When ‘Thank you’ just isn’t enough…

Tuesday 29 June 2021

With Teacher Assessed Grades safely dispatched, it is the perfect moment to deliver messages of thanks to the incredible teachers who have guided Prom-dress daughter through her A Levels over the past two impossibly challenging years…

I settle down at the kitchen table with a pack of ‘Thank you’ cards and, pen poised…  I start, I stop, I chew the lid, I make a coffee. Just where to start? Just how to find the words?

Why, you may ask, have I not waited until Results Day? Well that bit is easy; because grades and achievements are not really the point of me writing to them today. The lessons my daughter has learned during her two years at college surpass any set of results or gold lettered certificates. They have taught her that she is far more capable and confident than she ever realised, and that is invaluable.

Prom-dress daughter struggled to speak at Nursery. My little girl just waved as her name was called out on the register, and received an award when,  7 months in she found the courage to respond with the words ‘here‘. She was described as ‘timid‘ on her transition to High School report and, I lost count of the number of times at Parent Evenings that I left knowing only that her teachers wanted her to ‘contribute more’ or that she was ‘very quiet‘ in lessons. Now, following a traumatic occasion when I locked verbal horns with an unfortunate English Teacher, I was forbidden, by all my offspring, from saying anything at all at Parental consultations, so I may have wanted to suggest  ‘Look if you want her to contribute, why don’t you just ask her a question?’ but I instead I just bit my tongue. And perhaps I am glad I did, because it was all to change when she went to college.

Our local college is huge and I was mildly terrified that my quiet girl would be lost in the crowds. But the opposite happened. Teachers took a real interest. They assessed in detail. They gave careful feedback. They knew my daughter inside out. At Parent Evenings I learned about her academic strengths, how clever she was and how ready she was for Higher Education; and not once did anyone focus on her shyness. When challenges, such as presentations, came, they didn’t just tell her to ‘be more confident‘, they showed her how to be, by preparing and practising in advance. And she flourished. Highlight of the two years for me? Was is the top mark for her History coursework or an A* in a Maths assessment? No! It was the day she came home to tell me that she had taken part in ‘role play’ in a Philosophy lesson; simply astonishing.

Quite how they managed this amidst the chaos and disruption of covid-19, I’ll never know. I think they are just gifted. I think they radiate vocation and care. I think they are fantastic!

I take a deep breath. I take the plunge. I start to write. 

What to say, when ‘Thank you’ just isn’t enough…”

I fill both pages of the card. I hope my words do them justice. I hope they like fizzy wine. I hope they know that their work changes lives. I hope they know that there is no more important role in life…

The NHS deserved better, we all deserved better…

Saturday 26 June 2021

A day after the story of his affair with a government aides hits the media, Matt Hancock, The Health Secretary, finally resigns. For me, although allegedly not for his boss, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, this is beyond doubt the only correct decision to have made. Why? Because so many deserved so much better than Hancock.

Firstly there is the NHS, our NHS, the epitome of a national treasure, even before covid-19 overtook our lives. They surely deserve a more fitting figure-head.

In 2017, The King’s Fund in a publication, ‘What do the public think about the NHS?’ marking the 70th birthday of Bevan’s formation of a national health service, found unwavering support the system. At this time, 4 in 5 of us had, consistently held the view that ‘the NHS is crucial to British society and we must do everything we can to maintain it’. And throughout the pandemic, respect, gratitude and sheer love for the heroic efforts of our exhausted doctors, nurses and carers has known few limits.

So when the call came to ‘save lives and protect the NHS‘ is could not have been a more important one. People did make heartbreaking decisions and NHS staff did live and work through horrific times to support them. So Hancock’s breach of the very covid regulations he exhorted us to follow, is an immense and shocking betrayal. Of equal gravitas, moving forward, is the reality that he would have had absolutely zero credibility in promoting further health care messages and any necessary restrictions and this, at it worst, could endanger lives and threaten our beloved health service. It was just not good enough for our NHS; it was completely untenable for him to continue.

