Thursday, 22 October 2015

Absence from school - a parent's perspective

You might remember that Tween sustained a significant head injury, with a brain bleed, on his school premises n May. He seemed to make a decent recovery so after two weeks, we sent him back to school. Unfortunately, we soon learned that he had Post Concussion Syndrome, which has a wide variety of symptoms. Tween's were: severe headache, sleep disruption, weakness in arms and legs, inability to concentrate for anything other than short periods.

His attendance in the summer term was erratic, and in the end, things got so bad that I chucked in work and kept him off school for the last three weeks of term. I kept the school informed with regular emails and phone calls, and they were supportive.

This term, he has picked up every bug under the sun, and has been off for a total of two weeks. The GP tells us that, after a brain injury, the immune system can be weakened. Again, the school were informed.

This week, however, I got a letter from Tween's school. It started like this:

I am writing to make you aware that D continues to have significant absence from school with no reason/s yet provided, and their attendance has now fallen below 80% on his individual attendance record. Consequently, D has now been placed onto Stage 3 of the school's Attendance Stage System. This is the stage were the school formally requests a meeting with the parents because their child's level of attendance had (sic) still not improved, or has subsequently deteriorated following Stage 2.


I need to remind you that under the Education Act 1996 it is the duty of parent(s) to ensure the regular attendance of their children at school...


I felt let down, and worse - I felt accused of failing my child. So after scatter-gunning the school with an outraged email, I said 'yes please' to the offer of a meeting- if only to find out how this could happen.

The meeting was ok. The school admitted that they had made a mistake and apologised. But they also said that, at times, the rules passed on to them by the Government puts them between a rock and a hard place. If attendance slips, they are obliged to send letters. If they do not, they could find themselves on the end of a lawsuit (and in fact had a lawyer phone yesterday claiming just that). Schools, and particularly academies, are finding themselves - as in the commercial world - laid bare to potential litigious claims every day. The Government are prosecuting parents who do not ensure that their child attends school, and so the school needs to make sure that they have followed the required process to the letter.

I left the meeting with an overwhelming sadness that a school's focus is no longer simply to teach students well. It is to manage, accuse, support, be afraid, tick boxes, understand Government rules, be flexible when the rules change, keep up. They need to choose carefully between stick and carrot - not just for the children, but for the parents too. And the consequences of choosing the wrong one could potentially be huge.

Good teachers - great teachers - are being sucked into this red tape nightmare and are losing touch with the reason they went into teaching. My boys are seeing less of these wonderful role models, because they are stuck behind a desk, talking to lawyers or Government officials, or filling in forms. And the administration goes on into the evening; whenever they call me, it's always past 6.30pm.

For goodness sakes. Something needs to be done. The whole system is cracking; four in ten teachers leave the profession within a year. Teachers do not have the status in society they once had; they are frequently portrayed as lazy and moaning. In my experience, as someone who works daily with teachers, it just isn't true. They frequently have little work/life balance. In theory, they have long holidays, but in practice, they work six-day weeks and have to deal with huge amounts of pressure. Michael Gove has fucked things up, and change needs to come. Quickly.

So, my little story about a letter that should never have been sent is just a cog in a machine that is rapidly spinning out of control. The school has learned that it can't handle every absence issue in the same way. I have learned that teachers are sorely stretched and at times, simply don't have the capacity to be thoughtful and supportive.

And meanwhile, Tween lies in bed, off school again today, because he can't feel his arms and legs.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Being the wicked stepmother

We are all brought up on literary tales of wicked stepmothers. There's Hansel and Gretel - perfectly happy children until their mother died and their father re-married, whereupon, in a famine, their new stepmother convinced their dad to leave them in the forest to die.


Then, of course, there's Cinderella; her stepmother treated her like Mrs Patmore.
But at least she didn't want to kill her, like Snow White's beeatch of a stepmother did; the epitome of raging, rabid evil, driven mad through raging jealousy.

The Brothers' Grimm didn't invent the evil stepmother. My unquestionable knowledge of the Tudors, imparted to me by the brilliant Horrible Histories, means that I know that Mary Tudor hated Ann Bolyn, her stepmother. Mary blamed Ann for her parents' divorce, and was convinced that Ann had somehow bewitched her father. And further back in time, the Greeks saw it too; Hesiod saying rather marvellously, "a day is sometimes our mother, sometimes our stepmother". In other words, if you are having a stepmother of a day, you might as well go to bed, shut your eyes, and hope tomorrow comes soon.

