The XX Factor

England’s Basically Unaffordable One-Year Maternity Leave

England is just like us: Way too expensive.

The state of American child care is pretty abysmal. Day care is not well-regulated, the quality is often poor, and it’s expensive: In 35 states and Washington, D.C., it costs more than a year’s in-state college tuition. We are the only wealthy nation that does not guarantee paid vacation or sick days, so when a snow day or a fever keeps a child out of school, it can mean a career setback for many parents. And for working parents with low-wage jobs, things are even worse.

We point to other countries—often ones in Europe—as models of how to do child care right. But is it really so much easier to be a working parent in Paris than it is in Peoria? We asked working moms and dads from all over the world to tell us their child care experiences. Here is the third in our occasional series, from a mother in Uxbridge, a suburb of London, England.

Name: Jade Price

Age: 37

Country: England

Occupation: Public opinion researcher

Partner’s occupation: University professor

Children: Charles, 8, and Maggie, 5

Hi, Jade. What are your work hours?

I work four days a week, which works out to 28 hours (a full-time week in the U.K. is 35 hours). My husband works full time. Occasionally we work more hours, if things are particularly busy at work, but in general I’ve tried to choose employers who seem likely to respect the standard workday.

Who takes care of your kids while you work?

There are essentially three options for child care: a nursery (which is like a day care center), a child minder (which is like in-home day care), or a nanny. We’ve used the first two. When our son was young, we sent him to a nursery. There are several nurseries in our neighborhood; I leaned on the judgment of friends who had visited all of them. It wasn’t hard to get a place; I was able to register our son to start at relatively short notice on the date I wanted. This is not necessarily typical for the London area, however. I may have just been lucky! Nurseries are generally privately run in the U.K.—more on that in a moment.

Later, when our daughter was born, we decided to send her to a child minder. Partly because child minders tend to charge less than nurseries, and partly because we wanted more one-on-one care for her, since she was younger when I went back to work. Another advantage of a child minder is that they’re often able to be more flexible than a nursery—which is important when the tube shuts down and you’re late for pickup, or when your child is ill and the nursery won’t take him or her. We met with several child minders, starting a few months before I went back to work, and I didn’t have too much trouble getting a place for the date we wanted.

All child care providers, including child minders, are regularly assessed by a government body called the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services, and Skills, or Ofsted, which makes the results of these assessments available online. These include a “grade” of excellent, good, fair, or poor, as well as a detailed account of different aspects of the child care provision. You can search for different kinds of child care provisions in your local area on the Ofsted website, and then see how each has performed. This is very helpful in choosing a child minder or a nursery. All child care providers, including in-home child minders, must be trained and registered and must adhere to certain standards.

Now that our children are in school, they go to “Afterschool Club,” which is run privately by a local nursery but is held on the premises of our children’s school. Many schools also have “Breakfast Clubs,” so that you can leave children in the morning if necessary.

How much did all of this cost?

When our son was in nursery, in 2008 to 2009, we paid about 850 pounds per month, or $1,400, for full-time care (8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.). I expect this would be quite a bit more expensive now. Also, our son was over 2, at which point the cost goes down slightly. It would have been closer to 950 pounds per month, or $1,580, for a baby. We are in the London area, so prices are higher than they would be in some other parts of the country. I think that the average cost of a full-time nursery place in London is now around 14,000 pounds per year, or $23,000.

Our child minder charged about 650 pounds a month, or $1,050. Some child minders charge a bit more than this, and some charge a bit less—it depends on the local area, how many other children they look after, etc.

When children reach 3 years old, they are eligible for 15 hours of early years education a week, which is paid for by the government. In many cases this would be your local nursery (not the same as the nursery that keeps young children), which is often part of the local primary school. At my local nursery, children would go for either a morning session (8:30 to 11:30) or an afternoon session (12:30 to 3:30), five days a week.

