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New Zealand PM Has Everyone Asking “Is It Okay to Bring Babies to Work?”

Jacinda Ardern brought her three-month-old baby Neve to the UN general assembly, and the world is now wondering how work and parenthood should mix in the 21st century.

When the three-month-old daughter of New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, accompanied her mother to the UN General Assembly in New York last month, the pair made history – Neve being the youngest person ever to attend the GA summit – but they also started a public debate… a consequence which seems inevitable where Ardern is concerned.

For better or for worse, New Zealand’s third ever female PM is held up as an emblem for all working mothers, since being the second woman to give birth in high office and the first to take maternity leave, though she recognizes that her parental situation is unique. “I have the ability to take my child to work, there’s not many places you can do that,” she acknowledges, going on to say, “I am not the gold standard for bringing up a child in this current environment because there are things about my circumstances that are not the same.”

For example, Ardern has paid maternity leave, a partner who is able/willing to be a primary caregiver, and a support staff.

As a new mother, Ardern took six weeks of maternity leave after she gave birth in June, despite that time being equal to or less than the annual vacation leave of most western leaders. Her time off prompted a flurry of opinions, across the web, and brought the issue of maternity leave to the forefront of the public conscious.

The new controversy raised in the wake of her September 24th visit to the UN with baby Neve is whether parents should be allowed to take their infants to work, or not.

Author of “Infant Mortality and Working-Class Child Care”, Melanie Reynolds points out that it was common practice for mothers to bring young infants and even toddlers along to their jobs during the Industrial Revolution. “In my work as a historian,” Reynolds says, “I have discovered accounts by female mill workers of how they took their infants with them to the factory, placing them at the side of the loom ‘in a basket’… For many women workers in the 19th century, taking their babies to work was their legal and customary right.”

That’s not to glorify working conditions of the Victorian era, which were by and large appalling, but to suggest that the idea of bringing an infant to work was, at one point, normal. If it worked then, could it now?

Many say yes! In the US, where the guaranteed paid maternity leave is zero, the Parenting in the Workplace Institute has spearheaded a movement to allow employees to bring their babies to work, and in the past decade they’ve helped navigate arrangements for over 2,100 infants in 200 companies ranging from dance studios to retail stores, to accounting firms, to government agencies.

Cathy Weatherford, President of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners says, “some of my direct reports thought I was off my rocker when I said I wanted to do this [program]. But I asked them to be helpful and to give it a try—and if it didn’t work, we’d let it go.  Some of the biggest naysayers became some of the biggest champions when they found that, from just giving a little bit, we were retaining important staff members who were big contributors. It has been a very, very positive program for our workplace.”

The pitch is that allowing infants in the office boosts employee retention and satisfaction while sidestepping the expense and liability of onsite daycare. The group also received reports of increased revenue in retail stores where babies were present. The key, according to them, is education and clarity. Most naysayers are worried about the potential disruption, but it seems the negatives have been overhyped, and when made a matter of routine, babies in the office aren’t necessarily a nuisance.

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