Secondly there are the volunteers who have supported the vaccine roll out. On Saturday morning, I munch my bran flakes watching the BBC news report from a Vaccine Drop-(£in Centre in York, made possible by an enthusiastic set of volunteers. Ten of thousands have responded to the call to ‘Get the Jabs Done’, given their time freely and braved the elements to push forward a Vaccination Programme, in whose glory Hancock was only too eager to bask and boast. And an amazing programme is has been.

So, how galling for them to hear that, as they shivered in the rain at a local sports centre, Hancock’s favourite university pal, was snugly housed in the Department of Health on a £1000 a day job as an ‘aide’. No-one seems able to articulate why she was there, nor what the salary covered. Was our former Health Secretary just looking to improve his kissing technique? If so, Louise Rennison’s hilarious ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ is now on Amazon from £0.99, and would have left a few more pounds in the coffers! But seriously, if this aide has had some impact on the pandemic or national health-care, can we know what it is? Surely our wonderful army of unpaid volunteers deserve this at the very least.

Thirdly there is the public at large. Don’t we just deserve better people to lead us? Is it too much to ask that we can respect and look up to those that we vote into the positions of highest power and privilege, as opposed to watching toe-curling videos of them smooching around their offices, like teenagers behind the bike-sheds? We hear that the government agenda is about ‘re-building better’. Please can this start with some professional development on leadership and standards for the Cabinet? Those who make decisions always need ethical frameworks to work within. For our MPs, I understand that this is the ‘Ministerial Code’ and that technically Matt Hancock did not break this. But, for goodness sake Matt, to quote your own guidance, it is not just about technicalities at times like this,

“People need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part…”

Matt Hancock January 2021

Finally, there is his family. Now I am not here to pass any judgement on the state of anyone’s marriage but, the fact remains that his wife and children have had to see all the images, comments and memes as well. Whatever they decide to do,they will need time to communicate, listen, repair and heal. And surely from Day One, of this mess Hancock should have gone to spend time with his children rather than spending another minute trying to hang onto his, and I quote his boss here, ‘totally f***ing useless‘ attempts to run our Health Service. They just deserve so much better…

Vaccine 2!

Monday 5 April 2021

Is it just me or do other people turn on the TV and just wonder ‘what on earth‘ is everyone talking about?

An erstwhile fan of the Smiths, I did, long ago, claim that Morrissey has a ‘lyric for every situation’ and the line racing around my head most Spring mornings in 2021 is that the news , “says nothing to me about my life...” Never more so than with the vaccine.

In December 2020, when Margaret Keenan became the ‘first person in the world’ to get the Covid-19 vaccination, it was a joyful and emotional moment. Not only our first real chink of light in the grim lockdown tunnel but also a fantastic symbol of humanity; that the first person to be chosen came not from the ranks of the most powerful but from the population of those most at need. After months of a devastating global pandemic, whilst it made clear sense in terms of medical resources, this was also a powerful symbol that we chose to value our grandparents and loved ones as highly as great leaders and the economy. We cared about everyone….or did we?

Several months later, a generation of jabbed adults appear to have forgotten about those still at risk, and have turned their thoughts towards: vaccine passports, foreign holidays and seats in football stadia. I am lost because, although millions of ‘stay-at-home’ adults, for whom age was an easy filter, are now wrapped in AZ or Pfizer protection, one person very lose to my heart is still waiting. My second child has not yet received her vaccination, despite being assigned to a higher priority group that anyone else in our house, and we really would like that extra layer of protection for her. Not for exotic beaches, or trips to the theatre, or nights at the pub, but just to reduce the risk of hospitalisation. This, in brief is why.

Five years ago, a severe run of asthma attacks, resulted in my daughter being hospitalised on three separate occasions. The first; a bewildering blur, introduced to the world of ‘blue lighting’ and oxygen-masking as frightened novices. The second; a complete body blow, as my head and heart had to accept that asthma is not something you cure, rather an ever present condition, that may strike at any time. The third, and most severe was a wake up call for me that, single parent or not, I needed to do better.

