Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Same as it Ever Was

Two years before I had Tom, I wanted to work in advertising and managed to get on the best course in the country. It had good contacts in London, but it wasn’t actually in London. It was in High Wycombe. I spent a lot of time in the breeze-block halls, where older students roamed the corridors sniffing out the faintest whiff of cannabis and cleaners tried to fine us for toothpaste splatters on the mirrors. It was like boarding school and the course felt a bit like being on The Apprentice. It wasn’t long before I started visiting Manchester for the weekend and not coming back for a fortnight. I had spent the previous year living in Manchester city centre. I often referred to that time as the best year of my life and my time in High Wycombe as my worst.

After my first year Down There, I couldn’t bring myself to go back again and stayed in Manchester. It wasn’t quite how I remembered it though.  People were spending more time studying and less time partying. I had gained a load of weight in High Wycombe and the dullness of the place seemed to have rubbed off on me. I never really recreated the Manchester I moved back for and a year later, I was pregnant.

So dingy were my memories of that place that I forgot that I did make a few really good friends when I lived there. We stayed in touch throughout the years  and I always said I’d go and visit.  I never forgot a text message I received from one of them when I was in hospital after having Tom: “Well done, you created life! Congratulations and I hope we get to meet him one day.”

So, on Friday evening, after collecting Tom from school and hopping on the brilliantly quick Pendolino, I found myself dragging him and his robot suitcase through leafy North London. “This is a peaceful street,” he said, “Whose house are we having a sleepover at?”

“My friends who I knew before you arrived on the scene.” I said.

“Who was my Mummy before that?” asked Tom.

“What do you mean?”

“Who was my Mummy before I arrived on your scene?”

My answer jolted me from reality for a second.

“Well, you didn’t exist.”

Moments like that raise all sorts of baffling questions about whether children hang around in the ether, waiting for their cue. It’s true what people say about it feeling like they have always been there. Similarly, as I stayed up late talking to my old friends, it felt like we had never been apart.

We had a brilliant weekend, spending Saturday afternoon at the wonderful Butterfly Explorers exhibition at the Natural History Museum then lounging around in the Hyde Park sunshine. Early evening, we met another friend for drinks in Camden, but Tom wasn’t allowed in the pub and we had to stand on the street outside. It didn’t matter though – he had made a big impression on everyone and was great company. In the past, I have been to London on my own to party, but this time was different. The older Tom gets, the more of a joy he is to share with friends.

Funny that in the worst year of my life, I met such good people. I ran away and never looked back, wanting desperately to recreate the best year of my life.  Then along came Tom. That first year in Manchester was a lot of fun, but if I had to name the best year of my life now, this one would come pretty close.

The butterfly hatchery at the Natural History Museum

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The Political Post

I have thought carefully about writing a political post here but this is a blog about the realities of single parenting  and politics are intrinsically linked to those realities.

I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, but a couple of weeks ago, I read this article by J. K. Rowling. Every time I voice to my mother my fears that I might never own a home or pay off my debt, she tells me to think of Rowling.

She was a single mum,” she says, “She wrote those books in a cafe with her baby in a buggy at her side.”

I would be lying if I said that I was raised in poverty. I am certainly not from a wealthy family but I know that there are lone parents far worse off than me. For as long as I have been able to vote, I have been Liberal. I’m disillusioned about the Iraq war and the national debt, but I am pretty sure those things would have happened whoever was in charge. I almost voted Liberal again this time, but I began to think about how things have changed under Labour for millions of single parent families like mine. Rowling might be inconceivably loaded now, but she hasn’t forgotten how things used to be and she won’t vote Tory.

Despite popular opinion, just over half of lone parents work (according to Rowling, 56.3 per cent.) I have mentored on projects to help single parents on to the career ladder and it isn’t easy, but one of the things that makes it possible is the Childcare Tax Credit system. Then there’s Sure Start (both were introduced by the current government.)

I probably wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but Sure Start played a massive part in keeping me going through the surreality of being a new mother. When breastfeeding turned out not to be serene and easy but an exhausting battle, I was able to sit in a comfortable armchair and speak to an expert who totally understood. I sat in that same chair and spoke to wonderful counsellor too (yes, I needed counselling.) When I needed to get out of the house, I took Tom to play sessions and creches, we could even borrow toys from the Toy Library. The Sure Start centre is a place where all the confusing,  separate agencies that help with the different dilemmas of early parenthood are almagamated and easily accessible.

The Tory Government want to financially reward couples who are married (although I can’t see how £150 a year is sufficient incentive to make people flog the dead horse that is a loveless marriage.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all meet our life partners, marry them and live happily ever after? If it was that simple, surely we’d all be doing it. The fact is that things often aren’t perfect and marriage tax breaks would only reward the lucky. As Gordon Brown puts it in this unusually passionate speech, “Good fortune must help more than just those who are fortunate.”

David Cameron has spoken many times of ‘broken Britain.’ The vilification of lone parents (as Rowling points out, more often mothers than fathers) is nothing new. It would be naive of anyone to think that there aren’t single parents who live completely off benefits, but they do not represent us all. Many of us want to be employed, to do the best for our children and ourselves. We are only able to do it with help though, because we play the role of two parents: not just financially but practically and emotionally.

The Conservatives may think that Britain is broken and in many ways it is but for working single parents, the system is robust. It ain’t broke and I won’t be trying to fix it.

(Now I can go back to dreaming about a seven-figure book deal. Maybe I should read a Harry Potter book.)

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