Sunday, 29 December 2013

How to get away with being a crap parent

This is how my profile on the Mumsnet bloggers network reads:

“A working class, socialist mum living in Glasgow writes about her life and draws wider political conclusions where she can.”

It is not true and I should change it. I am from a working class background, true. But I have not actually been working class for, oh, two whole jobs now.

My moving into the (lower) middle class is pretty much a consequence of moving to Glasgow. Nick persuaded me to do this back when we were in our one room flat in London. We could no more afford a two room flat than we could figure out where to keep a baby in one room.

So we came up here, as I like to euphemistically to put it- “for the house prices”

Once here, however, some other things happened:

Whereas jobs for welfare rights workers were being cut left right and centre in England, the Scottish government is actually funding more of them.

This allows the SNP to demonstrate their commitment to alleviating the Westminster Coalition policies and also to utilise the statistics we produce to demonstrate just how bad those policies really are.
Add in some post- colonial sociology and the unearned advantage this still gives someone with an English accent and my career has pretty much sky rocketed.

You should be noticing at this point, how a policy ostensibly designed to help the very poor, is primarily benefiting me, the relatively privileged. This is actually how it usually happens. Welcome to the poverty sector.*

So now that I have some unearned privilege worth wringing my hands over I am going to indulge in that staple of social justice blogging and write a post about how that affects my life. Specifically I am going to write about how my unearned privilege allows me to get away with being a slightly crap parent.

I am able to get away with being a slightly crap parent in two ways:

First off, on a practical level it is harder to fuck up.

I routinely overspend on stuff like work lunches, take away cups of tea and newspapers. My child does not go hungry as a result.

This is a huge contrast to how I was brought up, where every single expense was carefully calibrated and the need to buy a new pair of shoes was a crisis comparable to what a massive boiler explosion would be to me now. I can remember how my mother used to talk about other people making just the kind of lazy purchases I so routinely make.  “Food from their children’s mouths”

Even when I’m not making mistakes, I can afford to make things easier for myself. I buy these little individually wrapped pieces of cheese, which pound for pound must be the most expensive possible way of buying cheese. I buy little mini yogurts, breadsticks and microwave toddler lunches. I do this so that I can just pull stuff out of the fridge and give it to Jimmy without having to plan ahead. I am buying the ability to be crap.

Jimmy does not eat well. Not compared to myself at his age and not compared to many lower income children I know. Their parents cannot afford to be crap. And so they are not.

 I like to reflect that while he may not be eating healthy food- at least I am imparting a healthy attitude towards food. This is because I can afford not to care if he chucks his diner onto the floor. I just pull some other overpriced convenience food out of the fridge and offer an alternative.

Same with days out: I just take him places, Soft play, petting zoo, drive to the country side. We do it on a whim and it saves me thinking too hard about how to amuse him. Buying my way out of being crap.

So, given how bloody easy it is to provide a decent standard of living when you have a bit of money. And how even when you make mistakes, your child doesn't necessarily suffer for them, because you can buy your way out of that. Given all that, you would expect middle class parents to face really harsh criticism when they do fuck up, wouldn’t you?

You’d be wrong.

I know this because, when Jimmy was little, I was the subject of a social services investigation, which I blogged about extensively here.

For the time the investigation was on going, and for a little while afterwards, I was in the position of presenting at services as a low income parent, from a deprived area, who was a client of social services. So I got to see a little bit about what that means in terms of how people treat you. And therefore I can compare with how people treat me now.

I remember, very clearly, going for Jimmy’s 6 week check-up and having the doctor talk to me at length about developmentally delays before she had run the checks.

She also asked me if I “could manage to clothe him” Jimmy was wearing a baby grow with no vest, because he had just been weighed naked and I had dressed him hastily for the journey from one well heated room to another.

I pretended not to understand the implications of the question and prattled on about his low birth weight and how, yes, it could be a problem to find things small enough in the shops. All with a big friendly smile.
The I went home and cried and cried over the thought that anyone could take him from me. And agonised about why I hadn't thought to explain myself better. 

Several months later, we went to a baby weaning event and I dressed him to the absolute nines; Then looked around the church hall to see that everyone else had done the same. One little girl had Barbie pink skinny jeans and a matching dummy.

Well we have slipped considerably since then and it is now perfectly normal for Jimmy to cut about covered in yoghurt and snot, wearing odd socks. Has anyone commented? No, they have not. 

Things are easier for me and yet I still get a free pass. That’s privilege in a nutshell. 

