Category Archives: Lone Parenting

A Sense of Achievement

Confession I have too many bits of almost meaningless paper which are only useful when it comes to filling in job applications. Tomorrow I get another such certificate, having the M Litt I found I had passed in the latter part of last year conferred upon me. I have to admit though I have a major sense of achievement about the one I’m getting tomorrow.

Durham is just another uni like all the others I’ve been to on many levels, but on another it has to be admitted that there is a difference between that institution and others I’ve been to, particularly those I first studied at. It’s mainly to do with the perceptions of others but its also to do with the type of intake they had as well as their ranking in the official assessment exercises and so on, particularly for Theology, my area of study.

For those who don’t know my story I was a sixth form drop out who left my A Level courses at school because I thought I was too thick to go to university.

Having gone and done my A Levels at evening class over one year each I got grades which weren’t wonderful, in fact Nene College, (now Uni of Northampton), was the only place that would take me to do a degree rather than an HND when I was frantically phoning round during clearing.

During what I describe as my “falling apart period” I went off to University of East London part time (one day a week) to do an MA, didn’t get the dissertation done and so ended up with a lower post-grad qualification. Part of the reason for the lack of dissertation on the first MA was I went off to Canterbury Christ Church to do my teaching qualification, and the actual logistics of preparing to move were a nightmare.

After a while teaching I got the study bug again and found myself at the University of Kent having been offered a place on a Theology course (again part time, one day a week), when I didn’t even really know what the subject entailed. Life didn’t quite go to plan and I got a promotion when I changed jobs and I had to do the second year of that one basically by email correspondence – but I got through.

Then, just when I thought studying was over, I got this urge that the right thing to do was give up my good job and head north to Durham in order to do M Litt research into the experience of single parents within evangelical churches.

It was crazy and I wouldn’t have got through without the support of friends and family particularly Karl who was a proof reader extraordinaire, including several wibsite people, at one point I was working 3 part time jobs as well as doing other stuff besides my study and being a single mum dealing with a teenager going through a rough time.

It’s important to add the role of family and friends was important through all whole academic journey. My mum, who died half way through my MA, was a particular source of support in her own slightly unique way.

Actually, I guess I should add in I was a single mum with main care of my daughter for 15 years in total and all the qualifications apart from my A Levels and first degree were whilst I was doing that job of being a single mum too. Oh and for those who don’t know and think my undergrad must have been without complication I had my daughter between my second and third years at uni. From when she was six weeks old I’d travel to Northampton from Ipswich on a Monday morning, returning home to husband and baby on Thursday evening.

Looking back on all that I realise that I deserve to be pleased when I graduate tomorrow, mine was not an easy or perhaps in that place “normal” route to this graduation – although I know enough about others to doubt there really is a “normal route” – but I got there.

So tomorrow I think it’s not out of order to say I am entitled to my sense of achievement as I attend what I am pretty sure will be the final graduation ceremony to give me a bit of paper.

I share that not just because I have that sense of achievement but also to encourage others who might be reading this who are progressing through courses in sometimes less than ideal circumstances, you can do it! I also want to highlight the way that people progress at different rates. Under the changes currently taking place in education I would have been labelled somewhat of a failure and may not have been able to develop later in the way I have. In fact with the new systems of funding for further education courses and undergraduate degrees and the cut backs to FE provision I am not sure I would have even managed my A Levels, that’s if I had made it through the Bac.

I also want to give my story as an example to show how the assumption that everybody who inhabits that academic bubble has no experience of “real life” is wrong. Behind everybody in a uni, of whatever sort, is a life story and as I’ve gone through I’ve found talking to those around me that very few of them have the ‘priviledged’ or ‘simple’ route to success which is often associated with them.

With a Little Help From My Friends

Over the last twelve years I have learnt that no woman is an island and sometimes it is only the fool who pretends to be. As a single parent I have had to accept that sometimes I can’t do it all on my own and a little help from my friends is required. This help has generally involved childcare, but it has also involved other things occassionally, including financial or emotional help which I have had to swallow very hard to accept…anybody knows me in real life will be aware I am a proud and independent woman. In that respect I think I am like many other single parents, not wanting to be a burden on anybody but sometimes needing to be.

