Fertile ground, Alison Gray

The New Zealand Family From 1840: A Demographic History
Ian Pool, Arunachalam Dharmalingam and Janet Sceats (eds)
Auckland University Press, $50.00, 
ISBN 9781869403577

A demographic history of the New Zealand family? Well, that’ll be a short, sad story. Everyone knows the New Zealand family is either dead in the water, or, at least, going to hell in a handbasket. Hardly worth writing a book about it. Maybe, but even sad stories can be interesting and salutary. We are fortunate indeed that Pool and his colleagues have been prepared to plough through the thickets of history, carve a track through the tangled webs of economic change and social policy, and negotiate innovations in reproductive health and changing patterns of migration to bring us the bigger picture. It’s a pity their track is not always easy to follow – you do need a good dictionary, plenty of determination and a stack of muesli bars to get to the lookout – but the rewards are worth the effort.

They come in the form of detailed demographic information for those who want it, and cogent and illuminating explanations of social change for those who are more interested in the why than the what. Even though I’m an enthusiastic sociologist, I found the technical chapters on total fertility rates, marginal marital and general fertility rates a bit of a slog, and was always relieved to break into the relative clear space of explanations, underlying factors and trends. Put together, the two strands offer a fine explanation of how Pakeha families in New Zealand ended up in the parlous state they are in today – barely sustainable, with fewer and older parents having fewer and later babies, all of whom are born into a social and economic climate that is largely unwelcoming and unsupportive. Pakeha norms and values might have been dominant in New Zealand for more than a century, but their days may be numbered as New Zealand families diversify and Maori, Pacific and Asian family values become more visible.

Family formation and structure are all about the timing and number of births, control over fertility and the context in which childbirth and childrearing take place. A key influence on the mythology but not the reality of Pakeha family formation has been norms and values that stem not from the time of early migration to New Zealand, but from a much earlier period. From a time, in fact, when British family fertility peaked through a shift to a younger age at marriage, almost universal entry into a legal union and a lack of reliable contraception within marriage.

Ex-nuptial childbearing was rare even if ex-nuptial conception was not. No room for solo parents in those glory days. No need either. This essentially conservative approach to family building has become embedded in the Pakeha New Zealand psyche, rather like the patriarchal values touted by Victorian missionaries that still influence Christianity in the Pacific.

In fact, the glory days of high fertility within legal marriage did not last long in New Zealand. They were largely over by the 1870s, when women had other options besides early marriage and endless pregnancies. This piece of information will probably not come as a surprise to any woman reader, but it is a good example of the book’s pleasures, as you realise that current trends have a long and, some might say, honourable history. Family formation has never been driven by social norms or natural reproductive capacity alone. Give women half a chance and they’ll do their best to manage their fertility to suit their circumstances.

When the pill became available in the 1960s, and women finally had some real choice over when and whether they had babies, how often and in what circumstances, some chose not to have any at all, some had only one, some had babies outside marriage and kept them, some still married in haste and repented at leisure, often following a divorce. For more than 120 years, reality has not matched the myth of the “golden age”, with its happily married parents caring for their large happy family in domestic bliss, yet its power remains. It infuses every discussion and influences every aspect of our daily lives.

Take our social policy, for example. Pool and his colleagues trace a clear line from Jenny Shipley’s “Code of Social Responsibility” back to the Poor Laws in Britain, and to an era when parishes and local authorities in the communities that fed migration had too few resources to cater for needy families. The prevailing ideology was that families should care for themselves, and the able-bodied should, of course, get nothing. These values shipped out to New Zealand, and, as the authors note, became the inspiration for a particularly punitive form of welfare here. Indeed, Jenny Shipley may well have got the idea for her code from a flick through the New Zealand Destitute Persons Ordinance of 1846, when responsibility for family needs, including those of the elderly, deserted women and families, and children in need of care, was placed firmly on “near relatives”. The mean-spirited parsimony of the 1990s clearly has a long and churlish history. Sadly, it is an approach that brings us more into line with what the authors call the “neo-Europes” – Australia, Canada and the United States – than with the more generous and less judgmental provisions of old Europe.

The punitive approach to welfare became linked to selective views about children and families – who should and shouldn’t have children. Those who believed they met their own gold standard of a two-parent home and a table full of food for their charming brood were increasingly critical of those less fortunate. Ruth Richardson was not the first to argue that the poor should be discouraged from breeding despite the risks to Pakeha society of falling family fertility and rising family stress.

That stress is driven as much by the macro- and micro-economic environment as by social values. In another good reminder of the need to take a long view, Pool and his colleagues document the very different economic environments for Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand over the last 150 years, and the dramatic effects this has had on patterns of family formation for each group.

In the early colonial period, New Zealand was comparatively wealthy, wealth was better distributed than in Britain, and survival rates for Pakeha infants were high. Needless to say, the Pakeha population grew, for a short time at least, at a phenomenal rate. The situation for Maori was entirely different as they lost their land and resources and were exposed to challenges against which they had few defences. In their case, infant survival rates plummeted. Maori families were fighting for their very existence. Only timely health interventions turned the tide, and as Pakeha family size decreased, Maori families gathered strength, only to face further challenges with urbanisation, rural decline and the loss of whanau support. And everyone was affected by the Depression, WWII, the Baby Boom, the Baby Bust, suburbanisation, market reforms and user pays.

In more recent times, micro-economic influences have been equally influential, driven largely by a short-term view of families as a private rather than a public good. Access to affordable housing, flexible work hours, adequate childcare, and plentiful community and public support for families might keep Pakeha and other families alive, but they are barely a glimmer as the journey comes to its end and the sun sinks below the horizon. We have a few meagre offerings but it may all be too little too late.

We fret about families but for all the wrong reasons. But, then, as the authors point out, we always have. We worry about women going to work and not having children, or women having children and not going to work; the wrong women having too many children and the right ones not having enough; women having babies and not marrying, or women marrying then getting divorced; couples cohabiting; single parenthood.

We go from doom to gloom, when really we need families of every kind, and they in turn need a secure environment in which to flourish. They need conditions in which they can nurture the next generation, care for their older family members, and contribute to society in a way that makes best use of their skills and talents, always knowing that whatever family structure they choose or are forced to accommodate will be welcome and supported as an increasingly scarce and valuable resource from which everyone will benefit in the longer term.


Alison Gray is a social researcher based in Wellington.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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