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Diverse families

by Rosemary Du Plessis and Candice Diggelmann

For many people family means mum, dad and the kids, but families in New Zealand come in many different shapes and sizes. As well as nuclear families, they include sole-parent and blended families, families with gay or lesbian parents, and households with several parents and their children.

Extended family and sole-parent households

Households in New Zealand have always varied in size. Māori whānau were multi-generational, and grandparents were closely involved in bringing up grandchildren. Pacific Island, Asian and African immigrants to New Zealand also have long traditions of living in extended-family households. Since European settlement there have also been sole-parent households. Until the later 20th century most sole parents had been widowed. In the 21st century sole-parenting is more likely to be the result of the separation of parents, or conception of children outside an ongoing relationship.


Māori concepts of whānau include kin beyond parents and their children, whether or not they are living together. For this reason, many Māori do not distinguish between nuclear (parents and children) and extended families. This understanding of family is often shared by immigrants from the Pacific Islands and many Asian and African refugees and migrants.

Family composition and ethnicity

The proportion of households that include more than one family is increasing. In 1981 17% of households with children included a mixture of families: either two one-parent families, a two-parent family and a one-parent family, two two-parent families, or parents with children and other people who were not relatives (such as boarders). In 2013 this had risen to around 34% of all households with dependent children.

Pacific households were more likely to include more than one family. In 2013, 17% of Pacific households with families were comprised or two or more families, compared to 11% of Asian households, 9% of Māori households and 3% of Pākehā households.

Just our family 

Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop remembers how some neighbours were uncomfortable about the size of her large Samoan family in the 1950s. A woman across the road would ask: ‘How many people live in your house?’ The children would reply: ‘Just our family,’ and then rush home ‘to get away from her inquisitiveness’. 1

Immigrant extended families

Extended family households can be particularly important for immigrant families, partly because they are a traditional practice, partly because they provide a supportive environment, and partly because immigrants, especially refugees, may have little money and sharing a house is economical. Samoans, Tongans and other Pacific Island peoples see households composed of several families as the key unit of the family (āiga or api). Chinese and Indian immigrants also attach high value to extended family households and try to care for elderly relatives at home.

One of the luckiest people 

An Assyrian mother of a pre-schooler in Wellington described herself as ‘one of the luckiest people’ because her mother and sister lived with her and her husband. She said they were all very close and that her daughter slept with her mother because ‘she loves her grandma … She is always there so she takes care of her’.2

Multi-family living – benefits and costs

There are good things about families living together and sharing living costs, but some extended households are overcrowded and this can lead to higher levels of infectious diseases such as rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and meningococcal disease. The traditional three-bedroom suburban house does not suit the needs of many extended families. In the 21st century housing initiatives recognised diversity in family types and attempted to develop housing for extended-family households.

Sole-parent families

The percentage of families with children that have only one parent rose steeply between 1970 and 1990, but stabilised in the late 20th century. In 1976 only 9% of households with dependent children were sole-parent families. In 2013, 27% of all households with dependent children were sole-parent households and 84% of sole parents were women.

Weekends with Dad 

Children in sole-parent families may spend regular time with their other parent. One mother of two boys said that, while she looks after them most of the time, their father picks them up after school every second Friday night and brings them home on Sunday evening. He also has them over for dinner every Wednesday night. 

Some sole-parent families live in households with another sole-parent family, while some sole parents live with their own parents. Since approximately 20% of women who separate from their partner form another relationship (marriage or cohabitation) in the first year of separation, children of separated parents frequently interact with their parents’ partners and may live alone with their mother for only a short time.

Māori and Pacific children were more likely than children of other ethnicities to live in sole-parent households. Asian children were least likely to live in sole-parent households. While sole-parent families are very varied, they are more likely to experience economic hardship than two-parent families.

    • Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, ‘How many people live in your house?’ In Making our place: growing up PI in New Zealand, edited by Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 2003, p. 251. Back
    • Anne Broome, and Sara Kindon. New Kiwis, diverse families: migrant and former refugee families talk about their early childhood care and education needs. Wellington: Families Commission, 2008, p. 32. Back

Families with lesbian or gay parents

While many children have grown up with lesbian and gay parents, until the 1980s they were usually conceived in heterosexual relationships. In the 21st century more children were being born into lesbian- and gay-parented families. Lesbian mothers were the primary caregivers in most of these families.

Different lesbian and gay families

Families with lesbian or gay parents, just like families with heterosexual parents, can involve a mixture of:

  • children conceived using a known or unknown sperm donor
  • children conceived using a surrogate mother
  • children from previous heterosexual, lesbian or gay relationships
  • whāngai children parented by lesbian or gay relatives who are not their biological parents (whāngai is a Māori form of adoption that sustains the links with biological parents).

Extended family networks 

Children conceived by lesbian or gay male parents often have a rich web of family relationships which may include four sets of grandparents, two mothers, two fathers and multiple sets of aunts, uncles and cousins. Often these children have parents of different ethnicities and can draw on the cultural resources of Māori, Pākehā, Pacific Island and Asian family members. 

Donor insemination

From the 1970s lesbians who wanted to become mothers used non-medical strategies, such as collecting sperm from donors (sometimes gay male friends) and inseminating themselves or their partners using sterile bottles and a syringe.

Recently some lesbian couples have used fertility clinics to conceive children using donated sperm. Sometimes the donors are known to the parents; sometimes they are anonymous. For Māori parents it is important that children should know about their whakapapa – their ancestry. They often look for donors who will want the child to know about their parentage.

Lesbian parents have developed a number of different ways in which donors of sperm can relate to the children they have helped to conceive. Sometimes donors are known as fathers and have some parenting responsibilities, but they are in a minority.  Other known donors are defined as uncles or family friends. In some situations, donors have little or no contact with children, but are available to be contacted when children initiate this interaction.

Two mothers, one or more fathers

Some lesbian women and gay men are entering into agreements to parent children with heterosexual and gay men. Sometimes the partners of gay men who are known donors have a role in the care of the children conceived in this way.

Surrogacy agreements

A few gay men have made surrogacy agreements with heterosexual women who conceive children using their sperm. Surrogacy is legal in New Zealand as long as biological mothers are only paid for their expenses.

Leading the world 

One of the parents in a recent survey of those who identified as lesbian, gay, transgendered and intersex wrote that ‘we [New Zealand] lead the world in how many lesbian women use known donor gay fathers … there is a developing lesbian/gay family community via these joint parenting arrangements.’1


The Lavender Islands survey of 1,846 gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgendered people in 2004 included 417 parents. Parents were more likely to be older and female. Some were parenting the children of their same-sex partners.

Gay and lesbian families parent in much the same way as other parents. Sometimes they struggle to conceive children and juggle jobs and childcare. Couples may split up and parent across households with their separated partners. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and sometimes older siblings help to care for children.

Impacts on children

Most parents (66.7%) in the Lavender Islands survey reported that their children had not been disadvantaged by their parents’ sexual identification. However, 33.3% reported some difficulties with schools, clubs, sports organisations, health providers, friends and friends’ parents. Children of gay and lesbian parents sometimes reported teasing and had to be careful about bringing friends home, but most were very positive about their family life.

Just like everybody else 

The family life of children with lesbian and gay parents is much like that of children in other families. In the early 21st century Rupert and Felix lived in Wellington with their mothers. Their biological father and his partner also looked after them, taking them to swimming lessons, gymnastics, the library and the park. 

Legal issues

Amendments in 2004 to the Status of Children Act 1969 made it possible for the same-sex partner of a woman who used donor sperm to become a legal parent and have her name on the birth certificate. In 2005 the New Zealand Law Commission recommended that a known sperm donor could become a legal parent if the child’s parents agreed. However, known donors still had no legal rights in 2016.

The Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act 2004 regulates the use of assisted reproductive procedures in New Zealand. Lesbian women and single heterosexual women have access to donor insemination, but only women with fertility problems can access free artificial insemination or invitro fertilization procedures.