Today I had to ask from help from a friend with a car to ensure that Third Party got to school for a GCSE Maths exam which she has been rather nervous about, to say the least. It was a simple thing, just asking for a lift to make sure she actually got there. However, for me it was actually quite a big thing because it meant swallowing my pride and admitting that I had a need which I required help with. It meant admitting that at the moment parenting is a bit hard and I don’t live in an ideal family where I have another half living with me who can take over when I am struggling or who can share the load.

Additionally, for lone parents there is the fear which “the system” can instill. There is that question which lingers in the back of your mind about what will happen if you are percieved not to be coping, even if what you are going through turns out to be completely normal. There is, I believe, amongst lone parents a slightly cynical view of the system….a system which for various reasons has often seemed to fail single parents.

This cynicism about “the system” and its claims of wanting to help whilst sometimes making worse may be one of the reasons that the most recent figures, commented on by Gingerbread, show less people are using the CSA. Personally I am lucky I have never had to use the CSA. A long time ago when “the system” tried to make me I was able to successfully argue why I believed the voluntary agreement that myself and my ex had worked out was sensible and that any effort to change it through the involvement of a third party would be counter-productive.

One group I did recieve help and advice from, particularly in the earlier days, was CLASP which has since been incorportaed into the work of Care for the Family. The benefit of contacting them was that I was networked with other Christians going through the same thing. In the beginning I struggled with a sense of not being a good enough Christian and being different to the other people in church, even though becoming a single parent did not involve any choice on my part – my ex went off with somebody else. I became aware that I might be in a minority but I was by no means unique in my situation and that it did not make me any less of a Christian.

Other practical help, which I did not need to access, would have come from organisations like Gingerbread. This is the main NGO / charity supporting and campaigning on behalf of single parents. They have produced a short You Tube clip which explains their work and how they can help

Coming out and coming in

Back in July last year I put up this blog post which discussed my sexuality and ended with this paragraph:
“I know I hold a position which cannot be justified, and that the secular is sensible enough not to find virtuous therefore, I can’t discuss it with them. The effect of this means I walk around with “the wardrobe on my back”, as the poem says, because it is helping me balance on the fence. It is society’s negative views on evangelical Christianity, rather than society’s more positive, (or atleast indifferent), views on LGBT issues which keeps me with one foot in the closet, but also it is the dominant public messages within evangelical Christianity which keep me holding onto that wardrobe. Yet, through it all I know I am not carrying the wardrobe alone and that each time I feel that I have to deny who I am or ensure that discussion is avoided God who created me fully (and who has intended me to be exactly who I am – both queer and evangelical in a largely secular time and place) is there beside me, absorbing my pain.”

A year on and I find myself in a different place. Largely through the way God has worked and my faith journey has developed this year I am more comfortable with the juxstaposition between my views on sexuality and faith. I have been able to put the wardrobe down. This has meant I have recently got to the position where not only was I in the right place to be in a relationship but I was able to have an honest conversation with somebody very special about how I felt about them. The result of this I am now part of a couple.

This has implications, not least there is now a public coming out to those outside of the church I chose not to discuss my sexuality with because I was worried that it would give them more amunition against the faith I hold as the most important thing in life, and wish to give them every positive reason to engage with. This has raised some questions about why I couldn’t just be honest with them before…after all these are the people for whom it is definately not an issue. I have sought to explain the religion thing, but realise within this I am sending out a negative message about the church – which I don’t want to. I have realised that in my approach I was colluding with the lack of integrity that exists in our culture in many issues around faith and sexuality. I made a mistake, but one which I feel too many of us do.

In our attempts to have a missional focus we become over sensitive, just as in our position in ecclesiological debates we may also suffer from similar problems. Sensitivity is important and within this I do believe that there is a rightful place for discretion and sometimes silence. However, there is also a place for truth telling and for letting go of the fear. If we truly believe in the ability of the Spirit to work within people’s hearts and our own responsibility to be sensitive to the Spirit working within us we should not make value judgements about what we tell and don’t tell people because of the impression it may give of the church. That is not, to reiterate, pushing a total disclosure and spill your guts approach but it is saying we shouldn’t take approaches like the one I did.

