Thursday, 16 November 2017

Shutting Children's Centres

When you've just had a baby the world can be a scary, lonely place. You have the most responsibility you've ever had in your life, with the least experience. 

For new mums with the most supportive husbands in the world, they are often still faced with nine hours a day, five days a week of being alone with a baby. Having somewhere you can go, for just half an hour a week is a godsend. So I am sad to hear that one of those lifelines where I live is to close: Warwickshire is closing its Children's Centres.

Children's Centres are small organisations that run a whole range of services to help parents with young children in their local areas. They were set up to 'improve outcomes for young children'. From breastfeeding support to first aid courses, to play sessions for babies and toddlers, and helping parents get back into work, they offer a huge range of services to their communities.


My Children's Centre and me


My new infant and I went to courses on infant first aid, introducing solid food and some play sessions. We also went to baby massage, which sounds like the most bourgeois of pastimes. But actually, when you've never had a baby before sometimes a bit of help on how to touch your baby is helpful. Personally, my baby wasn't really into it - she liked watching the other babies getting massages but didn't really want to be messed with. But for less opinionated infants, massage can help sleep, help their digestion, improve circulation and ease teething pain. It's a great tool to equip their parents to look after them.


Photo by Katherine via Flickr Creative Commons

The best thing my children's centre did for me was counselling. I was struggling to come to terms with the end of my marriage, being single and being a lone parent. It was a tough time and post-natal depression was pretty inevitable. On maternity pay with no second income, I didn't have the money to pay for counselling. But the Children's Centre ran a scheme of offering a set number of counselling sessions to people who they assessed as needing it. My counsellor was really wonderful. And it made a huge difference to me to have window of time every week when I stopped being weighed down by my situation and preoccupied by my baby and could talk through my feelings about the situation head-on with someone who was detached from me and my life. She made me better able to cope with everything that was happening, and as a result I was a better mum, which is what children's centres were set up to do.

Having a baby is wonderful, amazing and exciting, but it can also be an isolating and lonely experience, particularly if you don't know other people in your position. Other things are available, outside children's centres, but a lot of those are paid activities which are less available to single parents or families on lower incomes. Sessions run at children's centres were generally free.


Losing children's centres


It's not just about taking away massage classes for yummy mummies. It's about providing a community hub for parents and young children, giving them services they will benefit from, providing information they need about the kinds of issues that affect young families, and bringing them into contact with each other.

Without Children's Centres, routine queries about babies' wellbeing will be pushed back to the NHS, which will not be without cost. Parents have lost a major avenue to help them become better parents, by assisting with the all-important feeding issues, and monitoring infant weight gain. I don't know, but suspect that the staff working at Children's Centres are adept at spotting children who might have issues and therefore needed a bit of support. Are these children more like to fall through the cracks now?

It doesn't affect me. I had my baby. She did well and I haven't been near a Children's Centre since I went back to work. But my local centres made a big difference to me and I'm shocked that new parents will no longer have this.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Changing trains

My journey as a single parent is coming to an end. Just short of four years ago my daughter came into the world, and times they are a changin.... 

Like any parent, the first bit was a blur. I was frightened, confused and sad at the situation I found myself in, as well as besotted by the tiny monkey-like creature that stared up at me with big blue eyes.

In a few days' time we’re starting a whole new chapter in our lives – we’re moving in with Prince Charming. Love is in the air, there are boxes everywhere. I’m thinking about the future, and the past.



My single parent journey


It’s hard for people without kids to understand what life is really like with children (I didn’t have a clue). And it’s equally hard for two-parent families to understand what it’s like being on your own. For a long time I dreaded weekends. The weekdays were hard work, but come the weekends I was pretty much alone. My friends needed some family time together, hanging out as a three or four, they didn’t want an extra adult and child hanging about. Gradually the dread faded, and I had more things to do at the weekends, and started to enjoy the time with the two of us. But I’m not sad that it’s not like that anymore. I’m glad that we, too, get to hang out as a family of three at weekends. And if we choose to go somewhere I won’t feel like a lonely adult with a child. And if my daughter gets overtired, I don’t have to deal with the problems alone, or shoulder her weight to carry her back by myself.