Obviously these hours are a challenge for working parents. We were lucky because when our son was in nursery, I was on maternity leave, and when our daughter went, our child minder was able to pick her up. Now that our children are in Afterschool Club, we pay 9.50 pounds per day each, about $31 total per day. This is for care from 3:30 until 5:30 p.m.

I should mention as well that many people are eligible for a slight reduction in cost through a child care voucher scheme, if this is offered by their employers. This allows working parents to set aside a certain amount of money tax-free, depending on what tax band they’re in. Between two parents, it could be between 1,200-1,800 pounds per year if both parents claim. Of course this depends on your employer choosing to offer child care vouchers, and it’s not a massive savings if you’re paying 14,000 pounds a year.

It’s quite common for women not to return to work after having children because the cost of child care is simply too high—particularly if they have more than one child. I have a group of mom-friends I met through a National Childbirth Trust postnatal group, and most of them who have more than one child are no longer working. I couldn’t say that this is entirely due to the cost of child care, but it certainly would factor into the decision.

What happens when one of your children is sick?

If a child is sick, parents are entitled to something called “Emergency Leave for Carers.” This means that your employer must allow you to take the time off to care for your children (or anyone else for whom you are the primary carer), although whether they pay you for that is up to them. This is a bit of a gray area, as some employers do pay and some don’t. You are generally entitled to enough time to make “alternative provision,” so you would not typically be allowed to take off, say, a week. You would be expected to find some sort of alternative care after a day or two. Again, this depends on the employers and how flexible they decide to be. Some companies would allow you to work from home, for example, in this situation.

Do you live near family that can help you take care of your children?

Unfortunately we don’t—my husband and I are both from the U.S., so our families are not able to help (although I know they wish they could!). We do have friends we would feel comfortable calling on in an emergency, though.

Are mothers expected to be the “default parent,” which is to say the person who misses work when the kid is sick or who deals with school events and other organizational tasks?

I would say that they generally are. If you look around at the other parents doing the school run, or attending school performances, most are women (although there are certainly some dads there, too, and some grandparents).

My husband and I tend to split these responsibilities fairly evenly. I’m more involved with the official things (doctor’s appointments, teacher meetings), but my husband has more flexibility at work than I do, and he works much closer to home, so he’s often the one to collect the kids in an emergency or to miss work if they’re ill.

How long was your maternity leave? And did your husband get paternity leave?

I took the maximum maternity leave offered in the U.K., which is one year. This can start during your pregnancy if you like—I think that the earliest you can begin is 11 weeks before your due date (although this can be earlier if there’s a medical reason). You are entitled to most of your full salary (90 percent) for the first six weeks. For the next 33 weeks, you get either statutory maternity pay (138 pounds a week, or about $230) or 90 percent of your salary, whichever is lower.

Your employer may choose to supplement this—when I was on maternity leave with my daughter, my company would match the statutory payment if you had been with the company for a certain amount of time. After that, you are entitled to an additional 13 weeks of unpaid leave.

Fathers are generally entitled to two weeks of leave, which is paid at the statutory rate (138 pounds a week). To be honest I don’t know a lot of men who have taken this leave, because the pay rate is so low. It would be more common to take some holiday or vacation time (we get five weeks a year), which is what my husband did.

When you return to work after maternity leave, you are eligible to request “flexible working” from your employer—this can be a part-time schedule, flexible hours, working from home—whatever you feel would work for you. Employers are required to consider this and must adhere to certain regulations regarding what they can and can’t choose to accommodate. My employer was very accommodating and allowed me to work three days a week, but I have friends who have had their flexible working requests turned down.

What is your employer’s attitude toward family responsibility?

My current employer has been very good. It’s a large international company, so everything is very by the book. My manager is also a parent, and he is quite accommodating as well. My last employer was not as good and in some cases did not even abide by the statutory regulations, which they are legally required to comply with.

Check out more of Slate’s Child Care Over There series.