PM. “But I’m not so sure. I think Neve looks like Neve. Time will tell.”
She’s eternally grateful she’s had both Clarke and her mum around to help.
They haven’t ventured out much, she says. “I’ve been to the dairy, taken Neve to her appointments and those kinds of things. I think I probably went for a walk around the block a little sooner than I should have. I was ambitious and then hobbled back to the house.”
But on the weekend, Jacinda and Clarke were due to take the first of many flights with Neve to Wellington and their second home, Premier House. As Jacinda returns to Parliament, Clarke is ready to be a stay-at-home dad.
“He’s a natural,” declares Jacinda. “He jokes that even before Neve arrived, people were passing him their children a lot, probably testing him.
“Neve smiles at Clarke a lot and looks at me with general indifference,” she says. “I’m reassured this is not unique to me. Clarke’s probably changed more nappies than I have at this point. I obviously have the feeding duty, so he’s really taken on the nappy mantle. We’ll see if that holds.”
Well, it will have to because as of this week, Clarke will have his hands full. The Fish of the Day host has put his regular work on hold so he can be Neve’s primary caregiver and, as Jacinda admits, they have no routine to speak of yet, so he’s in for a challenge.
But she’s “relentlessly positive” she has the support to make this next chapter work. When Parliament’s in session, they’ll be Wellington-based and return to Auckland when in recess. The plan is that Clarke will bring Neve to the Beehive most days.
“This is where I’m so lucky. There haven’t been too many leaders that have had children in office, but also that comes with a huge amount of privilege too. I’m based close to work and I have the ability for Clarke and Neve to come in. There’s space for her and all the things she needs. That means we’re able to do a bit of juggling around.
“There are things that I just absolutely have to do as part of my job and none of that will be sacrificed,” she tells.
The PM says she plans to continue breastfeeding, but she’s also expressing and Neve can take a bottle. “There will be times when I can’t be there so we’ve had to make sure she is able to switch between the two. So far we’re OK, but she’s a breastfed baby who has to be adaptable.”
So did the PM miss work? “Yeah, I did. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t wholly focused on this gift of these six weeks. But I’ve missed being involved and just keeping things moving towards some of those aspirations that we have.
“It’s lucky I’ve always known I’m going back. It’s not like Clarke and I sat down and had a conversation and said, ‘OK, which one of us is going to stay.’ That was never the choice for me. So in a way I’m glad that choice has been taken away.
“The hardest thing has been anticipating not being around as much as I have been. It’s given me real empathy for others in that situation because a lot of families don’t have the choices I have.”
A year into the job as Labour leader, Jacinda is keen to keep up the momentum for politcal change since she became PM on October 26 last year.
“If you’d said to me even on July 1, 2017, that in the next year I would be leader of the Labour Party, that I would go into an election and come out the other side as Prime Minister and have a child, I would have said that was ridiculous,” she says.
“You wouldn’t even write that – no-one would believe you. It’s been quite something.”
Hailed as one of the world’s most influential and inspirational people, especially for women who want to have both a career and family, she says, “You read those things and they don’t feel quite real when you’re elbow deep in nappies and breast pumps.
“I do feel a sense of responsibility there, but equally I feel like my responsibility is not to make it look easy because it’s not, so why pretend it is? Equally, why should women have to do it all on their own? I won’t do it by myself – I’m going to be very open about that because credit where credit’s due.”
But for all her incredible achievements in life, it’s Neve that she’s most proud of.
“Ultimately I just hope Neve has choices to fulfil whatever hopes that she might have and that she’s happy. I don’t need her to become anything in particular other than just whatever she wants to be.
“I hope I walk away from my time in Parliament feeling like I did all the things in politics I wanted to and that it was worth whatever sacrifices that had been made. But I know the thing I’ll think about when I’m on my deathbed will be Neve as opposed to politics … as important as it is to me.”