Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Primary Care Decision Making among First-Time Parents in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Primary Care Decision Making among First-Time Parents in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Article excerpt


When a couple has a baby, one of the first significant decisions they make is who will be primarily responsible for care of that baby. Biological considerations, social norms, a range of policies, and various other structural factors have an impact on how parents make decisions regarding the care of their new-born babies, with outcomes that can be significantly gendered. In this paper, I examine the ways in which 12 Pakeha middle class heterosexual couples who were first-time parents made decisions regarding who would be their babies' primary carer, and how much leave each person would take, when their babies were born. Among those with different income levels, their decisions were rationalised on the basis of this difference. However, among those with roughly equivalent incomes, other reasons were given, including breastfeeding. In all but one case, the couples conformed to normative gendered roles, with the mothers taking extended leave and being the babies' primary carers for the first year. The effects of this on both mothers and fathers are discussed, with mothers feeling both satisfaction and constraint, and fathers being framed as 'helpers' in some instances. I conclude with suggestions as to how parental leave policies might be structured so as to minimise the 'motherhood penalty' and allow for greater gender equity in parenting, while also meeting the needs and preferences of parents themselves.


paid parental leave, parenting, fathers, mothers, gender, family


When dual-earner couples in contemporary western contexts have a baby, it is standard practice for one of them to 'stay at home' on a full-time basis with the new-born child for at least the first few months of the infant's life. The amount of time varies on the basis of a number of factors that the couple usually explicitly take into account, that are both individual and structural. However, decision-making regarding who will be the primary carer during this time can be less 'conscious'. Factors that influence both decisions - who will primarily care for the infant, and how long they will take out of paid employment to do this - include biological inevitabilities such as childbirth and breastfeeding, and social factors such as discrepancies in incomes, gendered norms regarding parenting, and access to parental leave. Women are overwhelmingly represented as the primary carers of new born babies in both parenting literature (Fox, 2001; Schmidt, 2008; Sunderland, 2000, 2006) and cultural representations in general (Johnston & Swanson, 2003; Pedersen, 2012), and the social norm continues to be that child rearing is 'women's work' (Baker, 2010; Brighouse & Wright, 2008). Statistics show that the vast majority of those who take parental leave are women (Callister, 2006; Morton et al., 2012), and time use data shows that women continue to spend significantly more time involved in childcare than men (Bianchi & Milkie, 2010).

There has been an increasing trend towards a more 'involved' model of fatherhood, and the notion of the distant father whose primary contribution to the family was that of being the breadwinner is no longer prevalent (Bianchi & Milkie, 2010; Miller, 2013; Pedersen, 2012; Wall, 2005). However, this has not translated into a significant increase in the rates of men taking parental leave when their babies are born, or spending significant amounts of time in the sole care of their infants. In most contemporary western states where parental leave (either paid or unpaid) is offered, it is usually available to either parent, and so is 'gender neutral' (Miller, 2013; Morgan, 2008), although the way parental leave is structured in contexts such as Aotearoa/New Zealand privileges the mother as recipient of this leave (Callister & Galtry, 2011). However, even if parental leave is structured so that it is entirely gender neutral, if this leave can be shared or transferred between parents, it is almost inevitably utilised by mothers (Almqvist, 2008; Arnalds, Eydal, & Gíslason, 2013; Brighouse & Wright, 2008; Miller, 2013; Morgan, 2008; Naz, 2010; Ray, Gornick, & Schmitt, 2010). …

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