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 plummeting oxygen levels, my girl had to undergo several hours of intensive treatment, attached to a mask and machine that made her incredibly ill. She would struggle and pull off the mask, vomit and beg to stop or even be allowed 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 drained of colour, because I would not be there; I 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, rather lack of staffing. My daughter was left, struggling alone, 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 the hospital system relied upon parents sharing in the non-critical care, I accepted that 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 keep me on the ward in future. Happily, however, our fortunes were set to change. Transferred from patchy primary provision to Consultant Care, we benefitted from a return to the regular 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 permit 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?

Car wash!

Monday 29 March 2021

Meeting friends on park benches? Early morning rounds of golf? Outdoor actual swimming pools (in March)! You can forget any of that – I am just counting down the days until the car washes open again!

Yes, poor old Windsor, my trust Toyota, is in a very sorry state after 3 months of national lockdown. Everyone needs one luxury in their life …. and mine is the car-valeter. As the only parent in the house, I do almost everything else. I launder, I clean, I shop, I try to cook, I mow the lawn, I experiment with DIY and I put out the bins. I just never clean or vacuum the car. In consequence, Windsor has just festered in mud and grime since January 2021. And he is not pleasant sight or smell any more. But my resolve to see it out, until the automobile washers and waxers are able to start us their businesses again, is unflinching.

I claim that it could …maybe… make financial sense, too. Windsor’s predecessor, Big Bertha, was always scrubbed and sluiced, by hand… my weary hand… and it did not end well. On a memorable, sadly fraught, final trip to the ‘We’ll take any car.com’ traders they scorned her faded, patchy paintwork worn away, it transpired, by my liberal use of washing-up liquid in the car-wash bucket. Noble Bertha, the vehicle that brought my children home from hospital, drove me up and down the M5 and M6 when my Dad was ill and transported me to a new life in the North West, when my marriage fell apart, was exchanged for a desultory three figure sum. She also had a dodgy exhaust and questionable head gasket, but no-one seemed to notice this. For those forecourt financiers, it was all about appearances. So when I bought my new car, I packed my squeezy liquid away and decided to let the professionals take charge. And once you allow someone else to clean your vehicle, there is just no going back!

Whether it’s the local hand car washers or, on my more decadent days, the pricier outfits who buff and polish your vehicle while you lunch or shop, it’s farewell to sloshing buckets of water through the house. Adios to endless rinses to get rid of those darned bubbles. So long to soggy jumpers and jeans and red freezing hands. And no more tangling and tripping myself up in the cord for the hoover. Above all, it is protecting a few precious minutes in my day from yet another task of sheer drudgery. I think I definitely deserve that!

And so I am prepared to wait just a little bit longer. Can’t say I have heard much about car-washes in Boris’ road map out of Lockdown but maybe that’s a good thing. Let them re-open quietly, without fanfares and fuss. Let’s divert the crowds with the lure of alfresco cafes and groups of six in the back garden and leave me (and Windsor) to be at the front of the queue…

Is it time for a 5 year plan?

21 February 2021

It’s a funny old half term and it all start with this Monday morning call.

Am I speaking to the one and only Becky ….”

Yes, one very confident, chirpy cold caller! And life insurance broking is his game. Whilst I choose not to invest in any of the deals, he does make me stop and think about the insurance I do have. I root out my policy to find that it covers me for a bizarre number of years, with a seemingly random sum of money. It is clearly no longer fit for purpose and needlessly pricey. As I start to research alternatives however, I hit a brick wall of indecision…because making a wise choice depends on where I see myself and the teens in the next 5 or 10 or 15 years . And I just do not know. A lot can change in 5 years…

Here I am 5 years ago. It’s my birthday 2016. I am coupled up, dressed up and out for the evening!

Fast forward 5 short years to my recent 2021 Birthday and here I am, single, sitting in my lounge and Locked Down with a take-out curry!

Who could have known quite how different life would be? And the next quinquennial, promises to be no less dramatic in terms of change. No more teens, no more mortage, no need to work as many hours, no need to live in this corner of the North-west. It is difficult to know how to even start thinking about it all.

It has been a year when I have grown accustomed to living; day to day, tier to tier, Bojo press conference to inevitable U-turn! But if I thought I could run away and hide behind the covid curtains for a bit longer, I was mistaken. Half term also brings necessary negotiations with tree surgeons and roofers. Thinking through some fairly substantial financial decisions keeps bringing me resolutely back to the same daunting, dithering ground. Because, ‘How much to pay?‘ and ‘How much to do?‘ are all balanced by looking ahead to how much longer I expect to be here.

