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Declining Fertility Rates in New Zealand: The Choices Our Mothers Never Had

Updated on June 29, 2015

It is ironic that a growing phenomenon in our world today is the decline in fertility rates in Western countries. While developed countries are better off than they ever were before and technology is rapidly improving, the population itself foreshadows a negative growth rate and some foresee the end of our race. Deidre Macken (2005) suggests that the fear of imminent population explosion in the Western world has given way to population erosion. Developed countries all over the world are experiencing similar trends and New Zealand may soon follow this pattern. Declining from a fertility rate of 4.04 in 1960 to 2.1 at present (CIA World Fact Book, 2010), New Zealand has an ageing population. While still at replacement rate, this change in the birth rate and increasing decline indicates shifts in societal attitudes and a change in the structure of the family.

As the family is an institution that is a measure of the propriety of society, its re-definition is cause for concern. Notions of normality such as motherhood as a vocation and essential to our sense of identity have been challenged by the growing number of couples who choose not to have children or put off having children until later in life. This decline in fertility rates in New Zealand illustrates the change in societal norms and the acceptance of different forms of identity that were stigmatized in the past. In OECD countries, this has occurred due to a variety of reasons including change in lifestyle choices, labour market insecurity, difficulty in finding affordable housing or day-care, increasing female education levels, reductions in workplace discrimination against women and failure to assist families in juggling work and parenting commitments (D’Addio and Mira d’Ercole; 2005 as cited in OECD Publications, 2009).


Although many women still bear a double burden; working a full day at work before they come home to start their “second shift” (Hochschild and Machung, 2003), there has been a significant increase in male participation in household labour and child-rearing. Yet some things have not changed. Susan Maushart (1997) suggests that while women compete with men on more or less equal grounds in economic and social areas, “the feminist agenda has succeeded up to a point, and that point is motherhood”. Although New Zealand women have gained greater status and economical and political equality, the reality of modern motherhood is that the barriers that existed in the past are once again resurrected when women become mothers.

Furthermore, the attitudes towards motherhood held by feminists themselves contribute to later generations’ lack of knowledge and desire for children. Marginalised in the past, the wave of feminism that swept through the 70’s with banner toting radicals resulted in many young New Zealand women believing they were letting down feminism if they neglected their economic achievement and became mothers. Young environmentalists also accepted the theory that humans have caused the environmental degradation and therefore we have “lost the privilege of replacing [ourselves] because of the way we have treated the planet” (Macken, 2005). Hence having children will only add to the problem – Humanity. The repercussions of these ticking wombs are now being felt today as women fail to pass on the legacy of motherhood and talk about the joys of it. As a result, the decision to become a mother today is seen by many women as irrational, contributing to New Zealand’s declining fertility rate.

Other institutional and structural changes have also affected the family and result in the changes we are experiencing today. There is more emphasis placed on girls’ education and greater participation of women in the workforce, contributing to economic growth in non-traditional roles (Clifford-Marsh, 2005). This increase in opportunities for women, accompanied by the development of new technology to decrease the work women to do at home, results in a greater opportunity cost if they produce children. As their husbands’ traditional role of bread-winner in the family is challenged and the income gap between men and women closed, women do not see the need to become mothers. The reality of motherhood today, is that women are expected to be the ideal mother and professional as well and often achieving in a competitive career while nursing a baby and attending PTA meetings is not feasible (Summers, 2003).

The breaking down of social prejudices over time has also resulted in a change in the family structure. While the nuclear family of a sexually involved man and woman with 2.2 dependent children joined by blood, kin or adoption (Parsons and Bales, 1955) is still dominant in New Zealand; with the increase in divorce, civil unions, and non-marital relationships, there are many more socially acceptable divergences. In New Zealand, the Maori concept of Whangai also illustrates how children can be communally raised with more than one place of residence and can be parented by aunties and uncles or grand-parents (Durie-Hall, 1993). However, many of the other variances from the nuclear family are not so prepared to integrate children into the family structure. For example, rather than tolerating the enforcement of religion and ritual family practises from blood family, people may choose to form intimate familial bonds with fictive kin who they value as one would a family. They draw emotional support from people such as flat mates or close friends. Discarding the idea of the nuclear family and procreation, this means that more women are choosing not to have children.

Painting by Mary Cassatt
Painting by Mary Cassatt

Women bear an immense emotional and economic burden in bearing children and many are not willing to make this sacrifice for the joys that motherhood may have in store. While structural functionalists define the family as linked by blood, kin or adoption, and residing in the same household, the definition of family has become more flexible. It has come to include fictive kin, family by choice and other unconventional arrangements, emphasising the bonds of intimacy and familial relationships to represent what constitutes a family. Hence many women do not see the need to be in a long term relationship or bear children to feel grounded as there are a variety of ways to “do” family (Gittins, 1984, p. 65). As the family is now considered separate from work, a source of intimacy and bonding rather than an economic partnership, new ways of satisfying oneself emotionally are created. Using the intimacy of familial relationships, conventional or otherwise, to hold one’s place in the world, New Zealand women people no longer feel the need to have children to find their place in society.

Children also result in an outflow of economic benefits due to the costs of raising a child. The cost of raising one child to the age of 18 for average-income parents is almost $250,000, excluding parents’ loss of income or childcare costs (Grunwell, 2009). While higher income households spend twice as much on their children, the proportion of their income that is spent on children is less than lower income and average income households and there is little support to alleviate that loss by policy makers. Hence in the modern household, many couples may choose to put off having children until they achieve their dream life-style or career and feel ready to have children. Tony Townsend, deputy president of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners explains that the sad reality of the situation is that many people have unrealistic expectations of their own fertility as they age and often cannot conceive when they want to (Saunders, 2010).

The decline in fertility rates concerns sociologists as it indicates a shift in the way a family is defined and suggests that although the many types of family have similar bonds of intimacy and nurturing, they are diverse. Hence New Zealand women feel like they have different options as to whether or not they wish to have children, when they have them, and how many they have. As the construct of family is constantly subject to change, women can continue to adapt their lifestyles to the familial relationships that best suit them. However the path these trends are setting are alarming as we consider the effect that female attitudes towards motherhood are having on our society, as the family continues to be redefined.

Reference List

CIA World Fact Book. (2010). Country Comparsion: Total Fertility Rate. Retrieved from:

Clifford-Marsh, E. (2005). Women join the workforce in record numbers. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from:

Gittins, D. (1985). The Family in Question. London, England: Macmillan Education Ltd.

Grunwell, R. (2009). How much is your child costing you?. New Zealand Herald, Retrieved from:

Macken, D. (2005). Oh no, we forgot to have children! Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Matthewman, S., West-Newman, C., & Curtis, B. (Eds.). (2007). Being Sociological. New York, United States of America: Palgrave Macmillan.

Maushart, S. (1997). The Mask of Motherhood. Sydney, Australia: Random House.

OECD, (2009). Society at a glance 2009: OECD Social Indicators. OECD Publications. Retrieved from

Saunders, K. (2010). Don’t leave babies too late – says expert. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from:

Shorter, E. (1976). The Making of the Modern Family. London, England: Collins.

Statistics New Zealand (2009) Fertility Rates. Retrieved from:

Summers, A. (2003). The End of Equality. Sydney, Australia: Random House.

The Social Report. (2009) Fertility. Retrieved from:

Waltner, A., Strasser, U., Soland, B., Maynes, M. (Eds.) (1996). Gender Kinship Power. New York, United States of America: Routledge.

Veevers, J. E. (1980). Childless by choice. Vancouver, Canada: Butterworth & Co.


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