Story: Parenting

Page 3. Marriage, separation and sole parenting

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Marriage and cohabitation

Until the 1970s there was a strong expectation for people to marry before having children. Many couples married because of pregnancy – it has been estimated that over half of brides in the late 1960s were pregnant. In the late 20th century parents were less likely to be married and were more likely to divorce than the generations before.

A matter of choice

Some single women became sole mothers by choice, many because they wanted children but found themselves in their late 30s and without a partner. Donor insemination was one way of getting pregnant. Between the 1990s and 2000s the percentage of single women using the services of fertility clinics increased significantly – in 2003 one clinic, Fertility Associates, reported that 35% of clients were single women, up from 20% in 1996.

Cohabitation became a common living arrangement for New Zealand parents. In 2017 nearly half of all women were not married when their first baby was born, although most lived in long-term relationships.

Unmarried mothers

Until the 1970s unmarried mothers faced financial barriers and disapproval from society if they wanted to raise their children alone. Many gave their children up for adoption – in 1970, 30% of babies born to unmarried mothers were adopted out. In the 21st century almost all unmarried mothers parented their own children.

Responsibilities after separation

New Zealand law assumes that parents will continue to care for their children if their relationships end. Mother-only care was traditionally seen as better for separating parents and for children. But by the 21st century shared care was usually considered better for children. The law encouraged separating parents to make their own parenting arrangements in the best interests of their children. Dispute resolution processes were available through the Family Court.

International battle

In 1988 five-year-old US citizen Hilary Foretich was secretly brought to Christchurch by her grandparents. Her mother, Elizabeth Morgan, claimed that Hilary had been sexually abused by her father. The US court did not accept Hilary as a witness and ruled that she had to have unsupervised visits with her father, which prompted the flight. Morgan went to jail for two years for refusing to comply with the court order, and later joined her daughter in Christchurch. The New Zealand courts awarded Morgan sole custody.

Separating parents had to negotiate new living and care arrangements. This could include sole care (children live with one parent), shared care (where children lived with each parent for a minimum of three days a week) and split care (where children lived with one parent during the week and the other at weekends). Fathers took on basic tasks they may not have done in the past, like dressing young children and making school lunches.

Child support payments

Parents who do not live with or share the care of their children are expected to make a financial contribution towards their day-to-day care. Parents can make private arrangements or use a government-operated child-support scheme. In the year to March 2017 92% of people receiving the sole parent support benefit paid by the New Zealand government were women and nearly 60% of them were aged 25-39. The number of parents receiving the sole parent support benefit declined between 2012 and 2017 and the rates of participation in paid work by sole mothers has steadily increased in the last decade.

Sole parenting

The 2013 census showed that 18% of families were one-parent families with children. Most were headed by mothers. Some children have ongoing contact with their other parent, but others have only occasional or no contact. Older children tend to have less contact than younger children. A 1998 study of children whose parents had separated found that 52% of adolescents sampled had seen their father in the last year. In 2013 almost 32% of mothers in single parent families were employed full-time and 19% were in part-time employment. A third of all women who were sole parents were not in paid work.

How to cite this page:

Lesley Patterson, 'Parenting - Marriage, separation and sole parenting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/parenting/page-3 (accessed 20 April 2019)

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