The third occasion included the most aggressive treatment. Due to oxygen levels dropping unexpectedly, my girl was required to undergo several hours of intensive treatment, attached to a mask and machine that made her incredibly ill. She would struggle, wave at me in panic. I’d remove the mask. She would be sick and beg to stop, plead for even a short break. The nursing staff would kindly but firmly re-attach the mask and she would be made to continue. It went on all day. By 9pm the nurse arrived with the latest readings and the awful news that she would have to resume treatment for the third time that day. I was aghast, because I would not be there. I was the only adult in the house and had two other children, both under 15, ‘home alone’. The nursing staff assured me, as I left, that they would ‘look after her’. But they did not. Not due to lack of kindness, I hasten to add, but lack of staffing. My daughter was left, struggling alone on the machine, ringing a bell that was never answered and vomiting into her own slippers. Eventually, some one else’s mum came to help her and clean her up. Imagine my shame!

As I listened to her account the next morning, and dropped the gruesome slippers into the garbage can, I promised her that ‘never again’ would she do this alone. If our hospital system relied upon parents sharing in the non-critical care, I accepted that I had failed to play my part. It was time for me to swallow any shred of pride I had left and beg for yet more help and favours from friends and family to enable me to stay on the ward in future. Happily, however, fortune shone on us over the ensuing years. Transferred from our patchy primary provision to Consultant Care, we benefitted from a return to the routine calendared checks, we’d enjoyed when living ‘down south’. My daughter’s meds were cranked ever higher, but on the upside her asthma seemed relatively under control. And then corona virus arrived.

I watched the scenes of patients in Italy on ventilators, fighting for breath. I heard the chilling news; that covid- patients were allowed no visitors and it was like re-awakening to a former nightmare. Any promises I may have made to ‘always be there’ suddenly looked very flimsy. Ex-Hub and I discussed our daughter uprooting to move to live with him for the duration of Lockdown 1, but for various reasons decided against it. Instead she lived in her room, eating meals off a tray, working, sleeping and being alone within the family unit. In April 2020, came the truly tragic story of a 13 year old child dying alone in a UK hospital. We were stunned but deeply thankful for the subsequent decision by Matt Hancock to change these rules and sanction limited visitors for covid patients. And gradually, life became a little more bearable.

Indeed we grew used to the virus. We followed the rules. We returned to school and college. We kept ourselves as safe as possible and I’d be lying if I claimed that we continued to be anxious about its threat. But the landscape has changed now. There is a vaccine. My daughter has been prioritised for it and I know she deserves this extra level of protection. Unfortunately, as a ‘child’, a few weeks shy of 18, she has to await a GP appointment and a vial of Pfizer and although, as advised I call weekly, our practice have not been able to provide this for 5 frustrating weeks. In that time, I’ve been jabbed. My eldest child, as a medical student, has been jabbed. My son has had covid, so probably has antibodies. In our home, the only member of the household still to receive additional protection is the only person who really needs it. So you’ll forgive me if I’m not in the debate about passports, outdoor beer gardens or elbowing my way to the front of the queue for FA cup tickets, because quite frankly I’m nowhere near future plans. Right here, right here, right now I simply ask that this ‘world beating’ vaccination programme does its primary job and protects the vulnerable… my vulnerable. Isn’t that more than enough for anyone?

Vaccine!

Saturday 27 March 2021

Today I get my first does of covid-19 vaccine…

Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines! Is there any other topic of conversation these days? Who should be jabbed? Who shouldn’t? Vaccine side effects, vaccine efficacy, vaccine passports. I even hear a radio presenter debating ‘what to wear’ for his vaccine!

At work on Monday, as the PC begins its reluctant crawl into action, knowing I have 5 minutes to fill, I too launch into a vaccine discussion with one of my classes,

So vaccines for football players? What do you think? Think I’m mostly for it. It’s a bit of a strong analogy ,Year 11, but like the gladiators of Rome, we have sent them into the arena to entertain us and they probably deserve to be protected?”

” Oh Miss no! Terrible idea!” chirps up us a football fan on the front row, “At times this season, it has really helped us to have half the opposition’s team taken out with covid!”

Well, that makes me laugh out loud, but then he adds,

“And I’d just rather my nan got her vaccine…”

And then others join in and there are some incredibly sad tales of the misery that covid has brought into their lives over recent months. What is humbling however it that, for this room of teenagers, their only vaccine concerns are for others and usually family members.