*An even starker example: In my last job we ran into some difficulty in obtaining medical evidence form our clients GP’s. The GP’s representative body had advised them to stop providing evidence for appeals, because of a massively increase in the number of requests, caused, in turn, by the massively increased number of horrifically unfair benefit decisions. There was a special government fund available to mitigate the effects of welfare cuts and my employers were considering making a claim to this fund in order to obtain money to pay the GP’s to produce the evidence we needed to fight the appeals. This would have meant that money supposedly set aside to help the very poorest, being diverted to GPs who have a basic starting salary of £54,319 pa.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Weekend Mum

Maternity leave is over. Five mornings out of seven, I get up at six, feed Jimmy his milk and banana, wash and dress while he’s still eating and leave, shutting the door behind me; by 7.30 at the latest.

I don’t think about him at work. I even try not to think about work when I’m with him. I just concentrate on doing one thing at a time, to the best of my ability.  It’s easy because I enjoy almost everything I do. I live a good life. A man’s life really. I shut the door behind me and go off to argue with tribunal judges, write training materials on the bedroom tax, talk to other adults and eat lunch while reading the paper.  

I enjoy the security and pleasure of a family life without any cost to my career or my sense of self.

I reckon if I was a stay at home mum, I’d want a husband like me. One, who helps in the mornings, gets home for the bedtime routine and still does a hand’s turn around the kitchen. Nick doesn't always agree. There are certain things around the house that neither of us has taken responsibility for. It’s not clear whose job they are and they cause little arguments and resentment every time they need doing.

I contemplate career progression and speculate aloud about going for promotion. Not yet of course, some time far in the future, when Jimmy’s at secondary school and doesn't need me about so much.

Nick is amazed at this. “No Man would think like that” he says and I consider things from another angle. I’m the bread winner now. Perhaps that’s a responsibility worth taking seriously as well.

2 days out of 5, I play fun weekend mum. I take Jimmy to soft play, to the library, to the swimming pool. We sit in little Italian cafes so he can eat pieces of penne off my saucer and charm the waiters into tolerating our mess.

“Is he old enough for the zoo yet?” I wonder aloud and Nick says “No, not quite. Perhaps in another 6 months” I don’t know these things anymore. I have to ask.

Jimmy’s eyes light up when he sees Nick enter the room and he does that delighted little baby squeak. Nick holds him close and I see how easy they are with each other now.
“I love to see you two together like that” I tell Nick; “It’s a real reassurance to me to know, he’s being cared for so well, while I’m away at work”

Apparently this is also something a man would never say, which surprises me. As a good Marxist, I always assume material conditions determine consciousness. Living this husband’s life- I imagined my concerns would be similar to any of the fathers at my work.

“Oh no, Men don’t have that sense of responsibility. We see children as competition if anything.”

My husband is not one of those men who would describe themselves as a feminist.
He’s something better than that. A man who is willing to let me in on what men are really like- instead of always trying to convince me of how different he is from the others.

I know what he says is true. How else to account for the increased risk of domestic violence when women are pregnant or have recently given birth? It would be a mistake to assume violent men are the aberrations. Every heterosexual relationship plays out in the shadow of those same power relations.

On some deep level I have known this already. That deep pleasure I feel when I see them getting on together. I can name it. It is relief. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Happy Breastfeeding Awareness Week!

23rd to 27th of June was apparently breastfeeding awareness week. This is the kind of information you become party to in the Mumsnet Bloggers Network. Some bloggers have used this as an opportunity to post about their own breastfeeding experiences- so I thought I’d have a go. A little late, but still….

Jimmy was born by cesarean section: a little scrap of life, just 4lb 2oz, whisked away from me before I could hold him. I was bouncing off the walls from morphine, and shaky from some really dramatic blood loss when I was asked for permission for the nurses to “just give him his first feed” of formula.

This I happily did, taking the “just” at face value. It wasn't like that of course and Jimmy ended up spending a full 10 days on SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit).

He wasn’t even drinking formula in the end.  He was so little that any kind of sustenance made his blood sugar jump about like a metronome in an earthquake. They fed him glucose through a drip in his arm. He was like a little humming bird.

Visiting your own baby in SCBU is awkward. It’s your child and you have the right to be there, of course. But you’re also hanging around someone else’s workplace. You are allowed to help care for him, but it feels a little like playing with dollies. Your presence is not exactly necessary.

On the other hand- being apart from your baby feels mildly but unmistakably wrong. The mildness decreasing with the amount of time spent away. For 10 days, I had the choice between sitting in a rather boring, overheated room feeling socially awkward; or sitting in the comfort of my own home feeling wrong.

On top of that the social services investigation was still on-going so I felt like my visits were being scrutinised. In retrospect they almost certainly were.  I found myself doing things like unnecessarily bringing in little blankets from home, despite the perfectly adequate bedding he was already wrapped in- purely because bringing in blankets felt like something a loving mother might be expected to do.

