Motherhood

15 Surprising Things About Parenting in England

Erin Moore and her husband, Tom, have spent the last seven years in London, where they live with their four-year-old daughter Anne—and another baby on the way! Here are 15 fascinating things about being a mom in England…

“When Tom and I moved to London from New York, we were so excited,” Erin says. Tom was born in England (although he grew up in the U.S.) and Erin was raised by Anglophiles. “Moving to London was always part of the plan for our life together,” she says. “We didn’t have kids yet and it seemed like a ‘now or never’ kind of thing.”

The first six months in London were magical—and then the culture shock set in. “It’s easy to assume—because Americans and the English have a language in common—that it won’t be that different, and you won’t feel terribly homesick,” says Erin. “But the cultural differences between England and America run deep—and it’s easy to end up feeling like you’ve said or done something wrong, without quite understanding what.”

On becoming bilingual: English moms’ vocabulary for this baby phase was ENTIRELY foreign to me. An American mother in England can’t help but learn almost as many new words as her bub (baby). I’ve met lots of interesting people just because we popped our sprogs at the same time (that’s British English for giving birth). My new friends and I took long walks with our pushchairs and prams. We had vigorous debates about whether or not babies should be given dummies (pacifiers), and whether to splash out (splurge) for the chickenpox jab (a vaccine not standard under the National Health Service). We exchanged helpful tips on how to get posset (spit-up) stains out of babygros (onesies). Posset is—confusingly, disgustingly—also the name of a creamy dessert, and many desserts were consumed that year as we fretted over the statistics on cot (crib) death and balanced infants on our knees. We sought the camaraderie of trench-mates who knew we wouldn’t be judged for whinging (whining) or throwing wobblies (tantrums) over our sleeplessnes or having rows (arguments) with our partners. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most common acronyms on Mumsnet.com, England’s most popular online forum for moms, is AIBU (“Am I being unreasonable?”), to which one may respond: YABU or YANBU.

On being knackered: In my experience, “I’m knackered” is the new parents’ refrain. Even if you had no idea what knackered meant, you couldn’t miss it in context: “I’m absolutely knackered.” It’s British English slang for “exhausted,” and it usually comes with a certain sag of the shoulders and a little stagger in the voice. (There is a particularly English way of saying it, too. It’s pronounced nnakk-uhd: slow on the first syllable, swallowing the second.) The knacker’s yard is, literally, a place for horses that have outlived their ability to run.

On making friends: We found it was very easy to make expat American friends. The problem was, they were always moving away. If we wanted to live here long-term (and we did) we needed to make British friends, too. This is one of the hardest things we have ever done. Making friends takes real proximity—living or working with people for months, if not years. Whereas another American might literally say (on first meeting), “You seem nice—let’s meet for coffee sometime!” a new English acquaintance would need to run into you a dozen times before you’d get past the initial chit-chat about the weather. I have come to think of coffee as “first base.” “Second base” is lunch. “Third base” is being invited to dinner at their home, and a “home run” is when they decide to go all the way and introduce you to their other friends.

About six months after we moved to London, Tom and I decided we needed to try harder to turn our many new acquaintances into real friends. We used to laugh and call it “the American Charm Offensive.” We started asking people we only knew slightly (people from work, people we’d met at parties, people from our college who ended up in London, friends of friends) over for dinner. Only a few of the people we invited responded with return invitations, but some of the ones who did ended up becoming close friends. Our circle of friends in London now is almost as big as the one we have/had in New York, but it took much more effort to grow!

On childproofing: Many people here express the opinion that kids should be allowed to fall down and hurt themselves, because it’s a learning experience. In America, childproofing is a profession—you can actually hire someone to come childproof your home. Most English parents I know, while not being at all blasé about their child’s safety, didn’t do much childproofing at all. The only childproofing we did was a baby gate at the stairs, a pad on one sharp corner, and outlet covers. I want to protect my daughter from the things that could kill or seriously hurt her, but that’s it. If my daughter pulls our cat’s tail and gets scratched, I see that as a learning experience: how not to treat the cat. (Though so far, the cat has been more than patient.)

On life in the Mews: We live on a tiny street; most of the houses are converted stables that used to belong to the bigger houses on the next street over. The residents are Irish, American, Norwegian, Persian, Chinese, French, Indian and British, ranging in age from one to eighty. Everyone is very friendly. We have picnic tables and potted gardens in front of our houses and on warm summer nights we pass the wine up and down, pull out our barbecues and chat long after dark (some of us with baby monitors in our pockets). Whenever there’s an event like the Royal Wedding or someone’s birthday, we move the tables to the middle of the street, hang bunting, roll a piano out of someone’s living room and have sing-a-longs. Everyone knows everyone else’s business (and as a Nosy Parker, I love it).

On a class-bound culture: People in England are really class conscious, but it isn’t something people talk about (unless you get them drunk). I have been fascinated to learn about all the “secret” class markers that people use to size one another up. Words are a big one. Sitting on a “couch” or asking where the “toilet” is will knock you down a level. (Sitting on a “sofa” and asking for the “loo” are more proper. But appearing too anxious to say the “proper” thing also knocks you down a level. It’s confounding.) Luckily, anyone with an American accent is exempt from this and can just enjoy the theater of everyday class distinctions that is English life. But I do fret a bit about my daughter getting the “right” vocabulary—since with her English accent, no one will exempt her for being American—which is not something I’d ever have thought would matter to me. I am actually embarrassed to care about this, but even as an outsider (perhaps especially as an outsider) I can see that it matters.