There is certainly a lot of advice out there for those of us facing the prospect of ’empty nesting’. Indeed the Citizens Advice reports finding “a huge demand – nearly half its enquiries” – from the 50-plus age group, for whom the main issues were pensions, mortgages, wills and life insurance. I have to be honest though, at the heart of my unease is the fact that I’d never expected to be facing these choices and ‘resetting the life plan’ as a single person. Without a partner to bounce ideas off and help me to frame a way of thinking about it all, I’ll confess to feeling absolutely terrified. So I start smaller. Next week I have an appointment with a, Independent Financial Adviser to talk… about me. Not stereo-types, not ‘typical case studies’ for my age group, just me. And I feel calmer. It was clearly time to stop avoiding the issue, I am a long way from a plan at the moment, but getting some facts hearing some options, doing my homework…none of that can hurt…

Cheese pie, sprouts and beer!

Friday 8 January 2020

Home-made cheese and onion, with chutney and a few brussels all washed down with a dark fruity stout- could there be a better way to end a very long week…

With a third national Lockdown, schools closing and exams cancelled, it’s certainly been a challenging 5 days, but I do feel okay. And okay for me at the moment is a lot better than usual.

Yes, on a more serious note, my mental health has been on a downward turn in recent months and threatened to spiral out of control over the holidays. For the first time ever, I went to bed on Christmas Eve dreading that Christmas Day would be a ‘1 out of 10 day’, terrified that I would not be able to paint on a cheery festive face and make sure that everyone had a lovely time.  I live at a comfortable ‘5 out of 10’ most of the time. Not great, I concede, but sufficient to function and ‘fool the crowd’.

Above all, I hope that I can be as happy as you always seem to be!”,  a pupil wrote on a thank-you card to me a couple of years ago. And I recall feeling shocked and an utter fraud. I almost ran after them shouting,

Please please please, let me be a role model for anything but this…because this is a lie and a sham. I  actually can’t remember what ‘happy’ feels like!”

But I didn’t. I just smiled, pinned the card onto my board with all the others and faked on with the day!

But something about corona virus has knocked even this stoic ‘get on with it’ spirit out of me and, to my horror, as the sun rises on 25 December, I feel the dark cloud of despair descend and although I do drag myself out of bed, I am gripped with a panic about ruining the day for everyone.

Until this happens… people arrive. It’s mum and an old friend, and just these relatively new faces really cheer me up. Thereafter I have the meal to prepare and the busyness and sense of purpose, not to say challenge for this self-confessed cooking calamity, drive the darkness away and I am able to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

And Christmas continues in this way. Friends call on Zoom. The teens’ Dad visits. And all of it is a wonderful change and distraction from the news and the gloom and the horrible uncertainty of our covid-world. It also gives me a wake up call.  I need to be occupied and I need goals and diversions. Parenting is tough; single parenting even more so. My hobbies are a life line because, they give me space to be me again. Not only a Mum marking the march through life with the lines on her face. No the me who still feels 25 on the inside and loves that when she runs, she feels the strength in her body and the oxygen in her lungs. Loves that when she plays music she is part of the noise and feels her emotions soar.  Loves that when she tackles some tricky maths, or reads a great novel (or even writes a blog post) the numbers, concepts and words dance around in her mind forming and re-forming and making new thoughts and ideas.  But at more basic level, my hobbies keep me busy. If covid has taken some of this away; I need to put something back

So my resolutions for 2021 are formed. Forget ‘Dry January’, writing a novel or training for a half marathon! These are simply about well being and routine. I commit to: drinking at least 2 litres of water a day, running at least a mile a day (The Ron Hill idea), and doing 2 yoga workouts per week. 

And after a week of my new regime, I am feeling okay; focused and stable. I enjoy ‘Yoga with Adriene‘, a rare space of 40 minutes that seems, luxuriously, about self-care. The water; well probably my favourite thing of all, as it gets rid of the scourge of daily headaches. For the first time in years, I walk past the the anadin-extra shelf  in the supermarket, without adding a weekly box to my trolley. As for the running – well what a week to start! Weather- wise, it is more than ‘grim up North’  as January 2021 gets into gear, it is the bleak bloomin’ mid-winter. How much do I feel like running as I arrive home in the cold, ice and fog? I struggle to think of anything that seems less appealing. But I make myself do it – it’s only 10 minutes after all.  And, once out, I love it. Crisp, energising and peaceful. Just very very chilly.  I could probably do with some gloves! Maybe, if I keep on saving on the anadin -extra, I’ll treat myself to a pair! In the meantime, I’m off to enjoy my cheese and onion pie…

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!

