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Laurell Ardern on motherhood and raising the future prime minister

Laurell Ardern with daughter Jacinda

Laurell Ardern on motherhood and raising the future prime minister

Grandmothers are the heart and soul of New Zealand families. In a MiNDFOOD exclusive from 2018, Laurell Ardern talks frankly about raising her daughters, her hopes for her grandchildren and the family connection to a unique pioneer.

Laurell Ardern on motherhood and raising the future prime minister

Words by Ewan McDonald

If it’s been a whirlwind year for the nation, it’s been even more so for Laurell Ardern. The First Grandmother has seen her younger daughter Jacinda become prime minister and then mother to Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, and she has seen her elder daughter Louise marry, give birth to her first grandson and bring her family home from Britain to live in New Zealand.

Calling on unwavering Christian faith and a strong sense of family and community, Laurell – her mum named her after a Frank Sinatra hit at the time of her birth in 1955 – seems to take it all in her stride.

With her three sisters and brother, Laurell was raised on a dairy farm near Te Aroha, the small rural town and mountain on the North Island which was incorporated in Neve’s name. “We had a wonderful life on the farm,” Laurell recalls.

The children were never too far from their parents. “My dad bought a car container from the Toyota factory at Thames and put it by the shed where the cows were milked. As toddlers we would be ensconced in this area while the cows were tended to!” she says.

Laurell went to the community’s primary school and then Te Aroha College, leaving after her fifth form year to work in the office at a service station and as a telephonist in the town’s post office. “My parents kept a tight rein on me so I had to keep pretty close to home. I reflect on that and think about the opportunities that were lost because of that close scrutiny,” she says now.

“I would have liked to have attended university as I wanted to be an accountant, but it was not to be. It seemed to me that so many decisions that would impact on me were made by my parents on my behalf.

“I am sure they had my perceived interests at heart but I felt so constrained in what I could do. Thank goodness that has changed for the current generation.”

Marriage and children

Laurell and Ross married in 1977; she was 21 and he a 23-year-old police constable in Auckland. They moved to Hamilton the following year when Ross joined the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) and undertook several years’ study to further his career. Ross would go on to become Niue’s Police Commissioner and the High Commissioner to the island.

“We had our two daughters during this time and our lives were so very busy. Fulfilling, but busy. Both Ross and I wanted to give the best possible start to our daughters and we made the decision that I would be a stay-at-home mum.

“We wanted to enjoy as much time as possible with the girls and we were lucky that we could do just that. Yes, we made some financial sacrifices but it was such a joy to be with the girls and see them grow and develop.

“Like most parents, the girls were the centre of all that we did. Books were a big part of their lives and we taught them both to read 
and do simple arithmetic before they went to school.”

In 1985, Sergeant Ardern was posted to the isolated Bay of Plenty forestry town of Murupara, which made a lasting impression on Laurell. “It was here that I witnessed real deprivation,” she recalls. “Life was a struggle for so many.”

But there was an upside: “I was asked to assist in teaching technology at the school and did so for three years. I grew to love and appreciate the deep cultural roots that we have in New Zealand and I was grateful for that opportunity.”

The family returned to the Waikato region in 1988, buying a small apple and nashi orchard from Laurell’s parents at Morrinsville. There must be something in the water: former PM Helen Clark is a Waikato farmer’s daughter, too.

“In those days the mortgage rates were up around the 20 per cent mark so we had to make the orchard pay to meet the repayments,” Laurell remembers. “I would look after the girls and the orchard, and Ross would work in it after work and on the weekends.

“The girls were older and I have fond memories of them both working in the apple grading shed with us. Jacinda still has a scar by her nose where an apple crate broke and hit her in the face.”

A simpler time

Laurell reflects on raising children in that era, and believes it was “perhaps less demanding than it is now. Life was busy but, in so many ways, the pace of life was slower.

“I know that does not sound sensible, but I am left wondering if the quality of life was better. I know we all look back on ‘the good old days’ but I truly feel that is what they were and that is perhaps how future generations will see life as well.

“I had a choice of looking after the girls or working. I chose looking after the children. It was a difficult financial decision but I think the mums of today, for the most part, have had that option taken away from them. Life is so very expensive and demanding now and many mums feel that they are compelled to work.”

But family life did have its challenges. “I guess the biggest was having a husband involved in so many serious crime investigations in the Waikato district,” Laurel says. “That meant that he was away from home a lot and maintaining contact was not as easy as it is today.

