My friend Kathy works for Cyrenians, a charity that serves those on the edge; working with the homeless and vulnerable to transform their lives. Until recently she was based at the FareShare depot in Leith; Cyrenians runs the Central and South East Scotland franchise. Kathy has always talked about her work with such sincerity that I jumped at the chance of a tour of the depot.
The operation takes up two units, one on each side of the road. I arrive amidst the hustle and bustle of crates of food being unpacked, vans being loaded and tools being carried from the distribution unit across to the brand new ‘Flavour and Haver’ cooking School.
Having worked in a supermarket many moons ago, the first thing that strikes me is the similarities to a standard food warehouse. It’s a smaller version, but nevertheless the processes are clearly the same. Food is donated to Cyrenians from a variety of sources. Mostly it’s supermarkets and the odd restaurant chain but the Gleamer movement (people who take unharvested produce from the ground and ensure that it’s not wasted by passing it onto food banks) have also donated some of the crates of food today.
Every day is different. This being Burns Night the fridges are crammed with turnips and sprouts, along with a generous donation of partridge from M&S. I was also surprised to see lots of Nando’s chicken. A number of restaurants around the city kindly donate to FareShare on a regular basis. The quality and variety of food was impressive.
This is not your standard food bank, where bags of food are given to individual households. Groups, otherwise known as Community Food Members (CFM’s), apply to become a FareShare member. The foundation principle of FareShare is that the food is distributed to charities and community projects working with vulnerable people or providing social good. Once approved, they pay a small membership fee which varies depending on the size and requirements of the group. As a social enterprise, the fee is simply to cover the cost of the warehouse operation.
There are currently 117 CFM’s receiving food which would otherwise be wasted. Community Centres in areas of deprivation, soup kitchens, lunch clubs for elderly people who would otherwise struggle to find a pal to eat a home cooked meal with. One school club on the distribution list receives enough food to cover 564 breakfasts, 300 lunches and 515 snacks per week. It’s mind-boggling to consider the variety of tables that this food will cross, the thousands of tummies which will be satisfied as a result of this incredible organisation.
Relationships are at the core of all work within the community – I think that’s why I love to be around this kind of environment. It’s all about the people. From the staff at Cyrenians striving to foster partnerships with the food donors (and don’t be fooled – Tesco or M&S don’t just swing by with thousands of pounds worth of food without years of leg work), to the people in the community groups who ask for and cook the food, to the volunteers who are the backbone of this operation.
I spoke with some of the volunteers during my visit, and they are rightly proud of the work that they do. One man has volunteered with Cyrenians for 17 years and 6 months. He told me that he would be dead without the support of the staff team or the motivation to do something different. A recovering addict, he is almost a full-timer here and has received training to do a variety of jobs within the warehouse. In fact 85% of the volunteers are supported, or have been, regarded as vulnerable adults.
They have experienced homelessness, addiction, the criminal justice system. They’re now part of something positive – from working in the warehouse to taking cookery classes in the all-new community kitchen across the road.
Kathy talks to me about how Cyrenians receives what is regarded by the donor as waste food, but they see it as surplus food. They then turn it into “fuel for the community.” It’s some community. Each week, the hard graft from Cyrenians feeds over 7,000 people in the Lothian area (a total of 35 tonnes of food each month).
Thanks to the people involved in this food chain 7,000 people have something fresh and nutritious to eat, and someone to eat with.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Cyrenians FareShare are always increasing the number of incredible community projects they serve. If you can think of a community project that could benefit from membership, please spread the word!
Alternatively if you are looking to volunteer, there are always opportunities in a variety of roles.
If you are looking for an opportunity to volunteer, look no further. Kids Love Clothes are desperately seeking people to give a small bit of time each month to learn how to pack gift bags for families in Lothian who need support to clothe their kids. Read on to find out more about this incredible venture…
Picture the scene. It’s Christmas Eve, and somewhere in Edinburgh a woman is thrown out of her own home by her husband. All she has with her are the clothes she is standing in – and her two children by her side. They don’t have any belongings, toys or games, or even a change of clothes for the kids. Thankfully, Kids Love Clothes were on hand to support this family and they woke up on Christmas Day to a wardrobe of clothes for both children, along with toys and games. Kids Love Clothes are supporting many mum’s who, through a variety of circumstances, are not able to provide a basic wardrobe of clothes for their kids.
Across the Lothians.
When my son turned eighteen months I packed every item of clothing that he had ever worn into a huge box. I was going to keep it FOREVER. Just because. Then a friend told me about Kids Love Clothes, the initiative which helps local families with young children living in Edinburgh and the Lothians by providing a much-needed bag of clothes for their children.With 882 kids receiving support in 2016 and a staggering 1,800 in 2017, it was time to let go of my son’s often barely worn items. It struck me that I’m probably not the only parent with a box of goodies gathering dust, so I put out a call on a local Facebook group asking people for donations.
One week in and I’ve already collected three car loads. As my hall looks increasingly like the back room in a charity shop I arranged to meet Fiona, the founder of Kids Love Clothes, over at the drop-off unit last night with the first car load. I don’t know what I was expecting to find but as I drove down a country lane on a cold, dark January night and found myself surrounded by disused barns I regretted being in the middle of the Dexter box set back at home.
