New Zealand’s Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern is pregnant. She announced her pregnancy after a hard-won election that culminated in her swearing-in last October. The prime minister and her partner Clarke Gayford are expecting their first child in June. Ardern becomes the second premier, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, to be pregnant while in office.
When she first announced in January, she instantly became something of a novelty. After all, she and Bhutto are the only women in the extremely exclusive ‘pregnant-while-in-office’ club. For this reason, both pregnancies were newsworthy. Even then, Ardern’s condition has been spoken about probably more times than she’d like.
Over the weekend, she sat through a television interview where she felt compelled to answer questions – and listen to commentary - about her due date and the day she conceived. The interviewer, Australia’s Charles Wooley, used the information to quickly calculate (incorrectly) that the prime minister was having sex during the height of the election campaign.
“Having produced six children it doesn’t amaze me that people can have children; why shouldn’t a child be conceived during an election campaign?” he asked Ardern, who by now was visibly uncomfortable.
She had already endured a largely inappropriate interview during which Wooley had confessed that he was “smitten” with her because she was young, smart and attractive. At one point, he wondered how such a nice person had gotten into politics. By the end of it, viewers knew more about Ardern’s personal life than they did about her plans for the nation.
It didn’t take long for them to take their displeasure to Twitter, where one viewer wondered why “sexist comments about [Ardern’s] looks, and baby talk” had been prioritised over her “policies and political achievements”. Putting the comments about her youth, intelligence and attractiveness to one side, Ardern’s pregnancy has been covered by news outlets around the world. The fact that she is growing a baby in her womb, you know, like women do, has become big news. Yes, she’s a prime minister and all that, but still. Then again pregnancy news and baby-bump watching have become part of the global culture.
Which is probably why Lilian Muli’s pregnancy has become a national event. For some reason, her baby and the man who put her in the family way are two issues that we need to have a national dialogue about. When I saw a headline that read, ‘Lilian Muli’s ball is mine’ or something equally ridiculous, I cringed.
And then the discussion on the child’s paternity began in earnest, with men in various WhatsApp groups insisting that only a mother knows whose baby she’s carrying. That argument was quickly rebutted by some who claimed that even mothers can be foggy on their conception details. Ati oh, what if a woman sleeps with two men on the same night, what if she was a victim of sexual violence, etc. etc.
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On and on it went, this discussion about Lilian’s morals, her unborn child, and the real identity of her baby daddy. While it was certainly off-putting, I figured that it was just the African way. But with his awkward interviewing of New Zealand’s pregnant premier, Charles Wooley has proven that it is not just African men who think they have a stake in what women do with their bodies, it is men around the world.
I mean, listen. Women get pregnant every day by all manner of men from the good to the dead beat and everything in between. It’s nothing new. And while men participate in the act of conception, they really have nothing else to do in the area of baby making until the fully formed little human exits its mother’s womb. If possession is nine tenths of the law, then babies belong to their mothers. This business of ‘your ball is mine’ is nonsense. By the time a woman has decided to carry a baby to term (save for those circumstances where her choices have been limited by circumstance) she is prepared to do whatever it takes to provide for that child.
And while that often includes sharing responsibilities with the child’s father in one way or another, it in no way relegates mothers to child-bearing automatons who can only be defined with reference to the men that ‘made them pregnant’. What does that even mean? Women get pregnant. They deliver babies. Men participate in the process but cannot own it, or take credit for it. As such, they really should keep their comments to themselves, especially if they are not directly involved.
In the meantime, let Lilian live. Leave her ovaries alone.
Ms Masiga is Peace and Security Editor, The Conversation Africa