‘So how long are you taking off?’ we breezily ask mums (and dads)-to-be as they prepare to take leave from work. Yet an answer to this innocent query can cause new parents a great deal of anxiety.
How long you spend at home with your baby might seem like a matter of simple choice – but behind that ‘choice’ are multiple, often conflicting, considerations: your own feelings, what friends recommend, what your mother-in-law thinks, what your culture expects – maybe the latest findings about what’s best for your child.
Then there are organisations like Plunket, which advise breastfeeding until baby’s a year or older. Definitely easier if you’re not dashing from boardroom to bathroom to express milk.
In reality, the biggest consideration is usually finances. Parenthood comes with enough trials and tribulations – we don’t need the extra stress of wondering where the next pack of Huggies is coming from.
So what’s the paid parental leave situation in New Zealand? Well, it’s two weeks better than it was in April last year, when the entitlement went from 16 to 18 weeks. And thankfully we don’t live in the US, one of only a handful of countries that has no federally mandated policy to give parents paid time off.
That burden is placed on individual states and employers. Donald Trump announced during his election campaign he’d guarantee six weeks of paid maternity: the first time a Republican presidential candidate has made such a promise.
So how much do Kiwis get for those 18 weeks? Parents get their normal pay up to a maximum of $527.72 a week before tax – which, again, isn’t much. Not compared to Norway, where parents can choose to receive 100 per cent of their regular salary for 49 weeks or 80 per cent of their salary for 59 weeks.
You might feel it’s unrealistic to weigh ourselves with socially progressive Scandinavia. But how do we stack up with the UK? There, eligible employees can be paid for up to 39 weeks. For the first six weeks, this is up to 90 per cent of average weekly earnings before tax. For the remaining time, they get $244 or 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings – whichever is lower.
Closer to home, Australian parents earning up to $150,000 a year can take 18 weeks of leave at the minimum wage ($672.60 weekly) on top of any employer contributions. However, the government wants to extend leave to 20 weeks, but prevent parents from getting the full state-funded amount if their employer offers paid leave.
Can Kiwis expect any change with the upcoming election? It depends who wins. A Member’s Bill put forward by Labour MP Sue Moroney last year proposed extending leave to 26 weeks. The Bill won support from the Greens, the Māori Party, United Future and NZ First, but was defeated by National, who used their financial veto.
The move would have been too costly, said then-finance minister Bill English. But it’s still very much on Labour leader Andrew Little’s agenda.
At its annual party conference in November, Labour renewed its commitment to extending leave to 26 weeks. Small beer for a Norwegian, perhaps. But certainly a signal that maternity leave could be a factor come election day.
NEXT asks four Kiwi mums how they’ve tackled the maternity leave conundrum.
Michaels lives with husband Tongi and three children and is studying to become an occupational therapist. This is her first foray back into education and work since first child, Ocean, was born 10 years ago. Second child Daniel is eight and Matilda is four.
“Tongi and I are flight attendants and it was always my plan to go back after my first child. But it all changed when Ocean arrived and reality hit home. We realised if we were both flying, we’d either fly together and need a full-time live-in nanny – which would use up most of my wage – or fly at different times and never see each other. It wasn’t like making a decision to go back nine-to-five. It could be up to 10 days at a time away from my baby.
While I have no regrets about not going back these past nine years, I can’t say it’s been easy. It’s been hard and sometimes lonely, as friends started to go back to work. We gave up a lot, like the opportunity to own property, as well as things like being able to take the family out to dinner or the movies regularly.
We’ve had to buy almost everything inexpensively or second-hand. Fortunately Tongi and I had lived off one salary – and put mine aside – for a year before Ocean was born, to see if we could live on less so we were used to it.
I think if the decision is not financial, as I know it is in many cases, it sometimes comes down to the child. Going back to study this year, it hasn’t been a problem at all to put Matilda in childcare. She’s got a tonne of energy and feistiness and is a very independent, social child.
I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to be at home with the kids as so many women don’t – even when that’s what they want. But I’m aware it’s not for everyone. My personality suited this and it worked for my family’s situation – especially with one parent regularly away overseas. I think every mother, family and child has different needs and people should be supported and valued in everything they do.
I’ve had the odd comment about being ‘just a mother’ but it’s always been water off my back. Mothers have to make the right decision for their financial and intellectual needs, mental health or whatever other factors. That’s the only important thing.”
Muller returned to work full-time at different stages with each of her five boys: Romero when he was four, Gabriel at age two, Milan at eight weeks, Phillip at six weeks and Stephen at two weeks. She lost her son Christian when she was seven months pregnant. Muller lives with her husband and three younger kids, and shares custody of Romero and Gabriel with their dad. She also has a stepdaughter who lives with her mum.