Thankfully Fiona and her dog, Maisie, were there to greet me. As they walked me through the empty farm buildings and into the Kids Love Clothes barn my senses are struck with first the brightness of the electric light, followed by a sea of clothes and bags and then the smell – oh, that fresh, happy, summery smell of recently laundered clothes multiplied many, many times.
Over steaming hot coffee, Fiona explains to me how the charity came about. In 2009, after being invited to an adults clothes swap with friends, she began to think about how quickly children grow out of clothes and how draining that is for parents who can’t afford constant replacements. This led to her thinking more widely about mums who can’t afford any clothes for their kids. How do they get a summer and a winter wardrobe for their children? After nurturing the idea for some time she decided to try it out. It began with friends donating their children’s clothes and then one day a friend gave her a box containing every item of clothing that her eight-year-old daughter had ever worn (so it’s not just me then). Kids Love Clothes was born.
By 2013, the small operation based in Fiona’s spare room transferred to the barn that I now find myself in, and had become a registered charity. Everything about this is impressive. Fiona’s determination (along with the hard work of Jules, Linda, Denise, Christine and Lara, plus a further 100 volunteers who collect, sort and iron) and the abundant generosity of people across the Lothian region who are donating bags and bags of clothes along with bucket loads of their time. The clothes are often brand new, still with their tags on. One elderly woman uses her £100 heating allowance each year to buy clothes which she then donates. Consider that one bag of winter clothes may contain items to the value of approximately £450 – £500, donations such as these are gratefully received.
As I make my way back down the country lane, I realise that Kids Love Clothes is much more than a jumble of tops and trousers. If a mother has her pride and a sense of dignity, she is more likely to find and keep a job. She is more likely to engage with her community and take her child to places. A child who is wearing a warm coat and comfortable shoes is more likely to listen in class. This is about staying warm but it is also about education, employment, community and empowerment. It’s about providing the best start in life for hundreds of children.
How to get involved:
I’m going to pull together a group of friends to go along to sort and pack bags. If you’d like to do the same, please contact Kids Love Clothes.
Email Fiona: email@example.com or message Jules via Facebook
I knew then that she would die.
The afternoon that I got the call had been one filled with hope. Viewings for two flats, potential new homes for me and my husband and my son. A walk down to the prom for an ice cream and a scoot and lungfuls of fresh spring air.
We were almost ready to head to the pizza restaurant which was intended to mark the beginning of our Easter holiday when the text came:
The absence of the second ‘L’ still bothers me today. After everything that we have been through. The tests and the worry and the life changing moments. The death, a funeral and the box of burnt up bones that now sits in my home with my beautiful Mam’s name engraved into the top. And yet, the missing ‘L’ still niggles.
I’d barely time to wonder why I should call when she phoned my husband’s mobile. Before I knew it I was driving to hers, worried about what I would find. Worried about what had already gone from my life.
Standing by her bed, watching my Mam drift in and out of consciousness, I knew then that she would die. She told me not to phone the doctor. For the first time, I knew that I would.
I called and I waited. I tried to help, and I tried to steady myself for what was to come.
The pizza went unordered, the Easter holiday abandoned.
Little did I know that it would take 66 days, but she did die. So much of who she was had died that night in her flat, nine weeks before her final breath. And yet so much of us, as a mother and a daughter, remained.
My Mam. On 13th June 2017. She died.
Just as one day I will throw her ashes into the winds I will use this blog to scatter some of my thoughts and feelings on something so surreal, so truly horrible and yet so disturbingly life-affirming. I hope neither blows back into my face!
I’ve been advised by friends and professionals that I need to sit still and just be with my grief. I find this incredibly difficult to do but when I achieve it, I also find that it really does help. It is in the stillness where I meet my Mam and it’s also where I confront my grief head on. For every person who tells me that she wouldn’t want me to be miserable (and this is true), I want to shake them and tell them just how wonderful she was and how much she deserves to be missed, to be yearned for.
There has been extensive press coverage regarding pregnancy and maternity discrimination today. It’s as if the world has suddenly woken up to the fact that women are losing their jobs for having children. Except it hasn’t woken up. Nothing is being said today that wasn’t being said in 2013.
Since 4th July I’ve been trying to secure a place at the table for the Scottish Government’s Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Working Group. I contacted the Chair of the group, Jamie Hepburn MSP, who replied personally to me within an hour.
“I’ll pass this onto my ministerial office and they’ll have a look at it and see if it might be possible for us to meet, or how you can feed into the working group that I will be chairing.”
I was cock-a-hoop. After all, whilst my book research is exploring the issues of pregnancy and maternity discrimination internationally, my main focus of research has been in Scotland and the UK as a whole. I have heard many stories from across Scotland. I’m gathering together the ‘mistakes’ made, the lessons taken from the experience of discrimination, the moments when the women realised they had been pulled into a game in which they had not been informed of the rules.
I’m about to go into my next phase of research where I explore the impacts of positive maternity policy on small businesses and what can be done about that without ruining the experience of early motherhood (and all that goes with that for the entire family and society as a whole).
I couldn’t wait to share this with Scottish Government. I want to make real change. The change that government’s talk about and that the women that I represent are desperate to see.