On raising an English daughter: Anne has a strong English accent, even though she spends most of her time with her American parents and her French-speaking babysitter. Children tend to take on the accent of their peers as soon as they become immersed in school. She will correct my vocabulary in English (“trainers” not “sneakers”; “jumper” not “sweater”; “biscuit” not “cookie”; “brolly” not “umbrella” etc.) And our differences don’t stop at language. On arrival in America, at age 2 1/2, my daughter was given a cup of water that contained about one-third liquid and two-thirds ice. She stuck her hand in the cup, pulled out a cube of ice, and said, “What’s this?” I am raising a stranger!

On compliments: Americans give and receive compliments very easily—on each other’s shoes, hair, whatever. It’s something women do to make each other feel good, and the proper response is to say thank you. In England, though, compliments aren’t so simple. If I give someone a compliment, they’ll often respond with, “Oh this? I really regret buying it,” or “I saw a much better one on sale at such-and-such” and will go into a whole thing to deflect the compliment. They reflexively put themselves down! If you just say thank you, it’s perceived as conceited. I have been teaching my daughter to say thank you, because I think that is the polite way to respond, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she starts picking up other ways at school next year.

On never bragging: Whereas Americans are inclined to blow their own horns, the English find this distasteful. It’s not acceptable to brag—or even talk—about one’s accomplishments or talents. This is also true for how parents talk about their children. In America, you might hear a parent say, “My son is learning the violin and seems to have a natural gift.” In England, you’d hear, “We’re enduring little Tommy’s efforts of learning the violin.” You’re actually deprecating your children, in front of them, so they learn the lesson of how to get along with people in society, which is never to brag. As an English friend put it to me, the tallest poppy in the field “is the one you want to cut down first.”

On “negative politeness”: In England, there is a thing called “negative politeness,” which means you give people their space. If you see someone crying on a bus, you ignore them, because you assume they’d prefer that. You don’t ask someone if they’re okay, because that’s not considered polite. In America, you take that leap, you insinuate yourself, you ask if they’re okay, because if you don’t, that’s considered rude. We all know Americans (like my super-friendly mother) who will walk into a store and end up getting the cashier’s life story within minutes. And maybe this is one reason Americans tend to be more comfortable with self-disclosure (sometimes even over-sharing, depending on the individual). In England, it’s totally acceptable to go out in public and keep to yourself—and as an introvert I find that relaxing.

On drinking: Heaven forbid a parent should be forced to make it through an under-fives birthday party stone-cold sober…even if the party is at 10am on a Sunday! This is a simple acknowledgment that parents need ice-breakers, too—especially if they are having to make small talk with people they barely know, while refereeing kids’ unpredictable interactions, during their hard-earned weekends. People in England do drink a lot more, in general, than people in America do. In the U.S., five or more drinks in one sitting is considered a binge, while in the UK, a binge is more like an eight-drink minimum.

On English style: More than 90% of English children wear uniforms to school. There is broad agreement that uniforms are a good idea—that they improve discipline and focus, and level class distinctions. But, as adults, the English seem much bolder and more individual with their fashion than Americans. English men will wear much brighter colors, and they favor a slimmer cut for their suits. Women will wear the most amazing hats, menswear, low-cut blouses, bright colors. I’ve been inspired since moving here to be a little more daring.

On English food: Typical English food—especially pub food—is all the things children love: pies, mashed potatoes, mushy peas, fish and chips, sausages. English food used to have a reputation for being stodgy and not great. But these days, actually, the food is so good that that reputation is no longer deserved. Tom and I both put on weight when we first moved here because we loved the food (and beer) so much! There are great farmers’ markets all over London, and the supermarkets can be really inspiring. My favorite English food is probably the sausages from our go-to butcher, the Ginger Pig. I also love bourbon creams, which are chocolate sandwich cookies.

On pregnancy and the body: I would say people are more modest about their bodies here, and definitely less touchy-feely. You don’t have to worry as much about strangers touching your baby bump here as you do in America! And my gym has cubicles for changing clothes in—something I’ve never seen in an American gym. Breastfeeding is very common, and breastfeeding in public is okay. Many stores have special parents’ rooms, but I also breastfed in restaurants, parks, buses and in the back of taxis and it was no big deal. Maternity leave policies here are very generous—most women get six months to a year—so that is also a great support for mothers who want to breastfeed.

On downtime: Family time is considered important, and vacation sacrosanct. Families usually take at least two—possibly three!—two-week breaks a year, whether or not they go anywhere. There are usually two weeks off at Christmas, and Easter is also a common time to take off. When we lived in the U.S. it seemed like many people didn’t take the vacation time they had earned, and rarely—if ever—in two-week chunks. I love that people take such great advantage of their downtime here.

Thank you so much, Erin! Erin is also writing a book called That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms and What Our English Says About Us (April 2015), which we’re excited to read.

P.S. Motherhood in Norway, Japan, Abu Dhabi, Northern Ireland, Mexico, India and Congo. Plus, why French kids eat everything and babies sleeping outside in Denmark.

(Interview by Caroline Donofrio. Family photos courtesy of Erin Moore; London photos by Victoria Hannan.)

  1. Its fascinating. My brother worked the last year in London and travel with me and them friends for the city and was very exciting this beautifull city.
    Thank for your article. Regards.

  2. I found this fascinating. My husband and I lived in Scotland for four years and had our first child there. Though some of these things ring true, I would say many did not. We had a much easier time making friends there than in Los Angeles (where we were from). And I found people very inviting. I couldn’t believe how relative strangers would just open their homes to us.