Sunday Insight: Our nation's missing generation

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Natalie and Simon Bridges with Baby Emlyn (5 months). Photo / Andrew Warner
Natalie and Simon Bridges with Baby Emlyn (5 months). Photo / Andrew Warner

It's a sunny summer afternoon and Simon Bridges is reminiscing about his childhood. The new Cabinet minister sounds wistful as he recounts tales of a youth spent rambling through the West Auckland suburb of Te Atatu. "I had a lot of freedom. Once,mymotherwas driving around for ages in her Holden Kingswood trying to find me," he laughs. "I was at the neighbours."

The freedom that Simon experienced is something he wants to gift to his son Emlyn, born to wife Natalie in March last year. Although Simon travelled when he was younger, he knew where he wanted his children to grow up. "Natalie and I met at Oxford University. But I always wanted my children to be born in New Zealand," he says. "I'm a Kiwi at heart."

As the Herald on Sunday relaunches this week, it seems a good time to consider those Kiwis who are also embarking on a new adventure: starting a family. We've talked to five new families about their hopes. Some are couples, some solo parents; some are older, some younger; some live here and some have moved overseas in the hope of a better life.

We will follow up with them next year to see how parenthood is treating them and their little bundle of joy. Was moving to Britain or Australia's Sunshine State the right call? Does leaving parenthood until the late 30s or 40s seem such a good idea, now? Will the children of today enjoy the same freedom that Simon Bridges remembers so fondly?

"Society has changed," says Dr Richard Fisher, of Fertility Associates."Many women don't meet men they want to have a family with until they are older." Couples are choosing to start a family much later in life - almost a generation later. In 1981, there were 394 new mums aged 40-plus. Three decades later, 2546 middle-aged women gave birth last year.

The trend towards having children later in life is not necessarily due to women being career focused, says Fisher. "Men act like adolescents for longer," he laughs. "This means some women have to wait to find someone who is suitable to start a family with." Older parents say they are more financially secure and are able to provide for their young children better. They also have their priorities sorted: they will provide all the time and care their children could want. On the flipside, they may never see their first grandchild.

So an increasing number of women are not having children. Census data from 2006 shows about 14 per cent of women aged 40-plus are childless, up from 9 per cent in 1981.

Auckland couple Sarah, 39, and James, 55, are childless by choice. Sarah explains that while she loves the children in her life (she has a god daughter in Auckland) she is happy with her decision to be childfree.

"I've always felt that it is a massive decision to bring another human being into theworld. I've never really felt the need to have a child as the world is already so overpopulated."

Sarah says she has an extremely busy life: She works for not-for-profit organisations and with animals, and is engaged with her community. "I have an amazing, fulfilling life. I don't feel like anything is missing."

People such as Sarah may not miss having babies, but New Zealand is missing them. It's not just the children of couples who decide to not have children or those who stop at one or two kids. It's also the children of Kiwis who move overseas in pursuit of new experiences and greater career opportunities. Figures from the Department of Internal Affairs reveal the number of births registered to New Zealanders overseas has leapt more than 50 per cent in a decade, from 6046 in 2002/03 to 9328 last year.

Shamubeel Eaqub, from the NZ Institute of Economic Research, says there are still compelling reasons for people to emigrate, especially to Australia. "There is still better
employment, more opportunities and a broader range of specialised jobs available in Australia," he says. "Although I think Australia's economy has reached its peak now, it will continue to be strong for the next 10-15 years."

Simon Guild has chosen to have his first baby, Sylvie, in Bristol, England. "Bristol is the most diverse city in the UK. This means an exposure to more diverse races and cultures than Sylvie would get in New Zealand," he says. "I find folk in New Zealand to be more closeminded and conservative than people over here."

All new parents have one thing in common: the desire to do the best for their baby. Dame Lesley Max, chief executive of parenting organisation Great Potentials, has this advice: "Take your time. Take it slowly. Cultivate patience. Your life is different now and will be for quite some time. Give yourself time to get to know your baby."

And keep it simple. "Your baby needs you, mother and father. And there's so much that's free - parks, toy libraries and, above all, you, singing and playing and just loving your baby.

"Don't get hooked into the 'yummy mummy' thing. The tight jeans can wait. You will be very tired and sometimes grumpy. So be gentle on yourself, your spouse or partner and on that precious baby."

For Simon and Natalie Bridges, simple pleasures like the park and free toy libraries are key to themstaying here. "I want Emlyn to be free to explore the world around him," says Simon. "There are so many beautiful places for children to play and it's a great place to raise a family."

- Herald on Sunday

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