Most people become parents through biological reproduction. Generally, parents care and provide for their children until they reach adulthood. The emotional bond created through the parent–child relationship is usually life-long.
While egg or sperm donors are biological parents, they may or may not have a relationship with their offspring. Donation has made parenthood possible for people who in the past might not have had children, such as single women, gay and lesbian people, and people with fertility problems. Since 2005 donors and children born by this process have been able to find out about one another through a Human Assisted Reproduction Technology Register.
Mary Richmond (1853–1949), a member of a prominent colonial family and oldest of nine children, had parenting responsibilities from a young age. Her father was a busy politician while her mother had little interest in domestic matters. A letter from her father when she was 12 instructed her to look after her little brother while staying with friends: ‘Recollect that he is in your charge … do not forget your duties in your pleasures.’1 She never had children of her own, but children and their welfare were a life-long concern.
Some people become parents through social, rather than biological, circumstances. This form of parenting is common in New Zealand – step-parenting is a widespread example. Other forms include adoptive parenting, foster parenting, whāngai (fostering within the extended family), and grandparents as parents for their grandchildren. Social parents can become legal guardians and acquire parental rights and responsibilities.
Legally, maternity (who the mother is) is established by birth; while paternity (who the father is) is conferred by entering the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate. Legal parenthood is not restricted by marital status or the circumstances of conception. If the mother has a partner (the person she is in a relationship with when the child is born), she and her partner are assumed to be the parents of the child. From 2004 any partner of a mother could become a legal parent, regardless of gender. Male sperm donors cannot be the legal parents of children born through an artificial insemination process.
In the bustle of Christmas 1946 Jim Churchman and Fred George were placed in the wrong cribs in the nursery at Dunedin's maternity hospital. The blond Churchmans, of Scottish descent, parented an olive-skinned, dark-haired boy; the ethnically Lebanese George family raised a pale-skinned, fair-haired son. When the families met, doubts were raised, but it took 57 years and a DNA test before the mix-up was confirmed.
Adoption is the only way to transfer legal parenthood. Only married couples or single people can adopt. If the couple is in a de facto relationship, only one partner can legally adopt. The other can become a legal guardian, which has a lesser status. Before same-sex marriage was legalised in August 2013, same-sex couples could not jointly adopt children.
Parenting arrangements in New Zealand are diverse. Parenting may be sole or shared, and some parenting is done within extended families.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries parents often died relatively young – in 1936 there were three widows for every separated or divorced woman.
Later in the 20th century sole parenthood was usually the result of parents separating. Some sole parents formed new relationships and, if the other partner also had children, this created blended families. A 1995 study showed that up to two-thirds of mothers who separated found a new partner within five years.
Blended families were more prevalent from the 1970s because of increased rates of relationship break-up and the formation of new relationships. A 2004 study found that one in 10 children born after 1970 had lived in a blended family by the age of five, compared with one in 20 children born before 1970. Almost 40% of children had spent some time not living with their father before they turned 17.