Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Families: a history

by Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis

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.

Changing families

Families have changed a lot in the last 200 years but they remain the major source of emotional and material wellbeing for children and adults. Whatever a family’s size or composition, kinship and whakapapa are central to most people’s identity and their sense of connectedness to others.


The size of Māori and Pākehā families has changed since the 19th century, but the patterns of change have been different. Māori women on average gave birth to five to six children each in the 19th century and continued to have nearly seven children until this dropped to almost three births per woman in the late 1970s, and just over two from the 1990s.

In the late 19th century, women settlers had on average seven children but this rate halved by the early 20th century and dropped to 2.1 births per non-Māori woman in 1936. Births per woman doubled after the Second World War and dropped in the 1970s. In the 21st century the fertility rate was around two births per woman. By December 2017 it had fallen to an average of 1.81 live births per woman, below the 2.01 average maintained between 1980 and 2015. Māori fertility rates remained higher at 2.3 live births per woman. Māori mothers are also on average younger than non-Māori mothers.


Māori marriages involved tribal and whānau negotiations. From the late 18th century many economic and political relationships between Māori and sealers, whalers, traders and settlers were consolidated through marriage. After colonisation, Māori marriages were increasingly regulated by legal frameworks imposed by settlers.

Marriages among settlers were mainly decided by individuals. Most female settlers married young, but age at marriage rose and rates of marriage dropped in the late 19th century. After the Second World War Pākehā age at marriage fell. Marriage rates then dropped steeply in the late 20th century and more children were born to parents who lived together but were not married.

Family composition

While Māori whānau often included three generations, many settler family households initially consisted of a couple and their children. However, some Pākehā households expanded to include elderly parents, other relatives or unmarried friends.

An ample household 

Sarah McCullough immigrated with her family from Liverpool when she was seven years old. She married David Robertson Kennedy in Timaru in 1897. Their household in Christchurch included Sarah’s father, for the last year of his life, and their four children. David’s parents came to live with them when they moved to Wellington. Another member of the Brooklyn household was Miss Lyle, a family friend. Sarah’s brother Jack McCullough, a trade unionist, Labour Party activist, journalist and member of the New Zealand Legislative Council, was also a frequent paying guest.2

Since European settlement there have always been some families with just one parent. However, these rose from 10.4% of all families with dependent children in 1981 to 27% in 2013.

Single-person households

More men migrated to New Zealand in the 19th century than women; many never married and lived alone. The number of single-person households dropped in the early 20th century but increased in the late 20th century as more women and men lived alone before marriage or after divorce or widowhood. In 2013, 23.5% of all households were single-person households. Nearly 80% people living alone were 45 years or older.

Family dynamics

At the time of colonisation, Māori women and men were equally involved in providing for their families and female settlers made significant contributions to work on farms and to other family businesses. However, settlers brought with them the ideal of a male breadwinner with a dependent wife and children. This became the dominant arrangement in urban centres.

From the 1960s mothers became more involved in paid work and by 1986 over 50% of mothers in two-parent families were in the workforce. This rose to 61% in 1996.

While families have been a source of love, care and material well-being for many people, they have also been sites of emotional conflict and sometimes violence.

Family homes

Pākehā families in New Zealand have usually lived in detached, single-household homes. Māori whānau mainly lived in detached dwellings, often in a kāinga (village or small settlement) near a marae, but many families settled in urban suburbs in the mid-20th century.

Home-ownership rates have been high by international standards – in 1919, 53% of all households owned their own homes. From the 1930s, the state became a very important provider of single-household, detached rental housing. Home ownership reached a peak in 1991 at 74% of households, but had dropped to below 63% in March 2018 according to Statistics New Zealand.

Finding out about families

Information about families is available through statistics on births, deaths, marriages and divorces, and through data on households generated by the New Zealand census. However, diaries, oral history interviews, genealogies, novels, poetry, movies and documentaries also provide information about family life.

