A report published last week by the Institute for Public Policy Research states that Britain is suffering from a baby gap of 92,000 babies a year as women put off having children because of the rising cost of childcare.
Six years ago my husband and I were living in Sussex with one child. We both worked full-time, he as a journalist and me as a headhunter. The cost of childcare was already an issue, but I had grown up as an only child and had always vowed to have a large family. So we had another baby. Our childcare costs doubled overnight.
A couple of years later I longed to have a third child. But, and it was a big but, could we really afford to have a large family in Britain? Like thousands of other families across the country we had to weigh up the economic consequences of a three children. It didn’t take us long to work out that it just wasn’t an option. The big family I had dreamed of was never going to happen.
Or at least it was never going to happen if we stayed in England. It was while talking to a friend who had been living in France for five years that I realised there was another option. She kept using phrases like subsidised childcare and tax breaks for large families. Six months later we had made an offer on an old farmhouse in the hills close to Montpellier.
In France having a big family is a totally different story. Here if you have three or more children you are treated as a bit of a hero. You get all sorts of support and perks, like subsidised childcare and a family railcard which entitles you to travel first class on the trains for half price. Even the tax man is nice to you. Some friends of ours who live here and have five children haven’t paid a penny in income tax in over three years. In fact the taxman gives them a rebate every April instead of a bill.
The French government recently announced it would pay mothers with two children £500 a month to stop working for a year and have a third child. Maternity leave and benefits are hugely generous here compared to England; you can take up to three years off and your company has to hold your job open. In England it is only 26 weeks. Here in France having a large family is positively encouraged.
The fact that two of France’s leading politicians, Ségolène Royal and Clara Gaymard have enough children between them for a football team and a couple of substitutes should give you some idea of the support system here. Ms Royal is one of the leading candidates in the 2007 race to replace Chirac. “I couldn’t have achieved what I have and had five children in any other country,” she says.
Louise, a friend of mine in London who works in the travel business has two small children. Between them, she and her husband earn almost £90,000 a year. “You’d think we could lead a pretty nice life,” she says, “but the fact is we’re paying almost £2,000 a month in childcare. There is no way we will have a third, it’s just financially crippling. As things stand I have to work so damn hard to pay for my childcare that I hardly see my children.”
I know how she feels. Before we moved to France our daughters Olivia and Bea went to a nursery in Crowborough, Sussex. I would drive them there every morning before commuting up to London to work. Leaving them there cost me £130 a day and I had to be there at 5.30pm exactly to collect them. I was fined for every minute I was late. Train delays became not only irritating but expensive.
There was no way I could even consider having a third child. I had already been told by the nursery that there was no sibling discount, it didn’t matter how many children you had, and also that they would not take the new baby at all until he or she was six months old. So that left me with two choices; give up work and become a stay-at-home mother (financially and mentally not an option) or work at a loss and employ a nanny for more than I earned myself.
All this stress was removed overnight when we moved to France. One of the first things I did was get pregnant. Instead of panicking as I would have been at home, I prayed for twins. They didn’t happen, but the whole French birth experience in itself was worth leaving England for. In England after a nine-hour labour I had told the midwife I was hungry. “Go to the kitchen and make yourself a piece of toast,” she suggested.
This might sound straightforward, but just walking there was almost as painful as the labour itself. And a piece of soggy toast and margarine with was not really what I had in mind.
In France they like to reward their mothers. Shortly after giving birth to our son Leonardo a smartly-dressed woman with a clipboard arrived in my private room (with television). I thought she was going to tell me it would soon be time to go home as the bed was needed but no, she was there to share the day’s menu with me.
“Would you prefer fish or meat for your main course?” she asked. “You can choose whatever you want, but no wine.” I was too stunned to speak. For a moment I thought the painkillers they had given me were affecting me.
This was just the beginning. Shortly after leaving the clinic (after a week’s stay, they don’t kick you out, they let you stay as long as you like), I decided to look for a childminder. These are rare species in England, more difficult to find than a gynaecologist that looks like George Clooney, but in France they are in every village. You just go to your local mayor who has a list of accredited childminders for your area. And not only do the authorities help you find one, they pay a substantial amount towards the cost of her as well.
The childminder I picked, Chantal, agreed to collect the children every morning at 8.30am and I would get them in the evening at 6pm. For this I paid her about £700 per month, a third of which was reimbursed by the state. If I needed to go away for work they would stay the night, for which I would pay (and still do pay) £20 a night. I dread to think what the crows at Crowborough would have charged for such a service had they offered it, which of course they didn’t.
Aged two, all children in France are entitled to a place at the maternity section of the local primary school. Unlike many of my contemporaries in England who were paying hundreds of pounds a term for poncy nurseries with silly names, my children were being looked after for free. I spent the extra cash on fine wines and shopping trips to Paris while my friends in England complained about the injustice of it all.
The girls are now at normal school. I collect them at 6pm after an hour and a half of after-school activities such as painting, drawing and football which costs me 30 pence a child. And once they reach comprehensive school age I’ll send them to the local secondary school which has an excellent record and counts the latest Miss France among its pupils.
In contrast, my London-based friend Karen is beside herself with stress. “There just is no choice here,” she says. “It’s either work like a mad person to send them to public school or play the comprehensive school Russian roulette. Will it be drugs, violence, bullying or all three? I have no choice but to pay for their education. So the overriding factor in whether or not people can have a third child, is can they afford £70,000 a year school fees? Sadly for us the answer is no.”
Luckily for us in France where I have my subsidised childminder, tax breaks, free nursery, excellent state schools and generous child benefits we could decide whether or not to have a third baby based on issues that weren’t purely economical. And every time I look at our gorgeous baby boy I am extremely happy we moved.