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The evidence about mums in politics and why I stopped caring

It took less than a day for Jacinda Ardern to be asked about how she might combine being the leader of a political party and a mum at some point in the future, a question unlikely to be asked of a 37 year old man stepping into the same role. Dr. Jenny Condie, list candidate for The Opportunities Party and mum to boys aged one and four, discusses the evidence she found about what works for mums running for political office – and why she’s decided to ignore it.

I had no idea what to do. I had just been selected as a candidate for The Opportunities Party (TOP), but my political experience extends to having watched every episode of The West Wing. Since this is TOP and we love evidence, I went looking for some research on the subject.

I was thrilled to find a website with detailed research about what works to get women elected. I devoured all the details and started committing it to memory. This would be my playbook for my election campaign. I would do whatever they told me, and nothing they didn’t.

The research said that voters want to know who will be taking care of your children if you are in Parliament. (Yes, voters recognise this is a double standard for women, but they still want to know.)

So when I wrote my candidate bio I dutifully added that my husband would quit his job if I was elected, so people knew that my children would be well cared for. I could have also mentioned that all four of my kids’ grandparents live within a half hour drive of us and that my youngest dives out of my arms grabbing for his caregiver every morning, but that felt a bit too much like bragging. (I swear my older son cried every day for his first year at creche. I feel you mamas.)

The research said style and appearance are “highly scrutinised” – and connected to a woman’s likeability. My clothes, makeup, and appearance had to be “impeccable”.

I scoured my wardrobe; none of my pre-baby clothes fit and everything that did fit could only be considered “impeccable” by the stay-at-home-mum crowd, who understand that if you aren’t wearing your PJs, that counts as “dressy”.

And (confession time!) I’ve always been clueless about makeup. Off I went to the Bobbi Brown counter at David Jones, where I consulted a lovely woman who didn’t once make me feel inadequate about being a woman in her late 30s who knows nothing about makeup. Apparently for a natural look you need face base, colour corrector, foundation, blush, mascara and lipstick. I left with everything I needed and a new respect for women who do this every day.

The research said that images of you with your children cannot be too staged, too casual, centre the child too much, or seem like the candidate is ignoring the child.

So, I killed the first campaign video we shot because it violated too much of this advice.

In it, I am dressed too casually and wearing no makeup, thus I could appear unqualified, and possibly unlikeable. I talk about policy while holding my fussy baby and I let my older son play with the iPad, which could lead people to worry that I will prioritise my new role as MP over the needs of my children. At other times, I paid too much attention to my kids, but at other times I was distracted and paid too little attention.

My wishes were respected, and that footage got tucked away on a hard drive somewhere. I was shaping into the candidate that the evidence told me I should be.

Jenny Condie and her family. Credit: The Opportunities Party

But something didn’t fit. The thing is, as I began to be a candidate, I grew more confident about the kind of candidate I wanted to be. I wanted to be honest and authentic – but following the research meant I couldn’t be. I wanted to show solidarity with working mums doing it tough – but the research said I should never admit to struggling. I wanted to show mums that, like them, I have a messy house and cereal for dinner sometimes, and that’s okay – but the research said I should never seem disorganised.

I became disenchanted with all these rules. Slowly, I grew to hate the research. Not only was it telling me what I should and shouldn’t do – it was telling me who I was permitted to be and what sides of myself I had to keep hidden. Honestly, it all started to make me angry.

For example, the “rules” said: “Voters expect candidates to speak about their families, but be careful: sharing too much information hurts as much as sharing too little.”

Yes, we have to Goldilocks it on the sharing about family – not too much, not too little, just the right amount. I locked down my personal Twitter and Facebook accounts, so that I could still “over share” in private. But now I’m so nervous about saying the wrong thing about my kids on my candidate pages that I haven’t said anything at all about them. (I’m guessing the research shows that I really shouldn’t tell you the story about my four year old singing a song about his penis in the bath the other day, but it was funny and adorable.)

Jenny’s boys.

The research also says to be careful what type of parenting details you share. Focus groups didn’t like the phrase: “‘Our family makes time for play and stories’ (Voters respond more to candidates talking about caregiving and teaching values than playing)”.

Because we all know that motherhood is only virtuous when it is boring drudge work, right? Yeah, don’t tell people about having fun with your kids – enjoying the time you spend together is not what people want to hear. Focus instead on the basics: feeding them, changing them, washing them, cleaning up after them. That’s all there is to good parenting. Reading bedtime stories is so frivolous!

The rules said not to be negative or defensive about your personal life. You should avoid phrasing such as: “While I would love to say I am able to ‘have it all’ and be the perfect mother in addition to running for office, I must admit it is hard to juggle work and family.”

Yes, the research says I should lie. I should never be honest about the challenges of motherhood and having a career. I’m a politician now, so lying is just part of the job, right? Just be positive. Don’t mention that time your four year old cried hysterically when you left the house at 5.30pm to go out to a campaign event and how conflicted you felt!

Look, this research is American. We all know they are more socially conservative than Kiwis. I started to wonder if these findings would even apply in New Zealand. And then last weekend my friend and colleague Jessica Hammond Doube was out campaigning in her electorate of Ōhāriu. A man she was speaking to told her that he wouldn’t vote for her because she is a mother. (Her kids are six and eight.) When she pointed out her kids have two parents, he told her that “it’s not good for men to be home with children. It feminises them and it’s not good for their mental health to be at home.”

It is supposed to be a House of Representatives. How can it represent all of us if a large portion of the population – mothers with young children – aren’t welcome there?

So, screw the rules. And this time – just this once – screw the evidence.

Guess what? I don’t want that guy’s vote. I don’t want to be in Parliament to represent that guy. I want to represent mums and people who recognise mums as complex, multi-dimensional people who contribute enormously to our society.

Here is some of that footage we tucked away in the vault because it broke too many rules. I hope it gives you a laugh, and shows some mums a reflection of their own reality.

Jenny Condie is an academic with a PhD in accounting, a former public servant, mum of two delightful young boys (one who likes to sleep and one who doesn’t), and a list candidate for the new political party The Opportunities Party (TOP).

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