For me, taking a trinitarian approach, mission stems from an understanding of the role of God: father, son and spirit in my life and in the life of the wider community, both worshipping and wider. This in turn means that the combined role of bible, tradition, reason, experience (Methodist quadrilatural for those of you into such things) is important for me. What I am increasingly aware of is the need to look at our interactions with others aswell as our own lives in relation to that quadrilateral.

The impact of taking this approach is something that I feel is very important and something to be thought through. Taking this approach involves a process of theological reflection. So as individuals, as well as worshipping communities, we need to be aware of how to reflect theologically and relate this to missional activity. This involves us in thinking about issues of faith and practice and how those are engaged in from an accademic, worshipping and social networking perspective.

Here in lies a problem, in our world of professionalised clergy and academics this activity which we all seek to engage in has been largely put into the field of career development for clergy or climbing the career ladder within the academy. I say this because I have, yet again, become aware of the way in which discussions are held between people of faith in social situations and the way the same issues are taken up within “professional study”.

This week I am extremely privilidged to be attending a conference which I am effectively gatecrashing. It is a linked to a qualification which is effectively a professional development qualification for clergy or theological educators. My supervisors suggested I attend because they knew I would find it useful and interesting. Everybody is being lovely and I am really enjoying it. The thing which has struck me most is the way that during the week we have been able to engage intelligently, (using reason), with practical theology (where we have been looking at data gathered as a result of reflecting upon peoples’ experience), but seeking to frame this within a faith based discussion where tradition and scripture have both been referred to during the week.

The types of issues that I have most often found myself discussing with networks of friends I have come to know, primarily, from interenet communities are being discussed within the academic setting. The discussions are almost identical in nature, except for the fact that this week they are involving a bunch of people who have been in a position to gain the evidence and have a greater voice in the discussion. They are the people whose work and discussions will inform the practice that the rest of us have to choose to (or not to) engage in.

Yet again I am wondering why the gap in these discussions exists. I am here largely because I have been extremely lucky and given the chance, to some extent, to ignore the boundaries which exist. The debates and discussions I am hearing though are ones which need the imput of all sides. They are issues which effect and would equally benefit from the critical imput of the layity aswell as professionals.

Greenbelt is great because it allows for some conversation to take place but what I am aware of is the need for smaller scale discussion to take place on a range of issues relating to missional and ecclesiastical issues. Similarly I am becoming increasingly convinced of the need to encourage more lay people to engage in practical theology. Churches are / should be missional centres where the people as a whole reflect on issues of ecclesiology and missiology and how these relate to our current cultures. At the moment I fear that what is happening amongst the layity and “professionals” is a split between “ordianary theology” and “professional theology” which is disenabling mission and is increasing the move to the “professionalisation” of church activity.

Linking this back to where I started, the issue about the expression of my faith and sexuality related to the interplay between missiology and ecclesiology. I cared about how those outside the church would view the practices and beliefs of the church and how this would or wouldn’t point them towards Jesus. Missiology and ecclesiology were important issues for me as a lay person, and not just things for the “professionals”. Similarly in the research I am currently doing, that stems out of my desire to scream out about the need for the church to take mission to single parents seriously and to invest some time and money in the research necessary to underpin good mission initiatives to people who happen to be single parents.

Anyway rant and thinking out loud over.

Summer Holiday Tips….For the Brave and Not So Brave

For the brave I direct you to Tim Dowling’s article in the Guardian today about What are you going to do with your children this summer? I say this is for the brave because whilst some of it is stuff we could all do to carry some of it through you would really need nerves of steel….or a large house where you could easily escape to a different wing whilst the impact was being felt. At the very least a pair of ear plugs would be required to enable you to deal with the “I’m bored”, “I’m hungry” and “I’m bored and skint” comments that would have to be dealt with. That said, if you do have the bottle to follow them through they actually look like a good set of tips.

For the less brave I give my alternative version of how to deal with the summer holidays and a teenager.
1) Find wholesome but cheap activities to volunteer your child for. In Third Party’s case she is being shipped off daily on a bus to help with a holiday club in a nearby town, for one week.

