Running my own company in Spain meant everything to me. I had all I wanted and more. Even the magnet on my office fridge read, “Ooooops, I forgot to have children!”. It was a full time business, looking after properties and holiday makers – 24/7 in the summer months and pretty involved the rest of the year.
Circumstances changed drastically when a business partner bought me out and suddenly I had time on my hands. I got a job in a real estate office covering the owner’s holiday for six months (I’m still there ten years later) and it transpired that selling properties was a lot less time consuming than rescuing those who had believed the El Corte Ingles carpark to be open 24 hours and left their apartment keys locked in the car; or those who couldn’t fathom how to reset a fuse after a power cut; and I had very little sympathy for the family who rang at 1am saying they’d locked themselves out of their apartment, oh and would I mind picking them up some nappies on the way to rescue them?
So what to do with this sudden glut of free time? Well babies wasn’t the first thought, but life in Spain definitely began to get more domesticated. I became a little more house proud, learned to cook, started blogging about my dysfunctional life as a wannabe goddess, and then fell pregnant, almost completely unintentionally.
Unfortunately that pregnancy wasn’t to be but it gave me a rather full-on introduction to the highs and lows of the Spanish healthcare system (I’d probably seen a doctor twice in the 11 years I’d lived in Spain prior to my first pregnancy). In my husband it awoke the burning desire to be a father despite our advanced years (our first daughter was born when I was pushing 40 and the second nearly landed neatly on her father’s 50th birthday).
The arrival of two amazing little girls within two years has brought with it a steep learning curve of family related knowledge essential to those living and planning to start a family in Spain so I figured it was time to share, to help future mums reading this avoid the problems and grey hair producing unfathomable frustrations that we are proud to say we survived!
As a foreigner living in Spain, it’s important to consider your healthcare requirements even before you fall pregnant. If you’re not entitled to free healthcare via social security (perhaps you’re not resident or not working/working abroad or at least not contributing to the system) and you think private health insurance would suit you better, make sure you take out a policy before you fall pregnant. Many insurance policies include a clause excluding pregnancy care within the first six months or so. There are now a few private hospitals, on the Costa del Sol at least, where you can “pay as you go” for your pregnancy health care but it’s not cheap. Better to wait and be insured privately, or be eligible for state care.
I had the best of both worlds. Persuaded by my boss to take out private health insurance a few years previously, but also self employed paying ludicrous amounts of social security contributions, I was entitled to public healthcare too. During my first pregnancy I had all my check ups with a private ob-gyn which suited me perfectly as I could make appointments to see him outside of my working hours (particularly useful during the first few weeks when you want to keep your pregnancy secret!). However, my ob-gyn also worked in the Hospital Costa del Sol (public) so when my pregnancy ran into difficulties, he was able to make sure I received the best treatment there, fast-tracked as an emergency admission. It made everything much easier having a familiar face to guide us through the procedures. Large state hospitals are pretty daunting places whatever the circumstances.
Second time around, my pregnancy was classified high risk and the same ob-gyn suggested I used the public system for my main appointments with in between scans at his private clinic. There’s no avoiding the time consuming nature of midwife appointments, scans and blood tests when you’re using your local health centre or centro de salud. You do wait longer, need to be more confident linguistically (although interpreters are usually available) and sometimes suffer from the somewhat brusque nature of harassed and very busy staff. HOWEVER, the state system in Spain offers some of the best healthcare in the world. In an emergency, always go public!
I feel very lucky to have had the same doctor conduct my private scans and deliver my two princesses and an angel baby at the state hospital which has all the bells and whistles you need whether things are going right or wrong! Yes, your partner is expected to provide a lot of what the Brits, at least, consider to be nursing care (basically anything you need that’s not medical) and to top it all he or she will have to endure sleeping on an uncomfortable chair for as long as you’re in the hospital (can be three to four nights if you have a caesarean). In Spain, the nurses and auxiliary workers are integral parts of the medical team while family are responsible for helping you wash and dress, getting you in and out of bed and to the loo, lifting the babies in and out of their cribs and changing their clothes and nappies, oh and keeping the patient fully stocked with water, snacks, entertainment and a shoulder to cry on when required!
One big difference between the UK and Spain is that no-one is allowed to accompany the mum into the operating theatre for a caesarean section. Baby will be presented to the father (and in our case he was asked to name her) while the mum spends a couple of hours in recovery after the operation. And for natural births, gas and air is not on the menu – drug free, pethidine or epidurals are the only options. There is some provision for water births in most hospitals on a first come first served basis but home births are actively discouraged.
The auxiliary staff in the hospital were amazing and taught my husband everything about bathing a baby, burping, feeding and more, despite his very limited Spanish. The second night we were there with Grace, they set him up with a chair and a bottle (for the baby not him!) next to their nurses station so that her somewhat hysterical mother could get a bit of sleep. They were fantastic.
