On Monday, Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, brought her baby along to the U.N. General Assembly for the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit. The sight of a baby with a pacifier popped in her mouth was an odd one amid a sea of business attire—and, as such, it’s made headlines. “At just 3 months, she is said to be the youngest person to ever attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York,” according to NPR. The baby, Neve, even got a security pass on a lanyard.
The media coverage has focused on the amusing spectacle of a baby—a gurgle-y, poopy baby!—at the U.N. Which I get, because lookit this smoosh face. Only adding to the media spectacle: Neve was accompanied by Clarke Gayford, Ardern’s partner—they aren’t married, I love these people, let’s all move to New Zealand—who is now a stay-at-home dad. But buried in the coverage is why the baby and her dad are there.
As Fox News reports, “The couple has said Neve will accompany her mother on official business because Ardern is breastfeeding.” After the meeting, at which Ardern spoke, she told the New Zealand Herald, “Neve is actually nearby me most of the time in New Zealand, she’s just not always caught. But here, when she’s awake, we try and keep her with me. So that was the occasion.” Those U.N. photos are cute, but they also show a mom trying to do the near impossible, which is everything. All of it. All the things.
Just yesterday, a study was released touting the benefits of feeding babies “straight from the breast.” Specifically, “straight from the breast” babies generally had a healthier weight than those fed expressed breast-milk from a bottle (although both saw greater benefits than formula-fed infants). Researchers theorized that any number of things could be at play—refrigerating pumped breast milk might impact its beneficial enzymes and hormones, or it might be that babies don’t learn as well to self-regulate when drinking from a bottle because parents tend push them to finish it.
This is important and fascinating research! And the researchers are pretty good about highlighting the impossibility of achieving “straight from the breast” given the sorry state of paid maternity leave in this country.
But it would be hard to overstate just how maddening it is, as a formerly pumping mom, to come across headlines like, “Pumped breast milk not as good for baby’s weight, study says.” I just spent the better part of a year punctuating my work day with 15-minute pumping sessions three to four times a day. That is to say nothing of the endless cleaning and labeling and sterilizing. I’m lucky enough to work from home. Otherwise, those pumping sessions likely would have included locking myself in a windowless room for a quarter of an hour, standing over a sink in a communal kitchen while awkwardly scrubbing my dairy machinery, and then putting milk pumped from my boobs into a communal fridge. (I’m also lucky enough to have a job that allows for pumping breaks, period.) After all that, it’s still “not as good.”
When I look at those photos of Ardern with her baby at the U.N., it seems almost silly, impractical, over the top. Like it can’t quite be for real. I mean, really, a baby at the U.N. I find myself wondering, judgmentally, “Can’t they just give that kid a bottle outside?” But this is what it looks like—or rather, one way it can look—when a woman with highly unusual means and professional flexibility tries to balance the competing pulls of motherhood and a career. Sometimes it’s carrying sloshing bottles of boob-milk across an office. Other times, in much rarer circumstances, it’s bringing your baby to a kind of really important meeting.
Ardern is doing just what all the contradictory headlines would suggest a woman should do: continue her ladder-climb without interruption, spend precious bonding time with her baby, and, presumably, manage “straight from the breast” feeding.
But she’s also, paradoxically, breaking all the rules. She is expecting to be taken seriously in an elevated position while also visibly existing as a mom. You’re not supposed to do this. You’re supposed to compartmentalize, to not let one realm leak—ahh, leak, I still can’t see that word without cringing—into the next, to show that you can return to work entirely unchanged, just as a man might. Ardern, who took six-weeks maternity leave while in office, is going against all that with what seems to be an admirable sense of confidence—and the result is a bunch of photos that, well, seem a little funny. We probably need more babies at the U.N.—and visiting all workplaces—until it doesn’t look so weird.
Of course, there’s the risk of setting up yet another impossible-to-reach standard for women, given that vanishingly few are able to afford a stay-at-home-dad or even have a workplace that would allow baby visits. But it is, in the very least, a reminder of what doing it all really looks like. It’s cute, a little absurd, and, unfortunately, a total fucking luxury.