So, Jimmy took glucose through his drip. Then he took milk through a tube in nose. Then finally milk by mouth. The milk by mouth bit was important because it was a condition of him being able to leave hospital.

There was a period where there was nothing medically wrong with him; he even known to be capable of sucking, because he’d been given a bottle for a night feed once.  But he wasn't allowed to come home because I’d said I wanted to breastfeed, and he hadn't done that yet.

He wasn't going to either- the way things were going. Jimmy’s feeds were scheduled for once every 4 hours. I was managing to make maybe 2 or 3 of them per day. I would hold him up to the breast and he would look up at me sweetly and… do nothing. He’d never been hungry in his life and I think sucking simply didn't occur to him.

We would just sit there together until the nurses got bored of it and then Jimmy would have a feed through his tube and then I would put him down. I knew we were never going to get started with these few, regulated minutes of practice per day. But I was never going to get him home until we’d got started.

Now- I’m a person who’s cautious with her optimism. I like contingency plans. I like to scope out the worst option ahead of time and make my peace with it. So I’d already decided that if I couldn't manage to breast feed, i wouldn't let it bother me. In my opinion, people got altogether too invested in this kind of thing. They placed too much pressure on themselves and then allowed their own expectations to spoil their happiness. I wouldn't be making the same mistake. If it worked out for me, fine. If not- I’d move on.

And this was not working out. It’s instinctual to want to be with your child. Everything in my being was telling me that he needed to be with me. Far, far more than he needed vitamins or immunity from diseases, or hormones or any of the other undoubted benefits of breast milk; he needed just to be with me.

And yet, and yet…

As I faced up to jettisoning the breastfeeding, I did worry. I wrung my hands over it. I even ended up phoning a very uninterested, childless friend for advice:

“You want to give your baby a bottle?” He asked nonplussed “What’s in the bottle? Is it Buckfast?”

Pro tip: Childless friends are great for perspective.

In the end, it didn't come to that. My ceaseless lobbying for a place in Transitional Care finally won out. 
Despite professional concerns that I would “Go mad with post puerperal psychosis” if I were placed there “too early,” I was finally given a private room where I could just hang out with my baby in peace and take 15 minutes fiddling about with the latch if we needed to. Which we frequently did.

We were there for a weekend and it turned out to be the most idyllic two days of my life. Jimmy fed like a trouper, and then slept happily. I read books and phoned friends and wrote discussion pieces on the acrimonious breakup of a far left group I was involved with at the time.
I had a huge sunny window and a comfy hospital bed and my baby sleeping beside me, smelling of sweetness and peace.  I did not develop post puerperal psychosis. I was more deeply contented than I’ve ever been. Perhaps since I was a baby myself.

Jimmy is coming up to a year old now. He eats macaroni and bread crusts and cheese and chocolate cake. I've moved him onto formula during the day so I can return to work, but he still enjoys a good feed of breast milk first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
So my breastfeeding experience is a happy one and it all worked out. 

But for me, breastfeeding was also, as I suspect it is for a lot of people; a quick and dirty lesson in compromise. In the necessity of doing, not the “best” thing for your child; but the best thing in the circumstances. The death of that exacting pressure we are encouraged to place on ourselves.

And for that, I am also grateful. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Sorry Kind of Privilege

There's a description in Carol Craig’s excellent book: The Tears that made the Clyde 
of women and children hanging around the gates of factories and shipyards, or outside pubs. It was pay day and they were hoping to run into their men folk and shame them into giving them something from their pay to run the household, before everything was drunk away.  

At the time, it was common, accepted practice, for the man take all the money and spend it on his own pleasures. So much so, that trade unionists, recognising alcoholism as a problem, had a campaign to persuade landlords to refuse service once half of a man’s pay had been drunk.

In other words, the most progressive, left wing men around at that time thought that it was reasonable for one member of a household, to spend half of the entire money for a family, for one week, on himself, in a single night.

I read this, with a short lived sense of relief at how far we had come.
Short lived until I noticed the number of adult men coming into the advice centre, where I then worked, with raging substance issues and cheerfully tell me about the financial help they were getting from aged parents, from girlfriends, from ex partners even.  

And all those worried looking elderly women with their extravagant debts and frugal lifestyles. A junkie son is like a forest fire. It’s incredible how fast he can burn through everything you can build up over a lifetime.

I had a colleague who used to romanticise this sort of behaviour. “Its amazing how families stick by each other and help each other out isn’t it?” When I pointed out this solidarity only ever seemed to flow one way, she said “Well that’s just the way of the world isn’t it? You’ll never change that.”

I noticed all this and I saw we have come nowhere really. Its only the unemployed mans version of the same behaviour.

There is a concept in intersectional Feminism of privilege. As in, for example, Male Privilege. It can be a difficult one to explain. Perhaps it’s the wrong word for the concept. How can you call someone privileged when they are poor, unemployed, addicted, and miserable?  

