I just watched a trailer for the Dispatches programme that will be aired Monday. It’s called “Growing up poor: Britain’s breadline kids”. You can watch the two-minute trailer I happen to stumble across here.
I was just standing in the kitchen looking through my Facebook when I say this trailer come up on my timeline. I don’t watch TV so don’t usually watch trailers, but the title and the girls face made me want to watch. And I stood crying in my kitchen for a good 20 minutes (I’m getting well emotional in my old age). I cried for Courtney (the girl in the clip) and her little brother. I cried for her mum. I cried for my mum, my kids and then myself, let me explain.
I have been Courtney in my lifetime…I have also been Courtney’s mum. Both as equally sad and brutal.
Growing up we didn’t have a lot most of the time. Just like millions of families. Sometimes I had stuff, sometimes lots of stuff. Sometimes I had nothing. Let me explain.
At the time I was born my parents were married, owned their own home, and lived…OK. My mum and dad were both born into terrible poverty but at the time I was born…They had money. They had owned the house for about 3 years. The house was bought with dirty money. That’s all I will say right now.
When I was about 18 months old my Dad was arrested and placed in prison and we lost EVERYTHING. So, for 3 years my mum had lived a normal life…and now she was back to square one. She had nothing, just like she had done most her life. Except, now…. she had me. I can remember being about 3 years of age and we were living in a bedsit/shared accommodation (I just remember we lived in this one room) and my mum bathing me in the sink. One night I woke up cold and climbed up onto where this sink was, filled it with boiling hot water and then was about to get in. That’s because when I was cold, my mum would give me a warm bath My mum woke up, screamed, and stopped me. We had Christmas in this place and I can remember it being very noisy, lots of kids and lots of ladies crying….
As I got older my mum got a job. She worked for Freemans catalog. So, from the ages of 5 until 9 I had some of the best Christmas you could imagine. I have some pictures from Christmas days I had. If you saw the amount of toys I had you would think I was spoiled, A little rich kid.
However, my mum worked and lived for Christmas day. We would go without all year so that I would have this big Christmas day. I loved it. I thought farther Christmas was like a god.
We had no heating most of January. That was a pattern I can remember most of my childhood. We had an immersion heater that took about 4 hours to warm the water up. But when we had no heating mum would boil kettles and pans of water so I could have a bath. By the time she got it to about halfway it would be stone cold.
I can remember being about 9 and thinking…I would rather Santa brought me heating than toys.
Mum would cry from January to about April. Not all he time. But I have always associated my mum being at her worst during these months. I now know this is because my mum would have taken loans out leading up to Christmas and then couldn’t pay them back in the months following.
Our flat was always cold. Always. We only had heating in the living room until I was 12. Do you want to know something…the council only put a heater in the bathroom when I was pregnant with my son, When I was 15. Social services made the council do it. We had no double glazing. It was so bad that when I think back now, I can’t believe that children had to live like that. That was the 80s/90s.
So how the fuck are children still living like that now!!!! Courtney’s story has hit a nerve. I think its because I can see myself in her as a child and also, I see children like her every day just being left to live like that.
When I got to 10 life started to change very quickly. I no longer cared about Christmas. I knew I wouldn’t get much, and it was almost a chore for a few years. When I was 14, I was done with Christmas. I was living a different life. However, I came home the day before Christmas eve to find my mum in bits. Crying so bad. I was worried. She was sitting in the middle of the living room with stuff in bags round her and wrapping paper. I sat with her and she sobbed. Said she just wanted us to have a Christmas day like when I was little. That she had bought me stuff and that she didn’t want me to see it was from her and wanted me to get up on Christmas day and be excited. I just let her cry and then made her tea and gave her sleeping tablets and told her to go to sleep. I stood in the living room and just shook my head in anger. I knew she would have borrowed money to get me stuff. I looked in one of the bags. It was a leather jacket I had said I wanted last year. No way would I wear it now.
I waited for the shops to open Christmas eve morning and I went shopping. I went to a jeweller and bought my mum a “Mum” ring. It had jewels in it that represented her birthday. It must have cost me about £160. That I paid in cash in the shop (No one even flinched when I pulled out rolls of cash…well done for that shop keeper…funny how adults turn a blind eye when they are benefiting from it). Then I went and got some other bits, Dropped it all home and then went out “To work” for the evening. I got in about 1am Christmas eve/morning. Mum was asleep on the sofa, tissues everywhere …so she had been crying…sleeping tablets all over the table. I was used to her taking loads that it hardly ever crossed my mind that she would take too many. But it did today…so I tried to work out what she had taken….it seemed ok.
