Research into the parental leave taken by Kiwi mums

Published on Wednesday, 14 July 2021
Last updated on Monday, 12 July 2021

Article hero image

Becoming a mother creates a big shift in every woman’s life, and although all working mums will take some time off to give birth and bond with their bub, parental leave doesn’t play out in the same way for everyone.

Some mums intend to go back to work sooner than others, some stay out of the workforce for longer than expected, and there are different kinds of paid and unpaid parental leave available, depending on each parent’s individual work arrangements.

To learn more about the parental leave plans, expectations and realities of Kiwi mums, Motu Economic Policy Research has studied the data of over 2,000 mothers and released a research report called The Drivers of Mothers’ Parental Leave Decisions.

Today, we look at its key findings, and see what can be done to help mums return to work when they’d like to.

What was the aim of this parental leave study?

Dr Isabelle Sin and Shakked Noy from Motu conducted this research to better understand why mums take the leave they do when they have a baby.

To do this, they looked at the data of 2,588 mothers in the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUINZ) longitudinal study who were employed before the birth of their baby in 2009/2010, and intended to take parental leave.

Using this data, they examined:

  • How much parental leave mums preferred to take
  • How much they expected they’d actually take
  • What constraints drove this difference, e.g., a financial one
  • The reasons mums gave for going back to work, or not going back
  • How closely mums followed through on their plans to take leave and return to work
  • Why they deviated from these plans, and the association between this deviation and mums’ wellbeing, i.e. how stressed mums were about work-life balance if they went back to work or didn’t go back.

What did the researchers learn about parental leave decisions?

There was a lot to cover, but in a nutshell, the researchers found that, on average, mums preferred to take 69 weeks of leave, they expected to take 36 weeks and they actually took 53 weeks.

Some mums returned to the workforce earlier than they liked, others were out of work for longer than they planned, and this research exposes a real need for flexible working arrangements for parents and access to affordable child care.

Here are the key findings, in a little more detail:

  1. According to the data, Kiwi mums preferred to take a long time off work to care for their baby

On average, mums preferred to take those 69 weeks of parental leave, with nearly 50 per cent preferring a year, and 20 per cent preferring over a year.

  1. There was a gulf between parental leave preferences and expectations

Fifty-four per cent of mums anticipated they’d get less parental leave than they preferred. Thirty-six weeks of leave was the average expectation, and only a ‘tiny proportion’ of mums anticipated they’d get more than a year of parental leave.

Eighty-five per cent of the mums who anticipated less leave than they preferred cited ‘financial constraints’ as the reason.

  1. There were a few reasons why mums returned to work sooner

The majority of mums (56 per cent) went back to work within nine months, and 70 per cent gave financial reasons for doing so.

Money wasn’t the only driving force, though. Fifty-five per cent of mums who returned to work, said they did so because they enjoyed it, missed their colleagues or wanted to get out of the house.

Mums with planned pregnancies or high incomes were more likely to return to work because they wanted to, while non-Europeans or mums with previous children were more likely to go back to work because they had to (e.g., their paid parental leave ran out).

  1. A quarter of mums stayed out of work for a lot longer, because they were busy at home, financially supported, or struggling to find work or child care

Twenty-five per cent of mums were not working 45 months (3.75 years) after their baby’s birth, and 70 per cent of them said this was because they were busy with their child or family.

Nearly half of the mums could stay home because of their partner’s financial support.

However, about 20 per cent couldn’t find a suitable, flexible job to facilitate their return to work, and 20 per cent couldn’t secure suitable, cost-effective child care that made it worthwhile to go back to work.

  1. Self-employed mums took less leave than employee mums, and returned to work for different reasons

On average, self-employed mums preferred 43 weeks of leave and took 34 weeks, while employee mums preferred 71 weeks and took 56.

Self-employed mums were more likely to return to work because they liked doing it or had responsibilities, and less likely to go back for financial reasons.

  1. Kiwi mums were found to have a ‘moderate propensity’ to follow through with their anticipated leave

On average, they actually took 53 weeks of parental leave. This meant that 70 per cent took less parental leave than they preferred and 50 per cent took less than they anticipated.

  1. Mums who anticipated a longer break from work ended up being out of work for much longer than they’d planned

GUINZ explains that, ‘Many women who ended up out of work for several years after having a child did not prefer or plan this. Rather, their work opportunities eroded over time, partially driven by a lack of accessible child care and/or flexible work access.’ 

  1. Working or, sometimes, not working, did have an impact on mums’ wellbeing

Generally speaking, the researchers found that working mums were more stressed about work-life balance than non-working mums, and self-employed mums were more stressed about it than employee mums.  

However, not working could be stressful for some. Nearly a third of mothers who weren’t working at nine months expected they would be, and the researchers found that those mums were ‘disproportionately likely to be constrained in their return to work’ (e.g. because they couldn’t find flexible employment or child care), and more stressed about work-life balance than other non-working mums. 

Interestingly, 20 per cent of mums who were back at work within nine months didn’t see this coming, but weren’t any more stressed about work-life balance than other working mums.

How can employers and government support Kiwi mums’ workforce participation?

Every mother is different, and while shorter or longer stretches of parental leave may fit well with individual families, the research shows that some mums are taking leave from their paid work for much longer than they preferred or planned.

Dr Sin says these findings, ‘Reinforce the need for flexible working conditions that enable parents to remain in employment if they desire.’

She says employers can help mums to remain connected to their work by:

  • Making sure work can be done flexibly
  • Allowing mums to work part-time
  • Providing child care, and
  • Supporting parents to combine work with parenthood.

According to GUINZ, the report also recommends that:

  • Women going on parental leave are given better, stronger messaging about their employment rights
  • Employers are given information about flexible working practices, and the benefits of these
  • The government considers increasing flexibility in paid parental leave to help self-employed parents maintain their business
  • There’s thought put into child care accessibility, flexible work arrangements, job sharing and incentives for dads to take parental leave, and
  • Career guidance is improved for mums, to help them return to the workforce or change careers after bub arrives.

These are all very good suggestions, and although Dr Sin applauds the government’s decision to increase paid parental leave from 14 weeks to 26 weeks (for those eligible), she says there are still plenty of mums who ‘prefer more leave than they are able to take.’

The report makes interesting reading, and in the future we hope that each mum’s preferences, plans and practicalities can be aligned in a way that works for herself and her family.


The Drivers of Mothers’ Parental Leave Decisions

Growing Up in New Zealand

Related Articles

Article image

How does the Paid Parental Leave system work?

Paid parental leave (PPL) is a government-funded entitlement that helps cover loss of income when parents take leave or stop work to care for their newborn.

Article image

Ways for working mums to find a better balance

The challenges mums face when balancing child care with the working week.

Article image

Alleviating parental concerns around child care

According to a national parenting survey, parents in Auckland are more likely to feel 'extreme concern' about putting their children in day care, than parents in any other city.