Well, I think I understand now how male privilege plays out in the underprivileged man. Those men, they just came into the advice centre with a different attitude to the women.

I’ve only ever seen women agonise over whether they really deserve a benefit, when considering appealing a decision. Its only women who needed to be talked into claiming Disability Living Allowance because, after all, they’re “managing” on Income Support.

 And by the same token, its only men who have suggested that they don’t need to provide any of the information I've asked for because they've “already given you my national insurance number so you should have sorted it out” or who have chosen to use their appointments, not to discuss their cases but to attempt to trip me up and score points against me.

It’s that universal male attitude of entitlement. And rage, of course, that their entitlement had been taken from them. Except that the things they feel entitled to are so pitiably small: a scatter flat, their £71.70 per week, a methadone scrip. The bare bones of a life really.

This was the settlement of the 1980’s after all. We take away your pits and shipyards and docks and in return you we leave you with the bru. Except now the Torys are back to snatch away even that consolation prize and benefits that could once be counted on, now have to be jumped through hoops for and justified and fought for.  Why shouldn’t anyone feel entitled, why shouldn’t they feel angry?

Except that's not all they feel entitled to. Not really. It’s not just the material things. It’s the full attention, sympathy and efforts of women. Those niggly little power struggles were just a tiny taste of what the women in their lives must put up with.

Because the assumption is that the women will make up the difference isn’t it?
Will find the money, will take out that bank loan, will stroke that ego, and will pity you when self pity is not enough. Emotionally porous; will be available to absorb the ugly emotions of shame, defeat and rage.

That is male privilege. That is how it plays itself out in the under privileged man. And again privilege seems to be the wrong word- because what are they getting out of it, except the avoidance of personal responsibility, which is surely not in anyone’s long term interest. A sorry sort of privilege indeed. 

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Fucking Off the Baby Circuit

When I was pregnant I went along to NCT classes and got to know a small group of very nervous, very middle class people with whom I had nothing in common, except the fact that we were all having babies at about the same time.

There was an effort to all stay in touch afterwards, for mutual support I suppose. So once the babies were born and the menfolk were back at work, we women began to meet up once a week. Typically we would attend some god awful baby themed event, (which the babies were indifferent towards at best) followed by a few hours of fascinating baby comparison and analysis in someone’s extremely tasteful living room.

I didn’t last long.

There were a few reasons for this

First, they all seemed to live places completely inaccessible by public transport.  Second, I find babies on mass are slightly unnerving and sinister (the dozens of baby eyes peering out of the dark at baby cinema will live with me for a long time!) Third: Even in the short time it took me to bail, things had begun to get a little competitive.

This was most obvious in the hospitality. The last thing I went to: our hostess provided an expensively constructed Jamie Oliver salad; with an air of studied casualness air as if to imply this is how she eats all the time. The time before that, we’d been treated to nibbles, salad and homemade quiche (by someone who’d given birth 2 weeks before!) I contributed a box of Greggs Do-nuts. They ended the day untouched.  

But it was also starting to seep into the baby talk.

I could understand it, really I could. These people were new at being mothers, they were keen but they were also scared. They wanted to do everything right. They couldn’t let themselves off the hook for a minute.

There can be a terror to motherhood. The natural desire to protect, set alongside the unpredictability of fate, mixed with exacting and contradictory social expectations.

I went the other way and affected nonchalance. I told myself I wouldn't mind if I couldn't breast feed or if I didn't bond right away. I aimed deliberately low- aspiring to adequate parenting and expecting that to be hard enough.

But deep down I was no more together than they were. The same anxiety was waiting for me. Too much time around it would drag me down there with them. And this, more than anything else is the true reason why I backed away.

Instead of trying to fit in with the mum crowd, I hung out with my existing friends, carried on with my normal life and took my baby to a lot of places babies aren't meant to go.

So Jimmy went to conferences and meetings. He went to the pub and stayed for the lock in. He got passed about in radical book shops and restaurants. He travelled up mountains tucked inside my raincoat and across the country sleeping in my suitcase at night. He developed an almost adult sleeping pattern, midnight to 9.00 am, unhindered by any “bedtime routine”

And everyone said how relaxed I was everything and how little motherhood had changed me. It was a funny kind of non-compliment if you think about it, because in fact being a mother is incredibly important to me.

And then one day, it wasn’t enough. We went to a meeting and he couldn't sit quietly. He began to crawl and started to crack his head against all those chair and table legs that I hadn’t really noticed before but which, in our small living room, are everywhere.

It was time for baby activities.  So a few days ago, we went out to Jungle in the City, Partick’s fantastic soft play centre, where he could crawl off in any direction and I could have a cup of tea and a ham sandwich in peace.

