We recently discussed the changing ethnic make-up of New Zealand babies. However, while some are having more babies than others, the question remains why total fertility rates remain so low. 

Last week New Zealand journalist and radio personality, Duncan Garner, was moved to write about the value put on raising children in modern New Zealand society.  Using his own family as a case study, he investigated the importance of the work his wife does at home.  He writes:

My wife’s three-month break from paid work ends on Monday – and she can’t wait to get back into the workforce.  It’s not that she doesn’t love being at home with our 4-year-old son, she dotes on the little man, but she’s ready to be “normal” again and, as she puts it, to “contribute” to the household.

I have to admit I’m in two minds about this, because her contribution to our son’s development over the last three months has been massive… Having a stay-at-home parent, if you can afford to, is totally undervalued… So I’ve used the last three months as a study between paid and unpaid work and its impact on my family. 

These are my observations:

  1. Our son has learned to ride a bike – she had the time to teach him and he had so much confidence he went from trainer wheels to a big bike on the first day. 
  2. They’ve talked about things. They’ve had slow-time together. They’ve lunched together. They’ve laughed together. They’ve gone to the park together. They read books to each other.
  3. She’s been at his swimming lessons every Monday when normally she wouldn’t be. As a result he can now swim a mini lap of a pool without a flotation device. He has genuine confidence which he did not have before.
  4. She’s been at his rugby league training every Thursday, when normally his grandmother would take him.
  5. His vocabulary and sentence structure has developed immensely. 
  6. He’s even learned to make spaghetti bolognese.

 

All these sorts of development opportunities used to be rushed, squeezed in between work and traffic jams.  For the last 12 weeks they have taken priority. 

Which brings me to the point: We simply don’t value stay-at-home parents enough. 

A recent American blog post, Fathers: You Can’t Afford A Stay-At-Home Mum, estimated the economic value of a stay-at-home parent at NZ$98,538 a year. A similar survey a few years ago by Salary.com put the true value at $153,000. 

When I mentioned these numbers to my wife her eyes lit up. She asked who was going to pay that – I said no-one and certainly not me. I couldn’t afford her, I said.  Those figures include looking after the kids, cleaning, cooking, shopping, laundry, managing finances and being a home personal assistant.

Did I truly value what my wife did over the past few months? Sometimes, but not always. I certainly appreciated it at times and felt lucky knowing she was with our child.  It’s only when I sat down for five minutes to truly reflect on it that I realised what they have both accomplished.

But now she’s banging down the door for freedom and independence and a return to work. She says she needs adult conversations again. She has always worked in paid employment and while she has loved her time at home, something doesn’t feel right. 

This is now the world we live in: stay-at-home parents used to be the norm, now it’s not.

I asked her if she felt valued during her time at home. She said no.

In today’s modern and demanding economy, stay-at-home parents are a genuine luxury. Who can afford it? Not many. If any.  But can we afford not to have them either? My young boy has become a young man in this three months and I credit his mum.

The reality for most families is that we send our kids off to school or daycare each day – both parents go to work, and many children stay at school through till 5.30pm in an after-school arrangement so we can pay our bills at the end of the week.

I want to put on record that I can’t put a price on what my wife has done. It’s worth more to our family than her (pretty meagre) salary as a teacher-aide at the school where our son starts later this year. 

Fulltime at home, or fulltime at work? I suppose you could call that the mother of all dilemmas.

Of course part-time or flexible work is a possibility in the middle, so perhaps the choice isn’t quite as stark as that. However, it is concerning that this New Zealand journalist describes being there for your children’s little milestones as not ‘the norm’ anymore, and that his wife said that she didn’t feel valued for doing these things with her son.  She needed to return to work to gain a sense of contribution.

Womens’ perception that the work they do raising children is not very valued by society must certainly be a factor causing low fertility. Many women say they gain more a sense of self worth, and a feeling of contribution and productivity, from their outside jobs.  This mentality is becoming culturally engrained in us. 

As he says, while we might have less materially the less we work, can we afford not to be good parents?  Really appreciating the work of parents, stay-at-home or otherwise, and their contribution both to their individual families and wider society would go a long way to helping our fertility rates and supporting parents.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...