    • Angela Wanhalla, ‘Family, Community and Gender.’ In The new Oxford history of New Zealand, edited by Giselle Byrnes. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 450. Back
    • Melanie Nolan, Kin: a collective biography of a New Zealand working-class family. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2005, p. 138. Back

Colonial families: 1840–1879

Practical partners

While sexual attraction and affection were the basis for many marriages, settlers looked for partners who would respond well to the practical challenges of everyday life – women hoped for good providers, and men wanted women who could cook, manage a household and mother children.

Marriage and divorce

The Marriage Act was passed in 1854, and after 1856 non-Māori had to give notice of their intention to marry, and obtain a marriage licence before their wedding. In 1867 the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act was passed. Men could obtain a divorce on the grounds of a wife’s adultery while women had to prove ‘aggravated adultery’ – adultery combined with incest or bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality or cruelty.

Youthful marriage and high fertility 

The impact of a woman’s age at marriage on the number of children she had is illustrated by the contrasting fertility of Mary McBratney and Elizabeth Campbell, who both married in August 1864. Mary married at 32 and gave birth a year later. Between the ages of 33 and 38 she had four children. Elizabeth married at 19 and gave birth to 10 children before she was 32. She went on to have another six children. 


The rate of births per woman among settlers between 1840 and 1880 was among the highest in the world. Women in Britain had on average of four to five children in the mid- to late 19th century, but female colonists in New Zealand averaged almost seven births each and almost nine births per married woman. This was largely because they married earlier and had their first children at a younger age. Fertility rates dropped sharply after 1880 as women married later or remained single.

Because of factors such as malnutrition and infectious diseases, Māori women had lower levels of fertility than Pākehā women in the late 19th century. Until the 1960s Māori children were more likely to die, and family dynamics were affected by the high childhood death rate.

Family composition

Traditional Māori families consisted of parents, their adult children and their children’s children – extended families. Several whānau resided in a hamlet or kāinga which reinforced the linkages necessary to maintain whanaungatanga – close cooperative relationships between kin.

Male settlers outnumbered women, and many men never married or had children. Most young single women who arrived in New Zealand between 1850 and 1880 married young and had numerous children, the majority of whom became parents themselves.

European couples were expected to form their own households on marriage, and mainly lived in nuclear families consisting of parents and their children. Adult children (especially daughters) usually stayed at home until they married. Siblings and older relatives often came to stay. Some farming households included adolescent children from other families who worked for their keep. Letter writing was used to sustain contact with family members in the ‘home’ country.

Family dynamics

On farms and in small family businesses, settler women and men worked together, often with the assistance of their children. Fathers and husbands exercised power as farm owners or managers and organised the labour of other family members. Children’s education was often fitted around their farm duties and was not always compatible with the Education Act 1877 which introduced compulsory schooling.

Non-farming Pākehā households depended on access to money, and usually it was adult men who were in paid work. A family consumer economy emerged, based on a male breadwinner and a wife and children who were financially dependent on his earnings.

Women settlers in both rural and urban contexts were expected to cook, clean, wash, and care for children, often assisted by older daughters. A very small number of them employed domestic servants, but few women were ‘leisured ladies’.

Women without breadwinners

Some women (widows, single mothers and the wives of men injured in accidents) did not have the support of male breadwinners. They took in laundry, provided accommodation for lodgers and worked as domestic workers, postmistresses or shop assistants. In 1911 a widows’ pension was introduced but this financial support was not available to ‘alien’ or Asian widows, unmarried mothers, or deserted or divorced women.

Caring for relatives

Sometimes a widowed father or mother would move in with their married children or move between their households. Unmarried adult children often stayed at home to care for older parents. This probably suited elderly parents because they retained their independence.

Late 19th and early 20th century families

Māori whānau

Māori family life was disrupted by the New Zealand wars, land confiscation and exposure to communicable diseases. Family members were also separated when men had to travel away from home for casual and seasonal work essential for their families’ survival. Infant and child mortality increased and the population dropped alarmingly. In the 1890s, half of all Māori baby girls died before seven years of age and only 42% reached adulthood. However, better health services contributed to improvements in child and infant mortality in the early 20th century.