The baby ball pit at Jungle in the City. This is a lot of fun. 

While we were there, I got chatting to another Mum with a baby of the same age. She’d recently moved into the area and was looking for places to take her baby.  Reaching back to the last time I thought of such things, I remembered that you could get a list of baby groups from the GP’s surgery.  

She was way ahead of me. Her baby already went to Baby massage, sensory play, soft play, bounce and rhyme, swimming. The list goes on. Apparently you “have” to take them to something every day to make sure they get enough stimulation. Oh, and change their toys every two weeks so they don’t get bored.

I looked down at Jimmy, who appeared to be meeting his milestones unassisted by this level of organisation or attention to detail. (Almost as though evolution had primed him to do so)
I looked back at the earnest face before me.

I did what Mumsnet has taught me is the only correct response. Nod and smile. Smile and nod.

“My God” I thought, “here we are again. The baby circuit.”  

And even though I have need of it now, and I can acknowledge that: I was so, so grateful to be dealing with it now, with 9 months experience behind me.  Not back then: When we were both so vulnerable and new.

And it was in that moment, that I knew for certain:

Fucking off the Baby Circuit was my best goddam parenting decision so far.  

Friday, 5 April 2013

Babies in Meetings

People who know me may remember the times when I used to bring my baby to meetings with me.

The seal pup has been to anarchist bookfairs, conferences on Scottish independence, planning meetings, public meetings, meetings to wind up failing leftist sects, meetings to decide the content of workshops, meetings to deliver the content of workshops.

I’ve even taken him to day long meetings in which I have discussed social reproduction, in the abstract and at length, while demonstrating the reality of said social reproduction even as I spoke, positioning him on a breast or jigging him about on a hip.

And through all these meeting, baby has smiled and amused himself quietly with linky toys and slept peacefully in my arms and everyone has said “What a good baby” and I have been smug and complacent and thought how easy it is to combine motherhood with activism.

Well, that's all gone now. 

Baby still loves meetings. He’s always happy to be taken to a meeting. It’s just that now he’s able to fully express his enthusiasm better by “joining in” with a lot of high pitched squeak’s and bashing his of his toys on the table.

People are fair put off their Trotskyist bickering.

The only reason we got away with his last appearance is that so many people present have been accused of misogyny and institutional sexism that no one was really in a position to raise an objection.

Some people have suggested I continue to take him, in order to demonstrate the need for organised childcare but I don’t think I quite have the front for it.

So, no more meetings for Jimmy until he learns to put up his hand and speak through the chair.
I’ll leave you with a picture of another baby, behaving impeccably at a meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. How has MEPLicia Ronzulli managed it? It must be some sneaky right wing trick.  

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Thoughts on the Bedroom Tax

I am sitting in the community centre on my estate, attending a meeting on the Bedroom Tax. 
25 people have turned out. Not too bad for a weekday evening, but then these are worried people.  A lot of them are looking at a 14% increase in on their rent. That’s £11, maybe £15 depending on the property. (1)

The bedroom only affects people on benefits. So everyone here is on the breadline anyway. There is no way anyone here has a spare £11 per week. This is food from their children’s mouths.  Or from the electricity, which everyone pays by key meter and is off half the time already.  

I’m here as a benefits advisor, in case any legal questions come up. 
The idea is that maybe I can answer them. And I can, but only to crush any residual hope that might be remaining.

There are very few loopholes in this one.  From now on Housing Benefit will only cover one room for each couple, an extra room for any single adult and one room between every two kids.

There’s a little bit of wiggle room for bereavement and a get out for foster parents, families of serving service people and (after a legal challenge by the Child Poverty Action Group) families with severely disabled children. But that’s it.

The bedroom tax is not completely new. Tenants in the private sector have had to deal with reductions in their housing benefit for “extra rooms” for a long time.  But that only ever applied to new tenancies. People could plan ahead and avoid moving into houses that were too big under the rules. This is a massive cut to loads of peoples benefit, all in one go.

So, what to do if you find yourself with an “extra” bedroom?

You could try to transfer to a smaller place. Except there aren't many. Council housing was built as family homes, for stable communities, back when governments cared about such things.

Apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment? There’s a fund, but its small and thousands of others will be applying too.

Move to private rented accommodation? In Glasgow the private sector is tiny and run by criminals, who; by the way, will be loving this.

Get a job to cover the shortfall? Yeah Right! 30% of Glasgow’s working age population are currently out of work (2) and most jobs available are casual or part time or both.  Any money you did earn would be deducted from your benefits in any case. (3)

There’s only one possible conclusion, I can draw:

“The only answer to this is collective action”

It’s not lefty rhetoric, this time. There’s genuinely no other way through this. We really do have our backs against the wall.

