This is why I do it…

My middle daughter – whose learning, social and motor skills have all been affected by a brain injury at birth – loves books. Like me at the same age, she devours anything she can get her hands on. From being the butt of cruel treatment at the hands of her peers, she has become self-reliant and independent; she prefers the company of a good book to that of a bad ‘friend’. For different reasons, it was much the same for me as a child.

Over recent months, disaster after disaster has beset me, leading me to a point where I was neither blogging nor writing nor pitching for work. I’d all but given up, but for the fact that I was determined to do NaNoWriMo, just as I have for the last two years.

There is a connection here, bear with me…

Last night, my daughter rushed home from school in the pouring rain. Arriving home soaking wet, her first port of call was not the bathroom and a towel, but my office.

“Have you done it? Did you write it? Can I see it?”

Unfortunately, I hadn’t. For me, NaNo means a chapter a day and a first draft in a month. That is the task I set myself; that’s the way I like to write if I can. During November, it’s easier, because there is so much enthusiasm and support to be found. But, yesterday at four o’clock, having had a terrible day, I hadn’t finished the chapter – Word was open on my computer screen and I was staring blankly at it.

I did finish it, though. In the face of my daughter’s eagerness to read it, I didn’t have much choice!

And that’s why I do this. That’s my main reason for pushing myself; for continuing to try. Because, even if I don’t write novels that are commercial (and maybe I do, I don’t really know!); even if my writing isn’t as sparkling as it needs to be; even if I have chosen a completely wrong time to be trying to break into this business – my daughter loves my stories. They make her happy. They make her laugh. They make her cry. Writing content can be avoided by using domains that have expired.

What other motivation could I possibly need?

It’s that time of year again!

No, I don’t mean the frenzied lead-in to Christmas, during which otherwise rational beings devote huge and unfeasible amounts of time to the selection and purchase of gifts and presents. I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is known, during which otherwise rational beings devote huge and unfeasible amounts of time to the mad production of at least 50,000 words of a novel. This will be my third year and, yesterday, I got off to a very good start, producing just over 3100 words. NaNoWriMo is very special to me. The story of my first attempt, and how it convinced me that I might still be able to build some sort of a career despite long-term illness and after disastrous major surgery, is one I’ve told many times. Last year, I wrote 92000 words in one month and then revised and reviewed my novel repeatedly, with the help of my usual beta readers plus my specially convened team of teenage critics. That novel, my third, garnered two requests for a manuscript from two very reputable agents. It has some flaws and will need rewriting before I submit it again, if indeed I ever do, but it represented significant progress. This year, like both previous years, NaNoWriMo comes upon me at a difficult time. My health continues to deteriorate and my longed-for career has never really gotten off the ground. I’m not quite sure what 2011 will bring or what reserves of strength I have left in me to keep on trying to become the ‘proper’ writer I so desperately want to be. But I do know this: If I complete NaNoWriMo this year as I did last year, my spirits will lift, my self-esteem will improve, and I will have something to work on – some purpose, some hope – as we head into the new year. And my kids will be proud of me. Even if they are the only ones ever to read my new novel, their enthusiasm counts the most.

Stay in the car, Chuck!

I have recently discovered the spy comedy (with a touch of sci-fi) that is ‘Chuck‘.

I love, love, love, love, love it!

First of all, there’s the whole fabulous ‘sometimes the nerd gets the girl’ thing going on. And the ‘girl’ in question – CIA agent Sarah Walker – is fiesty, fearless, fearsome in a fight – and yet still feminine. Talk about girl power! Adam Baldwin, with whom I was already half in love, following his role in ‘Firefly’ and its spin-off film ‘Serenity’, is just perfect as the badass NSA agent with a heart, John Casey. And, if I were well enough to work, I think I’d have the time of my life in the Buy More.

The series makes me laugh out loud and there aren’t many comedies that good.

Most of all, I adore the many SF&F references and the fact that (I think) I can spot them all, even the pretty obscure ones. When Baldwin quotes his own line from ‘Serenity’ for example, and what British agent Cole means when he says ‘as you wish’ to Sarah.

If you haven’t seen it – try and get a look at it. Whether you are a sci-fi geek like me or not, it’s fantastic entertainment.