Assimilation strategies

Māori had a well-defined system of marriage and family relationships, typically involving marriage for women at a young age. However over time they became subject to colonial laws. From 1911 it became compulsory for Māori to formally register their marriages. Attempts were also made through schools to impose European models of family life and domestic management on Māori.

Rates of marriage

The proportion of Pākehā men marrying increased as girls born in New Zealand reached marriageable age. Women married later and the number of single women between 15 and 25 rose rapidly. The small number of single women who became pregnant outside marriage usually married before the birth.

Fertility rates

By the early 20th century the birth rate for Pākehā women had dropped to 3.5 per woman because women married later and were more likely to remain single. Single women found work as dairy maids, domestic workers, clerks, shop assistants, teachers, nurses, textile and clothing workers and in food processing. Women in urban areas had fewer children, while families were larger in more remote areas, particularly in Māori communities.

A declining birth rate

Dr Morton Anderson voiced his concerns about a declining birth rate in ‘the Britain of the South Seas’ to the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association in 1906. He compared birth rates in the British Empire and Germany and argued that patriotism demanded that ‘natural increase should be high.’1

Limiting family size

Attempts to limit the number of children within marriage became more common from about 1900, but the available barrier methods of contraception were often ineffective. A number of groups were concerned about contraceptive use, including some women’s rights activists who were concerned about their use by men having extramarital sex.

Family composition

While the number of births per woman dropped in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most children still grew up in large families. In the 1911 census, two-thirds of Pākehā children with mothers in their 40s belonged to families with over six children, but 14% of married women of that age were childless. Among all menopausal women, including the never-married, 36% were childless. Most Pākehā households consisted of a married couple and their children, but sometimes included their parents, an adult sister or brother, or unmarried friends.

The cult of domesticity

In rural areas the labour of men, women and children was essential to economic farm operation, although men were most likely to own land and supervise the labour of other family members. Compulsory schooling to standard six (year eight), introduced under the Education Act 1877, was sometimes inconsistent with the use of children’s labour on family farms, especially dairy farms. Married women in towns were expected to specialise in childcare and domestic work and contribute less directly to household income.

Mothers were increasingly defined as men’s ‘helpmeet’ – the moral guardians of their households and the nation – and their domesticity idealised. This cult of domesticity gave many women a strong sense of purpose, but also limited the scope of their activities.

Being the eldest

Responsibilities didn’t always lie where you might expect. Mrs Pavlich remembered her mother taking charge after her grandfather died: ‘My mother being the eldest, they always seemed to turn to her for aid when they needed it. For a loan, money – she would always give it, always. But she was the first in the family and when her father died she took over. She was more like the head of the family than the mother was.’2

Men, women and work

Men were increasingly expected to be breadwinners and home was seen as a retreat from the world of paid work. While men exercised formal authority in the household, women supervised children and coordinated their work. Older children were often responsible for the care of other children. Young women often worked as milkmaids until milking machines made many redundant. Single women increasingly turned to work as domestic servants.

Challenging conventions

While many settlers embraced conventional family life, some prominent New Zealanders did not. Professor Alexander Bickerton of Canterbury College criticised marriage as an institution, advocated ‘free love’ and set up a ‘federative home’ (a communal living arrangement) on his estate at Wainoni in Christchurch.

    • Morton Anderson, ‘Declining Birth-rate in “the Britain of the South Seas”.’ New Zealand Medical Journal, (last accessed 6 October 2010). Back
    • Claire Toynbee, Her work and his: family, kin and community, 1900–1930. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995, p. 131. Back

Families, wars and economic hardship: 1914–1944

In the first half of the 20th century more men became ‘family men’ with financial responsibility for wives and children. Single women had access to a wider range of jobs and married women were mainly involved in domestic work and childcare. Mothers without a male breadwinner struggled financially. In the 1920s and early 1930s, 40–50% of all live births occurred within 12 months of marriage and half of these babies were born within eight months of marriage.

Fertility rates

War and economic hardship had an impact on the birth rate and the size of families. Fertility dropped during the 1930s depression to less than 2.1 births per woman, and the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society promoted effective contraception as a way to reduce poverty by limiting the size of families. At the beginning of the Second World War, births per woman increased and then dropped.