I’ve recently read the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) guidelines to Housing Associations and Local Authorities. (4) It’s interesting to pull back and see it from the landlord’s perspective.

Imagine for a minute that you the Chief Executive of a Council. (5)
You have a whole load of housing at your disposal. You rent it out. Some tenants don’t have enough money to pay the rent. They claim housing Benefit and you recover the money from central government. You rely on this money to maintain the buildings and to provide services in your area.  

So now central government has stopped paying the full cost of the rent and it’s effectively a cut to your council.  Another cut. On top of the cuts you've had already.

And the government is telling you to make up the difference by taking money from the grocery budget of the very poorest people in the area?! It’s as crazy as it is vicious.

Look at it that way and it not just about immiserating benefits claimants. It’s also about destroying council housing and messing up council services.

So what to do? The CIH recommends “a programme of home visits for face to face conversations with tenants.”

Many people in my area have already experienced this.  Some stranger, coming to their door and picking through their household budget, trying to find some little thing they could cut back on. Just try and imagine the humiliation of that for a minute?

But it blood out of a stone. The money isn’t there. So what to do instead? Evict 31% (6) of your tenants, and then process them all through the homeless persons unit?

No council or housing association can evict everyone who can’t or won’t pay and this is exactly why the bedroom tax can be defeated.

We go to the Anti- Bedroom Tax demo in town, me my husband and our baby boy. Someone’s brought along a piece of my own childhood. A banner reading “Paisley Anti Poll Tax Union” They must have kept it safe in a cupboard all these years.  A timely reminder of what can be achieved if we all stick together.

We drive home from the demo and I’m thinking about the future as we pull into the estate. Some 930 households here are facing the bedroom tax. (7) Not me though. As a homeowner it’s not my problem.

Except; of course, that it is.

This is a lovely estate. The children play out in the street. At Halloween, we got through three boxes of mini cupcakes, with all the kids coming to our door. Nice polite kids in handmade costumes. Some with their mothers, but most allowed out on their own. A world away from the intimidating atmosphere of my neighbourhood as a child.

I want my son to grow up here, among these people; to play out safely in the streets and to dress up and collect sweeties from the neighbours on Halloween. I don’t want to see those same neighbours, harassed or evicted out of the neighbourhood. A stable community like this is one of the under-appreciated benefits of a fair society. And its benefit for everyone; not just the poorest.

It simply wouldn't survive the forced migration that the bedroom tax is intended to impose. Its for this reason, more than any other that I oppose the bedroom tax.

I hope this article has given you some sense of why you should too. 


(1)    This is the figure for my estate. The national average is actually higher, £14 (from the National Housing Federation)

(3)   Universal Credit (which replaces most other means tested benefits from October) actually has fairly generous income disregards. So after October raising the additional money might be more of an option for some people.  Unfortunately Bedroom tax begins in April, allowing 6 months in which to accrue some really crippling rent arrears.

(5)    Actually, in Glasgow, all council housing has been semi privatised and farmed out to housing associations. I’m just using a council landlord as an example, to simplify the argument.

(7)  I've estimated this, based on national figures and the size of the estate. Estimated based on national figures.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Into the lion den

Its Monday, and I decide to go sort out this social services thing once and for all. They were supposed to visit on the ward and I’m so glad they didn’t. Not back on Friday, when I was all hospital gown and disorientation; Far too vulnerable. I will go and see them, instead.

I still have the outfit I came in wearing, 4 days ago. I put on the trousers and boots, along with my “going home” top and the cardigan with the brooch on.
They are just ordinary trousers, in a size 14. It seems incredible that I wore them the day I gave birth. How could I not have noticed something was wrong?

Social Services have their office one floor down in the outpatient clinic and I breeze in, in this painstakingly put together outfit and the hospital tags still on my wrists.

Susan MacDonald is a kindly looking woman in a very “public sector” jumper. In other circumstances she could have been a colleague or a friend.  She says “You’re looking very good so soon after a cesarean  I was barely able to move this soon after mine” and for the first time, I think that perhaps my self conscious display of hyper competency isn't necessary after all.

We talk about Jimmy and his progress. His blood sugar is still unstable. He needs to take more milk through his nose and then, later, through his mouth. Then they’ll want me to come into transitional care with him, before he can come home.

Susan mentions my discharge- today isn’t it?

“Oh no” I say “I just thought I’d get dressed today to make a change.”  

As if I would have ever have cone to a meeting like this in my pajamas.

“Well the ward tells me it’s today”

I am not in the slightest bit surprised that no one has told me this. No one tells you anything.  I just say “Oh, well that’s good then” and the conversation moves on.

