Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Modern Love: Equal roles in a lifetime shared

Len and Jenny Purser tell how they navigated through five decades of married life in the second of seven profiles exploring love in the modern age.

Len and Jenny Purser spend seven months of the year running a DoC camp at Port Jackson, on the Coromandel Peninsula. Phto / Christine Cornege
Len and Jenny Purser spend seven months of the year running a DoC camp at Port Jackson, on the Coromandel Peninsula. Phto / Christine Cornege

Part 2 in our 7-part Modern Love series

Len and Jenny Purser first met in an era when young women needed legal permission from their parents to marry before the age of 21, when couples did not live together before marriage, and when women stayed home to rear children while men went out to work.

The young couple were modern before their time. They broke all the rules, starting with getting engaged when Jenny was just 17 and Len, 22. It was 1966.

They moved in together - "in different rooms" - with Len's parents for six months before the wedding, and married when Jenny was 18 after taking her parents to court and forcing her father to sign permission papers.

"It was all quite sad but I think what it did when we look back is it just made us stronger," Jenny says.

Because they disobeyed Jenny's parents, her family including four younger siblings were absent from the wedding in Huntly on July 8, 1967.

"I don't really think parents should interfere," says Jenny. "They wouldn't let Len come home to my house. When Len asked to get engaged Dad said 'not on your life boy', and walked out," Len, 70, recalls.

"So we went downtown and bought the ring," says Jenny, 65.

Their relationship was given six months by the naysayers. They have been together almost 50 years, and married 46.

During that time they have raised two sons, fostered dozens of others including one man they also consider their son, run a successful building business, welcomed four grand-daughters and continue to nurture their own relationship, even in difficult periods.

Matthew Hammond, an Auckland University PhD candidate in psychology, said post-World War II saw a drive to encourage the breadwinner-homemaker model, partly to boost populations because of fears there could be another war.

"They were really driving people to creating nuclear families, so really casting women's role as supportive of her husband at work and producing children."

The attitudes served governments of the day because restricted gender roles kept them in a position of power, he says.

Some of those attitudes, that women should be cherished and protected, are still around today - just in less overt forms.

"All of these gender roles haven't gone away but they are less restrictive," he says. "What society does is it continually changes and evolves and hopefully progresses towards something better."

But it's hard to know exactly because there is no research comparing the relationships of older generations to modern couples.

Love over money

Len and Jenny first met at an old-time dance in Hamilton. Fortunately Jenny is not one to judge a book by its cover because Len had just lost his two front teeth in an accident and was a bit reluctant to smile at first.

It was just three months after Jenny's family had moved from Wellington to Hamilton and she was 16, helping in her father's takeaway shop. Though they hit it off and dated for six months Len, a keen bow-hunter and fisherman who would take to the bush for weeks on end, says it got very serious very quickly and he thought he wasn't interested in being "tied down" to a woman so early in life.

He called it quits, for three weeks, until his mates told him he was a fool to let Jenny get away.

"I saw her at the Starlight [Ballroom] one night and I thought 'I sort of miss that girl'. Next day I rang ya back up eh? 'What'd ya reckon we go out again?"' Len remembers asking.

"I didn't hesitate," Jenny says.

"But it was hard because we were both young and at that age you don't really know what love is."

Though the couple began married life in a decade where traditional gender roles were rarely questioned, they say those simple definitions made life easier in some respects.

"I still like to think it's the man's role to go out and earn the money," Len says.

"But sometimes the woman's capable of earning more money these days and the price of things has become really unbalanced compared to back in the 60s, when one person could earn enough [for both] to be happy."

When first married they had just enough money to buy an old miners' cottage in Huntly which Len set about fixing up.

These days he and Jenny believe there has been a societal "family breakdown" because of the drive to earn money.

"Now people work weekends and you don't get that time to spend together, and so many people are growing apart because of that," Len says.

"They used to say New Zealand was backward because our shops weren't open on the weekends but that was probably our most valuable asset. Because families got out and Mum and Dad would go to sports with the kids; Mum or Dad had time to coach the kids in a certain sport. But [now] it's all about money."

Auckland University sociology professor Maureen Baker says research suggests more people want higher living standards.

"People are willing to go into debt to live 'well' rather than give up materialistic ideals."

In 1970 Jenny chose to be largely a stay-at-home mum with her two preschoolers, while Len worked as a builder. "I find it really sad the fact you're [working parents] missing out on those initial years. Because they're special, they're really special."

The pair made huge financial sacrifices to maintain that breadwinner-homemaker model but say it was the happiest time of their lives.

"We went without when we moved to Tauranga [where they spent much of their family life]," Jenny says. "But you can't do that now, and we treasure that we did that."