2) Plan your summer ahead. Work out when you are going to be spending “quality time” together and when you need to avoid each other. Work out how you are going to do this…note quality time may be spent indoors, but works best with an “outing”. With Third Party and myself the avoiding each other takes the form of her going off to see friends in different parts of the country or me going to work in the post-grad room, rather than attempting to work from home. The quality time will involve a series of outings to (i) Shipmeets, (ii) festivals, (iii) see friends for a couple of days. There might also be the odd excursion to nearby towns to do something fun but within budget. You will see our adventures tend to take us to places where others are. Thus during a summer spent together in a confined space, remembering evening activities also tend to stop for the summer, we ensure that we get to mix with others as much as possible. Also planning these things in advance means you can buy the cheaper train tickets…enabling you to stretch your budget further. However, tip with this….if you are going to Leeds do not, I repeat, do not buy tickets to Sheffield because you just have a large town in Yorkshire which isn’t York stuck in your head…and the earlier bit of an internet thread has been the bit to enter your consciousness. This increases your costs when the tickets to Sheffield are non-refundable. It also gives your family and friends way too much amunition to take the mickey out of you with.

3) Stock up on milk and cereal. This is the ultimate snack food. Compared to the other junk they could be working there way through bowls of cereal are good value and relatively healthy. If they are hungry they can go get another bowl. Also during the summer you can vary what they are offered.

4) Encourage your child to spend their own money on the cheap DVD’s they want from HMV. If they buy with their own money what they want to see it is likely to get atleast a couple of viewings over the summer..thus being more time without the wail of “I’m bored”. Also if they have friends who do likewise they might be able to start their own video lending service, swapping titles with each other. This saves you money because you don’t have to go and rent it if they borrow it.

5) If you are going to drag them around somewhere they will find boring try to make it somewhere they can wander around and take photos in. It gives them something different to do with the mobile phone.

6) Make sure their mobile is fully charged at all times. If you are going to drag them around somewhere you want / need to go they will be much quieter if they are getting RSI of the thumb…or using it as a MP3 player.

7) Always make sure you have a good light hearted novel ready. When it gets too much rather than engaging in the argument walk away and read a chapter of the novel before returning.

Budget Britain

The Guardian has an article about Bargain London. It’s an article more useful for its links than it’s actual content, particulary the one to “The Artful Ticket-Dodger”.

Whilst these articles both focus on London they are based around the idea that you don’t have to pay a fortune to enjoy a bit of culture. Having lived on a relatively tight budget fairly consistently I have picked up the odd idea on how to do this.
So here are a few ideas, some of which were included within the article and some of which weren’t:

1) Spend a little time thinking through what you might be doing in the year ahead.

If you know that you are likely to visit a number of heritage sites than it is worth investing in either an English Heritage or National Trust membership. In order to work out what is going to be the best value for you think about which parts of the country you are going to visit when and then check what kind of attractions has in each area and whether they are open to the public when you want to visit. Personally I have found EH the better deal out of the two and so have renewed this on a more regular basis.

If you regularly visit a particular city and like art check what exhibitions are coming up. If there are more than a couple you want to see then think about becoming a member. Membership of the Tate, for example, gave me free access to all the exhibitions at the Britain and the Modern. It also gave 10% off in the shop aswell as access to the members cafes. If you don’t want the exhibition entry alot of these places are free to go and wander around.

Decide if you are a coach or a train person, but be ready to change for long haul if required. Personally, whilst I will do coach travel if cost dictates I am much more of a train person. This means I invest in rail cards. With both options if you know when you need to be travelling major discounts can be found by travelling in advance. National Express has some great deals if you are travelling by coach between major cities.

Accomodation wise the Youth Hostel Association is worth thinking about. They now do family rooms and it’s good clean accomodation at a reasonable price.

Works out best for budgeting if you spread the purchase of these cards through the year and perhaps put things like heritage / gallery memberships on your Christmas / birthday lists. Oh and if you are a UK tax payer and getting membership don’t forget to gift aid.

