Two Auckland psychologists say many Kiwi couples are "marching backwards into the 1950s" by unconsciously devaluing women's unpaid work.

Verity Thom and Nic Beets of Glendowie-based Couplework say money has ironically become a stronger measure of people's value as more women have gone into paid work.

They say this leaves mothers who stay home with their children feeling less valued than they were 30 years ago.

"Work has become God," Ms Thom said. "If a woman stays at home and has unpaid work in the home, it's even more undervalued. In some quarters in the 1950s it was an honourable profession, but now it's the lowest of the low.

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"So I've seen women who are more apologetic about 'I'm only a mother'. I've seen them feel embarrassed when they go out socially."

Ms Thom challenged other psychologists at the NZ Psychological Society's conference in Hamilton last weekend to discuss unconscious gender power differences when they worked with couples.

"Couples over the last 15 years have been marching backwards into the 1950s," she told them.

"Women [are] seeing it as a privilege to be stay-at-home mothers and something they almost need to be grateful for, so they surrender even more entitlement in the relationship."

The change is ironic not just because women are now more likely to be in paid work, but also because today's couples are more likely to share their incomes.

British research cited by Auckland University sociologist Dr Vivienne Elizabeth shows that 70 per cent of men in the 1950s controlled the money and gave their wives a "housekeeping allowance", but by 2004 38 per cent of couples had both joint and individual accounts, 34 per cent had joint accounts only and 28 per cent had solely separate accounts where both partners worked.

Despite this, Ms Thom said stay-home mothers today were now more likely than their mothers' generation to say: "I feel guilty about spending HIS money."

"The joint account doesn't dilute that," she said. "Even if they have their own credit card, it's just a terrible devaluing. Then of course the women feel so miserable staying at home. They feel second-class citizens."

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Auckland Women's Centre manager Leonie Morris agreed that society under-valued unpaid parenting work, as shown by the "stigma" imposed on beneficiaries who stayed home with children.

Waikato University sociologist Dr Johanna Schmidt, who has studied how NZ parents make decisions, said paid work and parenting would only be valued equally when men and women shared both kinds of work equally.

"Women have moved into the workplace," she said. "But what didn't happen is men didn't move into the home."

She advocates changing paid parental leave to a system like Iceland's, where parents get three months of leave that can be shared between them, three months just for mothers and three months just for fathers on a "take-it-or-leave-it" basis.

"That balances out one gender being out of the paid workforce more," she said. "Also, the men are more likely to be sympathetic to family issues when they go back to the paid workforce."

"I need to work for myself"

North Shore mother Freddie Bess doesn't need to work financially - but she wants to feel she is "achieving something".

Ms Bess, 38, went back to paid work in marketing a year after having each of her two children Jonas, now 5, and Kaia, 3. But she has been a stay-home mum since her paid job became redundant in May.

Her husband Chris has his own business and they have recently bought a house, which they are renovating. Ms Bess, who came here from Germany five years ago, is trying to start her own business from home helping other German visitors.

Both feel life is far less stressful than when she was in paid work.

"When you go to work you feel that you are valued, even though I was much more stressed and it was horrible for the whole family. I know my husband now finds it so much more relaxing because everything is done when he comes home," she said.

"But he also knows that I need to work for myself, that I need to have a project where I have something to do and feel needed, that makes me feel I'm a self-confident adult, and putting something towards the family, and also it's stimulating your brain.

"It's actually dressing up again. You go out, you work, you speak to other adults and you earn some money, and so you come home and feel 'I have achieved something.'"

The couple were financially independent, each taking care of some household expenses, until Jonas was born. Now Chris has a business account and transfers budgeted amounts each week into separate accounts for food and household expenses and for Freddie's "spending money".

"It's okay because we have the same goal to do the house and the renovations, and I have
clothes to wear," she said.

"But that's why it's so important for me to earn money again, to have my own money, because I don't know how long I could do this."