What feels like a never ending paper chasing exercise starts before you even get to the hospital. Upon arrival, even if you’re panting away and in labour, you need to present your passport and social security card (if applicable) in order to be admitted (in a private hospital you’d need your passport and health insurance card or credit card if you don’t have cover).
Fortunately we had signed up for antenatal classes with a private midwife, Anne Halfpenny who as the Irish Midwife (www.irishmidwife.com) offers a course of four weekly evening sessions in English for prospective mums and dads, at regular times through the year. If I hadn’t attended her classes I wouldn’t have had a clue what to expect in the hospital, during the birth, with the baby and, just as importantly, with the mountain of paperwork.
Anne detailed which forms we would be given to us before leaving the hospital and emphasised the importance of making sure all the information written on them was 100% correct and that they were signed and stamped by the hospital administrators before we left. Any discrepancy on these forms can cause you a real headache when you’re trying to register the baby’s birth later on.
The classes also explained the procedures for obtaining baby’s birth certificate, Spanish Libro de Familia(far more important than the certificate here), sorting out maternity pay and ensuring that baby is registered with social security so there are no hiccups when getting vaccinations and medical care.
It is a bit of a minefield especially for the fuzzy headed new parent so if you have a friend or family member who speaks good Spanish to help you through, do take them along. Officially you should register your baby within 8 days of his birth (unless you can justify needing longer, such as prolonged hospital stay, when they will extend this to 30 days). If born in Spain, baby must be registered in Spain either in the town where the parents are empadronamiento (registered with the townhall) or in the town where baby was born. British parents will need to ask for a full birth certificate (certificación literal) for passport applications.
We registered our girls the first morning that leaving the house was feasible and were very thankful to have the help of my mum who stood in the queue to get a numbered ticket well before we’d even left the house. It was another morning’s work, with quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, form filling and photocopying to sort out social security and the children’s state medical cover. We had to apply for their passports before this to be able to provide an official identity document with our request for cover. We also managed to organise our maternity and paternity pay within the same visit which was a relief!
Maternity is 16 weeks in Spain so pretty soon after we were investigating the best nursery school options to meet our needs. Our local state nursery has a very good reputation and we were lucky that Grace was able to go straight away when term started in September. By this time we were getting quite adept at form filling and dealing with all the different offices a) gives your Spanish a real boost and b) exhausts you as a new mum! Obviously juggling bits of paper with a crying baby and your feeding cover does tend to get you seen quite quickly though. And if you are forearmed with the relevant documents and necessary photocopies, the administration staff will generally be very helpful and much more affable!
Applications for state nurseries in our area open each April – private nurseries will generally take newcomers at any time of year as long as they have space. Most of the public options offer extended days with matinal (early morning care from 7am), comedor(lunch service) and afternoon extra hours at a very reasonable cost (means tested).
Children are eligible to start colegioor primary school the September of the year that they turn 3. So my eldest, who was born in February, was over 3.5 when she started while my little one who was born at Christmas will have just scraped 2.5! It feels very young but the eldest has adapted brilliantly and schooling here is not compulsory until the year that your child turns 6 so you can keep them at home or in a private nursery if you prefer.
Applications for colegioin our area open each March. The forms are hardcore and need a lot of supporting documentation but by the time we got to that stage, we were pretty confident – knew which colour pen to use, when to beg, how many photocopies to take, who to be especially nice to and how to interpret some of the impossibly worded questions (how many children were there in your household the year prior to the last fiscal period?).
For us, the state school system has worked perfectly so far. Our four year old has flown through her first year of school and will attend summer school there to get us through the long holidays. She is almost bilingual and can certainly boss people around in both Spanish and English. Our two year old is about to graduate from nursery (God no!). Her language skills, as far as they go, currently lead in Spanish and her favourite phrase of the moment is “te quiero mucho again” (I love you again) – sufficient to melt the hearts of her family and her teachers (and the dinner lady, the policeman on the zebra crossing, the dog and let’s be honest here, the palm tree she regularly exclaims it to).
I’m so proud of my girls and what they are achieving in their bilingual world and I’m so privileged to be bringing them up in this beautiful part of Spain. Every day we get that little bit further towards integrating with our local friends and having lived here now for sixteen years or so, I confess that it’s our children who have pushed us to become more involved, integrated and accepted. How great are they!
If your Spanish still needs work, take a Spanish speaking friend or family member to official appointments with administrative offices.
If you’re thinking about starting a family, decide whether you want private healthcare or not before you fall pregnant and check the terms of your policy.
Sign up for antenatal classes before the birth. You’ll hopefully be as lucky as us to meet people who will remain lifelong friends and supporters, understanding you like no one else in the early days of parenthood.
Charlotte Hanson is originally from Shrewsbury in the UK and has also lived New York and Spain.
This article was first published in Spain and Me – Stories from woman who have made Spain home. An ebook put out by Costa Women.