Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Crocodile Harmonica

Magic Casa Batllo

I went to Barcelona with work on Monday. Tom went to stay with his Auntie J. I had to give two presentations, about which I was very nervous. You can’t get drunk before you do work presentations like you can before you read out your writing. You can’t make self-depricating jokes if things go wrong. I was wearing a pencil skirt that made me feel like my ankles were cuffed together and court shoes that pinched my toes. Luckily, I didn’t fall off the stage despite lots of nerves and a little bit of vertigo.

My hotel room had a curvy stone balcony that overlooked the leafy road and the plain blue sky overhead. Inside, the walls were

Another photo of one of my notebooks in a good writing spot.

covered in Beatles memorabilia because they stayed there in the sixties.  Tom would have loved it and it made me miss him. I had a bit of free time and bought him a crocodile harmonica. It’s the best harmonica I have ever seen and sounds good too. I walked to Casa Batllo and remembered visiting there with my friend when I was 21. I took photographs, then found a table in the Gothic Quarter and wrote a bit of the book. I imagined I was a full-time writer, that  I spent my life staring at Barcelona’s pretty pavements and sitting outside cafes scribbling away.  It didn’t last long though, I had a meeting to get to, then a plane to catch. As busy as it makes me, my job means the world to me and a discussion I had on the way home made me remember why.

I got talking to a lady and mentioned that I couldn’t wait to see Tom. She said that was a single Mum too and she reckons she achieved more because she felt like she wanted to do well for her son and also because she wanted to prove a point. Her boy didn’t suffer: she took him with her to lots of places and he is now grown-up, open-minded, multilingual and on a brilliant career path. She said she didn’t want to have no money and she knew what people thought of her so she set out to change it. Hopefully things will have progressed more in the next twenty years than they have since that lady had her son. There are plenty of single parents like us, but the media would rather write about the ones who don’t work.

It got me thinking about the comments beneath my last post, about people constantly being told that they can’t do things. “You can’t have a career if you have a baby.” I was told it. A close family member said “I thought you’d travel Emily, I thought you’d be a writer, I thought you’d do well.” One of my friends told me recently that he pitied me because he thought my life was ruined. No one thought it more than me.

I don’t know where my ‘can’ notion came from, but it didn’t arrive until way after Tom was born. Not everyone has an Auntie J or a mother like mine who wants to help out. Not everyone has work experience or qualifications. Who is going to help single parents find childcare solutions and training so that they can pursue careers and help dash the myths? Who is going to tell them they can be ambitious and still raise happy children?

I gasped as the icy wind whipped Tom and I on the way to school this morning.

“It was sunny in Spain,” I said, “There were no clouds. The buildings are twisty and colourful, it’s beautiful.”

“Which is your favourite? Spain or me?”

I stopped still, even though we were late. “You do know the answer to that, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course I do, I was just being a tiny bit cheeky,” he laughed, a knowing look on his face. And that was before he had even seen the crocodile harmonica.

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Con-Dem Nation

A government that is made up of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives is an oxymoron. As I wrote close to the election back in May, this time I voted Labour. It was a hard decision, mainly because of my feelings about the Iraq war, but I concluded that it would have probably gone ahead whoever had been in charge. Labour, for all their sins, had brought into being policies that helped lone parent families like mine, including Surestart centres and help with childcare costs through Tax Credits.

Despite my grave misgivings about the coalition, I welcomed the news that single parents with a youngest child of seven were going to be forced to switch from Income Support to Jobseekers’ Allowance. Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants have to actively seek work in any field but if they refuse it, they can lose up to 40% of their benefits. I have volunteered on a project to help lone parents back into work. Yes, these families were only slightly better off financially, but I saw working single parents  gain a precious sense of ambition, autonomy, achievement and example. I wondered what jobless parents did all day while their children were at school and couldn’t see a problem with them going out to work.

Since my paper round at 13, I have always worked. I switched from part-time to full-time when I took a year out of university because I was pregnant.  I held down my job through difficult circumstances right up until a few weeks before Tom was born. When he was five months old, I resumed education and made sure I was earning as soon as possible after graduation. Therein lies a big difference: I may be deep in debt (and only just beginning to pay off my student loan) but I had an education, something that we all know is about to get a lot harder and a lot more elitist.

