The Guardian view on Jacinda Ardern: pregnant with meaning | Editorial

New Zealand was the first country to give votes to women. Now it gives childcare to the prime minister’s partner

Of course it ought not to be news that someone with an important job has a baby and then gets on with their work while their partner gets on with the childcare. Men do it all the time. Even some women do, if they are rich and powerful enough to turn their childcare over to paid help. But the announcement by Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, that she will have a child, take six weeks’ parental leave, and then leave the bulk of the childcare to her partner, Clarke Gayford, is still important. It’s an assertion of everyday equality from the first country in the world to give women the vote.

Ms Ardern and Mr Gayford are not exactly a couple like any other: she’s the prime minister, and he’s a television presenter, whose show centres on him killing and eating fish. But their relative prominence makes the impact of their decision greater. Even Mr Gayford’s screen persona as a macho outdoor man increases the significance of their announcement. It demonstrates that they recognise there’s an important sense in which neither of their high-powered jobs is going to be as influential as the work they do as parents.

Being a parent is not the only important work in the world, but for those who choose it, it’s a great responsibility. They will be more important to their children than to almost anyone else, and taking the time to acknowledge this is an important step towards a decent, harmonious life. There can’t be a single right answer for everyone to the question of how to balance paid work and childcare. Both men and women differ in their enjoyment and even tolerance of babies and infants. Their choices should not be imposed on them from the outside. We have a long way to go to get there. For most parents in the world, there is no real choice. A combination of social and economic pressures forces them into full-time childcare – or out of it. Changing this will demand an immense, global revolution – one which will make life better for everyone.

Childcare is one of the few forms of labour that can’t be automated and which machine learning can’t replace either. Economic progress can make it safer and less physically demanding – no one in the developed world has to boil up cloth nappies any more – but human babies will never be born ready for independent life. It will always be a huge job, emotionally and even intellectually, to introduce a child sympathetically to language, to relationships, to the physical world and the manifold aspects of culture that make up the human world. To share this between parents fairly is a necessary start. But it is not enough.

Children are not brought up by parents in isolation. As Ms Ardern said when making her announcement, it takes a village. Schools and employers must adopt the attitudes and policies that make child rearing easier and more natural. There is a very long way to go until a decision like the one the couple have just announced stops being news. But theirs is a step in the right direction.



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