Under the Adoption Act 1955, unmarried couples cannot legally adopt children and single men may not legally adopt girls except under special circumstance. When same-sex marriage became legal in August 2013, married same-sex couples became able to jointly adopt children.

    • Mark Hendrickson, ‘Lavender parents.’ Social Policy Journal of New Zealand/Te Puna Whakaaro 26 (November 2005), p. 76. Back

Blended families

Some families are made up of people who were once part of different families. Families that include children from previous relationships of the adults in the household are often called ’reconstituted’ or ‘blended families’. In the past these were referred to as ‘stepfamilies’. Since the late 20th century the number of these families has been increasing. In the early 21st century one in five children was likely to live in a blended family before they turned 17.

‘Which Mum’s that?’

After her parents separated, Wendy (13) had a birth mother, an adoptive mother and a stepmother, and spent some time with each of them. She said it sometimes got confusing at school when she told her friends that she was going to her Mum’s. They would ask, ‘Which Mum’s that?’ – sometimes just to annoy her.1

Family-type relationships

Because more family households are made up of people who were once part of other households, family networks are larger and more complex. Children whose parents have separated increasingly move between households and spend time with each parent. They develop ‘family-type’ relationships with their separated parents’ new partners, and their children and relatives.

Children do not usually call their parents’ partners ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’. Generally they use their first names and refer to them as their parent’s ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’, rather than ‘stepmother’ or ‘stepfather’ as they might have done in the past.

Organising households

Research has documented how parents in blended families negotiated with co-parents in other households about issues relating to schools, discipline, financial support, holidays and a lot of other aspects of parenting.

Some couples jointly parent children from previous relationships. But some new partners are not involved in parenting – these households have been referred to as ‘recombined’ rather than ‘blended’ families.

Moving parents not children

Some children continue to live in the family home when parents separate. Their parents take turns at living with them, shifting in and out, sometimes on a weekly basis. This involves a lot of negotiation between people who have decided not to live together, but it often works well for children, especially at the start of a separation.

Moving between houses

When parents separate, mothers are most likely to be the primary caregivers, but many children also spend time with their fathers, sometimes over weekends or school holidays.

Sometimes care is equally shared between parents. As a result of these arrangements, children may live in two households. Research suggests that children found transitions between households difficult, but appreciated time with both parents. The most difficult things for children were conflicts between parents and adjusting to different house rules.

Children cared for by both parents were often more positive about moving between households than their mothers and fathers were. Interviews with children indicate that some saw themselves as part of two quite separate families, while others saw themselves as part of one large, complex family that included aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents from both households.

Brothers and sisters

Sometimes children of separated parents have younger step-brothers and sisters. These younger children may act as the ‘glue’ binding many different family members. Relationships with the older children of parents’ partners may be more difficult for children, especially if they do not have their own space when they visit parents.

Financial arrangements

Most parents make their own arrangements for child support. Sometimes the state requires parents to contribute to their children’s financial support, especially if the primary parent is receiving benefit payments.

Complicated families

Some children in blended families appreciate having a wider set of adults who are interested in them. Other children have described their families as ‘complicated’ or ‘mixed up’. However, the families of children living with both their parents can also vary or change, as older children leave home, other family members come to stay or parents take jobs in other places. All families are complicated in some ways.

    • Robin Fleming, Families of a different kind: life in the households of couples who have children from previous marriages or marriage-like relationships: a social research report. Waikanae: Families of Remarriage Project, 1999, p. 126. Back

Different family practices

Families come in different shapes and sizes. They also have different rules about relationships between older and younger people, divide tasks differently between women and men, and have different ways of managing money.

Communication gaps

Deanna Wong, a young New Zealand-born Chinese woman, spoke about communication gaps between older and younger people in Chinese communities. She says that ‘young people may remain silent on many issues that they know elders may not be right about’.1 This happens because, traditionally, younger Chinese people must not talk back to their elders and must accept that they do not know as much.

Intergenerational relationships

All cultural groups in New Zealand consider that older people deserve respect.