A month later I received a reply from the ministerial office that was polite and encouraging in tone, and if it wasn’t the fact I am writing a book on the issues it may have been informative. They have welcomed my offer of input, although they tell me lots of people have offered to help. They’re working with EHRC Scotland which could be brilliant, but I know women who have reached out to EHRC and have been completely ignored.
My main concern is that the letter includes some of the ideas that they outlined in the initial press release about the Working Group. Drafting employer policies, guidance for reporting on pregnant staff and lots of other dry, ultimately well-meaning but useless ideas that ensure the power remains in the hands of the employer, not the employee. Come on Scottish Government, we have guidelines. They’re called laws. They’re being ignored. And believe me, it’s often at the point that women point out to their employer that they feel that they’re being bullied that things really turn sour.
I went back to Scottish Government outlining my fears that they are going to play it safe when Scottish women are waiting on them to be brave. Nine days ago I received a reply informing me that my concerns and hopes have been noted, which will be taken on board as the group’s remit develops. In response to my email where I shared the fact that one of Scotland’s biggest institutions is repeatedly and systematically kicking women out of their jobs, I was told that the group is not yet at the stage of considering case studies.
It seems to me that the group has been formed (although I can’t find out who is included in the group), and nothing will change. I urge the Scottish Government to include me fully; if nothing else I can stress-test their recommendations and provide a voice for the women who have already told me their stories (no details that would reveal the identity of interviewees will ever be passed from me to anyone). But I also think I can offer more than that. I have identified key points in the testimonies I have gathered that reveal a common roadmap for pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and more importantly how we break it.
By focusing on these areas – the points in pregnancy where the employer pushes the boundaries of the law, the key times when women begin to lose their power – we can make a difference. And surely that’s what Scotland does best. The brave bits.
Today I spoke to a Scottish journalist who suggested that women who don’t speak up about the discrimination they’ve been subjected to aren’t brave. I beg to differ. I now ask the Scottish Government to be brave, too.
I am appealing to Scottish Government to let me help. Together we can explore the areas where we have to think differently to get the job done. It’s never been a better time for women in Scottish politics, and my ambition for Scotland is that there has never been a greater time to aspire to work and raise a family.
We’re not there yet. It’s time to be brave.
My three-year-old son goes to nursery for the first time tomorrow. I have been wishing for this day to come for the past three, maybe six, months. The challenge has been tougher than I had expected. And yet now that Nursery Eve is here, I’m wishing for just a little more time to have him close.
Truthfully it is time. It’s been time for a wee while now. My treasure hunts, art activities, mammoth reading sessions, days out, play dates and baking aren’t quite enough for him now and finally, after three and a half years, it’s not quite enough for me.Yet for all I have craved for an inch of the flat to call my own, and the “Why’s?” have made my bones itch with frustration, I am going to miss him. I’m going to miss us.
When I embarked upon my maternity leave back in February 2013, I never expected to be my son’s full-time carer for three and a half years. The original plan was for me to return to work for my then employer after five months’ maternity leave. We visited a nursery when he was just a fortnight old with the intentions of him going there. However, by the time he was six weeks old, I’d discovered that the role of looking after my baby was not the dreary existence I thought it would be pre-labour. The myths that I had wholeheartedly consumed for my entire life were not true. I could look after my child for a while and then return to the workplace. And I was going to try my hardest to achieve it.
I hadn’t lost my skills or contacts or professional ambition, and I felt that taking a few years out of the office to care for my son would not kill my career. Whilst postnatal anxiety took a hold, I also felt that I could accomplish anything I wanted. I threw myself fully and passionately into making life as fun as possible for both of us. I invented a timetable of activities to wile away the hours – Music Monday, Fingers Thursday and Fruitbowl Friday to name but a few.
I cried. And cried. And cried. I grieved for my old life, my old friends, my skirts and heels, my freedom. Many of the people who wanted to know me when I was CEO, turned their backs now I was M.A.M. I learnt a lot. It turns out I am a person who loves to be quiet, and I hadn’t realised how much time I had spent on my own in the years leading up to motherhood. Now my life was filled with constant gurgling, talking, singing, crying and shouting. Dear Lord, the shouting. And for the first 18 – 24 months of my darling boy’s life, he would not nap anywhere but on me. So there were huge chunks of silence where I couldn’t do anything except to sit and dream, think, research potential clients and learn about maternity discrimination. Oh, and master the art of bladder control as he dozed on me for four hours at a time.
Until recently I felt that the past three and a half years felt like three and a half years, but with the realisation that nursery is just around the corner, I now feel that it has sped by. I’m having flashbacks of things that I had completely forgotten – the happy times and the low. Bawling my eyes out whilst singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” was probably a low point, as was threatening to put him in the kitchen bin if he wouldn’t stop crying.
It’s difficult to say which half of this incredible period in my life has been the hardest. Any parent will testify that as certain things improve, new challenges appear to rock your confidence and bite you on the arse. The past eighteen months has been joyous in that we can have real conversations, and he dances with me, and he makes me laugh deep belly laughs which can sometimes end in tears because I am just so happy to be his Mam. It’s been tough too. Caring for my son whilst running my own business has been a massive challenge. I work at night and weekends and for the past seven months I’ve worked six hours whilst he went to playgroup.
And now here we are. Let’s be real Emma, he’s not going to boarding school in far off lands. He’s attending pre-school nursery for three hours each day. We’ll still have mornings and late afternoons. He’ll make new friends, I can work during daylight hours. We’ll both be refreshed and not so grumpy with each other.
