Let's assess parenting balance, says Bennett

By Simon Collins

New Social Development Minister Paula Bennett wants a national debate over whether mothers are being pushed to go back to work too soon after having children.

Ms Bennett, a solo mother herself, went back on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) when she "fell apart" with exhaustion trying to do two jobs in about 1989 when her then 2-year-old daughter was in childcare.

She told the Weekend Herald that the country had debated child abuse but needed a similar debate about getting the balance right between parenting and paid work.

"I don't think we've had one so much on what it means for parents to go back to work earlier and the length of time that children are spending in early childhood education and daycare," she said.

"I don't think we've had the debate as a society about women having their careers and having their babies later. I don't think we've had the debate about what that means."

The new minister will be responsible for implementing the National Party policy that parents on the DPB will have to seek at least 15 hours a week of work or training once their youngest children turn 6.

She is a strong believer in that policy.

But she has also been raising questions about pushing mothers back to work too soon since her maiden speech in Parliament in 2005, when she urged Parliament to "lead the discussion" on the issue.

"As we are pushed to increase women's participation in the workforce, we need to ask who will be raising our next generation," she said then.

"A lot of women are saying that they would like to; that staying at home and raising their children is an option they would not only like to have but one they would like to be actively encouraged to do."

She said this week that all parents should be free to choose whether to work or not.

"We are going to talk about choice and we are going to mean it," she said.

Statistics NZ said the proportion of mothers who had children under 5 and worked fulltime (at least 30 hours a week) grew from 21 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent in the 2006 census.

Those working part-time (1-30 hours) were steady on 26 per cent.

An Auckland researcher who interviewed 40 mothers for the Families Commission, Dr Mervyl McPherson, said the mothers believed that babies up to 1 year old, and to a lesser extent up to 3, should be cared for primarily by parents rather than in fulltime childcare.

She said this broadly matched other research findings that fulltime childcare may not be good for children under 2, "with a bit of a grey area between 2 and 3".

"Over 3, there are certainly benefits from children socialising and being stimulated and going out at least part of the time," she said.

But her study found a group of mothers with preschool children who were forced to work for financial reasons but would prefer to be at home with their children.

Other mothers, with professional qualifications, went back to work for career reasons but were frustrated by not being able to work part-time.

Bob McCoskrie of the Family First lobby group said Ms Bennett's call for debate on the issue was "brilliant".

"We want tax breaks for stay-at-home parents," he said.

* In the original version of this article Dr Mervyl McPherson was quoted incorrectly as saying that any childcare may not be good for under twos.

- NZ Herald

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