The appointments were sent out to the wrong address. Susan has chased it up and it turns out I was right. I go to my handbag for a document that might shed some light on the mix up.  It is still in the NCT folder. This is exactly how I hoped things would go a week ago.

Susan confirms that there are no child protection concerns and she will close the case. It’s like I’ve been given the best present ever: The chance to be a mother, unchallenged and unsupervised. This is so, so precious to me.

Then she says something surprising. She says:

“I imagine this must have been very worrying for you”

There is such a huge emphasis on compliance; on “engaging with services” that I honestly didn't realise they knew this. 

And yes, it has been worrying- it has been fucking terrifying.

How was I going to prove I could mother? I was brand new- never done it before.
I imagined weeks, months of home visits, of “helpful” suggestions, of feeling the need to defer to the experts instead of learning how to do things my own way. Of any tiny mistake being picked up on- only confirming the need for involvement, prolonging it.

 I remember the terror I felt when it occurred to me that if this child is taken from me- future ones might be taken too. At birth. I could have forfeited the opportunity to be a mother forever.

And that was before he was born. Before I even knew how important he was going to be to me. How terribly wrong it feels to be apart from him.

“Yes” I say “It has been a bit of a worry”

“Well, I’ll close the case then and pass on the message on to the NHS. Unless you feel you might need some support?”

“No thanks” I say “I’m fine”

And I am now, I really am.  

Chapter 7

Finally its morning.

I haven’t slept or eaten in 24 hours. I haven’t got pajamas or soap or any charge left in my mobile to ring someone and ask for these things.

I have a handbag with a folder of documents, a note book and a final demand for council tax. I have a lovingly packed hospital bag sitting in my spare room, 6 miles away.

Thank god for the bedside telly. If I keep it tuned to Saturday Kitchen, I can anchor my thoughts to something harmless so they don't bother me so much as they drift about. I still have to deal with the raggedy strung-out -ness of (I assume) low blood sugar though, and I’ve just been told there’s no chance of anything to eat until breakfast time.

Breakfast turns out to be a small bowl of cornflakes and a bread roll which does nothing much for my hunger but a great deal for my mental health. I wait to be unhooked from my catheter and walk, shaky as a new foal, to the shower cubical to wash with borrowed soap and dry with borrowed towels.  I hold onto the walls for support and rinse thumb sized blood clots from my cunt.

I have to wait again to be taken to visit my baby. There is the most interminable faff while a health care assistant checks in cupboards for slippers, then checks another cupboard, then gives up and leads me in a hospital gown and bare feet, to special care. The tiles are cold against my feet. It doesn't matter. 

Jimmy’s knee joints are wider than his legs. Wider than his arse even. His shoulder blades stick out from his back.  He is sleeping on his side, propped up on a rolled up sheet no bigger than a handkerchief. He is a pitiful scrap of a thing.

I sit beside the incubator and lean my head on my arms to watch him and fall asleep, myself. I have to be woken up and asked if I’d like to hold him. I do. They place him foot first in my cleavage and his tiny eyes look up at me, so trusting. I feel instantly calm. 

Chapter 6

I call my Mum to let her know she has a grandchild. “When are you going to have the next one then” she jokes and I laugh.

“If it’s going to be as easy as that: I’ll have another one tomorrow!”

I am hopped up on Morphine and feel fantastic. Even vomiting into a cardboard cup while simultaneously hemorrhaging all over the sheets, feels good.

I look down at the red stain, spreading like poppy petals over the bed and wonder how it got there. I look at my husband’s pale face and can’t think what he looks so worried about.

Jimmy is upstairs getting checked out and having his first feed. This is to turn into a 10 day stay in Special Care but I don’t realise this yet. When they say they “Just need to check him over” I take it at face value. Just like I took it at face value when they “Just wanted to consult a doctor about this scan.

I expect to have to start caring for him any second and even begin to wonder how it looks:  Me lying here on drugs, strangers caring for my baby on another floor. Social Services will surely be furious when they find out.

 I reason that I have a valid excuse as long as my legs are paralysed.  As soon as the spinal block wears off, I will get up and go “collect” by baby. I realise that this may present some difficulties in an unfamiliar building, off my head on drugs so I plan each step carefully in my mind. 

I visualise myself walking through the corridors in my hospital gown, and then arriving at Special Care. I might look a bit disheveled so I’ll have to make a special effort to say the right thing: 

“Thank you so much for watching him for me” I will say  “I ‘ll take over from here”

This plan is reassuring enough to allow me to sleep for oh, 10 minutes at a time. 10 whole minutes until someone comes by to check my breathing or my blood loss and I cycle through the same thought process again.

At one point I am given a sponge bath of such touching gentleness I almost cry with gratitude. At another, I am given the most horrific dressing since primary school for attempting to get out of bed.