“The way I’ve dealt with maternity leave has changed enormously. When I had my first child in 1996, there was no question that as a good Samoan woman I’d stay home and raise kids. That was my role, as I saw it then, even though I was part way through a degree.
Things were different with Stephen in 2015. I went back to work after two weeks. It’s taken a long time to give myself permission to do what’s right for me but I’ve finally got there. I own a really busy business and I’ve realised the most important thing is that I’m happy.
I’m able to do this because we have the most incredible PORSE [in-home childcare] carer. She’s like an auntie to them and they’re so happy there. I could never have left them if they didn’t enjoy it so much.
The barometer for me is looking into their eyes and knowing they are happy. All the boys are developing fine, and very similarly – interesting since they’ve all had such different childcare. Romero had the most time at home and was raised by the whole family – aunties, grandparents, everyone!
Gabriel went into a Samoan preschool at two. Milan was with me for a bit, then grandma until Phillip was born, at which point they both started PORSE when Phillip was six weeks and they later transitioned into preschool. By the time I had Stephen, I was totally comfortable for him to start with his carer when he was two weeks old.
I came close to having a little meltdown just before we made the decision with Stephen. I beat myself up for a while wondering what everyone would say. But my husband said, “I just want you to be happy.”’ If he was okay with it, that was all I needed.
I’ve had to deal with the judgement of others, sending my boys to non-family and non-Samoan childcare – our carer is Fijian Indian. But I think sometimes our culture puts too much pressure on family to take care of kids when mums go back to work.
We found it was unsettling for Milan going between houses – he’s much better with the stability of one carer. We need to let grandparents be grandparents, and not tire them out running around after young kids.
In the end, I’ve tried it all different ways over two decades and the only philosophy I subscribe to these days is happy mother, happy child.”
Bess lives with her partner and kids Jonas, seven, and Kaia, four. She took a year off in Germany with Jonas and 11 months off in New Zealand with Kaia.
“I’ve had two very different experiences of maternity leave, mainly because one was overseas and one here. In Germany, you get paid 70 per cent of your last salary for a year so it was all very relaxed. All mothers do the same thing so no one is judging anyone and there are plenty of activities for mums who are at home: baby yoga, movies with babies, swimming. I really loved that time at home with Jonas.
When Jonas was nearly one we moved to New Zealand. Here you have to plan a little more, as maternity leave is shorter and often less well paid. We knew we had to make sacrifices if we wanted me to be at home till Kaia was walking.
We saved before and during my maternity leave; there were no daily takeaway coffees, second cars, or a trip home to my family for four years. In fact my parents haven’t yet met their grandkids in person. It wasn’t always easy but I’m so grateful we could do it. I know many families don’t have the luxury, even if they save, as their salaries just won’t allow it.
Daycare was great for my kids when I went back to work part-time at around a year. I realise now it’s taught them things I may not have been able to – new songs, fun activities, plus socialisation with kids their age.
What they taught Jonas and Kaia about manners and potty training was wonderful too. I felt very comfortable when they went to childcare and still love that kindy so much!
I think there’s a lot more pressure on New Zealand mums because finances dictate so much of their decision. The higher taxes we paid in Germany meant that first year contained less worry for us.
Home owner-ship is also really important here, so many people have the pressure of a mortgage to think about. Many people rent back home – Dad bought his first house in his 60s, and that’s not unusual. I think you have to be a bit more clever and plan ahead here – but the lower taxes are nice!”
Woodley is a teacher who lives with her husband and two kids Ella, seven, and George, four. She took seven months off for Ella and three months with George.
“We are brought up to believe we’ve got choices about everything we do, but it’s just a construct. There are always going to be pressures from different sources – financial, family, beliefs – that you’re trying to negotiate and navigate.
I had severe postnatal depression with Ella and had a support worker at home with me for three months. I recovered, but when she was around seven months, I knew I had to go back to work as finances were getting a bit ‘two minute noodle-ish’.
Ella had the most beautiful teacher, Marselli, at a daycare across the road, who was like a mother figure – so gentle and kind. She was a big factor in me being so comfortable with sending her there.
With George, I went back part-time at three months and was quite at peace with the idea. I initially took him to work but it became a bit stressful, so I called Marselli after a month and said, “Can you please take him – today!” When he turned one, I had to go back full-time as we had a leaky roof and we needed my salary for repairs.
Going back at seven months with Ella was good for my post-natal depression but I felt sad I missed a lot of milestones with George. I realised how much depends on the carer. The au pair we had was great for Ella but not George. With trying to get back in traffic in time for her to knock off, I felt too stretched so I went back to part-time.
In the end, I think the choice had to be for our whole family. If I’m not okay, then no one else is. People can be so self-righteous about their decisions but in the end, if everyone actually involved is fine, that’s all that matters.”
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