Effective February 7 2023, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will step down from office. Ardern was the youngest female world leader when she assumed the position in 2017 at 37, and often received appreciation for clear-headed and progressive decisions. She was a breath of fresh air, compared to many polarizing and shadowy heads of state who wielded power during her term. As such, it is saddening to know that there will be one less leader like her in public service at present.

But there’s an argument to be made that she has led by example by stepping down. “I no longer had enough in the tank,” she admitted.

Last year, the phrase “quiet quitting” trended for a while. It referred to when people did what was required of them at their jobs, without going the extra mile. The phrase hinted at the toxic demands of many employers, across sectors, who likened healthy professional boundaries with desertion. Quiet quitting is better described as doing one’s job just fine.

Ardern, of course, actually has quit – and not quietly, since she cannot. In doing so, she stirs more necessary conversations about good workplaces, lousy jobs, and what it costs us to meet our costs of living.

But my interest deflated quite a bit when I watched the resignation speech, which included publicly telling her partner, “Let’s finally get married”. Suddenly, her words seemed less like a wellbeing-centric confession and call to action and more like they came straight out of a 1990s Tamil movie (oh, that’s wishful, a few 2020s Tamil movies too). It felt like the trope of the confident career woman who is “domesticated” into a patriarchal axis had reared its snickering head again. Ardern’s role as parent has been quite public too, as she gave birth while Prime Minister and took her child to formal events including the United Nations General Assembly. Still, in her resignation speech, she called being PM “the greatest role of my life”.

Given that she is clearly not from a culture that is as overtly misogynistic as ours, it begs a series of questions: why couldn’t she get married while in office? What’s the difference now? More pertinently: what does this all tell us about marriage as an institution, and the expectations and compromises that come with it, regardless of where in the world one is or how important or fulfilling one’s life outside marriage is?

I was dismayed: if Ardern led by example by talking about burnout and mental health, she also inadvertently gave more steam to the notion that women are less capable when it comes to working outside the home (presumably, she would have had every convenience and resource at her disposal within the home).

In India, women drop out of the workforce at frightening rates: those who work for an income plummeted from 32% in 2005 to 19% in 2021. Work as a homemaker is unpaid, of course.

In households across the country, and the world, someone will now cite Ardern as an excuse as to why their daughter-in-law, spouse or daughter should not have a career. I hope they don’t have the last word.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in February 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.