• work–life balance;
  • low-waged women;
  • working time;
  • childcare;
  • parental leave

We investigated innovative social policies drawn from the European arena — universal systems of childcare, a shorter working week and shared parental leave — asking about their relevance to the work–life balance of low-waged coupled mothers in England. While in principle the policy environment has shifted from assumptions of a male breadwinner to dual earners, in practice severe constraints on mothers' labour market attachment bring women half the lifetime earnings of men. British Household Panel Survey data for coupled low-waged women in England show them as likely to work short part-time hours, have low-waged partners and low household wages while belonging to male breadwinner partnerships in terms of their contribution to household wages and unpaid work; but that few women support this model. Interviews with low-waged mothers show evidence of limited choices, constrained by social policies which offer limited and piecemeal support for working parenthood. Given the choice, low-waged mothers and their partners would find policies available elsewhere in Europe attractive. They see a more universal comprehensive system of childcare as enabling women's employment and improving children's quality of life; a shorter working week as enabling mothers and fathers to lead more balanced lives and a father's quota of parental leave fitting with their assumptions about sharing care.