One of my greatest fears (there are a few) is, or was, loneliness. And I have faced up to it. Maybe not the enveloping loneliness of a desert island. But I’ve experienced what it’s like to stay home every night alone. At first I invited people over at every opportunity, to avoid the silence. But gradually, without even noticing, I became used to it. I’m a sociable creature, so long periods of time alone will never suit me.

I came to terms with the most awful heartbreak. And I came to terms with being single, to the point that I can confidently say it’s really not that bad. Loss is awful. Loneliness can be terrible. But singledom is actually OK. It really does give you a chance to sit back and work out who you are and what you want, without the outside influence of another person. I wouldn’t say it’s better than being with someone (for me). I am definitely happier having someone to share my life with. But I found that I could be content without that.

Since I have been single I have learnt to be a mother. I bought a flat, decorated (with lots of help from my amazing friends and a baby who learned to love watching mummy stripping wallpaper) and furnished it, and filled it with owls and books and purple things. I’ve taken my girl on trains, planes, buses and cars, across Europe and up and down the UK. I’ve made a circle of ‘mum friends’ – the most wonderful, beautiful, caring women you could hope to meet, who can talk about everything from lipstick to politics (when we’re not discussing our children). We’ve had a lot of fun, just the two of us, and I’m sure we’ll have a lot more.

My daughter and I became a team of two in a way that, I think, is unique to single parents. The two of us are more portable than my friends/ families of three or four. So we’re adept at packing up our stuff and jumping in the car. With a sleeping bag and a cuddly lion, my daughter will sleep anywhere. She was a little bit sick on a train recently, and together we dealt with it so discretely that even the people sitting opposite us might not have seen what happened. The team of two is going to become a team of three (sometimes), but I hope we don’t lose that sense of teamwork. I’m sure there will be plenty more adventures for us as a twosome.

Single parent solidarity


During my stint as a single parent, I’ve seen several friends with kids become single. And I’ve learnt that there’s no one who isn’t the single parent type, because there is no type. You can be a single parent because you chose it, and never had a partner in the first place, or relationship break-up for all kinds of reasons, or of course death of a partner. You might have been with your ex for two months or 20 years. Maybe you haven't seen him for dust, or maybe he sleeps on your sofa two nights a week. You might be living on benefits or have no qualifications, or you can be affluent and high-flying. You can be fluent in four languages, or have never left the country. Often the only things single parents have in common are their singleness and their children. But there is a solidarity between single parents – a gentleness and supportiveness with each other, an understanding that we are doing something difficult and important, and quite how hard it can sometimes be. 

I learnt that you can and should rely on other people, but at some level you need to be ready to rely on yourself alone, because they can take the rug from under you. Like my friend says, sometimes you have to put on your ‘big girl pants’ and just deal with it.

Sharing parenting 


In a way I’ll always be a single parent – as the resident parent, the buck stops with me and I’m the one that ultimately makes all the decisions. I can ask for opinions and advice, and talk things through, but it always comes down to me and what I think is for the best. This still feels ridiculous – I still feel like the least experienced or knowledgeable person involved.

Shared parenting doesn’t come naturally to me. I learnt to do this thing alone and I expected to continue it alone. But having someone to back me up when my little monster skips over the boundaries, someone who will take turns to get up in the night, and emerging from a bedtime battle to find dinner cooked for me makes a huge difference. And I am very excited that if I run out of milk in the evening, I can go to the shop and get some. Definitely milk. Not wine or chocolate.

I’m excited about this next chapter in mine and my daughter’s lives. It feels like we’re becoming a real family, although of course we’ve always been a family, and it has been real. And if a ‘normal’ family is mum-dad-kids we’ll never be normal, because Prince Charming isn’t her dad, a fact she very carefully points out to any passers-by who might make that assumption: “He is not my daddy. My daddy lives in ___. He is Mummy’s friend.”