Fags, scratch cards and Sky TV!

Thursday 29 October 2020

Today I buy my first ever scratch card! Let me explain why…

A 6 mile run takes me from and to the garage, as hardworking Windsor indulges in an Autumn service. I also rake garden leaves, file my tax return, turn the house upside down looking for Small Boy’s missing coat and get through tons of washing. By 7pm, my thoughts turn to a treat. But as I pour a modest gin and ginger, toxic voices on a local radio phone-in make me realise that I am really selling myself short and missing out on a whole world of wild living. Apparently the rest of the single-mum sisterhood are out squandering their child benefit on a giddy cocktail of fags, Sky TV subscriptions … and scratch cards?

Seriously? Who are these people?

They’ve been spurred into vitriolic action by the last week’s Free School Meals vote in the Commons. Here a majority of MPs chose not to extend the provision of holiday meal vouchers for our poorest families; an additional Covid -19 measure that was secured over the 6 week Summer break in response to a campaign by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford (MBE).

Following the rejection of the Bill, the media is initially swamped with positive stories of local business and councils stepping in to provide free meals in place of central funds. Campaigner Rashford reflects on this spirit of generosity, avoiding any anger or political posturing with his comment that he ‘could not be more proud to be British’. However, at heart, Britain is not a united country. The splinters of division deepen as this current crisis wears on and the ‘undeserving poor‘ are always an easy target for those who thrive upon judgement and scorn.

Because this debate revolves around responsibility for ‘hungry children‘, parents in general and mothers in particular are quickly in the firing line for those aiming their guns at ‘state handouts‘. John Penrose, husband of NHS Test and Trace chief Baroness Dido Harding, blames ‘chaotic parents‘. Pompous, middle aged men blame modern women and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ when their mother’s fed the entire family for a week on a bag of turnips and a couple of potatoes and ‘no-one ever went hungry’. Personal responsibility is hurled like a weapon at struggling parents.

“Why should I pay for other people’s children’

Dont’ have children if you cant afford to feed them!”

As for single mums, well let me introduce you to the root cause of those empty food cupboards! It’s us… prioritising flashy mobile phone contracts, TV streaming services, cigarettes and alcohol … oh and let’s not forget the scratch cards … above feeding our offspring!

Is there any truth in these stereotypes? I search for some facts and find that whilst data on smart phones, and ‘on demand’ TV platforms does show a growth in ownership amongst ‘lower income’ families in the last decade, the proportions still do not match those of more affluent groups. Meanwhile, more conclusively, the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) does report a sustained rise in child poverty between 2010 and 2020, and cites the proportion of children from lone parent families living in poverty at 44% in 2018-19. Both the TUC (2019) and the CPAG highlight a ‘jump’ in the proportion of poor children from ‘working families‘. The pandemic has made the situation ever more stark, a Guardian article this month highlighting the “surge in numbers” of pupils applying for free school meals.

In many ways I am lucky. Eleven years ago, lone parenting did not push me into the ‘eligible for free school meals’ bracket but it did transform me overnight from a woman who for 40 years had scarcely considered money, to a person who thinks about, worries about and loses sleep about it all the time. I will survive and my children will not starve but my point is this; shit happens! Having walked in these toughest of shoes, I know that these tired and clueless stereotypes of single mothers as “uppity and irresponsible women” (Boris Johnson 1995) are not only cruel and unfair, they also draw attention away from the real issues; those of deprivation, division and inequality in our 21st century society. They scream out about how little many of our leaders (and smug radio callers) know about the lives that the population lead.

Which is why I trust and align myself behind those that do. Marcus Rashford has used his profile to campaign for a fairer world than the one he grew up in. And speaking in the House of Lords, Labour peer Lord Griffiths whose family relied on free school meals in the 1940s also makes a striking contribution, describing how he ‘can still smell and taste the panic’ of holidays in what was a ‘threadbare existence‘.

Because when money is an issue on top of everything else, life is ‘threadbare’ in many ways, stripped of fun and an endless battle of stress and worry. One of the nicest posts I saw this week, came from a bakery who were delivering food parcels to local families and including a bunch of flowers, to “brighten someone’s day”. Now they really do understand!

It is at this point that I decide stick 2 fingers up to the snobbery and prejudice of the radio callers and buy my first every £1 scratch card. As I uncover my numbers, it a moment to dream of a carefree life, cushioned from financial crises by a windfall of a few thousand? Not really – 11 years have taught me that there never is an easy way out! It is however engrossing for 10 minutes and everything else melts away for a few blissful moments. In a life of sometimes relentless grind that seems priceless…

Just a call…

Tuesday 13 October 2020

It is 6pm. I am just packing up for the day when my Eldest calls. It’s been a hell of a day.