I feel so blessed to have had this experience, and now we’re through it, I wouldn’t change a single thing. There’s certainly been some sacrifice, not least financial, and I AM truly looking forward to
watching Real Housewives in my pyjamas growing my business, exercising and spending some time with my parents without the constant soundtrack of a toddler in the background.
As I walk home from the nursery drop-off tomorrow, I will breathe a sigh of gratitude. This part has passed now, but there’s exciting unknown times ahead. And besides, we’ll be feeding the ducks come half past three.
Care. A small word with many meanings, some of which I’m just at the brink of beginning to understand.
My introduction to the word ‘care’ was dripping in saccharine coated goo created for childhood entertainment and merchandising. The Care Bears have a lot to answer for, but back then I learnt a lot from Love-A-Lot Bear and the gang. Caring was about love and tenderness and feeling happy thoughts about someone. There wasn’t much to do in my youngest version of caring. It was a feeling.
This didn’t change until my early thirties. I watched my Mam change after my Dad’s diagnosis of MS. She refused to be referred to as his “carer” for a long time but it was pretty clear to those around her.
For a while, the caring role was subtle. Supporting my Dad at appointments, making sure he didn’t fall, picking up the slack with the housework that my Dad was no longer able to do. Coping for both of them.
As my Dad’s ability to do the most basic tasks shrunk, my Mam’s to do list increased ten-fold. All while coping with secondary breast cancer herself. The support they received in the North East of England was hovering around the zero mark and, whilst it has been significantly improved in Scotland, there is still huge chasms of doubt and confusion. There just aren’t the resources available to fully respond to the very different needs of each and every carer and the person that they care for.
For the first time in my life I am realising that care is not the definite article that I believed for so long. It’s confusion personified. Relationships change, people change, conditions change. My Dad has dementia now and this has created a calm chaos amongst the people who love him. What does caring involve now? How do we help him to remain Dad? How do we let him go?
For a long time, I didn’t believe that my Mam had a carer because, although I am there for her and support her as much as I can, I wasn’t an “official carer.” I guess I thought that if I wasn’t receiving carers allowance than I wasn’t a carer. HOWEVER…the wonderful people from VOCAL were very clear that I too was a carer and I was able to access support services. Their definition of being a carer is:
A carer provides regular help to a family member, partner or friend with a long-term disability, physical or mental health problem or addiction.
VOCAL gets it – and if you’re in Edinburgh or Midlothian you can access their services too.
My only advice to fellow carers is to sit with your feelings for as long as you need to, and then take a quiet peak into the world in which you find yourself. It may be cancer, or MS, or dementia, or countless other worlds which we would do anything not to be involved with. However I’m beginning to find that there are people out there who are offering the kind of support that I am – and we as a family – are looking for.
One such project is from Katherine Brown’s Beauty and Utility Arts. A Book of Me is designed to help people with dementia in a tradition that is as old as time. Storytelling is the key component – sharing stories between people with dementia, reminding people of their lives and what they have experienced, informing care and medical professionals about who they are looking after, and serving to support the families and carers. They’re currently crowd funding to widen the project beyond Hinckley, and I watch with anticipation to see what A Book Of Me achieves. Help Katherine achieve something wonderful by visiting her crowdfunding page.
As a family whose bond is unbreakable, we still struggle sometimes to move together in the same direction at the same time. To be a carer is to work (and no doubt about it, it’s the hardest work imaginable) through a fog which clears only long enough for you to recognise that the horizon has changed, and then the sea fret covers us all again.
And yet, there is something that keeps us strong. It anchors us back to each other, the people in the photographs from the good old days. Back when we were in shell suits and I was holding onto Funshine Bear. The definite article. The love. The care.
Image: David Anderson
Earlier this month a Scottish golf course announced that it’s all male-membership had voted against allowing women to join. Stories from Muirfield were quick to emerge. Male golfers can take their dogs into the bar whilst their wives aren’t permitted to join them. A female senior executive in the Open Tour was told that she couldn’t eat in the club house because she had a vagina (I paraphrase but that’s the crux of it). She was made to sit in the kitchen. Apply this to any other group in society and there would be uproar.
However, there are clubs up and down the UK that are shunning women. These clubs – also known as the work place – are discriminating women in a way that is destructive to modern society. Whilst few women will be sad to hear that they can’t join an elitist golf club which costs thousand of pounds per year to join, I can’t imagine there are many women who choose to forsake their career (including those who are caring for their child full time) when they choose to start a family.
As the Muirfield story broke, I was on day three of my research phase for my book on maternity discrimination. I had read countless anecdotes from women who have gone through this and had spoken briefly to women I know. My understanding of maternity discrimination was solid prior to the interview process beginning, or so I thought. Now that I am ten days in to this I am seeing the workplace for what it really is.
Many women (not all) can be who they want to be and do what they want to do until they decide to start a family. At that point the workplace becomes an elitist members only club. The ‘lucky’ ones – and after talking to many women in this situation they do think of themselves as fortunate – will take a pay cut and work in a job they don’t want and are over qualified for. Thousands upon thousands more will be kicked out of the club and made to feel worthless, that the workplace is not a place for them.