Widows of a different kind?

Some women never married because so many men died during both world wars. One of the women who did not find a husband described women like herself as ‘widows of a kind’.1 While most women were expected to marry and become mothers, single women had to forge long-term careers at a time when women earned less than men, even when they did the same jobs.

Love, romance and the ‘new woman’

After the First World War, many women cut their hair, embraced shorter dresses and met young men in dance halls and cinemas. Love and romance rather than breadwinning and home management shaped decisions about life partners. However, men’s access to land, capital or jobs had a major impact on the material well-being of women and children. This was highlighted by the newspaper The working woman.

Family composition

Many Māori and Pākehā families were without fathers and brothers during the First and Second world wars. Women reared children alone, or with the help of other family members, while fathers were in relief-work camps during the depression years. Some women and men set up households during this time with same-sex partners, buying homes, sharing financial resources and contributing to their communities. This was facilitated by women’s access to employment, particularly professional work like nursing and teaching.

Shared grief

In rural areas and small towns everyone would know when a family received a telegram with the news that a father or son was missing or dead. According to Jessie ‘everyone would know, as though we were one big family … and you accepted their grief as yours.’2

Rural families

In rural families women cooked, preserved, washed, cleaned, and cared for children. They also milked cows, raised chickens, sold eggs, and grew food for the family and for sale, among other farm jobs. Children gathered walnuts, mushrooms and flowers for sale as well as separating milk and churning cream if they lived on dairy farms. While sons and brothers were away at war, mothers and sisters did their work.

Māori families lived in some of the most isolated rural areas, mainly in the north, central and eastern North Island. They survived on subsistence agriculture, and casual and seasonal work. Malnutrition and social poverty were widespread.

Men, women and breadwinning

After the First World War the ideal of ‘the family man’ was consolidated and men firmly integrated into domestic life. While almost half of male immigrants in the 19th century never married, only 32% of adult men were bachelors in 1921. Men’s role as breadwinners was assumed and trade unions argued that they should receive a family or social wage.

Many men could not support their families during the depression, which had a severe impact on Māori whānau. Their financial situation improved after the 1938 Social Security Act provided much needed income support for poor families.

Most women in paid work were young single women who left employment when they married, usually in their late 20s or early 30s. By 1936 they were concentrated in domestic work, retail and clerical work, nursing, teaching and the clothing industry. Many women, including married women, were ‘manpowered’ into employment during the Second World War. However, women responsible for the care of children were exempt from registration for work of ‘national importance’.

Homes, housing and families

Family life involved establishing a home – usually a detached house purchased through bank loans or loans from government agencies. By 1916, 47% of urban, 58% of rural and 52% of all households were homeowners, and most lived in detached houses.

By 1926 over 60% of households lived in owner-occupied houses. In the inter-war era new suburbs were developed in areas opened up to tram, bus and train commuters. Owner-occupation or other single household dwellings reinforced the trend towards young couples setting up their own households, but also allowed them to house other family members, such as elderly parents or orphaned nieces and nephews.

    • Lauris Edmund, ed., Women in wartime: New Zealand women tell their story. Wellington: Government Printing Office, 1986, p. 236. Back
    • Women in wartime, p. 105. Back

Baby boom begins: 1945–1959

The baby boom

As soldiers returned at the end of the Second World War, New Zealand experienced the first stage of the baby boom – high rates of early marriage and increasing family size. The fertility rate for Pākehā women rose and this continued until the early 1970s. Women generally married young and became mothers soon after marriage. In the mid-1950s, Pākehā women had on average 3.8 live births while Māori women experienced on average almost seven.

Māori fertility

The baby boom was a Pākehā phenomenon. Māori fertility rates had been high before the war (averaging six births per woman) and remained high until the 1960s, when family size dropped rapidly. This was primarily an outcome of improvements in child mortality and increasing urbanisation.

A long boom

The baby boom resembled increases in fertility in other countries, but reached higher levels than even the US and Australia – 4.1 births per woman in 1960. Most Pākehā women not only married at a young age, but had on average more than three live births.

