Story: Families: a history

Families in 19th-century photos may seem very different from our own, with eight or nine children, and mother and father in clearly defined roles. Family photos now might show different stories but the sense of belonging remains as important as ever.

Story by Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis
Main image: Wedding party, Wairarapa, 1909

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

19th- to mid-20th-century families

Families in the 19th century were large – Pākehā women had on average seven children each, Māori women six. In the early 20th century Pākehā began to marry later, and birth rates dropped to around two per woman.

Grandparents, parents and children lived together in Māori households. Most Pākehā households were just parents and children, although some included elderly grandparents, other relatives, or friends.

Mothers and fathers had different roles, especially in the cities. Men were the breadwinners, who went out to earn money. Women took care of the house and children. In rural areas, women and children joined men in work on farms and in small businesses.

Mothers without male support survived doing paid work. A Widows’ Pension was introduced in 1911, but it wasn’t until 1946 that all mothers could access the Family Benefit.

The baby boom

After the Second World War there was a ‘baby boom’, when Pākehā women had three or four children each. Women who got pregnant outside marriage would usually marry before the birth.

In the 1970s Pākehā and Māori birth rates both dropped to around two births per woman. This did not change over the next three decades. Pacific women tended to have more children on average, and Asian women fewer.

Families from the 1970s

People had begun to question traditional ideas about families. From the 1970s more mothers were involved with paid work and had on average only two children. However, in the early 21st century mothers were still more involved with childcare than fathers.

In 1973 the Domestic Purposes Benefit, a payment by the state for solo parents was introduced. This enabled more women to raise children on their own, or to leave their husbands. Divorce became more common.

As parents entered new relationships, many children were brought up with step- or half-siblings. Some children moved between their separated parents. Some were raised by parents in gay or lesbian relationships.

In 2015 nearly half of all children were born outside marriage, often to couples in committed relationships. The average age for giving birth was 30. The fertility rate increased for women aged 30 – 34 years, but the rate for women 15 – 19 years old declined.

How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2018)

Story by Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017