Equal choices for all parents

Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern
Two massive milestones in the lives of women have just been reached but all genders and demographics should take note.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's return to Parliament earlier this month, after giving birth in June, catapulted New Zealand on to the international stage, Ms Ardern being only the second world leader to have a baby while in office.

The resulting messages about breaking down gender stereotypes were loud and clear, empowering women and girls to know they too can combine motherhood and careers if they wish, and should be assisted, respected and understood for doing so.

But ''if'' should be the operative word, and Ms Ardern's actions speak more of the importance of choice than anything else.

A mix of resulting commentaries have reflected that, praising and supporting an early return to work if that is what new mothers choose, but reassuring other mothers who want to stay at home longer that they are also valued, and should not feel pressured into returning to work before they wish.

Ms Ardern has thanked the country for her ''gift'' of six weeks' maternity leave, but it should not be a gift only some receive and can use.

As science tells us more about the importance of a child's first 1000 days and the bond with their primary caregiver, all parents - female and male - should be encouraged and able to take time to care for and bond with their young children, for as long as they like.

Ms Ardern also points out she is in a privileged position, having a supportive partner willing to be their child's primary caregiver, and being in a financial position that allows one of them to be a full-time parent.

Right again.

Sole-parent families or those on low incomes or with other complications in their lives are often unable to do that.

But of course Ms Ardern's actions primarily show - as she would like them to, and we should recognise - that if a woman with children wishes to return to work, at a time that suits her and her family, she should be able to.

Flexi-time, being able to work from home, and being able to breast-feed at work, are all part of this, and workplaces that allow flexibility through these and other child-friendly policies should be commended and remember the win-win that will result.

They will get capable and loyal employees in return, benefit from investment already made in staff members and encourage work-life balance - and most likely greater productivity and work satisfaction - in the process.

Juggling parenthood with work outside the home - and mothers and fathers know this - is never easy, so Ms Ardern is setting an important national and international example in that respect, while her humility is noted.

She knows she is only doing what so many other parents already do.

Ms Ardern's public statements about her partner Clarke Gayford should also be recognised. He is not their child's ''babysitter'', he is not ''helping'' Ms Ardern - he is a full parent and should also receive respect for choosing to stay at home to look after his child, as any woman who did the same thing also should.

Men should have choice too.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of the 125th anniversary of the main women's suffrage petition being tabled in Parliament.

The milestone is another reminder of New Zealand's trail-blazing, but also a prompt to take stock and see what else can and needs to be done.

Pay equity and domestic violence are still two key areas where women are suffering.

So while we celebrate small and international victories, we should also heed people's basic human rights, and help them with the dignity and power to be in control their own lives.

Vote, don't vote, have a baby, don't have a baby, go back to work, don't go back to work. The choice should always be yours.

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