Homemaking and paid work

Many women married young, and left paid work to bring up children after only a few years in employment. Family Benefit payments became universal in 1946 and provided a crucial subsidy for Māori and Pākehā families with children. All mothers had access to some money each week regardless of their husband’s income. In 1991 a National government ended the universal Family Benefit and introduced income-related tax credits.

Housekeeping money

In many households women would be given ‘housekeeping money’ by their husbands to pay for groceries and other household expenses. One woman recalled that in the 1950s : ‘I was one of those wives who never knew what her husband earned. I got housekeeping every week and he paid the major bills and that was that.’1

Married women with jobs were told to recognise their husband as the head of the household and let him take responsibility for major household expenses, while her earnings were used for ‘extras’ like clothing, appliances and holidays. Nell, a skilled tailor, worked from home for a clothing company in the 1950s ‘to buy some things for the house’ 2 and used her part-time earnings to complement her husband’s wages.

Breadwinning and ‘fun fathers’

The ideal of ‘the family man’ was consolidated in the years after the Second World War. Becoming a ‘real man’ was now associated with becoming a parent. This involved being a good provider, playing with children or taking them to the beach or the zoo. The acquisition of a motor car was another way in which men could be good fathers as the Sunday drive became a ritualised family activity.

Public and private worlds

Women were associated with the home, men with public life. One women’s magazine told readters that: ‘While the mother stands for home, and security, the father symbolises the great world beyond.’3

Home ownership and suburban life

State support for families and low-interest housing loans allowed very young couples to marry and set up home in the newly expanding suburbs, which were often not accessible by public transport. The state supported home mortgages for families as well as providing rental housing for those on low incomes. Suburban living often intensified gender divisions: fathers often took the car to work and mothers wheeled prams to the local shops.

Māori families increasingly lived in city suburbs, often in rented homes. Many young parents were separated from the support of whānau and help available on rural marae.

Less than ideal families

While settled family life was celebrated in the immediate post-war period, what happened in families was sometimes rather different. One person recalled hearing slaps and the cries of children as the pubs released men during the era of 6 o’clock closing. Women sought advice from Women’s weekly columnists about men who were unfaithful, did not provide them with housekeeping money, neglected their children or spent most of their free time with male friends. Rape within marriage and domestic violence occurred in neat, well-vacuumed homes with newly cut lawns as well as in shabby rental accommodation.

    • Quoted in Helen May, Minding children, managing men: conflict and compromise in the lives of postwar Pakeha women. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1992, p. 119. Back
    • Minding children, managing men, p. 115. Back
    • New Zealand women’s weekly, 4 December 1952, p. 157. Back

Baby boom continues: 1960s – early 1970s

During the 1960s and early 1970s most women were still marrying early and focusing on parenting, but the ex-nuptial birth rate rose, divorces increased and married women were more likely to be in the paid workforce. Conventional family arrangements were challenged as feminism began to have an impact. Changes in women’s lives and aspirations had implications for men as lovers, husbands and fathers.


By 1960 there were four births on average per adult woman. Fertility rates increased steadily for women at younger ages, peaking for the 15–24-year age group in the 1960s and in the early 1970s for teenage parents.

All my friends were doing it

One woman recalled the assumptions people made after she married in the late 1960s: ‘I was just on 17 when I got married … If you weren’t married by 19 you were an old maid. All my friends were married because a lot of them had to. A lot of people thought I had to, and I used to say, “Time will tell.” But we’re still waiting for a child. Mum didn’t want me to get married at all, she wanted me to wait. I wish I’d taken her advice.’1

Many young women left school at 15, entered employment and were married and pregnant (not necessarily in that order) in their early 20s. Women married men close to them in age (on average 2.6 years older). A hundred years before female settlers had married men who were on average six years older than them.

Māori family size

After averaging six births per woman for most of the 20th century, Māori family sizes declined from the 1960s as infant and child mortality rates dropped. Fertility rates for Māori dropped from five births per woman in 1973 to 2.8 by 1978, and averaged 2.2 by the late 1980s. However, fertility trends for different ethnic groups became hard to calculate due to changes in definitions of ethnicity used in the census.