It’s very early days and yet I am seeing similarities in the accounts that I have heard. I’ve interviewed women in many sectors already and there are patterns emerging in every account. There are lessons to be passed on that are common across the industries and crucially employers are making the same mistakes time and time again, but because women aren’t able to share their experiences publicly, employers are getting away with it.
If you have an experience you’d like to share please get in touch.
I wrote this post in May 2011 when Mick, my husband-to-be, and I made our own wedding rings.
To celebrate the relaunch of jeweller Donna Barry’s website and to commemorate the true legacy that making can brings, I’ve updated the blog for May 2016 at the end of the piece:
A few months ago I heard about a new initiative at Coburg House Studios, where soon-to-be-married couples have the opportunity to make their own wedding rings. As the enthusiastic marketeer of craft that I am and, more significantly, as one half of a soon-to-be-married couple I rushed home to tell my fiancé, Mick. I didn’t expect his reaction to be quite so enthusiastic and before I knew it we were signed up to take part in Donna Barry and Hannah Louise Lamb’s new workshop. What had I got myself in to?
As ‘Wedding Ring Day’ got closer, Mick became more excited and I became more nervous. Last Saturday morning we arrived at the Studios at 10.30am where we were greeted with smiles, reassurances and strong coffee. Hannah and Donna immediately put me at my ease, informing me that if I found any part of the process too tricky they would take over to ensure that we left with professional looking rings. Having already provided our measurements, preferred style of ring and chosen metal a few weeks earlier, the strips of metal were waiting for us in the studio.
Hannah and Donna then spent the morning demonstrating each step whilst explaining the science behind each technique. One of the first things we had to do was soak the metal in a solution (I’m not going to pretend I remember the terms and nor do I have to – this wasn’t work but a day of indulgence where I could use my hands and a pair of pliers instead of a keyboard and an iPhone) so that the particles that were packed really tightly together could relax and slowly begin to make the metals more flexible.
Within an hour it was as if I had been dipped in the solution too as my nerves had almost fallen away. However when it came to taking a pair of pliers to the strip of 18ct white gold that was to become Mick’s wedding ring I was a little scared in case I damaged it beyond repair (not possible according to our brilliant tutors) but also incredibly proud and delighted when I got each side to marry up into a ‘circle.’ The ‘circle’ was more like a rectangle to be honest but it was early in the day.
The part I had dreaded the most was soldering, and not only did I do a great job but it was also one of the quickest steps in the ring-making process.
After lunch we then got the mallets out and bashed the metal to within an inch of its life until – suddenly – they became ring shaped. At this point we decided not to look at each other’s work so that we could do a big reveal at the end. Sanding and polishing was done secretly in opposite corners of the room, in the way school kids shield their best work from the eyes of their fellow students.
And this was my best work. I haven’t created much in my life that didn’t involve a computer or a pen. The satisfaction and the joy and the “did I really do that?” that I felt when the wedding band that I had made for my soon-to-be husband came out of the fancy polishing machine will never be forgotten. If we have children and grandchildren we will sit them on our knees and describe to them what we did in that studio, together and in love. In the meantime I have told Herbert, our tortoise.
The day ended with our big reveal to each other of two professional-looking, handmade, unique wedding bands. This is why I love arts marketing and this is why I love craft. I’m on my own audience development journey now. The woman who didn’t enjoy making things is now on the lookout for the next workshop.
For more information on the Make Your Own Wedding Rings workshops, please visit www.makeweddingrings.co.uk
I’ve not read the blog post above since I first wrote it five years ago, so reading it back now makes me smile.
“If we have children and grandchildren we will sit them on our knees and describe to them what we did in that studio.”
In 2013 we did have a child and over the past eighteen months or so we have done exactly what I said we would do. Our little boy, sat perched on my lap, asking “what’s dat?”
Before he could speak we would put our wedding rings on his toes and he would giggle. The memories of the day with Donna and Hannah flood back every time we take a moment to truly re-examine our bands, and bringing our little one in to the fold of happy thoughts is magical. After months of explaining that we made our own wedding rings because we love each other and we wanted to commit to each other in this small but hugely meaningful way, he now knows this to be true. Now he wants to know why Grandad’s wedding ring wasn’t handmade by Granny.
The joy of making our own rings hasn’t subsided, in fact if anything the experience has continued long after we stepped away from the soldering iron. Knowing that one day our son will inherit our handmade rings, along with the stories and photos of the day we made them, is magical.
I’m having one of those moments in life where it feels like the planets are aligning and I can breathe again. It’s a rare feeling and until now, whenever this has occurred, it’s always been accompanied by massive moments – a big trip, getting married, promotion.
This time is different. It began two weeks ago with my son’s third birthday and certified itself once and for all as ‘next stage in life’ territory today when I found myself sitting on the pavement chalking a heart with ‘EDI’ in it’s centre, smiling like I was the three year old. It’s true Edinburgh, I heart you.
It’s been three wonderful years, watching our son grow into the little boy that he is today. I have cherished almost every minute (there’s a few that I’d happily forget) and with each shot of excitement about the future, there’s the almost obligatory tinge of maternal sadness as my baby grows up.
But it’s also been deeply…me-changing. Not life changing…my home and husband and family and friends are all the same as they were pre-motherhood. But I, I am different. There’s been many challenges along the way. A situation that arose prior to my son’s birth and continued in to his second year knocked the stuffing out of me, contributed to my postnatal anxiety and left me shattered.
