As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern comes to the end of her six weeks’ maternity leave, she says things are “obviously going to be a little bit different” on her return.
Since the birth of her daughter Neve, she has remained on call for major government issues and checked in with compatriots via Facebook.
In video on Sunday, she says she is ready to hit the ground running as her partner Clarke Gayford takes the reins as their daughter’s primary carer.
“We’re all doing really well still,” she says.
“We have absolutely no routine to speak of and I can hear now a chorus of parents laughing at the suggestion that you would ever have a routine with a five-week old baby but we’re doing really well nonetheless.”
She is the first world leader to give birth in office since the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan in 1990, and the first elected world leader to take maternity leave in office.
“I’m multitasking like every single parent I’ve ever met,” she says.
Her juggle resonates with these women, each of whom has told the ABC about how they weighed up the physical and psychological hurdles to rejoining professional life with their desire to resume their careers.
Kate Pennicott, senior employment lawyer
Went back to work four days a week when her son was 6 months old.
On the whole I have enjoyed my return to work, but it was really tough and it wasn’t what I expected. I had expectations that it would be easier for me compared to other people because my husband was at home and we didn’t have to deal with childcare yet.
Kate Pennicott says “fathers of young children have an equal role to play in raising their children and balancing that with their career”. (Supplied)
I don’t have any “mum guilt” about being away from my child — my husband and I are committed to parenting equally and luckily I feel like I’m quite immune to any of that.
It’s more that I have struggled to adjust to the reality of how much time and mental load having a child takes up and realising that I used a lot of time and mental load for my job and now I have less of it.
I was used to having a buffer to keep up with deadlines by occasionally staying back late or logging on from home later on, but because our baby hasn’t been sleeping well I have needed to try and get every hour of sleep I can because my husband and I are going to be up throughout the night.
The reality is that at the moment I can’t get through the volume of work that I used to get through, but I think this has made me more focused and more productive in the time that I do have.
My employer is quite flexible and accommodating. I haven’t felt that there’s been any impact professionally at all.
It has helped greatly that many of my colleagues, including my supervisors, have had their own kids and understand what it is like.
Thoughts on Jacinda Ardern?
I am sure it will be hard, but I also don’t think it’s a big deal. In my view fathers of young children have an equal role to play in raising their children and balancing that with their career.
Jacinda’s husband will simply take on that primary carer role. This is a reverse of the traditional roles, which we are seeing more and more of, and I think that’s great.
“There’s no way I could teach fulltime and have a child, no way in the world” — Madelene Keelan. (Supplied)
Madelene Keelan, primary school teacher
Returned to work two days a week when her daughter was 8 months old.
Work is the same, I guess, and the expectations around work are the same, and I find I’m a lot more efficient. I think it’s the home life — expectations haven’t really changed, so I still run the household, the playgroups, and the timetables for everybody as much as I did when I didn’t have to work.
I’m blessed with a good sleeper, so that helps everything. There’s probably not enough hours in the day to achieve everything I want to and have the mental balance I’d like.
I’d like to sit in front of the TV for half an hour and not feel guilty. It doesn’t quite happen as often as I’d like.
With year 1 and 2 teaching, it’s not dissimilar to the physical demands I have at home — I’m up and down off the floor all day, I’m singing, I’m dancing … all the normal things I’d be doing at home except I’m not doing the laundry, or the food shopping.
There’s no way in the world that I could teach fulltime and have a child. There’s just too much demand on a teacher to be able to do that well and also be a good mum. It would be far too difficult for me.
I think the demands of teaching and parenting just don’t marry up — largely because of the work you do outside of school. While it’s lovely that you get lots of school holidays, it’s not just a 9-to-5 job. Even working three days I think I would struggle at the moment.
Thoughts on Jacinda Ardern?
I think that there would be an enormous amount of guilt, to be honest. I feel guilty going back two days a week. I can’t imagine how I’d feel running a country.
I think there’ll also be a lot she’ll miss out on — the growth and development of babies happens so quickly, she’ll miss those little milestone moments that you relish … the first time they roll over, or make a certain noise, grab something.
While she’ll be told them I think she’ll miss seeing them. But maybe it’s only important when that’s what your life revolves around at the time.