2) Remember that restricted view often means just a slightly less good one.

For sporting and theatre events I have gone for restricted view tickets in the past and had no problem. What I would suggest though is checking that it isn’t straight behind a pillar, but slightly to one side. My best restricted view ticket was at the Globe one day when I decided I wanted a seat. The groundling tickets are great value, but more suitable for some performances than others, (think about the length of the play and the weather forecast).

3) Britain has a lot of free stuff that happens on a regular basis. Most towns have carnivals, fireworks or music festivals which happen on an annual basis. A couple of famous examples include: Durham Miners Gala happening this Saturday, (and which I will unfortunately be missing), Nottinghill Carnival and Whistable Oyster Festival, which has cool fireworks on the sea front. These are just a few examples but events happen all over the summer all over the country.

4) Most galleries and museums have space for you to sit and eat a packed lunch if you take one. If you don’t want to lug one about remember that Boots, M&S and Sainsbury’s all do meal deals and are now located in most central stations or nearby. If you shop wisely you can save alot of money this way.

5) Discount coupons abound in newspapers, shopping receipts, stations and elsewhere. If you are going to a major attraction with friends or family these can save you lots of money.

6) Always look at the concessionary information and check if they apply to any of your group.

Cast offs and casting off

I have discovered one of the perks of having a teenager who is growing up at an alarming rate….you get to wear their cast offs. We had great fun last night working out which t-shirts no longer fitted her, but fitted the slimmed down version of me. Thing was it wasn’t just the fit which was important it was which would not look silly on a middle aged woman. Anyway net result was about four t-shirts I didn’t own yesterday which make me look slightly more fashionable.

Additionally on the subject of casting off, today went on the Methsoc end of term summer jaunt down to the river. We took some rowing boats down onto the river before moving onto the river bank for a chat. The weather was perfect for it and was the ideal way to say goodbye for the summer.

Knitting, Sex and God and Single Parenting Across the Pond

New blog, Knitting, Sex and God, seems like it’s going to be an interesting read and so is one I’m recommending people go and explore. I don’t think I know the writer – although she obviously reads this blog – (but having looked at her profile I’m thinking even if I don’t actually know her we probably have friends in common somewhere).

Anyway one of her sidebar links was to this article on Women’s e-news about the situation of “Single Moms” in the US. There were a couple of things I found interesting.

1) The way that the first interviewee said:”Everything I buy is a sale item,” she said. “It takes a lot of work and planning to live like this because the cost of necessities like food is increasing.”

This highlights the way in both countries much of the diet and consumer choices of lone parent families is often dictated by “what’s on special”. This isn’t, by any means something restricted to lone parent families but rather is something common to many low income individuals and families.

2) The role of community colleges in the US. These types of  college are the equivilent of our FE colleges (i.e. the sort of place I used to work). I think there is a strong argument, that FE colleges in this country may do well to heed when it says: “Older women make good role models for struggling students”. When I was teaching Access students, particularly, I think the fact they knew I was a lone parent going through the same stuggles of juggling children and work helped a few of them.

The Lone Parent Benefit Changes

Ok, so we know it’s not an issue that I’m going to be impartial about but this is not going to be a rant. Rather I want to talk through my own situation and story to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the argument relating to the changes in lone parent benefit payments and put into perspective a difficult decision I am making this week.

I have been a lone parent for eleven years and until moving to Durham had worked for atleast 16 hours a week for the last seven years, (for a large part of that time working full time). Going back to 2000 I spent a year as a full time student doing my PGCE (post-compulsory) to ensure I was qualified to get a good job. However, for the two years previously to that, I was a full time mum, whilst I was getting myself back together after the break up of my marriage. Currently I am a full time student who is also working part time in order to support myself and my daughter. In September I could have claimed income support, but didn’t because I wanted to contribute to my support. Therefore, if I ever need to claim now it would be under the new regulations.

So since my daughter has been 7 I have been in work. For me this has meant I have been able to retain some of the self-esteem I lost being on benefit. However, equally it has meant that I have not been there at times when my daughter might have benefitted from it. Being able to manage work and lone parenthood depended on me being able to find the right childcare, in the right location. Like many lone parents I don’t drive.

