From England to Madrid

Ever wondered what it would be like to bring up your children in another country? In our regular series following the lives of expats, we find out. This season: Spain’s capital city.

ituated slap bang in the middle of the Iberian peninsula, Madrid is a vibrant city, and the cultural and financial centre of Spain. With a laid-back way of life, and weather that facilitates outdoor living, it’s a million miles away from the hectic London existence that Catherine Brookes left behind, when she decided to take some time out to travel.

“I was a bit burnt out, after several years in a stressful job, so I decided to pursue my love of languages for a year before qualifying to work as a translator – or, at least, that was the idea!”

In search of a more relaxed lifestyle, Catherine set off across Europe. “My original plan was to spend a year travelling across Spain and Italy, but I didn’t get further than Madrid. I just fell in love with the city. I had some contacts there, and I soon fell in with a nice international and Spanish crowd.” In fact, the city wasn’t the only thing that Catherine fell in love with – while she was in Madrid, she met her husband, Pablo, and the couple now have two daughters.

Catherine has given birth in Madrid twice, and she is full of fascinating insights into the differences between Spanish and British maternity care. “Both my children were born by caesarean, which is very common in Spain. Unless you go to a special natural clinic, you’re not given the choice of a water birth, music or any other methods which are common in the UK. A home birth is absolutely frowned upon – the question being ‘why would you put your baby in danger by having it at home?’”

According to Catherine, this more medicalised approach to childbirth is also apparent during the pregnancy. “I was lucky to have two easy pregnancies but, even so, my gynaecologist monitored me continuously.” Though Catherine could have given birth within the Spanish state healthcare system, she decided to do it privately. “The social security system is excellent in Spain, but I chose to give birth in a private clinic so that I would have my own room, and an extra bed for Pablo to stay over if necessary.”

As well as the pregnancy and birth, Catherine also found that her post-natal experience was very different from the one she would have had in the UK. “In Spain, if you stay in hospital for any length of time after the birth you’re encouraged to leave your baby in the nido – literally, nest – where newborns are taken care of by nurses during the night, so that you can have a good rest. I was actually very grateful for this.”

Though the Spanish system may seem a little old-fashioned and hospital-focused to those of us who are more accustomed to the British preoccupation with natural birth, Catherine is keen to point out that it has its advantages. “I’m quite practical, so the whole no-nonsense approach suited me. In Spain, your gynaecologist is also the doctor who will deliver the baby, which is nice – in my case, the first time, when I had an emergency caesarean, I knew that I was in good hands. After the birth there are no home visits, but the paediatricians are very sympathetic to the worries of a new mum, and are always on the end of a phone if you have any problems.”

And when it comes to going back to work, this pragmatic approach continues to benefit parents. “Mothers return to work after only four months in Spain, so it’s normal for very small babies to go to nursery. Children generally attend nursery full time until the age of three, and then go to school. Working mothers get a hundred Euros a month from the government, towards childcare for each child, until the child is three. Families with three or more children are rewarded with discounts from many companies, and receive tax benefits too.”

Though they may have a hard-headed attitude to childbirth and childcare, the Spanish are, it seems, softer-hearted than the Brits when it comes to actually interacting with children. “In the UK people approach us as a family to stroke our dog – totally ignoring the children,” says Catherine. “In Spain, babies and children are seen as a gift, and celebrated everywhere you go. Strangely enough, though, Spanish teenagers are extremely polite so this doesn’t seem to turn them into spoilt brats later on!”

Aside from the Spanish love of children, and their polite teenagers, Catherine is also full of enthusiasm for other aspects of life in Madrid. “It’s very open and friendly, and Madrileños are very nice people – I’ve always felt welcome there. I’ve never felt uncomfortable, or unsafe, on a Madrid street. The weather also helps – I love dining outside on a warm evening with my husband, and I love taking the children to the park and chatting to the other parents and children.”

The only downside of being in Spain, for Catherine, was the distance from her own family. “The worst moment was when my father became seriously ill back home. At that moment I wondered whether I’d made the right decision to move away. However, in the grand scheme of things, anywhere in Europe is relatively easy to reach from the UK.”

Catherine and Pablo have recently come back to live in the UK, having been relocated because of Pablo’s work, but the family still visit Madrid frequently, and Catherine, who runs an online children’s clothing store selling mainly Spanish clothes,, doesn’t want to rule out a permanent return. “The business, and our family in Madrid, means that I’m fortunate enough to travel back all the time. Both Pablo’s work and my business have brought us to the UK, but I’d love to move back at some point.”

“I love everything about the city. It’s a capital city, but it’s much smaller than London, and it has a slower pace. The beach is three hours away and the ski resort of Navacerrada, is just forty minutes. Our old house had a pool – going for a dip after a hard day’s work is unbeatable!” ✿

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