“This left me at home with the two girls so we did have days that did not run as well as they might have. But we did not feel that we had to ‘keep up’ with anybody else. You did not have to have ‘label’ clothing and shoes to be accepted by others. As was the norm, I made much of the clothing that the girls wore, we used to bake a lot more, make jams and pickles, have a home garden that the girls helped in. I think all of these sorts of activities built a bond in the family unit and I am not sure that families have those sorts of opportunities now as people are 
just so busy.”

Life as a grandmother

Now a grandmother of four – her daughter Louise has two daughters, aged four and three, and a son born on the day Jacinda was sworn in as prime minister – Laurell has sympathy for today’s mothers, particularly in a world bombarded by social media.

“If we could only impress on young people that the world is not in the palm of their hands in the form of an electronic device, but it is at eye level where they can see and experience so much,” she says.

“Why do we need to care about posting a picture of what we had for dinner? The children of today have to feel they are accepted by almost everybody. It is enough to be accepted by those who love and care about you, who will look out for you, who will support you in times of need.”

This has been underlined by Louise and husband Ray Dussan’s move from London. “My oldest granddaughter is four now and it was heartbreaking leaving her in England when I would go over for a visit. To have both my daughters having children in New Zealand is very exciting. It is great to have all of that love and be able to be in a position to support your children and grandchildren.”

Raising a leader

As Laurell ponders Jacinda’s new roles as mother and prime minister, she casts her mind back to her daughter’s early years.

“From a very young age she had incredible common sense. She was wise beyond her years and had very good judgment of people. She could read people really well. She has incredible people skills and can relate to young and old alike.

“When I took her to debating competitions I saw her really standing out – she was very quick on her feet and could craft the most amazing verbal responses.

“She always had an egalitarian outlook on life – from her earliest years she wanted everybody to be treated fairly.

“She was such a generous individual. She found it difficult to walk past a person busking or asking for money without digging into her purse and handing over a few coins. When she worked as a checkout person after school, I suspect she spent more than she earned paying the last few dollars on groceries placed on the counter when the customer found they were a few dollars short.”

Asked if she has any advice for Jacinda, Laurell draws from her own experience. “Life is short and time passes by so very quickly,” she says. “Make that family time count as it’s very important, and get a good balance between that and work.”

Laurell knows it won’t be easy to be a mother and have a career – especially when that career is being the PM – but she has backup. “As Jacinda has stated, it will take a lot of family support for her to be able to do both roles and we are ready to help. We have always tried to make our family the centre of our lives.

“So for Jacinda, my advice to her is not to be too independent and to look for help from family and friends. At the same time Jacinda knows that she has a very heavy set of responsibilities and I know without a shadow of a doubt that she will put her life and soul into both her role and her family.”

Struggles in the spotlight

It’s a mother’s natural instinct to protect her children, and Laurell has had to adjust to her daughter being constantly in the spotlight, and constantly criticised.

“The election period was the toughest. Naturally you read what is happening through the media but it is unbelievable what social media trolls will say. There are so many things that are said about her in a shameful manner that are simply not true, but we know that to respond only opens the conversation for more discontents.

“On the other side of the coin we are so grateful for the support that she does receive from so many sectors of the community and the kindness that is shown to our daughter,” she adds.

“Jacinda is a person with a strong set of values who wants the very best for all of New Zealand.

“Not everybody agrees with that view and that is fine, but it is difficult to see the harmful comments that are made by those that disagree with her values.”

Building a better future for her granddaughter

As New Zealand honours the 125th anniversary of becoming the first country to give all women the right to vote, Laurell admires all 
who worked so hard, and still do, to make sure women have a voice in the country’s development.

“But women need more than a voice,” she says. “They also need to be heard. There is still so much to do. Why should women be paid less than men for doing the same job?

“Why should some men still think that they do not have a significant role in raising children? I have always promoted the view that we are partners in all that we do and have shared responsibilities.”

Laurell says this is a time to pause and reflect, to remember and applaud those who did so much to promote the rights of women. “We have come such a long way with female prime ministers, a Chief Justice, Governors-General – but there is still much to do.”

She also has a clear vision of what she would like for her daughters and granddaughters, and New Zealand women in general: “I would like to see a future where it is not unusual for a woman in a position of leadership to have a baby, where there are no disputes over levels of salary depending on gender, where women can feel safe in any environment, where the views of women across the world have real value.”

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