English parents rethink roles. Working families face slow progress in child-care solutions

LUCY Daniels first began measuring changes in English family life seven years ago as she talked to women in her natural childbirth class. At that time, she explains, ``I was the only person out of 12 in my breathing class who was going back to work.'' But by the time she was expecting her second child two years later, the proportions were reversed: ``Only one of the new mothers in the class was not going back to work.'' Today Mrs. Daniels is still tracking social change, but in a broader, more official way - as coordinator of the Working Mothers Association, a three-year-old national organization that offers information and advice to parents, policymakers, and employers.

Sitting at a cluttered desk in the group's tiny storefront headquarters not far from the center of London, Daniels, a calm, casually dressed woman, reflects on the magnitude and diversity of the challenges facing working parents.

``It's hard,'' she says. ``In the southeast of England, house prices and accommodations have become so expensive, a lot of women have to keep working.''

What counts as ``a lot'' here is still less than in the United States, where more than half of all new mothers now remain in the work force. By contrast, less than 30 percent of women with children under the age of 5 are employed in England, according to Peter Moss, principal research officer at the University of London's Thomas Coram Research Unit. Among mothers with school-age children, the figure jumps to 46 percent. But most are employed part time, Mr. Moss says, noting that mothers who work average between 10 and 19 hours a week.

``There's a very strong ideology here that women should be home with children,'' Moss explains. ``Many people believe that a good mother looks after her child full time.''

That ideology is slowly changing, because of both economic needs and shifting social attitudes.

``People are recognizing it's totally outdated to say a woman's place is in the home,'' says Wendy Chivers, information officer of the Working Mothers Association. ``They're now saying, `Why shouldn't a woman work as long as she feels her child is well cared for?''' But, she adds, ``it's a very slow process. As long as there's no government support for this new attitude, it's a very hard thing to change.''

British parents do receive government support in one important area - maternity leave. By law, companies with more than five employees must grant 11 weeks of leave before the birth of a child and 29 weeks after the birth to women who have worked for the firm for at least two years.

But less than half of working women actually meet those requirements, according to Daniels. And the government wants to ``make it even harder,'' she finds, by including only companies with 10 or more employees, and by covering only those who work a minimum of 20 hours a week, instead of the current 16.

Moss calls it a ``salami tactic'' - an attempt by the government to ``start trimming bits of social programs, gradually cutting back on what there was.''

Still, for those who are eligible, this kind of legal protection provides an entitlement unknown to new mothers in the US. Sylvia Boull'e, a solicitor for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner whose third child was born in April, acknowledges the advantage.

``I had initially toyed with the idea of going back a couple days a week in September,'' Mrs. Boull'e says. ``But now that the baby is actually here, I don't want to.''

Instead, she will stay home until December, taking advantage of her ``quasi-civil service status'' that allows 11 weeks of leave before a baby's birth and 37 weeks afterward. She is paid full salary for 13 weeks.

Other work-family issues seem as far from a solution here as they are in the US. The United Kingdom, for example, makes no statutory provision for leave that is available to fathers as well as mothers.

``The attitude here is it's up to individual employers to determine parental leave,'' says Daniels. ``The current government is very much against legislation that ties employers up in knots. They're trying to make it easier for companies.''

Working parents face another obstacle: a shortage of child care. State nurseries give priority to low-income children and children considered to be ``at risk.'' Private nurseries are heavily over-subscribed. And corporate facilities, known as ``workplace nurseries,'' are treated as benefits. If employers subsidize the cost, employees must pay tax on the value of the employer's contribution, thus putting these centers out of reach of many employees. Since 1984 a group called Workplace Nurseries has been pushing for repeal of the tax.

``It's a more highly taxed benefit than having a company car, which is a `male' perk,'' says Kay Lyne, equal opportunities officer for Lombard North Central, a finance house.

Adds Daniels: ``It's a real disincentive to employers to do something about child care. It gives them a lovely excuse: `We'd love to start a workplace nursery, but....'''

As one solution to the lack of organized child care, many working parents still rely on that venerable British institution, the nanny. ``There are as many children looked after by nannies as by nurseries,'' Daniels observes. As partial evidence of the demand, a recent issue of the century-old weekly magazine, The Lady, carried nearly 10 pages of ads for nannies and nanny agencies.

But even traditions change, and the latest twist in private child care involves nanny-sharing - an arrangement Daniels herself uses. Her younger daughter, Lauren, 4, attends a preschool program in the morning, then spends afternoons in the care of Jenny Higgins, who divides her time between two families.

Now in her ninth year as a nanny, the 25-year-old Ms. Higgins jokes about her staying power in a high-turnover profession. ``I think I'm one of the OAPs [old-age pensioners] when it comes to nannies,'' she says with a laugh. ``Most are 17, 18.''

Higgins left school at 16, worked in a shop for just three days, then took a job as a nanny. ``I love working with children,'' she says, hugging Lauren Daniels. ``There's a great deal of satisfaction.''

For Lauren's older sister, six-year-old Zoe, child care includes a neighborhood ``after-school club'' sponsored by the local borough council. From 3:30 to 6 p.m., 24 children between the ages of 5 and 10 gather with three adult supervisors for games and snacks. Parents pay 80p (about 45 cents) a day, 1.60 (90 cents) on holidays.

Yet this program in the Wandsworth Council is the exception. Three quarters of local councils in London provide no after-school care, Daniels notes. Even here, 60 children remain on waiting lists. ``People putting their child's name on the list now probably would never get a full-time place,'' she says. One organization, the Out-of-School Alliance, is working for more programs for latchkey children.

Not all responsibility for child care falls on working mothers, of course. Men, Daniels finds, ``are increasingly participating and want to be involved.''

One of those involved fathers, Philip Chalk, spends one week in four caring for his nine-month-old son Freddie so his wife, an interior designer, can work without interruption.

``We had an au pair to start with,'' Mr. Chalk explains. ``But after a few weeks we got rid of her because she was useless.'' Now Chalk works from a home office while Freddie naps.

He admits that his friends have been ``fairly surprised'' by his dual role. ``I think a lot of Victorian values are still maintained here,'' he says. ``People think it's the mother's role to raise the children and the father's role to earn the money. But I think it's sad when people don't see their children a lot.''

Bob Bowley, who cares for his three-year-old son Joey during the day, agrees. ``I don't know many other blokes that have as much responsibility for children as I do,'' he says cheerfully. ``I think my friends are a bit jealous, really. They only see their children when they come home from work.''

Encouraging that kind of paternal involvement ranks high on Peter Moss's list of priorities to help working families.

``Men set the models,'' he says. ``They work terribly long hours - anti-social hours. Men are a major part of the problem, and they must be part of the solution. We must begin introducing the rhetoric that men are equally responsible, and we must look at ways men can be encouraged to take more responsibility.''

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