Story: Parenting

Page 2. Mothers, fathers and parenting

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Parents are expected to share the responsibility of caring for children and providing for their needs. This is reflected in New Zealand family law such as the Care of Children Act 2004. Although parenting is a shared responsibility, mothers and fathers often care and provide for children differently, especially when children are young. This is in part because parenting varies according to the age and needs of children, and in part because men and women have often been seen as more suited to certain tasks.

Parenting in traditional Māori society

Before colonisation, parenting in Māori society occurred within the context of the whānau (extended family), which often comprised three or more generations. The care of children was a collective responsibility. Much care was provided by the grandparent generation. Parents had other whānau responsibilities in addition to parenting.

Colonial parenting

The different roles of mothers and fathers can be traced to the British origin of most immigrants to New Zealand. From the late 18th century British households changed from generally being both a dwelling and a workplace to family homes that became the special domain of wives and mothers.

Cheeky children

Most 19th-century families had many children, and mothers often had to raise them without much support. In 1880 Mary Rolleston of Christchurch wrote to her husband, William, a member of the House of Representatives in Wellington, complaining, ‘the boys are rather tumultuous and disorderly. If I let them do as they please the house is unbearable and if I reprove them I am told “they don’t like jaw”. Dolly [Dorothy, aged five] informed me today that I was a “greasy lout”!! Don’t you think that it is time that the father of the family took a little share in the responsibility of controlling his children?’1

When British settlers came to New Zealand, family life was organised around a gendered division of labour, although many rural women worked on family farms. The care of children and the home was the primary role of mothers, while the primary role of fathers was to provide for the family through paid work.

Parenting from the early 20th century

In the early 20th century motherhood remained women’s expected role. Mothers were supposed to raise their children according to strict routines and ensure they were clean, well-fed, appropriately dressed and well-behaved. Children’s physical growth and development was closely monitored by childcare experts. ‘Mothercraft’ was taught to girls in state schools. There was no boys’ equivalent. Although some mothers also had paid jobs, very few combined motherhood with full-time paid work or professional careers. Sole parents, who were mainly women, received little state support until later in the century, although widows could receive a pension from 1911.

Fathers were supposed to be good providers or ‘breadwinners’, and were not expected to spend much time with their children. They were the family disciplinarians and were sometimes available for a little horseplay before bedtime. Fathers did not do much in the way of childcare or housework. Their domain was outdoors – mowing the lawns and tending the vegetable garden. Widowers generally employed female housekeepers or sent young children to live elsewhere rather than care for them by themselves.

Legislation and social policies in the 20th century favoured this traditional type of family arrangement.

Work–life balance?

The 2001 census showed that 38% of fathers and 7.9% of mothers aged 25–34 with a child under five were in paid work for 50 or more hours per week. Studies have shown, unsurprisingly, that people who worked the longest hours were less able to do other activities like spend time with their families. When they did have family time a sense of pressure and work-related stress led to parents easily losing their tempers, shouting at their children and using more physical discipline.

Changing roles

For most families in the later 20th century one income was not enough to live on and parenting roles changed as a result. Many women were no longer prepared to stay at home, and wanted careers of their own. Mothers and fathers were often both in paid work and young children were placed in early childhood centres. In 1986, for couples with a child under five, 59% of mothers and 0.9% of fathers were at home full-time and not in paid work. By 2001 this had changed to 38% of mothers and 3.4% of fathers.

Mothers still did more caregiving than fathers, who were often the main breadwinner, (especially when children were young). Fathers worked longer hours than mothers, though mothers often increased their paid working hours as children grew older. Fathers took a more hands-on parenting role than in the past, becoming involved in cooking, feeding children and changing nappies.

In the 21st century the age of a woman’s youngest dependent child still has a significant effect on her level of involvement in paid employment and on her hourly pay rate. However, rates of involvement in paid work by women whose youngest child was aged three or four steadily increased between 1994 and 2014. While employment rates for sole mothers have increased alongside those of all mothers, they are less likely to be in paid work when they have young children.

While many mothers withdraw from paid work for a while when their babies are born, only a minority of fathers take on the work of caring for their children on a full-time basis. Nineteen per cent of women who were not in paid work listed looking after children as their main activity in the 2017 Household Labour Force survey; only 3% of men were in this category. Only 1% of those who take paid parental leave are fathers.

The small number of men who stay at home to look after their children are increasingly forming groups that meet in one another’s homes for mutual support. They include fathers whose partners are the main earners and sole fathers who are caring for their children alone. In 2018 the most high profile stay-at-home father was Clarke Gayford, the partner of the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who became the full-time carer for their baby daughter.

  1. Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds, My hand will write what my heart dictates: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press, Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p. 401. Back
How to cite this page:

Lesley Patterson, 'Parenting - Mothers, fathers and parenting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)

Story by Lesley Patterson, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 26 Jun 2018