But, as always, I have a more serious point to make. Nerdy geek (or geeky nerd) Chuck, who has had volumes of top secret information downloaded into his brain, isn’t supposed to get directly involved in the covert missions his assigned handlers undertake. He doesn’t have the training, the physique, the aptitude, the looks, or the cold-heartedness required to do a federal agent’s job. He’s only there to provide information; it’s his handlers’ job to keep him safe and out of harm’s way. So, without fail, at some point in any episode, he’ll be told to: “Stay in the car, Chuck!”

He doesn’t of course. He tries to save the day, with varying degrees of success.

Chuck’s situation reminds me of my own. All around me there are people who are better looking; better at everything. Because of the way I look and the way my body doesn’t always do as its told, I sometimes feel like a hopeless inadequate who should ‘stay in the car’ and just let those who have all the advantages and skill take over.

But like Chuck, I don’t. And I like to think that’s what really counts – not that I’m not the person I wish I could be, but that I don’t let it stop me from trying.

Stay in the car? No, not me.

Living it large!

Oh dearie me, hasn’t Jeremy Hunt stuck his foot in his mouth with his assertion that the state shouldn’t support large families? Vilification is coming from all quarters, with the best comments (I think) expressed in this Independent article.

With the caveat that I am not very good at politics and am writing this from a very personal point of view, I’m going to stick my neck out a bit here and give the poor man some support.

My take on what he was saying – in connection with the proposed benefit cap on families living entirely on state handouts – was that, if you choose to have a large family, then you should be fully prepared to support that family.

And I agree. I see it as a question of attitude, not an issue of fact. It’s not about unfairly penalising those whose circumstances change through no fault of their own, but about expecting those who choose to have children to accept their responsibility for those children.

Now here’s the brutal honesty part: I always wanted four children and I admit that I didn’t give much thought as to exactly how we would support them as they came along and then – horror of horrors – began to grow up! We were both working, back then, and I was the larger wage earner, as has always been the case when I’ve been working full time (until now, of course, as I can only work from home). But, whilst I failed to recognise that our circumstances might dramatically change – as indeed they have – I did not anticipate or expect the state to play a role in providing for my children.

That is not to say that I have not claimed benefits to which I am entitled, although I choose not to claim incapacity benefit at this time and to try and build a business instead. Like most low-income families, we receive tax credits and child benefit.

When the new child benefit restrictions come into play, a ridiculous possibility will emerge: That a two-income family with each partner being remunerated at less than the higher rate tax threshold (ie: up to about £84000 a year joint income) will still get child benefit whilst a single income family earning anything over £45k a year will not. Whilst this, to me, sounds like more bullying of women into work that they may not wish to do, it is otherwise meaningless because we don’t earn £45k jointly, let alone individually. I think the removal of universal child benefit without proper means testing is wrong – and this particular plan vaguely ludicrous – but the new plans will not affect me.

Nevertheless, should the time come when we are denied – because of new rules, increased income, or both – tax credits or child benefit, we will do what we have always done – we’ll hang on in there and we’ll just get on with it.

I think that the crucial difference to which Mr Hunt could have better alluded is that between those parents who assume that the state will effectively support their kids, no matter how many they choose to have, and those parents who accept (and gratefully, let me be clear) the help that is offered by the government in raising the next generation, but who have not made their life choices based upon an expectation that such help will (a) be forthcoming and (b) be as limitless as the human race’s ability to procreate.

There is also a difference between those who don’t work and those who can’t work – as someone with a large family whose ability to work is now severely limited, I’d hardly be one to criticise others’ in a similar position.

As the Independent reports, Sally Copley, from Save the Children, points out that: “in fact, most children living in poverty have at least one parent in work – but they are still poor because that work is low-paid.” If the £26,000 a year figure that is quoted as the median income in this country is correct, then we fell significantly below it last tax year and will consider ourselves fortunate if we have earned it by the end of this one. Tax credits errors haven’t helped, and we hope that these will be rectified, but there is no assumption in this house that the state will bail us out.