I'm banging on about wicked stepmothers because I have just become one. I didn't plan to be wicked; I planned to be chatty and funny and supportive. Not a stepmother, or even a cool 'stepmom'. I was just going to be 'Lottie'.

It was clear though that, when I met boyf's son - who's 24 -  for the first time this weekend, he hated me with a passion. He shook my hand and started at me with eyes so cold that I thought he must have mistaken me for someone else. Hitler, perhaps. "Errrrrrr" *tiny scared belch hiccup* "I'm Lottie. Hi."

"Yes. I know," he said.

He sat down and didn't look at me at first. He spoke to his dad, and I sat back, injured. I had thoroughly misjudged the situation. I'd thought that, because he'd said he wanted to meet me, that he actually wanted to meet me.

YOU TWIT! Of course he didn't want to meet me! He didn't even want me to exist!

In those few short seconds of The Handshake, I saw that, to him, I was the woman who had figuratively thrust a knife into his own mother and torn apart his family. I was the whore who had bewitched his father and taken him away.

Which was upsetting, because to me, he was the boy I'd wanted to get to know for three years. I'd wanted to welcome him into my home, wanted him to meet my own sons and inspire them about the Arts. I'd heard so much about him. I just wanted to be his friend. (I know, right? Bellend.)

As my parents split up when I was 14, I have some experience of step families. I know how difficult and complex it is to meet someone who is intimate with your parent. Who is not your other parent.

It's weird shit. And you need to be properly adult to deal with it.

They talked for a while, son and father. I gave myself a talking to and leaned forward. Took a deep breath and launched my best effort-charm offensive. I scraped up every single fact I'd learned about him over the years, and asked him related questions. I pretended to know not much at all about stuff that he was interested in. I even offered him some of my food, for Christ's sakes. I smiled A LOT. And after a while, he softened, his stare become less accusatory, more...well, more like you'd look at a hippo in the zoo. With interest, and a little fear.

In the end, I ran out of questions. There was a silence, and I made a little puffing noise, saying 'Well then, isn't it time....?' and looked pointedly at boyf. I was exhausted. I think everyone was.

We shook hands outside and I said how nice it was to meet him. He didn't respond - but at least he didn't look like he was going to machete me into a thousand pieces.

I hope I can bring him round. I would love to talk to him, properly, naturally.

I wonder when that will come.

Brilliant blog posts on

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Lump - part 2

Sometimes, I am an absolute tit.

I was going to write a post about going back to the breast clinic, and finding out that everything's totally normal, and WHOOPEEE FOR ME!

But a few seconds after I'd tweeted that my news was good, a lady replied saying, "I wish mine was."

This lady has breast cancer. She went on to explain, kindly, that she had already had chemo and is facing a round of radiotherapy.

And here I was, dancing around, getting my healthy baps out and giving myself an extra big cheer. Nobber. Nobber. Nobber.

This made me think more carefully about my time in the clinic, and about the other ladies waiting with me. As I had lots of tests pencilled in, I was there for hours, and got settled in with a very bad book and an enormous bag of rice cakes. One by one we were led away into a room to have our breasts fondled, and one by one we came back, awaiting the next round. I'd noticed that the woman next to me had been gone for a while, and I'd assumed that she'd already slipped out unnoticed. But a little while later, out of the corner of my eye I saw her return, red eyed. She sat down next to me and turned to her friend. "It's cancer." she said. Her friend let out a creaking noise.

I looked away.

90% of breast lumps are not cancerous. But there were 20 people in that clinic. Which meant that, statistically speaking, my neighbour was probably not the only one to be diagnosed that day.

I imagined that the 'other' person in the room was going to me. I forced myself to live the moment of telling, the moment the doctor revealed the bad news, in my head. I thought about how I would react, what I would say. I imagined the terror of telling my children. And my ex husband. And of course, like the complete twat I am, I started to cry too.

The lady who had just been diagnosed turned and gave me a sympathetic look. I felt like a dick.

I was lucky, of course. This time, at least. But 50,000 people, mostly women, are fighting breast cancer every year. So all that trauma - the telling everyone, the coming to terms with it, the treatment, the emotional sledgehammering, the issues with work...not to mention your sodding health - is happening right now. In fact, more than 130 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every day. But...78% of breast cancer sufferers survive, and there's a strong desire to make this 100% by 2050.