When I get home, with my pupils’ voices still ringing in my head, I find my vaccine letter on the mat and it brings a family problem I have sharply into focus. Someone on my household needs this vaccine far more than I do. One of my children is a severe asthmatic, ticking all the JCVI boxes for a higher category than me. Our GP practice have informed me of this but have not, despite me checking several times this month, been able to organise an actual vaccination date. There is always some vagueness about time frames or some new reason why her invitation is yet to appear and it has been incredibly frustrating. Re-inspired by my pupils, however, I push my letter aside and, once again call the GP. They respond 2 days later and this time the news is more positive

She should definitely be hearing this week!” they assure me

And, even though they have let us down so many times before, I foolishly believe them. With hindsight, it has been such a long struggle that I think I am just too desperate for it to be over. With my lovely girl finally ‘in the line’, I feel able to book my own appointment with a clear conscience.

Alas, by Friday, we have heard nothing and I have to call again.

Our supplies are a little low. We are expecting more next week. So can you call back then?”

Do I call them? Do they call me? They seem unclear and, dare I suggest, unconcerned, about which way it is organised and I realise that, as is so often the case with an asthmatic child, it will be down to me to make anything happen here. With a jolt of maternal guilt, I wonder whether because, unlike the majority of the population, I do not work from home and am ‘on duty’ between 8am and 915am every day, that others just call and grab any available appointments. Her dad has tried on occasion, but life hasn’t taught him the need to be quite as relentless as me . I add ‘call GP’ to my gargantuan list of jobs for Monday and realise, with a heavy heart that I have failed and will in fact be getting this jab before the only person in our house who needs it.

So how do I feel this evening? I know that I should feel ‘proud‘ and ‘grateful‘ and ‘full of hope‘, because the countless selfies and social media posts, tell me this is the expected reaction. But I am afraid that I feel none of this. I feel embarrassed and downright ashamed to have leaped ahead of my own child, my vulnerable child, in this vaccine queue. A tad over-dramatic I’ll concede but, what kind of mother pushes her own child off the lifeboat to clamber aboard in their place? Tonight I feel like a parental disappointment and my vaccine, for someone the world has happily sent unprotected into a covid-hot spot of a high school for most of this pandemic, seems a pointless price to have paid…

Christmas…with my Ex!

Wednesday 30 December 2020

With the afternoon news a distressing chaos of tiers and school disruption, I decide to turn off the radio, enjoy a last Mince pie and relish the closing moments of Christmas 2020. Even with restrictions, even spending much of it with my Ex, it has been a welcome break from covid …

The great day itself, the 25th, is the usual flurry of wrapping paper and presents and the house is soon rocking along to the tune of Small Boy’s new electric guitar! One major change however is that ‘Christmas Dinner’ is, alarmingly, entrusted to my questionable culinary skills, for the first time in many a year. Indeed, I struggle to recall ever before being left in sole charge.

‘Thank the Lord for Corona!’,

I am almost heard to cry as spuds and sprouts need to be peeled, parsnips roasted and oven space juggled for only 6, instead of our usual family gathering of 11 or more! Does it go well? I think so! As Boxing Day dawns, my head still buzzing with guitar strumming, I knock back a couple of Anadin-extra, tip a crate of bottles into the blue bin on Boxing Day, and resolve that we were probably all too sozzled to care in any case.

Ex-Hub is the next to arrive and stay for a few nights; another unusual festive twist. Winding the clock back a decade, to the time of our separation, we did initially continue to spend Christmas together. All my idea and not, alas, for the noblest of reasons. Yuletide; it is my special time, my season of magic and sparkle and cherished family traditions. So, when it came to negotiating Xmas -access, hating the idea of entering the world of ‘alternate years’ that other single parents described, feeling physically sick at the prospect of waking up on a Christmas morning without my children, I took control of the Holiday calendar. I established a tradition of New Year and Easter with Dad, and Christmas with me for our trio. Inviting Ex-hub to celebrate the December 25th festivities with us if he wished, was probably, if I am honest, my idea of a final deal-clincher.

So I confess, not my most selfless act, but I was met with little opposition; it seemed to suit everyone. I’d say that it enabled both new households to establish their traditions and ways of marking, with certainty, great celebrations on the British calendar. Whatever the theories, this division of holidays works for us and as such I recommend it, not as a blue print for any other family as we are all unique, I recommend it as an example of ignoring convention and expectation around how you parent, co-parent or share-parent and in finding your own way!