For many Chinese families filial piety or ‘xiao’ is very important. This involves obedience to elders and recognition of their authority, which may be in conflict with messages young people receive from wider society about personal autonomy. Other cultural groups also have difficulty preserving conventions relating to respect for older people.

Many Asian families expect that parents will come to live with their sons and their families when they need care and support. Research on Indian families in New Zealand suggests that parents try to maintain these traditions by facilitating their children’s marriages to people of the same language, region, religion and caste.

Women’s lib for fathers?

Scott Lancaster, full-time father and co-founder of, thinks that fathers ‘need the equivalent of a Women’s lib’. 2 He argues that they need to be more assertive about sharing responsibility for caring for children, just as women have asserted their right to be in paid work and pursue careers.

Gender dynamics

In most two-parent heterosexual families women have done more childcare and domestic work. Sometimes this has meant that women are financially dependent on their partners. However, parents are increasingly sharing responsibilities for childcare, domestic work and earning. In some households men have become the main caregivers – some for a few years, others on a continuing basis.

In some cultural traditions it is very important for women and men to continue to do different things within the family. Usually this involves women focusing on childcare, domestic work and the care of older relatives. Men are more likely to be involved in paid work. Some immigrant women manage to avoid some of these cultural expectations, due to living in New Zealand.

Families and money

Sharing money

Families have always shared resources within and across households. Sharing money with relatives in different households is usually a matter of personal choice for Pākehā. However, keeping what you earn for your immediate family is often seen as selfish in Pacific Island communities, who frequently provide financial support to family members overseas as well as family members beyond the household.

Māori understandings of whānau encompass financial responsibilities for people beyond households of parents and children. This can include the upkeep of group property or gifts and loans to whānau who need help. It also involves providing accommodation and food to visiting family members, even if there is little money to go around.

Joint or separate finances

A study of money management in the late 1990s showed families used different ways of managing money. People who pooled their finances saw it as a symbol of their togetherness. One man said: ‘When you separate things, that’s when you get problems.’3 For other couples, including those who had been married before, separate finances but joint responsibility for household expenses was used to avoid problems and preserve independence.

Money management systems

How people manage money within their family households varies. In some families, the person who earns the money controls it. Other families use a ‘pooling’ system and a joint bank account into which all the money goes. In other families individuals keep some of the money they have earned for their own use, and put some into a common pool or ‘kitty’ for household expenses. This is more likely to occur in Pākehā families, especially those with two full-time earners.

Support from grandparents

In Pākehā families, as well as households with other cultural traditions, gifts from grandparents and other relatives are often used to cope with financial crises, or for presents or special treats for children. In Māori and Pacific Island families research indicates that parents are more likely to provide money to their adult children to help them cope with basic day-to-day expenses such as rent and food.

Children and money

Parents may give children specific amounts of pocket money, pay them for doing chores or encourage them to get jobs if they want to have personal money to spend. Research indicates that children in Pākehā families generally use this money to buy things for themselves, and children are taught personal money management at an early age.

In Pacific Island families money earned by children is more likely to be treated as household income, and adult children living away from home may also contribute money to their parents. This seldom occurs in Pākehā families, but adult children living at home in full-time work are usually expected to contribute to household expenses in all cultural groups.

Embracing diversity

New Zealand law has increasingly treated families in similar ways regardless of the marital status of parents, their gender or their ethnicity. In the 21st century the focus was less on who is in the family and more on what happens in families – especially the importance of care and safety within families.

    • Deanna Wong, ‘Growing up in New Zealand as a Chinese: we do love our parents, honestly we do.’ In Ages ahead: promoting inter-generational relationships, edited by Sik Hung Ng, and others, 80–84. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1998, p. 82. Back
    • Rose Hoare, ‘In the name of the father.’ Sunday Magazine, 30 August 2009, p. 14. Back
    • Robin Fleming, The common purse: income sharing in New Zealand families. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, p. 39. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rosemary Du Plessis and Candice Diggelmann, 'Diverse families', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2021)

Story by Rosemary Du Plessis and Candice Diggelmann, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 Jun 2018