Work and motherhood, says Justine Bell-James, is “a bit of a juggle, but I really enjoy it, also”. (Supplied)
Justine Bell-James, university professor
Went back part-time when her daughter was 5 months old, and full-time when she turned 1.
I really liked being back at work. I think generally it’s been a good move, but it’s hard in a lot of ways.
My daughter’s not a good sleeper — getting better now, but that’s something I wasn’t really prepared for. I assumed by the time I went back it wouldn’t be an issue.
The sickness. Oh my goodness, the sickness this year has been full-on — with us as well, just being sick all the time.
There’s lots to juggle — pumping milk constantly in my office while trying to do things. That’s been interesting. I did it up to the 12-month mark and then decided to stop pumping at work and just feed her at home.
My boss was very good about me setting up and doing it in my office, but we have glassed walled offices so I had to put up a curtain. I did it at my desk so I could keep going.
It’s up and down — I don’t feel like I can do as much as I used to. Being an academic, there are a whole lot of facets to my job. I feel like I can do the main things, but I’ve had to really cut back on a lot of the travel and going to conferences. Going to networking events is a little hard as well, so I’ve had to cut back.
I often try to leave work early so I can pick up my daughter and spend time with her, but that means I’ve got to often do stuff after she goes to bed at night, which is difficult.
It’s a bit of a juggle, but I really enjoy it also.
My partner spends two days a week at home with our daughter. He works 4 days a week including Saturdays, and starts later in the morning — for childcare drop-off, so it’s a pretty good situation for me. I don’t have to deal with that mad juggle. I do pickup and am home with her in the evening until he gets home from work.
There’s no free time — there’s no getting home and sitting on the couch. It’s a mad scramble to make dinner, then bath and bedtime, and then often catching up in the work I missed.
I’ve got a lot of colleagues who have children, so I could see what it was going to look like in the abstract. I wasn’t as prepared for the sleep deprivation. It’s a lottery whether you get a sleeper or not, and some days having to front up and give a lecture to a couple of hundred students when I’ve only had two hours sleep, and have only had two hours sleep a night for weeks was very, very hard.
Then comes the deluge of childcare germs. Everybody said she’ll be sick for the first year, and I was prepared for that. But I wasn’t prepared that I would be sick nonstop, and lecturing through tonsillitis, and gastro the night before … it was full-on. There were elements I was grossly underprepared for.
Thoughts on Jacinda Ardern?
God it’s hard, leaving them at first. Objectively, it’s easy — you leave them and it’s fine — and I was leaving her with her dad for the first six months, not even childcare, but I would still cry on the way to work every day for a while.
Putting her in childcare almost tore my heart out. She absolutely loves it now, but you don’t know how much it’s going to hurt having to do those things.
Went back to work three days a week when her son was 3 months.
It’s totally different — very difficult I would say. I don’t think I was really ready to go back to work. I think that added to the whole transitioning to life after a baby.
It was overwhelming. I had moved to Australia just three years earlier. I was completing my exams and had just started work when I discovered I was pregnant, so I was really eager to get back into my work, but I was also breastfeeding, so that made things a bit tricky.
It wasn’t to do with my job or my employer, that was pretty much the same, but I had changed drastically as a person. I just realised the things that never bothered me in the past now did.
I’d get home about 6pm and would have just enough time to do the night-time routine and put my baby to sleep. I didn’t get time to spend with him.
I want to spend time with my baby at the same time as I want to be back at work, and sometimes I can’t do justice to either of them.
I know it sounds funny when you’re part-time and you say you can’t find balance, but I don’t have my family here and I totally rely on childcare to take care of my baby when I’m at work.
So there are days when he’s sick and then we’re in a pickle.
Taking leave in the private sector is a nightmare. I have a full book of patients who need to be rescheduled, so the onus then falls on my husband to take leave.
And that adds to my guilt that I’m not there with my baby when he’s sick.
Like today, he’s not well and I’m going to work and my husband’s taken time off. Of course, I’m really grateful I have such a supportive husband (he’s a psychiatrist).
I’ve developed this love-hate relationship with my job which wasn’t the case before the baby.
I really love my job. I was with my baby for three months and love him, but working gives you a purpose other than it being all about him. It’s really nice to get out, and when you’re at work your mind shuts off, and you’re into your patients.
But then sometimes I simply hate it when I have to go into work and he’s not well.