The Prime Minister’s leave: A new approach to parenting

A little over 40 years ago, my father walked into the classroom where he taught and wrote on the blackboard.

He turned to his six and seven year old pupils and triumphantly announced “A great New Zealander was born today!”

The children looked at the board and looked back to him before one boy piped up.

“Why’d you name him that? That’s not very nice.”

“What do you mean?” said my father.

“You can’t name a kid luncheon!”

My father could have been forgiven had he actually named me after a log of processed meat. I’d been born just a few hours earlier and he was already back at work — emotional, sleep-deprived, probably completely delirious.

Parental leave didn’t exist in New Zealand in 1977. The expectation was that he’d be back teaching his class, as if nothing had changed.

Simultaneously, my mother, also a teacher, had a visit from her assistant principal. He asked whether, considering she’d just given birth, she’d be resigning.

She did. Maternity leave also didn’t exist, and the expectation was that she’d stay home with her baby.

New Zealand in the late 1970s was a different place than today. Those days, houses were small, sections enormous, and a family could survive on one income, even if my father did drive a delivery truck during the school holidays to bring home a bit more cash.

My mother would spend much of the next six years as the primary caregiver for my sister and me. Only when we went to school did she return to teaching. My parents received no support from the state. Back then, few people did.

A lady holding a baby closely.
© UNICEF/UN0216775/2018/Nazer18 month old baby Kim Hyang Jong in Jongju City Hospital, DPR Korea, with her mother. “When she first came to the hospital she was severely malnourished and couldn’t walk or support herself,” said her doctor. “One reason children are getting sick is because of a lack of knowledge about child care from parents,” says Dr Ri.

Much has changed for New Zealand’s parents over the last 40 years, but it hasn’t changed quickly.

In 1979, UK mothers were entitled to 40 weeks maternity leave: New Zealand mums? Nothing. Maternity leave was introduced in 1980 — making New Zealand one of the last countries in the OECD to do so. For many years now New Zealand has offered one of the lowest paid parental leave allowances in the OECD.

No more. As of the 1st of July 2018, paid parental leave for New Zealand parents has increased to 22 weeks, with the recipient (either parent, not both) receiving a maximum of $563 a week. By 2020, it will increase to 26 weeks. The parent can also spend up to a year away from their job, deciding whether to return.

Of course, employers can add to those minimum requirements – offering increasing paid leave, flexible working hours, or additional benefits.

New Zealand was a country formed around the notion of fairness and egalitarianism … getting “a fair go” remains an intrinsic part of the New Zealand psyche

Those 26 weeks will bring New Zealand closer to leading OECD countries, and to WHO guidelines for breast-feeding and parental bonding. New Zealand’s situation is improving, but it is still not world-beating.

We Kiwi parents look at the leave entitlements of Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and marvel. We read about the progressive policies towards fathers in Japan, Liechtenstein and South Korea and our eyes widen with wonder. We look at Bulgaria’s 410 days of paid maternal leave, at 90% of the mother’s salary, and fall off our chairs.

The change in our South Pacific paradise is more evolutionary than revolutionary. There is growing understanding of parents’ role in the lives of their children, with benefits both for children and for society.

New Zealand was a country formed around the notion of fairness and egalitarianism. While that notion has been *cough* somewhat inconsistent throughout our history, getting “a fair go” remains an intrinsic part of the New Zealand psyche.

While paid parental leave is available to many people beyond the child’s biological mother, overwhelmingly, it is still the biological mother who acts as the primary caregiver.

There are many reasons for that, but there are also signs that could be about to change. An evolutionary jump.

Man sits on hospital bed in a black hooded sweatshirt looks down at the baby he is cradling in his arms.
© UNICEF/UN0204090/2018/Zehbrauskas
James Bennett holds his one day-old baby James, in the maternity ward of Exeter Hospital, in Devon, England. “I’m a civil servant and I’ve got paternity leave, my work has been supportive … they’ve got all their policies and all that,” says James, who watched the birth of his son.

Which brings us to our Prime Minister.

Jacinda Ardern is New Zealand’s third female Prime Minister, and the second youngest. She is the second world leader to give birth while in office, and the first to take paid parental leave.

The arrival of Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford was a remarkable moment for New Zealand — because of who her parents are, how she will be raised, and how that decision will affect attitudes within New Zealand society.

For six weeks Jacinda Ardern was the primary caregiver for Neve Te Aroha before returning to her official duties as Prime Minister. Her partner and “first bloke”, TV presenter Clarke Gayford, is now acting as Neve’s primary caregiver – often to hilarious effect, as we saw during the recent UNGA in New York.

What does this tell us about mothers and fathers in New Zealand? It tells us things are changing. It tells us that it is OK for mothers to return to work soon after giving birth if they choose, that it is OK for dads to stay home to look after their child, and that parents who choose to do so will be supported in their decision.

Cultural evolution

There is still a way to go. Whereas some countries allow for simultaneous, extended parental leave, New Zealand does not yet offer that. With New Zealand’s exorbitant cost of living, few couples would have that luxury.

Fathers can take two weeks’ unpaid parental leave while the mother is on maternity leave. Beyond that, parental leave must be split – parents can’t take it at the same time. That’s very different to, say, Sweden, where both parents are allowed to stay off work until the child is 18 months old. (Also – 480 days paid parental leave! An exclusive 90 days for each parent! ZOMG!)

A man holds up a smiling baby girl in a pink dress
© UNICEF/UN0217150/2018/ShennawiKhalid Abu Sahrif and his daughter Talya, 9 months old. “It’s not easy to get up in the middle of the night when my baby cries, change her and soothe her until she goes back to sleep. But I’ve never minded doing it because I enjoy our time alone together”.

New Zealand is a wonderful place to raise children. We have excellent schools and hospitals in a safe and stable democracy. Children have access to unspoiled natural environments. But a child’s first days still need some attention.

Admittedly, it is a small consideration compared to those days when my father dragged himself to work, having just watched his son’s birth, and my mother was left alone, unemployed, in a hospital with a new child.

Not only do Kiwi parents now have support, they have the option of returning to work protected by legislation. No more hospital visits by the boss asking for a resignation. No more uncertainty about whether there’ll be a job waiting.

And for babies born in this far-flung corner of the world, it now means more time in their family’s loving arms, and less of their father explaining to a class of incredulous schoolchildren that his first-born hasn’t been named after a slice of bologna.


Lachlan Forsyth is UNICEF New Zealand’s Communications Director. As the doting father of a four-year-old girl, he is constantly exhausted, regularly challenged, and utterly in love.

Give your child the best start in life! With information you can trust on the UNICEF Parenting Hub.



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