Conception, marriage and sole parenthood

The baby-boom epoch is often seen as New Zealand’s ‘golden era’. However, while concern was expressed about teenage pregnancy in the early 21st century, the rate of teenage conception was actually much higher in the early 1970s. Marriage, especially at young ages, was frequently a response to pre-marital pregnancy. However, the percentage of births within seven months of marriage dropped from 47% in 1962 to 38% in 1972. Single women who did not marry were often expected to make their babies available for adoption.

By the early 1970s single women who became mothers were more likely to raise their babies alone. This was assisted by improvements in financial support from the state, initially through access to the discretionary emergency hardship benefit and finally through the establishment of the Domestic Purposes Benefit in 1973, which provided financial support for sole parents who were not in paid work.

You must have your own house

The focus on home ownership could be stressful. One man described his experience of saving for a home: ‘We bought to save rent but I think, looking back, it is one of those things that’s more or less drummed into you. You must have your own section, your own house, and once you’ve got that you’re established … I actually held two or three jobs for about seven years to do that … It did affect my family relationships. You can work too much.’2

Doing house and home

Moving from rental accommodation into one’s own home remained an important goal for young families, and home improvement increased as a family-focused activity. The state continued to facilitate families’ access to housing by providing low-interest home loans, and families built new homes in the expanding suburbs. The portion of households owning their own home exceeded 70% in the 1970s. Good parenting was defined as ‘putting a roof over their heads’.

Rethinking sex and domesticity

During the late 1960s, the first set of children born during the baby boom became adults and started to question conventional ideals of family life. While training for work in traditionally female occupations such as clerical work, nursing and teaching, and marrying early and becoming home owners, many women aspired to lives different from those of their mothers. Some of them became involved in organisations that focused on:

  • abortion rights
  • political, educational and employment opportunities for women
  • opposition to domestic violence and rape
  • access to childcare
  • alternatives to conventional heterosexuality.

Feminist challenges

In 1973 the first United Women’s Convention was held in Auckland and included workshops on many different aspects of women’s lives, including their lives within families. It highlighted issues in women’s lives relating to sexuality, rape, domestic violence, mental health, education and employment; and questioned assumptions about women as primary caregivers, men’s involvement in paid work and power relationships in households. While divisions of responsibility between women and men within families continued, they were increasingly being questioned.

  1. Rosemary Barrington and Alison Gray, The Smith women: 100 New Zealand women talk about their lives. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1981, p. 69. Back
  2. Rosemary Barrington and Alison Gray, The Jones men: 100 New Zealand men talk about their lives. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1981, p. 67. Back

Baby bust families: mid-1970s to 1990s

Shifts in fertility and family size

The Pākehā baby boom was followed by a ‘baby bust’. From the late 1970s the birth rate fell to two births per woman and stayed at this rate for the next 30 years. Rates of marriage dropped and people married later. These patterns were similar to trends in other OECD countries.

Ethnic variation

While Māori also experienced a rapid decline in fertility from the 1960s onwards, because their overall population was younger the birth rate was higher than for Pākehā. Pacific peoples had a higher fertility rate, and a younger population overall, resulting in a higher rate of births. There was rapid immigration in the 1990s by Asian people with dependent children, but Asians had the lowest fertility rates of all ethnic groups.

Why a baby bust?

Many young adults delayed marriage and parenting while they established themselves in careers, built savings and purchased homes. From the 1970s access to effective contraception, particularly the contraceptive pill and sterilization, made it easier for people to control their fertility. The beginning of the baby bust also coincided with feminist activism and public debate about contraception, abortion and women’s participation in all aspects of public life – paid work, politics, sport, entertainment, art and culture.

Parenting outside marriage

As rates of fertility and marriage dropped, the proportion of live births outside marriage rose dramatically – from 16.5% in 1975 to 40.7% in 1995. These children were typically born to older parents, often couples in de-facto relationships. Marriages increasingly occurred when a relationship had lasted for a significant time, when a couple wanted to have children, or when they wanted to make the status of their relationship more public.

Single mothers were predominantly women over 25, rather than the younger parents of earlier periods.