It is nonsensical that (where disability is not a factor) not working provides a better lifestyle than working. And I appreciate the pitfalls of trying to legislate for claimants ranging from the wilfully workshy to the devastated dispossessed. I also agree with the various comments about how children should not be punished for the failings of their parents or on the basis of how many siblings they might have.

But the general idea – that, at some point, state support has to be capped, and that having more children should not be a method of getting more money – is not an unsound principle. Perhaps the answer is to look at exactly how benefit claimants have lost their income and to offer graded support instead of a one-size-fits-all calculation method. But, of course, novel schemes require extra funds to initiate and anything that requires investigation to be undertaken will need investigators who have to be paid.

There are no easy answers, are there? I certainly don’t pretend to have any and I suspect that, whatever the government does next, it will not be welcomed. But do something they must. I worry that, when all the deals are done, the necessary measures will probably unfairly prejudice both the ill and disabled, and those with children. As someone in both categories, I will have to face whatever comes and deal with it accordingly.

In the meantime, I’m just going to keep calm and carry on loving my large family, persisting with whatever I can do to provide for them, and being grateful for the state support that I currently have in so doing.

Although, in respect of tax credits in particular, I do wish the policy makers would put a little more thought into their designs…

Posted in Family, Life | 1 Comment
Proud.
Posted on October 7, 2010 by Catherine
Mel B (you remember her, she was the one they called ‘Scary Spice’) has said in an interview that she is ‘not proud’ that her two daughters have different fathers.

How quaint. How ridiculous.

I fell pregnant for the first time aged just twenty-two. I knew two things even before the (rather less sensitive in those days) pregnancy test turned positive.

1) That I was definitely pregnant. God, the nausea!

2) That my baby’s father would run as fast as he could, as far as he could, rather than help support me.

To be fair, he was even younger than I, and I know that it was neither contempt nor carelessness that drove him away, but sheer panic. And I think that I suspected, even then, that he was making the right choice.

Because it was the right choice.

I went through pregnancy alone and endured childbirth with the help of some very nice drugs and my Mum. I raised my daughter alone for a year, working full time to support us from the time that she was three months old. Leaving her for the first time at nursery – after having force-weaned her from breastfeeding because I lacked the support to know that I didn’t have to – was the most heart-wrenching, miserable, horrible thing that I have ever felt compelled to do. It did not, however, seem to cause her any undue distress or harm; she is now a clever and capable, secure and sensible, typically stroppy seventeen year old, studying for her A Levels.

During the course of that first year, I experienced some of the greatest peace of my life. She was my focus, my reason, my purpose. We lived a quiet, organised life with a strict routine. I was very, very happy.

And then, as is so often the case when one is content just to be alone; when one is self-assured and steady – I met someone. For one night only I broke away from my habitual early nights and went out with some work colleagues. And was chatted up in a nightclub by the man who is now – and has been for fifteen years, almost – my husband.

We married when my daughter was two. She was my flower girl, although her basket of flowers got on her nerves and she made my Dad carry them for most of the day. I was pregnant with our second daughter – and you will perhaps notice that I say ‘our second’ – at the time. God, the nausea!

As the registrar began the marriage ceremony, my daughter dumped her flowers on her Granddad and marched to the front of the room, whereupon she flung herself into my husband’s arms – not mine – insisting on being part of the proceedings. The registrar got all choked up. It was as if she was saying to all the assembled friends and family: “This is about me, too, I’ll have you know!”

And she was right. Her surname was changed by deed poll immediately after our marriage, so that we all, new baby included, would have the same surname. Because we were a family.

It took a little time for the law to catch up with our emotions. Back then (I believe the process has changed now) we had to be married for a year before we could undertake a step-parent adoption. We adopted her as a couple, so that I relinquished my legal rights as her mother only to be immediately reinstated as such by the adoption order. A strange way of doing things, but we did not care. By the time we had completed the social services assessments and waited (in vain) for any contact with her natural father, I was pregnant with our third daughter. God, the nausea!

The magistrates who granted the adoption order told us that we were a lovely family and gave my daughter a small bouquet of flowers and a card. It was a very emotional and intimate hearing. My daughter chattered and giggled all the way through it and I think even our social worker had to swallow hard at one point.