I wasn’t broken but anyone with postnatal anxiety will tell you that when you’re scrabbling about trying to find the pieces of you to fit together again, broken is how you feel.
Don’t get me wrong. The wounds have been closing since 2014. I’ve had some incredible times with my son, my husband and my family/friends, and many laughs along the way. If you don’t know me very, very well I expect you’ve not known anything was out of place. That I was out of my place, and I was desperately clicking my heels to get back to where I once belonged.
During that time I set up my own business and – touch wood, fingers crossed, God willing etc etc – it’s going brilliantly. I supported my parents, who have health problems, in a move North of the border. I’m also the main carer for my son and that has been a blessing. Awesome. So many difficult but worthwhile things to thank my lucky stars for, and to help me to appear to the outside world that I was nailing it.
Healing took its toll (not to mention its time). I’ve worked really hard to not be anxious, not to be scared of not being the old me but also not scared of trying to get some of her back. And of course, just like the old saying about how to catch a butterfly, as soon as you stop trying to catch happiness or confidence, it will come and sit on your shoulder. Try to hunt it down and it will run like hell in the opposite direction (I paraphrase).
I did begin to ignore the pursuit of me. I forgot about that wonderful woman that I used to love and cherish, got busy with my family and my clients, upping my game in the baking stakes for playgroup events…and then one day, I walked back in to our home, unannounced but definitely invited!
It was my son’s third birthday. I noticed how much calmer, how much like me I felt in comparison to his christening when it was all that I could do not to fall to the floor (…always scrabbling…always trying to find those pieces). She was there, that part of me that doesn’t care about the small things. The part of me that laughs because I wanted to, rather than because I felt I should.
Last week was the first week I haven’t cried a tear in over three years. And then this week I did it again. A fortnight of not crying – instead I’ve celebrated my wins and coped with my stresses. (Not to say that crying is wrong or inappropriate – it was completely necessary for a long time, but I’ve done my share).
This morning I woke up, wished my family a happy International Day of Happiness (I love a Day of…) and went to Inverleith Park to embrace the Epic Chalk Day. I could not have done this a year ago. Sit in the middle of the footpath with chalk in hand. Exposed.
Today was different. Paul, The Artist organised the most wonderful event where families rocked up at 12pm and drew on the pavement in chalk. By 1pm the path was bursting with life and colour, rainbows and hearts, portraits and flowers. It was one of the most beautiful bouts of audience participation I’ve ever seen and I was sat in the heart of it, in the heart of Edinburgh smiling like a…like a happy person. The energy on the path was incredible. Paul, The Artist – whoever you are- you’re a one-man happiness factory.
I know someone who I think may be feeling the same way I did, going through the same thing that I did. I hid it from her (and everyone else) when I was going through it, so this is a way for me to start a more serious conversation with her.
And for me? What now. Fixed? Mended? Not completely, not ever. That’s what makes me human. The confident, strong, focused, funny, happy, rooted pieces are all reappearing, and bit by bit I’m completing the puzzle. I think I’m 95% there. I may never reach 100% but one things for sure. Those pieces are no longer on the floor, and neither am I (except for when I am chalking in Inverleith Park).
I have some plans to change my site to reflect some of the many parts of me – there’ll be two professional sections, an Edinburgh family bit, writing on feminism and women in the workplace and a random bit. And I’ll actually start to add content regularly, too. Maybe.
The concepts of home and identity have dominated January. At the turn of the year I was invited to an event marking a friend’s confirmation of his newly awarded dual nationality status. Born and bred in Washington D.C, my friend has worked in Edinburgh for a long time. However the confirmation that he belongs to and represents both the American and Scottish nations is perfect for this guy. He’s a good man – from what I can tell he’s one of the best (he’s probably an acquaintance more than a friend although to be in his company you would never know it) – and his character contains the more endearing qualities of each country’s more truthful stereotypes.
I once observed him at an event in Philadelphia where he was part of a delegation of 20 or so Scottish artists, showcasing their work to an American public. Wearing a kilt whilst speaking with a soft American lilt could have been jarring, cliched even. In reality it felt like a warm embrace – if you’re with Jeff it doesn’t matter if you’re in Scotland or America. He’s home and he will make you feel that you are, too.
The timing of Jeff’s dual nationality couldn’t have come at a more poignant time for me. I couldn’t celebrate with him as I was saying goodbye to my childhood home for the very last time. Brought up in Seaham, County Durham (England) I couldn’t wait to leave and never thought I’d want to come back. The tiny ex-fishing village turned not-quite-so-tiny mining village of my childhood suffocated me and my dreams – or so it felt at the time. A few cities later and here I am in Edinburgh.
Mother of a Scottish boy, champion of Scottish culture.
Scotland is home, and for at least four years I have felt as Scottish as I have ever felt English.
Then my parents sold my childhood home. My safe haven since age three. It’s where I blew up condoms and used them as water balloons; where I first aspired to be Dorothy, Alice and Charlie; where I first dreamt that I could create a world as exciting and as colourful as Oz, the rabbit hole or the chocolate factory, if not on paper at least in my own head; it’s where I screamed my way through my teens and it’s where I always felt safe. I haven’t lived there for 16 years but I have never stopped thinking of it as home.