But back to teaming up for Christmas. which we managed for 3 or 4 years. Whilst some may find it odd and I fully respect that for some it is unthinkable, we are not the only family to try it. Red columnist Olivia Blair’s article highlights the case of a woman who now enjoys Christmas with her ex, despite citing the festive holiday when still together, as a key catalyst in their break-up! More in tune with my experience, Kelly Baker, describes how the great healer of time heals the hurt and pain and allows you and your Ex to operate as people who do actually share common interests and can enjoy each other’s company again … if only for a few days.

Eventually, as Ex -Hub and I both moved onto new relationships, sharing Christmas came to a natural end. Until, of course, this year!

Oh Corona virus – it has destroyed the teens’ face to face contact with their father and ‘down south‘ family. How to visit? Where to stay? What to do? Balancing health risks for vulnerable family members … it has thrown up more problems that we have been able to solve and, in consequence, contact has dwindled to Zoom calls and x-box games. So as Christmas is the season of good will, a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, stocked up on alcohol and invited Ex-hub to stay for a few days in December.

And the visit goes well. Walks, games, films and family meals – all washed down and smoothed over with plenty of wine. Yes, pickling the liver, is clearly a shared strategy for both parents on this occasion! In occasional awkward moments, I sternly remind myself that, for the teens, it is a wonderful opportunity to check in with their dad in person – an even better present than the electric guitar! For me too, possibly because I am a little out of my comfort zone, Christmas day guests and even Ex-hub are both a great distractions from everyday worries. The stresses and strains of our ever changing covid-life do indeed recede for a few days.

But, as Ex-Hub’s expensive electric car, glides off the drive at the end of his visit, the realities of covid -life close in once more. My stomach knots, my heart says a sad farewell to Christmas and my head turns with apprehension and dread towards a grim New Year…

Into isolation…

Saturday 5 December 2020

I guess, with all three of us at educational establishments, it was always just a matter of time, but at the start of this week one of the teens tests positive for covid-19 and we, plus our bubble, are sent into isolation for 14 days!

First things first, everyone is okay. ‘Covid-teen’ is very unwell for 36 hours, with a sky-high temperature, nasty cough, severe headache and dizzy enough to need help with any movement. Thereafter, happily, my child is quickly back to normal and enjoying meals-on-trays in front of the TV, to keep apart from the rest of us.

We all get our first experience of the covid-19 test too. Well I’ve definitely known more fun family outings! And I can assert that there is nothing quite like sticking a swab down your throat and up your nostrils in a cold, drafty portacabin, to re-focus the corona-weary mind on home hygiene. I spend the rest of the week flinging open windows, laundering at 60 degrees, pumping hand sanitiser at everyone and dousing anything in sight with anti-bacterial spray. So far so good. We still stand at only 1 positive result. Whether that is my enhanced cleaning or simply the reality of living with teens, who like to spend as many hours as allowed in their rooms, I’ll never know!

What is without question however is that isolation is a complete pain. We have to cancel and rebook; hospital appointments, a grade 8 violin exam and picking up my eldest from Uni. I creep out, under cover of dark, like a masked covid-criminal, to collect prescriptions, crickets for the gecko and ‘click and collect’ groceries. Thursday comes and goes without my mum’s weekly visit and her famous cheese and onion pie, and in its place my miserable, soggy, left-over vegetable bake is a poor substitute. School and college work shifts completely on line for both teens. I also move my job onto Microsoft Teams, but the resentment from colleagues, who have battled in on cold, grey days, as I ping into the morning meeting from my kitchen is palpable.

One rare nicety  is that  I am actually at home to look after an unwell child, as opposed to abandoning them to chance with paracetemol, the heating thermostat and my work phone number, and feel like a half-decent mum. That apart however … all rather grim

On the upside, we do make it to Saturday. Not only does the weekend  mark the motivational half-way point,  but this morning, a crate of 12 wine bottle, originally earmarked for Christmas also arrives. Now  I think most people would forgive me for opening my presents early … just this once!