Marriage resistance

A study in Dunedin of heterosexual couples who cohabited identified a number of different reasons for ‘marriage resistance’.1 These couples valued choice over legal obligation and did not want to fall into the conventional roles of ‘the wife’ or ‘the husband’. However, changes within marriage that included women keeping their own family names, engaging in paid work, and sharing domestic work and childcare, sometimes made it difficult to distinguish living together from marriage.

Separation, divorce and sole-parenting

In 1976 the Matrimonial Property Act enshrined the principle of equal division of property between couples at the end of a marriage, regardless of their financial contributions. This legislation, and access by sole parents not in paid work to a Domestic Purposes Benefit from 1973, made separation, divorce and single parenthood financially viable for many women.

Equal division of property between separating de-facto couples was introduced with the Property (Relationships) Amendment Act in 2001. However, there was often a gap between the principle of equal division of assets like homes, furnishings, cars, businesses and superannuation and the outcome of such division.

Sole-parent families increased from the mid-1970s, but remained a small portion of all households, rising from 5% in 1976 to 10% in 2001. The increase was most rapid in the late 1970s and 1980s, but slowed in the 1990s.

Who is family?

Paul was a teenager who divided his time equally between his separated parents. He included his parents, his step-parents, their parents and his own grandparents in his ‘family’, but had stronger connections with some family members. ‘I always think of bloodlines, but maybe it’s ’cause I’m also much closer to [my half-brother and sister] than I am to my step-mum.’2

Families of a different kind

Two-parent families included children from previous relationships. Children, assets and money moved in complex ways between these households (sometimes consisting of his, her and our children). Children often initiated changes in where they lived and how they moved between their parents.

Some children lived in households with parents who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or queer. Usually conceived within heterosexual relationships that later ended, these children often had contact with both their parents as well as their parents’ partners. Some lesbian couples started to conceive children using sperm donated by male friends.

Family dynamics

Married women’s involvement in paid work increased, but men were still likely to spend more hours in employment and contribute more to family incomes. Research during the 1990s on money management in families indicated that for most Pākehā households women’s earnings were still seen as a supplement to the earnings of a male breadwinner. While women with children were in paid work for fewer hours each week, New Zealand parents had a high rate of average hours in paid work.

For Māori and Pacific families, earning household money was less likely to be seen as the responsibility of fathers and money earned was more likely to be shared outside the immediate household or nuclear family. Pacific families were most likely to see any money earned by a married couple as a resource to be shared with their extended family.

  1. Vivienne Elizabeth, ‘Cohabitation, marriage and the unruly consequences of difference.’ Gender and Society 14, no. 1 (2000): 87–110. Back
  2. R. Fleming and T. Atkinson, Families of a different kind: life in the households of couples who have children from previous marriages or marriage-like relationships. Waikanae: Families of Remarriage Project, 1999, p. 147. Back

21st-century families

Family practices

Family practices vary, but in the 21st century most people are still involved in satisfying, challenging and often complex relationships with partners, children, parents, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts and other relatives.

Saying ‘I love you’

Some people find it hard to tell their children that they love them. One grandfather said that: ‘I do find it easier to say “I love you” to my mokopuna than to my own kids … Maybe when they were small I said it, but then they grew up. You don’t say “I love you” to men!’1

21st-century parents

Parents in the early 21st century were most likely to be in their late 20s or early 30s at the birth of their first child. Women’s fertility was highest in the age group 30–34 years, and the median age for women giving birth in 2015 was 30. However, the age of mothers of newborns varied across ethnic groups. In 2015 the median age of Māori mothers was 26.2 years, for Pacific mothers it was 27.2 years, for Asian mothers 31.3 years and for Pākehā mothers 30.7 years.

The average age of fathers of newborn babies was 32 years, approximately four years older than their own fathers when they were born. One baby in 100 had a father who was over 50 years old.

Parents were not only older; they were also less likely to be married. In 2015, 53% of live births were to married mothers, compared to 87% of live births in 1968. Both parents were also much more likely to be in paid work than they were 30 years before, but mothers were still most likely to be the primary caregivers of babies and young children.