Writing my book has stirred memories of the struggle to find postgraduate work as a mother of a one-year-old. Initially, I was open about Tom’s existence because I didn’t want it to be a shock to my potential employers and I (naively) believed that my tenacity made me more employable. My lowest ebb came at an interview for a job for which I was more than adequately qualified, in the industry I know inside out and was told: “You’re perfect, but what do we do if your child is sick and you can’t come into work? We simply can’t afford to take you on.”

Fortunately, I had the skills and qualifications to be able to set up my own business. A year down the line, when the recession began to hit and my business suffered, I applied for a part-time job without mentioning my son and was successful. Tom was at private nursery, a place designed to meet the needs of working parents, that closed at 6pm. When he began school nursery with its mid-afternoon closure, things got complicated. Thankfully, I was able to use my Masters degree (the fees of which I am still paying off) to find myself a rare home-based job.

I believed that the new law would benefit single parents because I thought it would give them the opportunities and career self-worth that are so precious to me. Not everyone has a Masters though, or an undergraduate degree, or even GCSEs. Many who became parents as teenagers will have no academic qualifications or work experience, meaning employment is an enormous hurdle or even an impossibility. Jobs are few and far between, especially those that start at 9.30am and finish at around 2.30pm.  I am a great believer in quality childcare being good for a child’s independence and social development, but what if it simply isn’t available? In many small towns and villages, wraparound care doesn’t exist. That is why Gingerbread, the national charity for lone parents thinks that many are being set up to fail. I am aware of the whispers that parents of children approaching seven will produce more babies to eliminate themselves from the ruling and I know that in some cases, it could and probably will happen.

That is why the new coalition government, made partly of Liberal Democrats, will help perpetuate this irritating myth: that single parents are a blight on society, that they are spongers and not workers and that some deliver unwanted children into an impoverished cycle that’s difficult to break. That’s just one of the reasons why I am furious with the Government. That is why I am sorry for thinking the Jobseekers’ move was positive news.

The class divide is alive and thriving, but some working class people need a lot of help to be able to live up to their name.

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All You need is Love (and Golden Star Glitter)

My friends got engaged two and a half years ago.

“Won’t it be strange?” We all said, “Tom will have started school by the time the big day comes.”

And then it arrived: a gorgeous, sunny autumn day in the Cheshire countryside with the leaves on the trees not golden but acid yellow.

At the back of my mind, I thought I might have  a man by the time that 2.5 years had passed (at least a man sensible and grown-up enough to take to a wedding.)  I had forgotten about this, until I arrived and saw that most of the guests came in pairs. I’m not used to that world.

I’d objected to Tom wearing a suit and wanted him to be comfortable on the day, until my friends asked him to be the Ring Bearer. It became apparent that he would have to have a suit. Luckily, Mum stepped in a bought one because she knew I never would. It was navy blue and nowhere near as naff as I expected.

“I have a very important job,” he kept telling people, “carrying some earrings on a pillow.”

I ordered confetti online and explained to Tom what it is.

“I do want to throw something,” he frowned, “But not confetti. Can I throw golden star glitter on them instead?” So golden star glitter it was.

During the ceremony, I did a reading. When I sat down afterwards, Tom, who was sitting in the row in front, turned around and gave me the double thumbs up and a huge smile. Soon, it was time for the rings. Tom did a brilliant job and looked so thrilled for his beloved Auntie and Uncle.  He sat beautifully afterwards, twisting the ribbon on the ring cushion in front of him, then turned to me and said “Mum, look, I have made the ribbon into a love heart.”

As we followed the bride down the aisle, a string quartet played All You Need is Love. Of course, Tom recognised it and piped up singing straight away. And later, when the evening music started, he was on the dancefloor before the happy couple. His behaviour was (mostly) good, the day was happy and it was all good practice for the next wedding we are attending, this weekend (yes, another one.)

There aren’t many decent blokes around (although Anna’s new husband is definitely one of them.)  I am turning to a cynic as I hurtle towards 30. Writing the book has got me realising what a silly little girl I used to be when it came to men. Even relatively recently, I still hadn’t learnt, but now I realise it would be good to bump into someone who sits half way between out-of-control and downright boring. At the moment, I haven’t got time for one even if I knew where to find one. No lover’s going to be interested in someone who gives themselves strict word count targets and stays up writing until the early hours, nor a woman whose bedroom looks like a jumble sale because of it.  Men and raves are on hold for a bit, the book is all I can devote sleepless nights to.

Fate sent me Tom, so it will send me the kind of man you can take to a wedding. In the meantime, I’ve got an excellent conversationalist who loves his music, is a bit of a romantic and (I have to admit) looks alright in a suit.

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