Another

We confirm a member of the school community has tested positive for Covid-19′ day

Another

‘We are diverting all staff onto emergency cover until half term’ day

Another

Teach your lesson; post your lesson; live stream your lesson; everything three times your lesson’ day

Another

Your fault. Follow the rules. Don’t blame test and trace. Schools stay “open”. We’ve given you three extra weeks, … We’re all in this together‘ day

I push it all aside and tune into my daughter’s bubbly chatter.

It’s true, she has blown month one’s budget in just over 2 weeks and a giggly, joyful voice takes me through the mis-calculations and ‘very valid’ reasons why ‘money’s running a bit low’. I hear crazy tales of cinema bookings for Newcastle-under-Lyne instead of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surprise of finding yourself in a screening of ‘Harry Potter‘ … instead of a romcom. I hear about mishaps with keys and the saga of a broken phone screen. I hear the cheerful acknowledgement that arriving in the North East with a suitcase full of crop-tops but no winter coat probably wasn’t her wisest move…

And I hear, life and laughter and happiness. And it makes me smile and at least for the rest of today, remember what living is really all about…

She’s leaving home …

Saturday 26 September 2020

On a bright Autumnal Saturday morning, Windsor’s suspension creaking under the weight of suitcases, boxes, pots and pans; two teens sandwiched into the back seat with pillows and duvets; my Eldest on navigation and me at the wheel, we set off to Newcastle Uni. My first child is leaving home…

It’s a happy journey. The two backseaters plug themselves into their phones whilst my Eldest and I, chat and laugh and harmonise along to songs on the radio. We arrive in good time and park in the city centre for a spot of lunch.

As is now the case anywhere in the UK, there are quite a few changes to city life. I am initially stunned by the contrast to the bustling Newcastle we last saw on a January interview; now transformed into a silent shopping centre where face-masked locals obediently snake along in a one-way system, socially distance on escalators and wordlessly queue outside busier shops. It’s a relief to get back onto the open streets, where following some track-and-trace scanning and hand sanitising we find ourselves safely in a Yo! Sushi booth with dishes whirling round to our table.

All three teens are completely at home in the new world of phone menus and remote ordering. I hand over my credit card and let them take over! Sitting back, with a smile, watching the trio laughing and joking their way through the dishes, I realise that I could be dropping any one of them off for a new life today. They all look so capable, so self assured and so ready to take their place in the world. The panic I thought I’d feel; that these fun, family times are coming to an end dissolves into pride. I just feel proud of the three, incredible young people I have raised and proud of our strong bond as a family. Things will be different from now on, but in all the ways that matter, we will be as close as ever.

After lunch we find the student accommodation. My Eldest hops out to pick up her keys and we see her chatting to other new students … many times, as the rest of us complete circuit after circuit in a fruitless attempt to locate a parking spot. As the car park attendant waves us by onto lap 4, I decide enough is quite enough and manoevre Windsor into, what is clearly an illegal spot, right outside the entrance to my daughter’s block. After that, we unload, smile at flat-mates and their parents, drive off to do a bit of food shopping and giggle as we return to find cones now sternly blocking our drop-off spot. As the sun starts to fade from the day, Small Boy and I leave the girls together unpacking for a last bit of sister-time before it is time to go.

Yes, there are tears at this point. And as we hit the motorway south with only 3 of us in the car, my heart begins to ache. I have so much confidence in my Eldest child. She is brilliant, she is unstoppable, she will make a great contribution to the world. I know that Newcastle Uni are really lucky to have her. But she is also one of my best friends, she has brightened my day for the last 18 years, and I am just really going to miss her …

A Level Results Day

Thursday 13 August 2020

It is A level results day. I haven’t slept. I am up at six. Pacing the house. Hoovering for no reason. Depositing half-drunk cups of coffee in several rooms. By the time my eldest disappears to her room, to view the 8 am grades, I am on the edge of bursting into tears.  Everything goes very, very quiet …until,

Mum, can you come here please?”

And then I do cry. My girl has the grades she needs. After four years of unbelievable slog, barriers and hurdles one of my children is off to Medical School. It is so fantastic. It is almost impossible to take in.

2020 will be marked in educational annals as the Covid exam year; when exams were cancelled and pupils were given calculated grades. It has caused a national uproar, centred on the disparity between the standardisation of state and private school results. I expect the chapters of this year’s grade awards still have further pages to turn. But as the story of our marathon to Medical School reaches its end, I can say with some surety that if you want to experience first-hand the battle to break into an elite circle from the outside and even just to be allowed your entitlement to ambition, tell the world that you want to become a doctor!