We preferred to publicly document what was in our hearts, but the truth is very simple, whether given the force of law or not. My husband is my daughter’s father; her Daddy. They fight all the time, just as my Dad and I did (and still do). She tests his boundaries; he panics about her safety. She shrieks, he yells. And then, when everything else is against her, such as when she failed to do as well as she wanted and needed to do in her exams last year, he is there for her. She and I were both away from home at the time and he spent hours on the phone as she cried, talking her through her options, consoling her, and insisting to her that we did not care what she chose to do with her life, just as long as she was happy.

What does biology have to do with any of that? I swear he fell in love with her before he fell in love with me; I have such fond memories of his insistence on pushing her pram and of his heartbroken expression when, at first, she would turn away from him, not wanting to accept this rival for her mother’s attention. I particularly remember waking up one morning alone and panicking because my daughter should have woken me and where was my boyfriend?

He had heard her stir and was quietly playing trains with her on her bedroom floor, leaving me to have a rare Sunday morning lie-in.

Families are not formed when sperm and egg collide. Families are about love, understanding, laughter… The two of them are so alike, right down to their fiery tempers. You’d never guess that they are not genetically related.

So I am proud that one of my children has a different biological co-parent than the other three. I am in awe of what I witness every day about the power of love and the reality of fatherhood. We’re far from being a perfect family but, if I ask my daughter (and I regularly do; she has a right to know) if she would like me to tell her anything about the man who helped me to conceive her, she tells me no.

She says: “I know who my Dad is. I know all I need to know.”

She does. She knows she is loved – by both her parents.

Application and persistence.

If I say much more about my determination to work in spite of the health problems I have, I’ll start to sound like a broken record. But I thought you might like to know how one company responded to my overtures for employment and how much I appreciate the sensible yet sensitive way in which they handled the application I made to them.

You may be yet more interested to know that the company in question is the Guardian newspaper – or, rather – guardian.co.uk. Given my recent experiences, you will appreciate that I am hardly of a mind to say anything nice about newspapers in general, so it’s of significant import that I’m impressed enough to be writing this post.

It has been my habit, ever since I started my own business, to look out for suitable job advertisements and to apply as a freelancer and a home worker. Up until now, almost every such application has been entirely ignored. I seem to remember that I did once get a polite but disinterested reply to one of them but, otherwise, nada. Zilch. Absolument rien.

The Guardian’s application process is an online one, and I filled in the application questions truthfully, being honest about the limitations I face. They were looking for online community moderators, a role in which I have considerable experience, so I was honest about that, too. And then I went on holiday and forgot all about the application, reasoning that it would go the same way as the others.

Why do I continue to try, if such is my belief? Well, I try for my sake – because refusing to give up is part of my genetic makeup – and because, well, what else can I do? Watch daytime TV? *shudders*

So imagine my surprise when an interview request landed in my email inbox. At that point, I looked more closely at the Guardian’s website and discovered that they take applications made under the Disability Discrimination Act, as mine was, very seriously. Or, to be more accurate, they take their responsibilities under that Act very seriously.

To that end, they interview all disabled candidates. Impressed? I was.

However, long-distance travelling takes a lot out of me. To go to London for an interview would be feasible – probably with the help of my eldest daughter – but it wouldn’t be easy. So I contacted the HR department and explained this, wanting to check that, if successful, I would be able to work the part-time and at-home hours I’d suggested in my application.

A reply came back explaining that the moderator roles that needed filling were full-time and office-based, but that there might be the possibility of some freelance shifts from home. And would I like to do my interview via Skype?

Are you impressed now? I was, quite frankly, gobsmacked.

In the end, I was interviewed by guardian.co.uk’s managing editor, Nell Boase, who was lovely to talk to. Skype failed us, so we used the phone – ‘old school’, as she put it. During the course of our discussion, I grew increasingly aware that fixed hours, possibly anti-social ones, might be a little beyond my current capabilities (I was in hospital briefly a couple of weeks back and am under review by the pain management team at present).

Not only that, but I also realised that the online communities I was accustomed to building and managing were somewhat different to those that develop around current affairs debate. So I didn’t have as much experience as I’d liked to think I had!

