By Mina Malik-Hussain
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is expecting a child while in office. She is the first Kiwi PM to take oath pregnant and quite possibly be the first to give birth while in office. New Zealanders are pretty excited, and news of who is jokingly being referred to as “the royal baby” is flooding their media. To us, of course, this should be old hat because our only female Prime Minister, the first woman to lead a Muslim country, was also the first woman leader to give birth while in office. Benazir Bhutto won the 1988 election, taking office in December of the same year. She had given birth to her son, Bilawal, in September that year. As leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, she had been campaigning for office while pregnant and took office when her baby was three months old. Daughter Bakhtawar followed in January 1990, officially making Bhutto the first woman to give birth while in office. I might add that she was also only thirty-seven. So not only did she take office for the first time at thirty-five with a newborn, she also had another baby and carried on her official duties until her government was dismissed. As a woman, one finds that astonishing. As a mother, I am gobsmacked.
Anyone who has had a baby (and I include fathers in the equation) knows what incredibly hard work an infant is. Carrying a baby to term with the child and mother’s health intact is nine months of being responsible and vigilant—don’t forget the vitamins, see your doctor regularly, don’t forget you’re expecting and race down a flight of stairs. Campaigning for the highest political office in the land after your father was hanged? Unbelievably tremendous. Pregnancies are not an easy ride, even when they are good ones. Being pregnant and the first woman in the country to attempt what you are doing takes grit and courage of colossal proportion. Managing a tiny baby alongside being the Prime Minister is mind-boggling. How on earth did Bhutto manage? Nobody talks about it, somehow. I am too young to have participated in those conversations if they did happen, but it’s worth trying to find out.
Ardem’s pregnancy has sparked a conversation about women and their right to work during and after their pregnancies that would be valuable to us today. Many female leaders, whatever their profession, hesitate to have children because it is seen as a depreciation of their value as chief person-in-charge. Women and their bodies are considered messy and unpredictable, and many women in professional positions try to minimize that aspect of themselves as much as possible. It’s understandable. When men take time off work to look after their children they are seen as heroes—what an amazing father!—but when women do the same it’s a pained sigh, “women’s problems”. One stark example of this is how Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, famously took only two weeks of maternity leave when she had her first baby while Mark Zuckerberg, who runs Facebook, took two months of paternity leave when his first baby was born. With so many women doing better than men academically, it makes sense that they would want to utilize their potential in the workplace and yet many environments are still not conducive to women and their very real concerns which, like it or not, will include the things their bodies do.
Whatever your politics or opinions of hers, Benazir Bhutto was a force to be reckoned with. Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari was the last child to be born to a woman in office, and nearly thirty years later, Jacinda Ardem’s baby will be the next. Bhutto faced incredible prejudice during her career—if it wasn’t her age, it was her gender. As a successful woman in our misogynist country, riddled with sexist politicians; as someone who won two popular elections and took the Prime Minister’s office twice, it must have been an uphill struggle. As a mother, the pressure must have quadrupled. Men have the luxury of being able to freely pursue their careers and aspirations—they just have to do it, and wives are expected to be supportive and provide a domestic environment that allows for the men to pursue their ambition. If male careers call for relocation, wives and children are expected to pack up and follow them. The ones who don’t then turn into single-parent households, where the mothers hold the fort whilst fathers come and go. This is all because men’s work is privileged over women’s work, because men are expected to provide. Women’s work is seen as a hobby, an indulgence that is ultimately irrelevant to their primary role, i.e domestic work. Even in societies more socially developed than ours, women are not paid the same amount as men for the same kind of work and work environments are still prejudiced against people who have to leave at five to pick up children and get dinner on the table. Ardem’s partner plans to be a stay-at-home father for their baby, which is the fairest option if you can put gender aside—one parent works, one parent looks after the baby. I don’t know how much fathering Asif Zardari did when his children were very young, but Benazir Bhutto did what women all over the world have done: managed to juggle it all. It’s not really about “having it all” for women. It’s the fact they shouldn’t have to choose, that they should be able to pursue ambitions and plans without having to give up one thing or another. Do men agonize over having it all? Are their choices tinged with this sense of the impossible, or an underpinning of guilty greediness? One thinks not. So on behalf of working moms everywhere, thank you, Ms. Bhutto. You were a legend.