 By this time I have seen the error of my “collecting the baby” plan and was only trying to get a notebook from my handbag and write a To-Do list for the following day. I almost, (but don’t), suggest to the nurse that she should be grateful for this small mercy.

Somebody asks me how I am and I say I’m fine but I miss my baby. I realise how true this is, as I’m saying it and I wonder at my reactions. How can I love someone so much when I’ve never met him? How can feel his absence so strongly before I’ve even known his presence?

Friday, 18 January 2013

Chapter 5

It’s Thursday morning and we are both dressed in our “visiting the social worker outfits.” For me this means coral trousers, smart boots, newish jersey top and cardigan. It’s similar to what I would normally wear at work, except slightly smarter because I have dressed up the cardigan with a brooch.

For my husband this means a polo shirt with his company name written on it.

To be clear: my husband does not have work today.  He is wearing the polo shirt, purely and simply in order to look like he has a job.  Not only does he look like he has a job in fact, he also looks like he’s willing to take a few hours off of his job, to support his wife at a hospital appointment.  Perfect.

I have collected up all my medical documents, removed them from the plastic bag where they are normally kept and placed them inside an NCT folder. This is so that when I bring out the documents, the social worker will see that I’ve been to NCT classes.  

We have both done this, instinctively and without discussion.  When we see each other in the hallway we laugh and hug because we are on the same page and going into battle together.

On the way we clarify our tactics. We agree that we are going to be polite and helpful and say nothing at all to suggest we are even a little bit annoyed or worried at being investigated.
We are definitely “not that kind of people” and precisely for that reason we would never be vulgar enough to actually say so.  Instead we have simply costumed ourselves in signifiers to that effect.

We go in for the scan and everything changes: The baby is too small. There isn't enough amniotic fluid. The heartbeat is wrong.

The medical people do that very calm, very incremental escalation of attention that they do in emergencies.  So that one minute I’m looking at a blurry picture of a fetus while the sonographer goes to “just check something” and the next, I’m strapped to machinery signing a form giving advance permission for my womb to be removed (should it prove necessary). And at no point has the tone of anyone’s voice indicated that something serious is going on.  

My husband is more of a worrier than me of course and sees right through this. I find myself attempting to calm him down with the information that “ They've been doing Cesareans since Roman times: hence the name. And Caesar’s Mum survived- even in those days.”

I cannot understand why this fails to reassure him. In truth I am full of anticipation. I will have a baby by the end of the day. Just as soon as they have a theater free, in fact.

Absurdly: I am still concerned about social services though.  I am worried it will go against me if I miss the meeting. After all, it wasn't my fault I missed the scans and that went against me, didn't it?

 I don’t want to start motherhood with this hanging over me so I ask the doctors if I can just nip over to the social services office and quickly apologise for not being able to make the meeting. 
They look at me like I’m a crazy person for failing to understand the seriousness of the situation, even though they have been consistently down playing it themselves. I send my husband, which gives him something useful to do and also makes it look like I have a supportive husband (which I do obviously- but I want to make sure that I’m seen to)

He returns with good news: The social worker seems happy with us. She’ll some and visit me on the ward tomorrow and then she’ll close the case.

A nurse comes by and asks when I last had something to eat and drink. I tell her that I had breakfast cereal and a cup of tea around 8.00am and she says “Is that all?- no wonder you’re so slim. Not like me” and pats her own belly in mock despair.

I take a moment to be amazed that, even when she's waiting for Caesarean to deliver a baby tiny its life is in danger: it is apparently still acceptable to compliment a woman on her weight. There must be literally no situation in which it is unacceptable to compliment a woman on her weight. I say nothing because it’s clear she is only trying to be nice and by now, I am really, really excited at being about to give birth. 

I am tagged and catheterised and wheeled into an operating theater  It is in the basement somewhere and  has a sort of “backstage” feeling to it, perhaps because patients are not usually awake to see it.

 Once there I am stabbed with needles to numb me below the waist and the nice surgeon makes small talk while we wait for it to kick in.  Then she rolls me onto my back, rigs up a screen and pulls a tiny angry scrap of humanity out from somewhere below my waist.

And that’s it: it’s over in minutes. My baby is 4lbs 2ozs of protesting red flesh. I can tell he’s OK because he’s crying. I can tell I’m OK because he’s OK.

And it’s strange because a moment ago- I only needed my husband. They wouldn't bring him in from the corridor until they had me all rigged up and I kept asking and asking after him.

But now- it’s like my whole focus is on the baby. On his crying. I was good to hear him crying at first but now it feels like its been going on too long. It tugs at me and I want to comfort him. I’m asking: Where is he? Can you bring him over? And they do but I can’t hold him because my arms are strapped to the bed, but my husband does and he stops crying right away. He doesn't look too small to me. He looks perfect.