24 Jun 2018

Welcome, our little mokopuna

9:24 pm on 24 June 2018

By Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw *

Opinion - The arrival of Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford's baby daughter evokes a rich and complex set of emotions, not just for her parents but for many people who share in the joy #weareallauntiesnow.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford leave hospital today with their baby girl.

Photo: RNZ

That tiny squinting baby and her parents have taken the leap together and made that most delightful of things - a new family. It is a time full of possibility, love and no small dose of fear.

Recently, I was reading research by Professor Leonie Pihama and I came across this by Dr Rangimarie (Rose) Pere:

He taonga te mokopuna, ka noho mai hoki te mokopuna hei puna mo te tipuna ka whakaaro tātou tātou ka noho mai te mokopuna hei tā moko mo te tipuna anā he tino taonga rā tōna. He mokopuna rā tātou, he mokopuna anā hoki ngā tipuna.

A grandchild is very precious, a fountain for ancestral knowledge and an everlasting reflection of those who have gone before. We are all grandchildren as are our ancestors.

Precious indeed is this new baby.

Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford will experience a life in the spotlight, but also the conditions for a thriving life. Her parents will be supported and loved, their starting a family is celebrated by many in the community. She will have a warm and healthy home, a well-paid mother with a relatively stable job.

She will have a second parent who can spend all the time he needs to bond with her in those important few years, helping build her brain connections through lots of interactions with her that are free from stress.

Stress of course will be a factor in her family, but it will be manageable stress, not toxic and overwhelming. It will not be stress caused by worry about job loss, paying the next power bill or knowing they could lose their rental accommodation at any time and have to move with a small baby.

None of this will guarantee that she will thrive, but the chances are a lot better. These conditions will empower and enable her to choose freely and to determine her own path.

These are not choices or freedoms that other children and adults have.

In New Zealand over half of families experience income poverty for at least a year after having a child. Housing costs have soared and incomes have not. Childcare is expensive, work has become precarious and pay is inequitable for women and parents.

We need to lay a better foundations for all new families to thrive because that is how we all thrive.

When Rose Pere says "we are all grandchildren as are our ancestors" it reminds us that the children of today are the adults of tomorrow.

This is the story echoed by the brain and social sciences. The conditions society creates for new parents and young children lay the building blocks for a thriving life and community.

Each time the All Blacks play and do Te Rauparaha's war challenge, we see the value New Zealanders place on this aspect of Te Ao Māori. I wonder, in the glow of the prime minister's new baby whether we could stretch to embrace more than a war challenge. Whether we might, as a diverse people, embrace a Māori view of all children and tamariki. To cradle all new parents and their children in love and support.

It would mean the coalition government using New Zealand's institutions and policies to remove the serious constraints of unaffordable, poor quality housing, lifting incomes and removing the terrible stress that comes with using our support services.

Businesses could commit to realigning workplace culture and practice to support not just new parents' lives, but the lives of everyone who does not want paid work to be the fulcrum around which our lives swing.

We could all work hard to change the narrative about parents and children, away from one of individualism and judgement, to collective care for children and those who parent. That would be a wonderful story to tell. We have all been children and know what it feels like to be welcomed.

As a child we sailed to some very distant islands lying between Tonga and Fiji. I recall vividly the joy that my siblings and I were received with. The large warm hands that held ours, and the fingers that brushed our hair as we sat in the houses leaning how to weave. I felt cherished by that community. We could do this for all children, not just Jacinda Ardern's.

*Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of The Workshop and a researcher on family and child wellbeing.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs