The Drivers of Mothers’ Parental Leave Decisions

The Drivers of Mothers’ Parental Leave Decisions
May 13, 2021

New research using Growing Up in New Zealand information has examined mothers’ parental leave intentions, preferences and the actual leave taken after birth.

New research using Growing Up in New Zealand information has examined mothers’ parental leave intentions, preferences and the actual leave taken after birth.

The research from Motu Economic and Public Policy Research was funded by the Ministry of Social Development’s Child and Family Research Fund.

Lead researcher Dr Isabelle Sin says it’s important to understand mother’s leave preferences and actions because women make up half the paid workforce.

“Parental leave conditions and wider employment settings provide an environment that can help or hinder working mothers and their whānau to achieve economic security,” she says.

The researchers looked at more than 2,500 mothers in the study who were employed before the birth of their baby in 2009/10 and who planned to take parental leave.


The mothers preferred an average of 69 weeks of leave, anticipated 36 weeks, and actually took 53 weeks.

They had a moderate ability to take their desired leave up to a year, but little ability to take any desired leave of more than a year.

Many women who ended up out of work for several years after having a child did not prefer or plan this.  Rather, their work opportunities eroded over time, partially driven by a lack of accessible childcare and/or flexible work access.

Money was the biggest force driving mothers back to work.  In particular, low income mothers were more constrained in the leave they could take and more likely to have to return to work earlier than they’d planned.

Self-employed women preferred and took much less maternal leave than employee mothers, and were more likely to return to work because of work responsibilities.

Return to work was associated with high stress for mothers, particularly for those who worked full time or were self-employed.


The researchers say the results reinforce the need for flexible working conditions that enable parents to remain in employment if they desire.

Dr Sin says employers can assist their employees who are mothers to remain connected to the workforce by:

  • Ensuring work can be done flexibly
  • Allowing for part-time work
  • Providing childcare
  • Supporting parents to combine work with parenthood.

Dr Sin says policy design needs to recognise that not all mothers who exit the labour force for several years after having a child planned or desired this and should be framed in a way that creates more opportunities to combine work with parenthood.

She says lower income women are more subject to shocks that see them returning to work earlier than planned and the paid parental leave entitlement available in 2021 did not provide enough protection.

The 14 weeks of paid parental leave available at that time has since been increased to 26 weeks.  Dr Sin says this will have improved the situation, though many mothrs still prefer more leave than they are able to take.

“Financial difficulties push some mothers back to work before they are ready, which may negatively affect their wellbeing. These mothers may need more support such as childcare and accommodation to enable them to make genuine choices about what will be best for them and their children,” she says.

Dr Sin says more flexible paid parental leave entitlements could help self-employed women maintain their businesses by allowing them to work a lower number of hours with income topped up by paid parental leave payments.


The report, The Drivers of Mothers’ Parental Leave Decisions, made the following recommendations:

  • Improve and strengthen messaging to women going on parental leave about their employment rights.
  • Provide information to employers about flexible working practices and how these can improve employee retention and enable them benefit more from their investment in employees.
  • Consider increasing flexibility in how parents can take PPL to better accommodate self-employed parents’ need to maintain their business.
  • Consider improving supports for mothers’ employment (e.g. access to childcare, incentivising fathers to take parental leave, improving accessibility of flexible working arrangements and job sharing).
  • Improve careers guidance, taking into account the experience of parenthood on labour market choices specifically for mothers (or others considering becoming parents) who seek to return to the labour market or change careers following the birth of their child.

You can read the full report here.