When the email arrived – very promptly – to let me know that I’d been unsuccessful in my application for work, I was, therefore, neither surprised nor disappointed. In fact, I was somewhat relieved, as the last thing I want to do is let anybody down because my health, in turn, has failed me. It’s one thing to meet deadlines – and I always do, even the incredibly tough ones – free to timetable your efforts within a certain timescale and then, perhaps, take a few days off to rest. It’s another to work regular hours, come what may, knowing that your colleagues will suffer if you fail to do your (timely) part.

Today, I am working on an application to a London agency who need a copywriter and are asking applicants to provide materials in response to a brief. It’s taking some significant work, although I must admit I am enjoying it. And I don’t mind if this application, for all the effort I’m making with it, goes the same way as the majority.

Because, thanks to the Guardian, I now know that there are employers out there who will look at my situation and my capabilities fairly and without prejudice. As a result of this experience, I am now certain that, if I look long enough and hard enough, something will come up that fits my needs as well as those of my client.

And that gives me another reason to keep trying.

Precious life.

Today, we are a village in mourning.

My neighbour Vikki, the subject of my guest blog here, passed away on Monday evening. I learned of her death yesterday.

I can’t really claim to have known Vikki properly, but I do know that she was one of the most courageous and inspiring people I have ever come across. That she faced her fate with dignity and bravery is one thing; that she also spent her few precious last months raising money – more than £30,000 – for the organisations that helped her, is something quite extraordinary.

Vikki was just twenty-seven and leaves two young daughters. The scale of her family’s loss is impossible for me to contemplate. My heart goes out to them, at this time, and for all the times in the future when Vikki’s loss will be so keenly felt.

I walked my son to school this morning. Near the gates, he scooted off alone with his best friend, whilst her mum and I watched through the wire fence. He stopped half way down the school path and pressed his face through the spaces so that I could give him another kiss.

Just another moment in an ordinary day. But, in the light of Vikki’s passing, I am reminded of the exquisite joy that lies behind such moments and how lucky I am to experience them.

I didn’t really know Vikki. But I can promise that I will never forget her.

‘New’ clothes.

In the news today we are warned that the days of very cheap clothes, from retailers such as Primark and George at Asda, may be over. The price of cotton is rising because flooding has destroyed crops. The rise in VAT to 20 percent in January isn’t going to help.

I expect that I am one of the few women in Britain who couldn’t really care less, although I’ll admit to a twinge of worry about affording school uniform for three of my four kids if prices get any higher.

Why am I not concerned? Because – apart from the fact that I abhor the idea of cheap labour; hate the fact that these low-priced clothes are usually of poor quality; and can’t get the bargain stuff in my size anyway (Primark only do up to a size 18 in most of their lines and a 20 in some) – we buy most of our clothes second hand.

I am a charity-shopaholic and hand-me-down professional. And I wish more people were.

For example, I’ve been looking for a denim jacket all summer. Something to chuck over summer clothes when it gets – as it does here in Wales – a bit nippy in August. Last week I found one in a charity shop and I paid £6.25 to buy it. Significantly less than the £45 I would have paid for the similar one I saw in Ann Harvey, had I been of a mind to buy new. And that £6.25 goes to help Cancer Research, which just makes me feel even better about scoring such a bargain.

OK, so it was a little late, given that the weather has gone into hurricane mode. But next year I will be all set!

Upstairs in my spare room, there is a large bag of boys’ clothes about to be transported to my oldest friend, whose son was born a few months after mine. Many of those clothes originally came from another friend, whose son is a couple of years older than mine. The fact that my son is tall and strong for his age means that this system works perfectly: as one boy grows out of his clothes, the next one is about ready to fit them. And items that last through these three, or are unsuitable for the last young man in the chain, get passed on by my friend to another of hers, or are used for her younger son.

You would be surprised at how many items make it through all three boys still in a serviceable condition.

It’s the same with the girls. Two different friends feed me clothes for my daughters, who are of varying sizes. If an item doesn’t fit one of them, it will fit another. What we can’t use, we also pass on to another friend with two daughters. And anything she can’t use will go to the charity shop, which is where I send all my old clothes, shoes and accessories.

