When I learned that New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern was stepping down, my first response was anger. I was angry that the world was losing one of its greatest liberal leaders; I was angry that one of the most important women on the planet had been subject to so much misogyny and hatred that it bled her dry; and I was angry that Ardern felt she could no longer do her job justice, while so many men in the same position cling to power much longer than they deserve—often at the cost of the very constituents they’re supposed to serve.
But then, my anger turned into something different: awe. Ardern, as one of the world’s most high-profile mothers, did something few moms get the chance to do: She advocated for her own self-preservation. And what’s more, she did it without apology, without prompting, and without shame.
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Through running the national nonprofit organization Moms First (formerly Marshall Plan for Moms), I’ve spoken to hundreds of mothers in America who feel much like Ardern does: that they “no longer have enough in the tank.” That was true even before the pandemic forced millions of women from the workforce, leaving them to do three times more unpaid work than men, and it continues to be the case today, as working moms make 58 cents to every dollar our husbands make—all while our basic human rights are stripped away.
Despite this, so many women view their own empty tanks as flaws—ones that make us bad parents, or even bad people. But this is a structural failure, not a personal one. Ardern herself made her intentions clear: Stepping back from responsibility is not a tragedy. Sometimes, it’s a necessity.
Whether it’s asking a boss to work flexible hours, having your partner handle more responsibilities at home, or pausing to focus on your own mental and physical health, taking care of yourself is not antithetical to motherhood. In fact, it makes you a better mom in the long run.
Stepping back from responsibility is not a tragedy. Sometimes, it’s a necessity.”
I’d know. Ten years after founding Girls Who Code, I made my own difficult decision to step down as CEO. Like I said then, just because you can stay doesn’t mean you should. Leaving before I burnt out—or burnt bridges—and while I still had a long working life left ahead of me allowed me to grow my family and my career. That includes founding Moms First, an organization dedicated to helping moms start, grow, change, and yes, leave their jobs on their own terms.
Of course, I had the privilege of being able to do just that. Arden does too, as a beneficiary of New Zealand’s robust policies around child care, paid leave, and gender equality. Her leadership, and the structural support that helped her achieve it, is emblematic of the progress American mothers so desperately need.
But in this decision, she’s achieved a mark of gender equity and global success just as impressive as holding high office: the ability to leave it on her own terms.
Ardern will continue to be a leader as long as she lives, and her legacy will remain long after. She coupled her kind approach with firm action, famously comforting victims of white supremacist shootings, and passing gun control legislation weeks later. She became the world’s youngest woman leader when elected, the first person in New Zealand’s history to give birth while serving in office, and the first person to bring their baby to the floor of the UN. Her unapologetic approach to parenthood, and to politics, will continue to inspire parents and children alike.
As Ardern said in her resignation announcement, “I am human. Politics are human.” And though we’re sometimes told we’re superheroes, mothers are human, too. Like Ardern, we must recognize the moments when we personally need support, while continuing to advocate for larger, structural support for families across the globe.
Great leaders know when it is time to pass the baton, and great moms know when it’s time to put themselves first. Ardern is both. Her decision—to trade a seat at the international table for the chance to send her child off to school and finally marry her longtime partner—is a model for the kinds of choices that moms everywhere should be emboldened to make, regardless of public opinion.
So as we celebrate the leadership of Jacinda Ardern, I hope we can one day celebrate all of the women making choices once thought to be impossible. Far from quiet quitting, Ardern is loudly living—and on behalf of mothers around the world, we are forever grateful for her example.
Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Moms First and the founder of Girls Who Code. She is the author of instant national bestseller Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think).