Effects of delayed parenting

People who become parents for the first time in their 30s will be older parents of teenage children and have financial responsibilities for the next generation in their late 50s and 60s. Delayed retirement may be a consequence of delayed parenting and consistent with the removal of age discrimination at work and debate about raising the age level for state-supported New Zealand Superannuation.

Lower fertility but more twins

The average number of births per woman in 2017 was 1.81, below the level required to replace the population without depending on immigration. In the early 21st century the rate hovered around replacement level. This was a drop from 4.3 births per woman in 1961.

They are so lucky

Some children may have four parents spread across several households and a wide set of whānau or family connections. In a study of gay and lesbian families, Pia spoke about her children’s family connections: ‘Rhianna and Lena have seven grandmothers … and they’ve got three grandfathers … they’ve got this incredibly diverse and colourful large family, and it’s just all full of love really. You know, they’re so lucky.’2

But while the number of births per woman was dropping, there was a small rise in the number of multiple births. Twins and triplets were about 9–11 per 1,000 confinements between the early 1880s and early 1990s but increased to 14 per 1,000 in 2015. Contributing to this were delays in childbearing and increasing use of reproductive technologies.

Diverse families, different connections

In the early 21st century children were growing up in many different types of family households – some with two heterosexual parents, some in sole-parent families, some with lesbian parents and gay fathers who were also involved in their care, others with grandparents or other family members. Some people were concerned about this variety in family circumstances – on the other hand, there was more acceptance of different ways of being a family and bringing up children.

The families in which children grew up were also increasingly ethnically diverse – almost a quarter of all babies born in 2014 belonged to more than one ethnic group. 70% of Māori babies and 52% of Pacific babies had multiple ethnic connections.

Jobs, kids and grandparents

Parents increasingly depended on grandparents to manage jobs and childcare – especially when they had preschool children. A quarter of grandparents surveyed in 2009 cared for grandchildren on a regular basis each week, and nearly 60% cared for them ‘now and then’. 58% were looking after grandchildren while their parents were in paid work. Some had reduced their own working hours or even moved cities to provide this care.

Whānau Ora – responding to differences

Families in New Zealand vary not only in their composition and in relationships among family members, but also in their access to income, housing, health, education and other aspects of well-being. In 2010 Whānau Ora was developed to provide cross-government support to families in need through non-governmental organisations contracted to work closely with families to find out what will be useful for them.

Whānau Ora was modelled on te ao Māori principles and practices and directed at supporting Māori and Pasifika families that are statistically over-represented among families with least financial resources. However, it was available to families of all ethnicities. The programme was administered by Te Puni Kōkiri which worked with iwi and Crown representatives and three commissioning agencies who had direct contact with non-governmental organisations contracted to work with whānau who needed support. Kaiārahi (or navigators) in particular communities met directly with family members and liaised with agencies to ensure they had the support they needed. A review by the Auditor General in 2015, concluded that while programme was innovative in its collective approach to family well-being, better planning and financial management was needed.

Virtual families

While ‘the home’ as a physical place has been an important symbol of family connectedness, connections to kin beyond the family home have always been important in New Zealand, especially because New Zealanders moved around the country and many people were immigrants or the descendents of immigrants. Many young adults also left for study, jobs and life experiences outside New Zealand and established families in other parts of the world.

In the 21st century family members remained connected through phone calls, text and email messages, but increasingly through social networking sites like Facebook or online voice-call services like Skype. Dispersed, varied, forming and re-forming, families stretched themselves across vast distances to connect virtually or face-to-face for family reunions, anniversaries, to celebrate new arrivals or farewell other family members.

    • A. Kerslake Hendricks and others, Changing roles: the pressures and pleasures of being a grandparent in New Zealand, Research Report 1/10. Wellington: Families Commission Kōmihana ā Whānau, 2010, p. 32. Back
    • Alex Gunn and Nicola Surtees, We’re a family: how lesbian and gay men are creating and maintaining family in New Zealand, Blue Skies Fund Report 29/09. Wellington: Families Commission Kōmihana ā Whānau, 2009, p. 23. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

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