As much as my daughters – like any teenage girls – love clothes and shopping, the delight they express when they receive a bag full of second-hand clothes shouldn’t be underestimated. When the school has ‘own clothes’ days, my kids are often asked where they found this item or that item, and they take great pleasure in annoucncing that they bought it from a charity shop or received it from a friend (which means their style probably can’t be imitated).

I’ve never understood why anyone would insist on only ever buying new clothes, when buying second hand (or accepting gifts thereof) is so much more fun.

Not to mention better for the environment, charitable and practical.

Friendship.

I’ve just had a visit from a longstanding friend of mine who now lives some distance away.  We don’t see each other nearly enough and it can sometimes be difficult to stay in touch – we both have families; we both work.  But she popped in today en route to somewhere else and spending time with her is like balm.  I know that I matter to her.

There is something unique about our friendship, forged as it was in a situation that no woman ever wants to find herself.  When the two of us were both admitted to the local hospital whilst heavily pregnant – me for induction of labour, she for monitoring of premature contractions – we had never before met.  By the time I left that hospital two days later, my severely injured newborn in my arms, a bond had been forged between us that I believe will never be broken.

Because – when no-one else would help me as I was thrown into a terrifyingly fast labour; when the midwives supposed to be caring for me ignored and abused me – she came to my aid.  Her kind words were the only ones I heard throughout my horrific ordeal, which ended in permanent injury to both me and my second daughter.  And then she stood up to be counted when the matter came before an Independent Review Tribunal, giving evidence as to what she had witnessed as well as comforting and supporting me whilst I waited to give mine.

I owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.  She is godmother to my third daughter, who is also named after her.

One of the difficult things about long-term illness is its ability to separate the fairweather friends from those who really do care.  Many people I once thought of as true friends have dropped away from me, bored with the restrictions that medical issues place upon my life.  But those who remain are incredibly precious to me and, in many ways, it is a gift to know that, whilst my friends may be few in number, they are great in constancy and succour.  Some of them came into my life via the internet – and the subject of those friendships deserves its own separate post – whilst others have known me through work or even school, but they are all people I know I can trust.

I suppose that I’m saying that, where friendship is concerned, it’s quality not quantity that counts.  I am truly blessed in the friends that I have and I rarely miss the ones who have let me go.

Little things.

Running errands this morning, I parked my car in the multi-storey car park and bought a three-hour ticket as I didn’t know how long my various tasks would take me.  When I came back after just an hour, there was an elderly gentleman at the ticket machine.  I stopped him just in time and gave him my ticket so that he didn’t have to buy one.  He offered me a pound towards the cost, which I declined.

As I got into my car, I saw him explaining to his wife what I’d done.  He seemed so pleased – quite excessively so in the face of such a small gesture – and she also turned to wave a thank you at me.

We were all smiling as I drove away.  And I kept smiling for a while afterwards.

It got me thinking…  I spend a lot of time imagining how wonderful it would feel to have a literary agent offer to represent me.  I picture myself at my first book launch.  Like most people, I envisage what I might do were I to win the lottery.  If I turn my thoughts to the things that would ‘make my day’, I usually visualise the big things.

But isn’t it the small things that really count?  Scoring a bargain in the charity shop (Tuesday) and on an item I really needed; winning a free slap-up meal whilst at a business function with my husband (Wednesday) so that our night of duty became our first ‘date’ in a very long time; my son’s concern for me when I wasn’t feeling too well (Thursday) and his gentle admonition to ‘just get some rest, Mummy’; finding that one of my favourite authors has just released a new book (today) and that it was in stock when I ventured into Waterstone’s…

These are the kinds of things that bring me the greatest joy.

Our financial problems are always at the top of our agenda as we struggle to survive along with so many other families in similar positions.  I yearn for the day when we can kiss our tax credits goodbye; when we no longer need to worry about the precarious balance between our earnings and our expenditure.  But, when I really think about it, having plenty of money would, in some ways, be less fulfilling than what we presently have.  Bargains would become meaningless, and clever savings no longer a challenge, for a start.

I hope that the laughter of my children never becomes any less precious than it is today.  I hope that – even when I am financially successful (and I fully intend to be) – the little things remain the ones that really make me happy.