As my twenties ticked by, I realised how much there is to love about Seaham. It’s history, it’s potential, and bloody hell it’s beauty. No wonder Lord Byron spent so much time there (not forgetting a certain Milbanke).
Yet despite myself, I had convinced myself that England was no longer home. I had never felt truly homesick for Seaham in the way I did for Manchester (where I lived prior to my move to Scotland), and my instinct tells me that Scotland is not about to let go of me, nor I her.
When my Mam and Dad sold the house, I went down to say goodbye. Driving down the A1 I realised what I was saying goodbye to. The memories and associations pour from the house from the second I pull onto the drive. The pink dress for my 5th birthday, re-writing Alice in Wonderland in my ‘office’ (otherwise known as the stairs), the Christmases, the meals with grandparents now gone but deeply missed, the meals, the rows, the drunken 3am chats with my Mam, the music I discovered, the various versions of myself I became and then left behind.
When the new owners strip the wallpaper off the walls, they will be given a virtual tour of the early loves of Emma Walker. In the living room they will find out about my young passion for Philip Schofield, the hall will spill secrets about Shakin’ Stevens and I blush to think what they’ll learn in the airing cupboard.
In the week leading up to the move I had panicked that the part of me that is English – that is Seaham – and all that that means will disappear now that I don’t have a reason to visit quite so often. Then I think about Jeff, and he reminds me of how lucky I am to have two places to call home. My heart is in Scotland now but my north-eastern English roots are planted deep within me and I will carry them with me wherever I go.
It’s the most delusional time of the year.
This time last week we were checking the Santa-nav and leaving carrots for Rudolph. Fair enough – how will Santa get to where he needs to be without fully fuelled reindeer?
However fast forward seven days and the world is believing in nonsense. Twitter is awash with mentions of Zumba, anti-smoking and losing pounds before Easter (when we’ll put it all back on in time for the next round of resolution writing). Yes folks it’s New Year’s, Hogmanay, Ano Nuevo – call it what you will, it’s the time of year where our imaginations are stretched to the limits of tv advertisers as we drool over the ‘new year, new life’ we’re sure to achieve by December 31st 2015.
Don’t get me wrong. I bloody love a resolution or two – last year, mine had sub-clauses which perhaps says more about me than I’d care to admit. Needless to say I didn’t achieve them all but the resolutions I made last year and how I have set about reaching, ignoring and adjusting them has taught me more about the path I’m on – and who I am – than any other year.
The events of the past two years has changed me more than any other 24 months of my life so far. I hate change, but I’m also good at it and so mostly it’s been okay. Then there are the changes which have left me wondering which side of the looking glass I’m on. The discombobulating kind of change which makes me run for my dressing gown and hibernation tank. I decided exactly twelve months ago – almost to the minute as I write this – that I was going to spend 2014 getting back to me, to being the best me I can be.
I wanted to blog, I hoped to write for the Guardian, I dreamed of working with clients who believed that mothers belong in the home and the workplace too, I longed to get back into those jeans at the back of my wardrobe. Tick, tick, tick…well, three out of four ain’t bad.
The absolute truth is that I had intended to blog every week when in reality I have blogged once a month. I dream of writing a column for the family section of the Guardian and whilst I’m chuffed at writing for the Careers and Women in Leadership sections (please Work Santa, may I continue to do this in 2015) I still want to write about my tortoise! If I felt inclined, I could be a complete bully and tell myself I haven’t fully achieved every resolution EXACTLY the way I set them out in my little resolution book last year.
But what I’ve learnt this year is to be kind. To myself. I’ve noticed that people are kinder to me when I’m kinder to myself, life is lovelier and work is more manageable. My New Year’s Eve 2013 resolutions are not to be thrown out or forgotten about. They are being achieved right now. They’re just not finished – not yet.
2014 has taught me lots about being brave, about standing up for who I am and what I believe in. I’ve not accepted some really shitty behaviour directed towards me, I’ve approached clients that I want to work with and have reaped the rewards, and I have decided to reignite the writing passions I had prior to my move to Scotland.
Two children’s books in draft version and a screenplay in the very early stages. Here I am.
Should I make New Year’s resolution number one: “In 2015, I will finish my screenplay”?
Nah, I’m going to be kinder to myself this time round. If I make it so resolutely about NOW, it will never happen. If I make ME so resolutely about now, I may never happen. I would sit in the library three nights each week and tell myself that I’m not a writer, that I don’t know how to write a screenplay, that it’s going to be crap and before we know where we are the nights will draw in and the librarians will be talking about going home to watch Bake Off again and I’ll not have reached beyond opening credits.
Throughout 2015 I’m going to write for pleasure and for work, continue to grow my marketing business and dream. Big, beautiful, scary, may-never-happen-so-why-not-try dreams.
One day I might have a successful film on my hands. I might get into those jeans. You may see my tortoise in the Guardian.
But not now, not yet.
Happy Hogmanay – thank you for reading in 2014.
Both this blog and this person was inspired by Carol Dweck for TED:
“The power of believing that you can improve.”
Last month George Osborne announced that he wants to see 500,000 more women in the workplace by the beginning of 2016. Of course, what Osborne is really getting at is that the government are trying yet another way to reach women and snaffle their votes from under them. In practice, it’s not just our votes he’s snaffling but also our right to choose. And it’s not just George.