Then I went and got all the gifts she had got me, and I wrapped the whole lot. 14…wrapping my own gifts on Christmas eve…. that one still gets to me. And then I put the whole lot under the tree and went to bed. It was about 5am when I had finished. I set my alarm for 9am. Then I got up and sat up in bed. I was so over this shit. I had to be out doing what I do soon. I stood in my room and just got all the anger out of me. I needed to do this right for her. I made tea and then went and woke her up…” Mum…mum its Christmas”. She started opening her eyes…looked up at me and shrugged. She looked so sad. I rocked her hard and said in light voice “Look…farther Christmas has been” and I laughed. My mum sort of looked at me and then turned her head to look at the tree. And there were all the gifts. She slowly sat up. I started bouncing around like a kid “Come on mum…wake up”. I picked up one of the presents and said, “Can I open it”. She looked at first confused and then…embarrassed maybe. She knew that I had done this. I just stood there praying that she would play along. I didn’t want to do this. I could not give a fuck about what was in the gifts. I needed to go and make £800 by 11pm. But …this is what we were doing. She smiled and said “OK….one…but then you have to eat some toast”. And I sat on the floor for a good hour, opening some very strange gifts my mum had got me (She had even got me PJs), and acted like nothing had happed. I gave her the ring and she cried. Cried too much. And that was that. I still have that ring in my draw upstairs. She wore it unit the day she died. She wore it every single day until the day she died in my arms. Now…some people may think that she should have questioned how I got the ring…. some may say a lot of shit. I don’t care. That was the first present I was able to go and get for my mum…. the money was made from hustling…yes…. But that’s just how life is …sometimes…when you live on the breadline.
We spoke about that Christmas years later. Mum would get tearful and say… “Remember when you had to wrap your own gifts that year” …and I always replied…” yer…it was fun to be honest”. But it was not. Not one part of it.
When I had my boys, I was determined that they would have a better life in every way. I would make Christmas bigger and better. I would make sure they got all on their list. And just like my mum I got myself into debt. My mum also spoiled the kids at Christmas. She was also trying to make up for a million things she didn’t need to. And she got into debt.
No…the boys were never cold and hungry. But I was. I could not pay back my debts a lot of the time… so I would go without. I would make sure they had everything they needed but the amount of times I have gone without dinner in the past is shocking. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. Yet…every Christmas they would have this pile of gifts. Silly amounts.
A lot of this was down to guilt. Guilt about how they had come into this world. Guilt about things I may have exposed them to. Guilt for them not having a dad around. Then I would spend the next few months after Christmas in bits. I contemplated returning to criminal activity for years after I had left. I would sit there …no money…the boys asleep in bed, knowing that if I sold drugs or whatever I could solve my problems. I never did. But you know what …if I had of gone down that road, I wouldn’t have paid off my debts. I would have spent it on the kids. Because that was my mentality. Because that is what I had learnt from my mum. Make sure the kids have stuff, the bills can wait. But they don’t wait…
Then I had my daughter. A year after loosing my mum. And it has been then same with her. Overspending at Christmas but yet struggle to pay the bills. Making up for what other people around her are doing. Making up for the guilt I carried for once again…. raising a child alone.
At the start of this year I made a promise to myself that This behaviour would not continue. I could see a lot of my actions were like my mum. And not her good traits. Because she had many good traits did my mum. However, she carried a lot of guilt.
I realised that spending money was never going to make up for absent parents, absent family, anxiety, worries, anger. It may have taken me 38 years to realise this…. but I got there in the end.
My daughter still believes in Santa. She thinks he gets most of the gifts and I get a few. (I messed that right up, yet once again…me doing all the hard work whilst a man takes the credit). She wrote me a list for Santa and then a few days ago a list for me! I have told her that I can’t afford everything on the list. She said…. I thought Santa gets most of it. I said…no. Santa brings some stuff, but Mummy does most of it. Usually she would argue this, but she said, “Ok mummy”. Because my little girl is not so little anymore.
I just showed this 2-minute clip to her. We watched it and the she said, “Start it again mummy”. And we watched again. My daughter is still learning about empathy (among other things that people just presume every human is born with) and usually, my daughters empathy only stretches to animals.
She sat quite for a second and then said, “Will Santa bring the mummy a present” (you need to watch a clip). I said …no…Santa only brings children presents. She thought about this and said “The girl in this is acting like an adult. She said she has to look after her brother and her mum when she is sad…will Santa bring her a present”. I said…. I hope so. With that my daughter got up and walked off.
Just now, as I sat down to do some work, she was stood in the living room doorway. I was typing away and I looked up and she was on the verge of tears. It took me by surprise “Oh…are you OK” I said stretching out my arms to her. She ran over, jumped in my arms, and started crying and said …
“Why would the prime minster let that little girl live like that. With no food and cold at night. They are not going to have a nice Christmas if they have no food. I bet he has food and heating. I bet his children have at least one present”. I said nothing. Then…. between gulps…she looks up and me and asks….
“Mummy….is there lots of children that are living like that?”
I say …yes…. yes, there is…I work with children that live like that every day. To which she replied…
“Then mummy you need to tell everyone that its very bad. Its very bad that the prime minster lets children be cold and hungry. I bet he wouldn’t let his children be cold and have no food. Tell everyone that he is stupid and doing a bad job”
And so here I am…. telling all of you…because she told me too….
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