So. If you don't mind me being matron for a moment:

  • Check your breasts regularly. Up-to-the-minute guidance is here: If you find a lump, don't worry - it is most likely to be benign. But DO have it checked.
  • If you are offered a mammogram, take it with open arms. Well, arms above your head, anyway (mammogram joke). People told me some mammo stories that made me jumpy, but I can honestly say that it didn't hurt at all. 
  • If you find a lump, don't imagine yourself dying, like I did. It just makes you look like a nob. Just get to your GP and let him or her cop a feel.
  • There is a wealth of information on breast cancer out there on the internet, but don't over-Google. You might do what I did and assume the worst. Leave it to the NHS; my experience was that they were swift, knowledgeable and caring.

Last time I went to the clinic, they were selling knitted tits. This time, it was knitted cupcakes, in support of Macmillan's World's Biggest Coffee Morning.  I bought a knitted cake, although if I'm honest, I'd have preferred a knitted tit.

And here it is. Glittery and everything. It could actually be a tit if you squinted at it in the half light.

Good luck to everyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer this week. That's 520 people already. I am with you, as are all the women in the country. As for the rest of us - let's get knitting, or baking, or running, or spreading the word.... or something.

Because we all know someone who's lived or died with breast cancer.

It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Give your boobs the once over. This month and every month.

And then the fun began...

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Lump

Until about a month ago, I had been ignoring the lump in my breast. I pretended it wasn't there. Or I justified it; 90% of lumps are cysts. It's a cyst. Just a cyst. Sometimes I spoke harshly to it. "FUCK OFF! I HAVEN'T GOT TIME FOR YOU!"

But it was resolute. It stayed. And so, after Googling the absolute arse out of it, I went to the GP.

My GP is a lady. It is odd, but not unpleasant, having a lady wobble your tits about. In fact, if the surroundings had been a bit more conducive, I might have got a bit too comfortable. But as it was, I just looked out of the window, and wished I was elsewhere.

She was lovely, and sensitive, and said it was probably nothing, and certainly probably very likely not to be Cancer. I liked that she'd said 'Cancer'. It's now out in the open, and makes it a shed load easier to both vocalise and think about.

The Government line is that breast clinics have to see you within two weeks of referral. Where I live, it's like a sort of triage appointment, when they decide if you properly might have Cancer, or if you've just got lumpy tits.

The waiting room for the breast clinic is one of the most remarkable places. The appointments were running late, so it was choc-a-bloc with women. All sorts of women; young, old, middling. Some in work-attire, some in joggers. Some on their own, some with mothers and daughters - and one girl with her entire circle of friends around her. The sense of camaraderie or... togetherness, was palpable. I liked it. If I hadn't been so effing worried, I might have stayed all day.

I got called in by a lovely nurse ("So, so sorry for the delay") and did the usual drill for the young, male doctor. Questions answered, top off, bra off.

It's a very strange thing having a man you've never met before feel your tits - in such depth. Imagine the scene. The nurse is standing up by the wall, smiling at you. You are sitting on the trolley, legs dangling, naked from the waist up. A man is crouching in front of you, squashing and touching and squeezing every bit of your mammaries that he can lay his hands on. And yet, you're talking about the weather, your children, the fact that you've had a cold since July, what music you like. You can't look at the man, because somehow that would create intimacy, so you look at the wall on the left. And when he's focusing on the left breast, you look at the wall on the right.

I will probably never see this man again, this man who has fondled my breasts so rigorously.

Clothes on, and more talking. More vocalising the word 'Cancer'. "I don't think it's cancer," he said, "but just to cross the T's and dot the I's, we'll get you in for a mammogram, a scan and a biopsy."

"GOOD-O!" I shouted, suddenly, it seemed, one of The Famous Five.

And I was pleased, in part. Pleased that the ball was rolling, and that at least I was now in the system. I felt looked after. I felt like I'd fallen off the high wire, only to be caught in the safety net. And by that, I don't mean that I felt well - I just felt like I had handed the weight of responsibility for my own health over to these doctors and nurses. And that was comforting.

So, on Tuesday, I'm off again to the breast clinic to have my already, frankly, tiny breasts squeezed and sliced. I have told a handful of people, and they have all offered to come with me. They are very kind, but I feel that there is enough support there - in the wonderful NHS staff of course, and all the ladies in that waiting room who share the same worries as me.


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