Whenever there’s a reference to getting more women in to the workplace, I inwardly flinch. The majority of the women that society is hoping to crowbar into these non-existent jobs of Osborne’s are mothers. Mothers who are looking after, caring for and raising young children. They are doing the hardest job of their lives for zero recognition or financial reward, and society is doing its best to convince them that what they are doing is not work at all; before scooping up the poor children who are cared for at home and throwing them into nurseries like some kind of modern day Child Catcher.
I am concerned about the women who would love to return to paid work but who cannot find a part time job using their skills and experiences earned prior to having children, because these so-called-jobs don’t exist. I am worried for the women who are embracing and enjoying their time at home with their children, those who excel at teaching their child about the world and who are trying to ignore the fact that this time bringing up their baby is a temporary position, whilst also being beaten constantly with the message that until they are back to earning a salary that they are skivers.
“When are you going back to work?” an ex-colleague asked me the other day.
The answer I wanted to give is a detailed, eye-opening account of the once-in-a-lifetime ‘project’ I am currently involved in. The opportunity of actively being involved in creating, developing and nurturing a human life; the countless achievements I have been directly and sometimes solely responsible for in this little human being’s growth as a person.
The shortest and most truthful answer I can give to anyone who asks me “When are you going back to work?” is this:
I do work.
I am caring for my toddler full time, doing the job of a child care assistant or nanny but without the salary, the toilet break or the lunch hour. Although I’m always cautious to ensure I don’t refer to myself as a full time parent (because I’m no more a full time parent than my husband who works in an office for 35 hours each week) I don’t often feel the same cautious courtesy is given to me by either strangers or friends.
I’m often asked about the seemingly hotly anticipated date of my return to ‘work’, despite my getting up at 5am and not ‘clocking off’ until after my son goes to bed – and then I’m on call waiting for the Calpol Cry that every parent anticipates. Every nappy change, each meal, the millionth reading of The Gruffalo, the ‘Fingertip Tour’ through the house, the Fruit Bowl Friday game and all the other child-rearing tasks either enforced by nature or invented by me that are the job of nursery staff, are also the job of the parent that cares for their child full time. If I was going out to a financially remunerated job each day, I’d be paying around £800 per month for a childcare professional to be doing the job I do of caring for my boy.
Whenever I tell someone that my work is looking after my son, I can see the boredom set in almost immediately. I don’t blame them. Whilst there are so many rewarding moments in my day, there are also plenty of boring ones too. I’m not tripping over myself to recount every last nappy or even his first word. Well, maybe a little bit but not to the point I would bore people to tears and I’m certainly not about to whip out photo after photo of my boy.
What I find most frustrating is that whilst raising my son is currently the main feature of my life, I also have a number of extras going on, yet they are rarely recognised as such. I work as a freelancer on contracts that don’t interfere with my day job. I blog, I volunteer my time and skills for causes that are close to my heart.
I have lots of ambitious project ideas that were never allowed the light of day when I was in paid employment. When my son turned eighteen months, I assigned myself with one ‘it-probably-won’t-come-to-anything-but-lets-see’ project per calendar month. Twice a week I pursue, research, postpone or fuel my dreams. I can’t foresee another time in my life pre-retirement that I will have this opportunity to enjoy a transition so fully. It is bloody exciting, and I’m enjoying reaping the benefits of this.
On the occasions I have tried to tell people who knew me pre-motherhood about this surprising new side to looking after my child full time, I’m almost knocked off my feet with the sigh of relief that follows. It becomes clear that they have struggled to reconcile how a once-upon-a-time workaholic CEO can now be satisfied with ‘staying at home’ (I promise, I AM allowed to come and go as I please, albeit with a small boy attached to my trouser leg)
“Oh, so you ARE working. That sounds great,” is the standard response which is always delivered in an unnecessarily reassuring tone. But today, for the first time, I was asked a question about my freelance work that stopped me in my tracks: “You do get paid?”
And there we have it.
In a society that values money more than anything else, I have realised that it’s not because I’m looking after my son full time that astounds people. It’s because I’m willing to do it without getting paid. If I didn’t get paid for my contract work – if everything I did was voluntary – it wouldn’t be seen as such as positive thing in my life.
Wouldn’t it be incredible if Mr Osborne recognised the achievements of full-time carers of small children – whether they are parents, or grandparents, or a supportive friend – by supporting them financially. By acknowledging that many of the 500,000 women he intends to throw back into the ‘workplace’ do have amazing jobs already, and that by giving them a small token of financial support would boost both his employment figures and the morale of parents across the country whose workplace just so happens to be the place they also lay their head. Perhaps he could start with the 60,000 women who lose their jobs each year simply because they have had a baby but can’t afford tribunal costs because of the penalties imposed by Osborne’s chums? The workplace doesn’t look so fantastic for those mothers.
I started my career at Morrisons cafe where I was made to remove the grease and dirt from the skirting boards with a wallpaper scraper for £2.06 per hour. When my child was born, I ran a national arts organisation with little resource and a high workload. And I can tell you without any spin, bullshit or unnecessary hyperbole, caring for my child is the most rewarding and the most difficult job I have had the privilege to do. I know my workplace, and for as long as I can, I’m sticking with it.