Jacinda Ardern, the 42-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, announced this week that she would step down by Feb. 7. Ardern, who is also the mother of 4-year-old girl, said that after more than five years in office, she didn’t have the energy to continue in the role. “I know what this job takes,” she said, “and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple” — cueing up a fresh round of discussion about whether women can really “have it all.”
We can. She does.
Ardern’s savvy decision to leave office on her own terms is a win for working mothers everywhere, because she’s helping put the whole tired debate to rest.
In 2023, it’s clear that women can be ambitious and have families. We shouldn’t — we don’t — need to prove that at this point, though Ardern provided us with ample evidence of how well it can be done. She became prime minister in 2017 at just 37. She gave birth while in office, and rose to worldwide prominence for her “extraordinary leadership” in the aftermath of the tragic mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques in 2019.
Like every other world leader, she navigated the coronavirus pandemic and its various economic and political repercussions. As my colleague Natasha Frost reports, though Ardern’s Labour Party has lost favor with New Zealanders, she “has remained personally popular with the electorate” and is still most New Zealanders’ “preferred prime minister.”
All the while, she’s had a young child at home. In 2018, she brought her baby daughter to a United Nations peace summit honoring Nelson Mandela. During the scary early days of the Covid crisis, she “addressed the nation via a casual Facebook Live session she conducted on her phone after putting her toddler to bed,” as my colleague Amanda Taub wrote in 2020.
Making the decision to leave office now rather than run herself into the ground isn’t conceding that she can’t do the job anymore. It’s an acknowledgment — one that’s both astute and selfless, fine qualities in an elected official — that she no longer wants to do it in this particular way. While she says she has “no plan” and “no next steps” for after she leaves her government role, I anticipate she’ll put her abundant political skill to good use in some way.
She demonstrated that skill in her moving resignation speech, addressing her nation in terms highly relatable to any parent versed in the current motherhood discourse of “filling our tanks” before they are empty and putting our “oxygen masks” on first so we have something left to give our families before we burn out.
I encourage you to listen to Ardern’s entire speech. But this is the part that will stay with me:
I never thought “having it all” meant we should sacrifice our entire lives and our health on the altar of ambition and outward metrics of success or financial reward. It shouldn’t mean that we can never leave a professional role that is no longer suiting us or our families, because feminism, or something. The world would probably be better off if more leaders were like Ardern, less concerned about their own egos and more concerned about what was best for their countries. The “I alone can fix it” posture has its obvious limitations.
Mom and prime minister is a strong résumé for a Xennial. You might even say she’s done it all.
The good news is that the culture is shifting around this discussion: BBC News’s hackneyed headline, “Jacinda Ardern resigns: Can women really have it all?” drew an outcry, as it should have. As Neela Janakiramanan wrote for the Australian publication Women’s Agenda, that headline reduced “a highly effective and much-beloved leader who steered her country through multiple national tragedies and a pandemic into a trope, a cliché, even a warning — the woman who tried to be bigger than she had any right to be.” And Janakiramanan, a novelist and a surgeon, would know a thing or two about having it all.
The BBC changed its headline. Let’s hope we can change the headline on this topic, once and for all.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
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