Even though it has been daunting, and at times demoralising, I don’t want to put anyone off.  I would do it all again in a breath. For this single mum, even without the final outcome, the whole experience has been an unforgettable rite of passage. Transporting me from life as a parent of a child, to becoming a parent of an amazing young adult, unique person and great friend. We have shared so much, and this includes laughter and fun as well as the tears and moments of despair. I have learned far more from my inspirational girl than I might ever hope to have taught her. It really has been some of the best of times…

Re-living the Journey – just for the record!

Initial reactions

Mid way through Year 10, my eldest took herself to an event for ‘Young Doctors‘ at Manchester Uni. She skipped back through the door, waving a sutured banana, utterly sold on the idea of a career in medicine. By the December of Year 11, her drive and determination were beginning to take my breath away and I started to tell others of her plans. My niece was super excited and bombarded us with helpful sites and advice. Everyone else, clearly thought we were deluded,

“Medicine! Isn’t that incredibly difficult?”

“Don’t you need really high grades?

That’s so hard to get into! Can she really stand out?”

The message seemed clear; that Medical school was ‘not for people like us‘. And to my shame, as I confess in my first ever blog post, I retreated into this world of self doubt. Fortunately, teachers, teachers at a local comprehensive school, did not. They recognised the talents and efforts of my unstoppable girl, and rewarded her with praise, encouragement and a ‘smash the glass-ceiling‘ attitude. In August 2018, she collected a stellar set of GCSE results, moved onto sixth form college and joined the ‘Medical Group’.

Work experience and volunteering

The group told us of the hoops we has to jump through in terms of volunteering and work experience. When it came to finding a way through them however, we were on our own. My daughter hit the phones and found herself a volunteering post at a local care home. But clinical ‘work experience ‘…

I set out with a naive belief in the existence of a  ‘system’ to support us. We applied to countless hospital trusts and council care home. Some rejected us. Others ignored us. Many said ‘no‘ to any clinical care or patient contact. It was dead end after dead end.

Now I believe in a comprehensive system. I work in the school comprehensive system. But I don’t believe any such a system exists for medical school applicants. And if the system fails, like any mum I am going to fight for my child. In January 2019, in a growing panic about work experience, I abandoned official channels and fell upon the mercy of a doctor friend. How fantastic was this friend? I honestly cannot do them justice in words. They sorted out a placement. They provided great work experience. And they did something even more valuable than that; they invested time, care and interest. They were there, long after the work experience week, to meet up, talk through and help understand what being a doctor meant; why being a doctor was so important.

In the meantime, my daughter moved onto the UKCAT.

UKCAT

Despite a national shortage of doctors, great GCSEs, high A Level predictions, work experience and a year of volunteering are not enough for our UK medical courses. Oh no! You also have to take a medical aptitude test, prior to University application. For us it was the UKCAT.

My eldest, prepped for it herself with a bank of online questions. She ground through  practice papers on our holiday in Spain, upon our return, at her dad’s … essentially in any space she could find. The tests were gruesomely tough. But so is my girl! She fought through to emerge with flying colours. Ranked in the top 3% of entrants, she was now free to apply to the UKCAT University of her choice. Her personal statement penned, we crossed our fingers and waited for an interview.

The Interview

Without doubt, for us this was the worst experience. Scheduled in December, the exhausted end of term weeks and always an overnight stay away,  they proved a mammoth ordeal. It was to our genuine amazement that, four gruelling interview ordeals later, surviving sets of 5 or 7 stations of: group tasks, role play, ethical discussions, communication challenges and an interrogation of her personal qualities she finally got 3 offers.

Which just left the small matter of some pretty high A level grades …

A Levels 2020

We could actually see the finishing line. February mocks went really well. Parents Evening was a dream. Revision schedules were on the wall. Exam dates were on the calendar. But who could have foreseen that the curve ball of all curveballs that was heading our way? Covid 19!

Schools closed, exams cancelled. Teachers to predict and rank. Awarding bodies to churn it all through statistical machinations. And a generation of Year 13 students, exiled to wait 5 long months, now powerless to influence the outcome, to learn their fate…

We were back in the hands of teachers and have them to thank for their assessments, tracking and judgements. For their trust in a talent nurtured by interest, hard work and sheer grit. A level grades emerged from the calculations, not quite as high as predicted, but more than enough.

At last, the next stage beckons …