A mother’s intuition works in powerful ways. A few weeks ago, Laurell Ardern was at home in Niue when she had a sudden feeling her youngest daughter – Jacinda – needed her.
She wasn’t due to fly to New Zealand until just before the September 23 election, but when she asked Jacinda whether she could use some extra support, the offer was met with a resounding “yes please”!
“So I quickly changed my flights, and I’ve been washing, ironing and cooking ever since!” laughs Laurell as she serves her politician daughter a bowl of delicious homemade pumpkin soup.
Jacinda, 37, has barely had time to process her astonishing rise to the top since becoming Labour leader and very, very soon, Prime Minister. Her schedule is mind-boggling. The night before our Woman’s Day photo shoot, she didn’t get to bed until after midnight following a TV leaders’ debate.
Today she was up at 4.30am and by the time we meet at midday, she’s already had five TV and radio interviews and a team meeting.
We have a two-hour window before Jacinda heads to Te Puea Marae in South Auckland for a policy announcement, followed by a Facebook Live chat and a drive to Hamilton for more campaigning. It’s brutal, but she claims she’s coping with the pace just fine.
“I’m actually OK,” insists Jacinda. “I’m probably running on five weeks’ worth of adrenaline. But the main thing is, I’m getting great joy from doing this job. You don’t get weary from things that give you joy. I genuinely love meeting people and spending time with people, which is good because now the only time I’m by myself is when I’m in a toilet cubicle!”
Welcoming Woman’s Day into the modest Auckland home she shares with partner Clarke Gayford, Jacinda says her mum’s arrival from Niue, where dad Ross is the high commissioner, couldn’t have come at a better time.
Clarke, 40, is away filming his TV show Fish of the Day and the pair have barely seen each other since Jacinda was made leader.
“He’s earning a lot of demerit points – he’s into the negatives,” laughs the charismatic leader, who reveals he’s just texted her to say he wrestled a dogtooth tuna from a shark.
It’s been a few weeks since Jacinda saw Clarke, who’s been staying with Ross in Niue, but they are set to reunite briefly in Christchurch, before Jacinda continues the campaign and Clarke takes off overseas again.
The distance hasn’t been easy, says Jacinda, but they’re making it work. “At the moment, we accept we’re not going to see each other much. Luckily, we’re such a solid couple, it makes it easier.”
Clarke does his best to be supportive from afar and when they do reunite, he takes on the lion’s share of chores. He’s an expert at separating the laundry – whites, darks and reds.
“It’s because he has so many pairs of Peter Blake red socks!” laughs Jacinda, who tells us that after they met up for a couple of hours in Wellington recently, she returned to the flat she keeps in the capital to find he’d made her a touching “survival kit”.
“We’d only had time to share a sandwich around a table with four Labour staff members, but when I got home, there was Panadol, Berocca, muesli bars, cups of noodles and he’d tidied the flat. It was really sweet.”
Laurell, 61, recalls the first time she met Clarke, on the election-campaign trail three years ago, and he’s now firmly part of the Ardern family.
“He’s lovely,” she tells. “I think they’re a very good match. And the main thing is, he makes Jacinda happy. He’s a wonderful support for her.”
She’s still in a state of shock over her daughter’s big year – “It’s all happened so fast!” – but she tells us that ever since Jacinda was little, it was clear she was special
and destined for great things.
“I could have had a dozen Jacindas,” says Laurell, who’s also mum to London-based Louise, 38.
“She was different to other children. She was mature beyond her years and had incredible common sense. I don’t really remember her ever getting into mischief because she was so sensible.
“She even helped me with my other daughter! Louise would walk out wearing something and I’d think, ‘You can’t wear that!’ But it was Jacinda who would say it. I remember thinking, ‘This is good – I’m not the bossy one!’”
Jacinda also always had a special ability to care for and communicate with others. An experience a few years ago stands out for her mum – Jacinda dropped everything to be with Laurell’s dying friend.
“There’s only one flight out of Niue a week, so when I heard my elderly neighbour from Morrinsville was dying, I knew I wasn’t going to make it in time. I was very upset she was on her own, so I mentioned it to Jacinda and she went straight to her bedside at Waikato Hospital and sat with her through the night. She talked to her, brushed her hair and never left her side. It meant the world to me.”
And when Laurell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, Jacinda was there.
Laurell, who has since recovered, recalls, “Jacinda was a huge support. My husband struggled with it more than me, so she spent a lot of time talking to him and reassuring him.”
Jacinda says it’s her parents who taught her the value of kindness. She’ll be forever grateful to Laurell for the sacrifices she made – namely giving up her career in office administration so she could raise Jacinda and Louise while Ross worked as a police officer.
“Mum is generous to a fault. She’s very caring and very kind. She made lots of life choices that were all based on me and my sister.”
But Laurell has no regrets. “I wanted to bring them up and put all my time and effort into doing things for them because I knew if I did that, they would be good adults.”
Jacinda says there’s no doubt that the values instilled in her during her childhood play a big part in her politics. “Mum’s always been kind to people who needed it.
At Christmas, we’d make all these miniature cakes and give them to people in the neighbourhood who we knew didn’t have anyone around.”
In a recent leaders’ debate, Jacinda stated that her primary reason for being in politics is to try to eradicate child poverty. Her passion was sparked while living in the small town of Murupara in the Bay of Plenty.
She explains, “I remember seeing kids at school without shoes. I was troubled by it, even though I was only five. It’s stuck with me since then.”
Jacinda was raised a Mormon, and she and Laurell agree that her decision to leave the church in her 20s was tough on both of them. The Labour leader has explained in the past that it was the church’s stance on homosexuality that led her to walk away.
Says Laurell, “I actually felt sorry for her because she was having to work all that out. It was very hard. But I’ve always said to her that it’s her choice. Everyone has choice.”
Jacinda adds that she’s grateful she could be honest with her parents about the challenges she was having. “Mum knew I was struggling and my decision certainly didn’t just happen overnight. I did feel torn, but I was lucky because I knew my parents would accept whatever decision I made. I knew it wouldn’t affect my future relationship with my family. Not everyone is so lucky.”
On August 1, Laurell was enjoying a morning gardening at home in Niue when a friend called her to ask if she’d heard the news her daughter had taken over from Andrew Little.
“We’d only just got used to her being the deputy leader! I’m still trying to get my head around it all. Seeing your daughter up on the TV and on the news, it’s quite something. We are extremely proud. I can’t express how proud we are.”
Laurell is making an effort to “harden up” when it comes to hearing criticism of her daughter, but she found the questioning around Jacinda’s plans for starting a family difficult to take.
“It was a tough time, but she handled it really well. She’s honest and upfront. I was very proud of her for that.”
With Jacinda-mania showing no signs of slowing down, the politician seems to be growing in confidence every day. While she used to say she never wanted the top job, one look at the polls indicates Kiwis think she has what it takes.
“As soon as Andrew resigned and the team suggested I be the one that step up, there was no question in my mind that I was going to do that,” she tells.
“I felt honoured and I know we can do this. You can’t ask anyone else to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.”
As she farewells the Woman’s Day team and heads to her next engagement, she puts an appreciative arm around Laurell.
“It definitely takes a village to raise an election campaign,” she says.
“My brother-in-law mowed my lawns yesterday, my sister-in-law filled the freezer with food and Mum is shoving vitamin C at me constantly so I don’t get sick. I am very lucky.”