Apparently "love lifts you up where you belong", but there's nothing like a three-year-old to bring you back down to earth with a bump.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Women dressed as rabbits

Hugh Hefner died (apparently he was still alive until last week).

I didn’t know much about Hugh Hefner. I don’t usually condone ignorance, but in this case I think it was probably better that way.

My preconception of Hefner was that he was an old rich bloke who founded Playboy in all its forms, paid women to dress as rabbits, and had a lot of sex with nubile young blond women, who presumably slept with him because he had a lot of money. There was a Playboy Mansion, which presumably was a big ole house built on the proceeds of said rabbits, in which Heffner could cavort with his girls in peace and harmony.

Since Hefner passed on to the warren in the sky, the newspapers have been full of bunny tales.

Hugh Hefner in 1966
Photo by ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons

Bunnies then

There was an interview with an ex 1970s Bunny Girl on the Today programme. She’d been working at a petrol station before she became a bunny girl. Then all of a sudden she was earning shedloads of dosh, just for smiling (all you had to do was smile she said, a number of times).

You didn’t have to have a certain type of body, she said. But you did have to have nice hair. And skin. And teeth. Oh, well that’s OK then. It didn’t matter if you didn’t have tits (just so long as you weren’t spotty).

Bunnies now

More recent accounts have painted the Playboy Mansion as more like a "prison" than a palace. Women living there got plenty of money to spend on clothes (you probably don’t get that in prison), but in return they have to observe a 9pm curfew, do Hefner’s bidding in the bedroom and watch 1950s films at his compulsory movie nights (I think I’d quite enjoy that bit). So not actually like a prison. 

I like nice clothes as much as the next girl, but I wouldn’t trade my freedom for them. I don’t really get this. I mean, I wouldn’t sleep with someone for money or power, it just doesn’t float my boat, but if that’s what you want to do, then, OK. But if you’re not really gaining from the whole thing, and you have to live in a ‘mansion’ that, according to some accounts is full of holes and covered in dog poo, then why bother? By all accounts, the women weren’t really imprisoned – they could walk away any time.

Photo by Darkain Multimedia, a member of Cosplay Photographers, via Flickr Creative Commons

Hefner gave women fame and fortune in return for demeaning themselves by dressing up as rabbits. It wasn't what you'd call a dignified outfit. They wore fluffy ears and swimsuits, not forgetting the fluffy little tail on their bottoms. You wouldn't see men demeaning themselves by doing something like that, unless it was a comedy fancy dress stunt. But Hefner's bunny girls were serious. 

A lover and a jailer

Hefner is a controversial figure. On the one hand, he's painted as a hero – lover and liberator of women, giving them sexual and economic freedom. On the other hand, a misogynist who imprisoned pretty girls. But it’s the power relationship that swings it for me. As a rich (white) man, Hefner wielded a huge amount of power. His women chose voluntarily to submit to that power in order to reap rewards. But as women they had to submit if they wanted those things. The Playboy Mansion was the age-old story of a powerful man exerting sexual and economic power over his females.

These women were free to choose, but they their culture taught them that submitting to male power was an acceptable way of getting rewards. And so they did. In return, Hefner got them to cavort about dressed as rabbits, and then he gave them money for pretty clothes. 

Since the beginning of time women have traded their appearances. Sometimes it's called prostitution. Sometimes it's called marrying for money. Sometimes it's called sleeping your way to the top. And other things. It would be nice to imagine a world where women didn't have to trade on their figures and faces, but it's a pipe dream. 

The rot at the heart of the Playboy Mansion wasn’t of Hefner’s making, or his many women, although they all exploited it. It’s from the basic assumption that men can have money and power and women can supply prettiness and sex. But not the other way around. Men just don't dress as bunnies.