Have you ever dreamed of moving your family to some far-flung city or wondered how parents cope with childbirth and day care… on the other side of the world? While many aspects of motherhood are universal — babies are cute, labor can be excruciating — different countries and cultures approach the nuts and bolts of parenting in some super-unique ways. Tradition, access to health care and attitudes about gender norms all play a part.
So, what’s it like to raise your children oceans, several time zones and a hemisphere away from the United States?
Auckland-based mother of two Maia Whaitiri-Fielding shares her experiences doing just that. Though Whaitiri-Fielding, who is of Maori descent, spent much of her 20s living in New York City and London, she and her British husband, Rob, chose to return to her native New Zealand before welcoming son Kaha, now 4, and daughter Tawera, 2.
“What I love about raising my children in New Zealand is the outdoors lifestyle,” the stay-at-home mom told us. “Auckland is set on two harbors, so you see the sea everywhere you go, and we spend all summer at the beach. The downsides are that it’s incredibly expensive for housing, food and trips abroad,” she added. “Building standards are low, so a lot of people live in uninsulated, unheated houses. The gap between rich and poor is increasing.” That said, New Zealand boasts a refreshing approach to pregnancy and childbirth, free health care for all and a standard 18 weeks of parental leave. So there’s that.
Here’s what to expect when you’re expecting in New Zealand.
“I’d say New Zealand’s approach to childbirth is that it’s a natural process, and there should be as little intervention as possible,” Whaitiri-Fielding said, noting that prenatal scans may be less frequent in New Zealand than in the States unless there are complications or particular health concerns.
More surprising is the fact that expectant mothers in New Zealand aren’t required to have health insurance; they have the option of choosing between government-funded (i.e., free) and private, out-of-pocket services. The first step is to select a lead maternity carer. The LMC will shepherd the mother-to-be through pregnancy and delivery and make visits up to six weeks after the baby has been born.
Under the government-funded option, the LMC is a midwife, though specialists will be made available free of charge should an issue such as gestational diabetes arise. Under the private option, an obstetrician or general practitioner oversees the pregnancy. The process is more hands-on, but the cost can run a few thousand dollars. (Still not much compared to U.S. birth costs.)
Most New Zealand women give birth in a private room or birthing suite at a public hospital. All rooms are fully equipped with pools, Swiss balls and birthing stools to aid delivery. Whaitiri-Fielding says New Zealand women are encouraged to give birth vaginally. But caesareans aren’t unheard of; expectant mothers are eligible for free elective caesareans — you read that right — if there are any complications during the current or previous pregnancies. A free emergency caesarean may also be performed if the mother or child is at risk.
For the simplest deliveries, some mothers opt for a primary birthing hospital like Birthcare. Here, babies are delivered vaginally without epidurals in a free birthing suite outfitted with aromatherapy burners and labor aids.
Finally, there’s the option of a home birth, though women are typically charged for the cost of an ambulance should complications arise that require hospital transportation.
In New Zealand, maternity care doesn’t end when mother and child leave the hospital. LMCs will make home visits for four to six weeks after the birth, at which point a registered Plunket nurse will take over with child care guidance and support, all free of charge. Regular checkups are provided at 8 weeks, 3 months, 5 months, 9 months, 15 months, 2 years and 4 years. Immunizations are also free and are often required if parents want to enroll their child in a day care or nursery.
Whaitiri-Fielding said New Zealand takes a refreshingly liberal view of breastfeeding in public. “Malls have breastfeeding rooms, but you don’t have to use them,” she noted. “I have never experienced any kind of issue, and I fed my kids everywhere without one of those modesty things.”
If anything, she says, it’s moms who don’t breastfeed who feel shamed in New Zealand. “In my opinion, New Zealand is too focused on ‘breast is best,’” she added. “Friends of mine who have been unable to breastfeed due to medical reasons have often been judged for bottle-feeding their children formula. It’s led them to feel guilty and uncomfortable in public situations.”
The standard amount of paid parental leave is 18 weeks. There are also plans tailored to self-employment and premature births. One parent may also transfer their leave to the other, while a new law allows parents to use their vacation time before filing for formal paid parental leave.
Whaitiri-Fielding, who is of Maori descent, hasn’t incorporated any particular Maori customs into her parenting style, though she and her husband did plant their children’s placentas as a nod to her heritage. But those in New Zealand who want to raise their children according to Maori values can opt for a Maori state school, commonly known as a kura.
As in most countries, child care in New Zealand can be costly, with options ranging from nannies to day care centers to drop-in creches at malls and health clubs. Children typically start school at age 5. Prior to that, they attend kindergarten. Kindergarten in New Zealand is similar to a preschool, with students starting from age 3. The government funds up to 20 hours of “kindergarten” per week for toddlers — aka the “universal” free pre-K the U.S. is still wishing for.
New Zealand, like any country, has its flaws. But all this free health care, preschool and generous approach to parental leave may tip the balance in its favor for some prospective parents — especially those who are faced with essentially the opposite in the ever-expensive United States.