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.