Issues did arise, sometimes, when my daughter reached secondary school because there is no real childcare available for young people of that age. Thus, when I had to go into work during the holidays (FE colleges requiring this to some extent) I had to rely on the good will of my friends to help keep an eye on my daughter. However, there were instances when I had to leave her home alone during the holidays and when she was ill, once she was 11. I was lucky, because I was teaching I didn’t have to be working so much over the holidays and I had some good friends who understood and helped me out. Other parents may not be so lucky.

The issue becomes particularly problematic during the summer holidays when kids get bored. As I wasn’t about to supervise my flat did on occassion end up resembling the local youth club – something which didn’t necessarily please me or my neighbours. As I wasn’t there I had no control over what was happening. I know this is one reason why parents of teenagers want to be about.

As a single parent I am conscious of the media stereotyping saying it is people like me who are not looking after our kids properly and responsible for the growth of anti-social behaviour, letting them become the ASBO generation. Um, on the odd occassion mine did fit the stereotype, slightly, it was because I was out being a responsible person working and contributing to the economy. The trade off for forcing lone parents of teenagers into work may well be increased disorder during the summer.

The next thing I want to raise is the 16 hours a week thing. The government wants people to be working atleast 16 hours a week so they get Working Families Tax Credits to support them, and make working financially viable. What the government doesn’t seem to realise is that many of the jobs with appropriate working hours are currently being advertised as being between 10 and 14 hours per week.

My own experience whilst in Durham is that I have got a job where I have been paid for working on average 10 / 11 hours per week(direct contact time), although the job has taken up nearer 16 – 20 hours a week due to preperation, etc. Before formally accepting the job I was told by Working Families Tax Credit that as the prep and marking were essential parts of the job I would be able to count all my hours and be eligable for Working Families Tax Credit. When I actually started working and phoned to confirm my hours and how it worked I was told I could only count the contact hours I have (ie those I’m paid for) and so haven’t been able to get Working Families Tax Credit. The upshot of this is I have ended up in a job having a negative impact on my uni work due to the nature and demands of it; my earnings have reduced my Housing Benefit but not increased my Working Families Tax Credit payments.

The week after next I do have an interview for a job where I will be working enough hours, – an evening job which will mean my teenager will have to be trusted and won’t have me about, if I manage to get the job. The other job I am currently applying for is around 11 hours a week and so still puts me in the dilemma of not getting Working Families Tax Credit and, if I were on Job Seekers – which I’m not – would not be acceptable, despite being a good part time job. Prayer for wisdom about it all would be appreciated.

It should also be remembered that what we earn from those jobs isn’t all an increase in our standard of living. What ever job we get impacts our eligability and payments for housing benefit, even if we don’t become eligable for Working Families Tax Credit.

So where does this leave us? Well, from my story and those like me I would leave you these thoughts:

1. It is good for lone parents to have the opportunity to work, it gives self esteem.

2. Most lone parents are like myself and want to support ourselves – living on benefit is not generally a positive life choice people make.

3. Alot of jobs available are under 16 hours per week. If the government is serious about getting lone parents back into work they should consider allowing some form of Working Tax Credit to be paid for jobs of 10 hours a week and above.

4. There will be a social cost in more teenagers being left home alone over the holidays. If parents aren’t about to monitor behaviour the effects there will have an impact on social order. The only way to address this is to reinvest more money into activities for teenagers and subsidise the costs for working lone parents.

5. There needs to be a recognition, particularly in the current climate, that employers not employees set the conditions of service. Lone parents being forced into work are very likely to have to leave their teenagers home alone – whether they want to or not.

6. Things like attendance at parents evenings and so forth will be impacted and truancy may rise. It is  very hard to ensure your child is getting to school if you leave before them, yet we may be fined if we don’t get them there.

Ok, it might have turned into a bit of a rant, but I really don’t think people understand the reality of the whole 16 hours a week thing or the social cost thing. Lone parents who want to work but don’t reach the 16 hours are being forced into poverty by government policy at the moment. I fear, as the charities have said, the new policy will either force more lone parents into poverty or increase the disorder.