They have never defined their roles, instead just doing what comes naturally. "We never say that's your job, that's mine," says Jenny. "We don't turn around and say 'I did that so you've got to do that'."

Len: "Or that's your money, that's mine. I know she's not going to blow the money. It's a big trust."

He believes looking after the children is a more natural role for women but that fathers can do just as well in the home.

"You've got to let your kids rough it a bit because otherwise they grow up in cotton wool all their lives and they end up doing something stupid because [they think] something's going to save them."

Role reversal

Len came from a working-class home where his coal-mining father liked "his drinks and his bowls". Both parents smoked as did most in Rotowaro, a mining village west of Huntly which barely exists now.

His parents loved sport, drinking and socialising, but set very traditional roles.

"Dad was a good father as far as providing the basics. He was a likeable guy, a hard case."

But despite walking past the shops every day to and from work, Len's father never set foot in one - shopping was a woman's job.

And though they were "on a good wicket" his parents had nothing to retire on later in life.

"They'd blown it."

Jenny's parents, on the other hand, were much more materialistic, trying to better themselves through hard work and by continuously selling each family home.

"Mum and Dad always tried to improve the way they lived," Jenny says. "They always sold their house and shifted and that was really unsettling as a child, and I even had to change college which I think is terrible."

As a consequence of their quest for material possessions, Jenny is the opposite. "If you don't like that as a child you decide you're not going to be like that."

She also rejected the controlling nature of her parents - Jenny wasn't allowed to wear jeans and didn't own a pair when she met Len.

Because of that earlier control she decided that an equal relationship with love and communication would be the basis of her and Len's marriage.

This foundation was put to the test when Len had a serious hunting accident in the early 1980s, at 39. "I fractured my spine, crushed three vertebrae, and scalped myself in the Ureweras," he says.

"It altered our lives immensely," Jenny says. "I guess when we say for better or for worse, you don't know what's ahead so you just work through it."

Len has suffered debilitating back problems ever since, and for the first time in their marriage Jenny became the breadwinner until Len was able to get back to work.

"It put a lot more stress on what I had to do," Jenny says. "When he can't do it, I just step in."

Another test was their inability to have the large family Jenny always wanted. When the boys were toddlers Len and Jenny were told they could not adopt because they already had a family.

At the same time in 1973 the law changed and unmarried mothers - who previously gave up their babies for adoption to avoid scandal - were given welfare for the first time, enabling the young women to keep their children in the face of changing attitudes.

It crushed the Pursers, who decided to foster in the hopes it would lead to adoption and with a view to helping underprivileged children.

Fostering was challenging and put extra stress on the couple and their sons, who were 7 and 8 years old when it began, but Len and Jenny only took in children younger than their own.

"Sometimes there was a little bit of jealousy from our children because they had to be told quite regularly that these were children that didn't have opportunities that ours had had, and they needed love and attention when they'd had such a damaged life," Jenny says.

She believes the setbacks - not being able to have more children, financial pressures and Len's accident, and her parents' disapproval which left Jenny estranged for a short time from her family - only united them more as a couple.

Evolving relationship

When Len and Jenny first married they were advised not to spend more than a week on honeymoon because they would get "bored" with each other. But they were so in love they say they could have spent a month or more basking in it at a borrowed holiday bach at Coopers Beach in Northland.

Through each other they learned more about life. Len taught Jenny about the outdoors and the environment. He helped her overcome asthma and got her into sport.

Jenny, despite her constant worry that Len would be injured while hunting, chose to get involved in that side of Len's life, joining the bowhunting club he is now the patron of. She taught her husband the value of hard work, even if he thought her cleanliness slightly over the top. "We probably showed each other different values in life which evened us out," Len says. "Probably made us more balanced."

After almost five decades together they know each other so well they are often thinking the same thing and sometimes finish each others' sentences.

Where they were once passionately intimate, now it's more about "cuddling and being together". Len's sleep apnoea - he has to wear a breathing mask at night to prevent the loud snore and keep his breathing flowing - is their "passion killer" Jenny jokes.

They spend seven months of the year running a Department of Conservation camp at Port Jackson, on the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula.

They say that communication and give and take are the key to successful and long-lasting relationships.

Len and Jenny have learned over time to accept each other.

"I think you learn to love all the bumps and grey hairs and things that have developed over life," Len says. "Some people might like to change her for a new model but I can't imagine myself with another woman. If anything happened to Jenny I think I'd just go along by myself."

Jenny agrees and says there is one more valuable lesson she has learned over the years: "Don't let the sun go down on an argument."

The series

Part 1: Dawn and Bill
Part 2 (Today): Len and Jenny
Part 3: Mandy and Clair
Part 4: Craig and Kate
Part 5: Andrew and Steven
Part 6: Joseph and Liz
Part 7: Lewis and Clem

- NZ Herald

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