Kōrero: Families: a history

Whārangi 5. Baby boom begins: 1945–1959

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. 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
  2. Minding children, managing men, p. 115. Back
  3. New Zealand women’s weekly, 4 December 1952, p. 157. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history - Baby boom begins: 1945–1959', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/families-a-history/page-5 (accessed 13 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017