My submission on the Paid Parental Leave (Six Months Extension) Bill

Dear Select Committee

I am currently 19 weeks pregnant with my second child. My son is 20 months old. Sue Moroney’s first private member’s bill to extend paid parental leave was introduced to the House more than a year before my son was conceived. The Select Committee report was issued after he was born. By the time the Bill had its third reading, he was a year old. I hope the present Bill does not languish so long.

There are many reasons to support extended paid parental leave. This submission does not seek to list them all. The purpose of this submission is to discuss, with relation to my own experiences, the impact of the current lack of paid parental leave for parents looking after babies between four and six months old.

Supporters of the Bill largely focus on the importance of enabling mothers to stay at home with their babies for an additional two months where they would otherwise return to work out of financial necessity. This is a policy goal I agree with. When my son was between four and six months, the age that is currently not covered by parental leave payments but would be if this Bill was passed, he was exclusively breastfed and never away from me for more than a few hours a week. I did not feel ready to leave him in someone else’s care while I returned to work until he was close to nine months old. Even at seven and eight months, he breastfed every few hours, including at night.

We were fortunate that my husband’s salary was enough to support us during my 11 months of parental leave. If I hadn’t had a partner, or if he had been in insecure work, low paid work, out of work, or sick and unable to work, I would have had to return to paid employment sooner. I know that I am very lucky to have been able to take that time with my son, and I feel absolutely certain that being with him in those months was critical in developing my sense of myself as a mother. My father had a chronic illness when my younger brother was a baby, and my mother returned to work sooner than she would have liked, when he was five months old. In her submission on the earlier incarnation of this Bill, she described this as exhausting for her and detrimental to my brother’s health. I find it difficult to even contemplate returning to work with a child as young as four months. It should only ever be a choice made because of the mother’s preference, not from financial necessity.

Under the current system, being able to stay at home with a small baby and remain financially comfortable is not a given. Critics of this Bill commonly suggest that people should not have children unless they can afford to. This ignores the fact that going from two incomes to one will be a shock to the finances of almost every couple, even those where one income is sufficient to support a longer period of parental leave than is covered by the current payments.

The first few years of parenthood are a period of unique financial strain, given the difficulty of combining caregiving with paid work; yet parental leave ends after only four months and universal childcare subsidies do not start until children are three. The threat of a financial veto based on the additional cost of this Bill is therefore galling. The costs of taking time out of the paid workforce are being borne by thousands upon thousands of families across New Zealand, many of whom struggle to afford it. The Government chooses to prioritise spending $10 billion annually on superannuation, while the people who work long hours raising the next generation of taxpayers get only four months paid leave. It is inequitable, short-sighted, and unjustifiable morally or economically.

Being at home with my son was the best of times and the worst of times. I found it difficult and exhausting work. I also felt more sure of the importance of what I was doing than in any paid role I’ve had, and I say this despite loving my paid job. From four to six months, babies seem to wake up to the world – they go from being sleepy newborn bundles to wide-eyed little beings intent on understanding their surroundings. As a mother, it meant the world to me that I could be with my son in those precious months to reinforce the bond we developed in the newborn phase and provide secure and consistent care as he learned about his world.

It is interesting that this Bill only extends paid parental leave to six months. This is a length of time that few would argue with in principle. Some countries have paid parental leave closer to a year. Some even longer. At some point, it has to be asked whether this is the best use of funding or whether subsidised childcare should be offered instead. There is room for reasonable disagreement as to exactly when children start to benefit from the additional stimulation and social activity of a daycare centre. There is definitely room for personal differences among mothers as to how soon we wish to return to work. But few people would argue that four months is the perfect age. Most childcare centres do not even accept children that young.  

The reality is that the vast majority of babies between four and six months are looked after by a close family member, usually their mother. The whole of New Zealand benefits from this unpaid labour. It is essential work, by any measure. The fact that it is unpaid is a result of the very delayed public policy response to the widespread entry of women into the labour market. Parents are caught in the economic reality that the cost of living (especially housing) presumes that a household receives two incomes. Even the Living Wage campaign is calculated on the assumption a combined 60 paid hours across two parents. The result is that many families are worst off financially when their children are youngest. This is absurd. It is no more economically necessary than poverty among the retired, which has been effectively eliminated through a universal pension.

This Bill would not completely answer the problem. Many women are not eligible for paid parental leave, including those who did not return to work after their first baby, and this doesn’t make the work they do caring for new babies any less deserving of social support. My support of this Bill does not mean I think it is a panacea. I support it because it acknowledges the importance of care work, although it could go further. I support it because care work is done mostly by women, and the lack of appreciation for that work both reflects and exacerbates ongoing gender inequality. I support this Bill because although it is too late for my family to benefit from its enactment unless we have a third child, I want to live in a country where my taxes are used to support children and those who look after them.

Finally, though it is not the subject of this Bill, I wish to add some comments about parental leave for fathers (or the mother’s partner). My husband took a month off when my son was born. This was planned in advance; however, due to the physical trauma I experienced in childbirth, for the first three weeks I couldn’t really have cared for my son alone for long periods of time. Paid leave for the second parent in the immediate post-partum period should be a government priority. I ask the Select Committee to look into this matter and consider amending the Bill accordingly.

The length of paid leave is also relevant to the extent to which parents other than the birth-mother are likely to use it. Personally, as mentioned above, I felt ready to return to my paid job when my son was around nine months old. If paid parental leave was a full year in New Zealand, my husband would probably take three months off when we have our next child and experience being an at-home parent after I returned to work. International research suggests that there are long-term benefits to workplace gender equality and fathers’ involvement in childrearing when men share parental leave. My hope is that this Bill is a first step towards a cross-party commitment to reconsider the social support available to families with young children, with the ultimate goal of creating a seamless transition from paid leave to subsidised childcare, including greater support for parents re-entering the workforce after periods of leave to care for children.