Since starting Mothers Uncovered, funding has always been one of our struggles. If you’ve not had to apply for grants, imagine it as a job application. A Groundhog Day of a job application because you always have to be looking to the next one, mostly to pay for what you are currently doing that you claimed for on a form last year. Confusing huh? When filling out these forms, you have to cram all your square pegs into round holes in order to be in with a chance of success. Each time you need to sound as if you’re doing something new and different, rather than the same thing that you know works, with a new set of service users. Funders are not known for wanting to pay core costs, merely project costs. Yet companies still need to have insurance, file accounts and pay for their web presence – who pays for these? The service users should pay, I hear you say. Yes, but as charities, we have a moral duty not to set fees for activities too high to exclude people. Indeed, most of the forms you see are exhorting groups to cater for deprived users.
If an organisation gets bigger, it has more chance of sustainability. I have become more vocal on the topic of maternal mental health in the last few years, not only because I believe in it, but to attempt to raise our profile to give us more security. I set up a petition some time back, which sits quietly on Change.org, not doing very much because the subject is not of great interest to the population at large and is not click-baity enough, despite my inclusion of the fact inadequate care is costing the country £8bn p.a. You can see it here https://www.change.org/p/public-health-england-nhs-mothers-need-more-support-help-them-now?just_created=true
Interestingly, I met Duncan Selbie (CEO, Public Health England), one of those petitioned, at an event in November who exhorted me to keep going – ‘we need you more than ever.’
An initiative was set up a year or so back called 1001 Critical Days, i.e. from conception until the baby turns two, because research had shown this is one of most significant times in a person’s life. The focus is still on the baby, rather than the mother, but hell, we’ll take it, if it means investment in the perinatal stage. It is, of course, an investment for everyone, not just because it creates a healthier, happier society, but because those children grow up and become tax-paying citizens.
About two years back I heard about potential funding for ‘prevention rather than cure’ coming from government. I have yet to see any sign of this. I have been to many, many meetings and consultations with the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) down here. There is always much talk of change and investment in the third sector. What then happens is that some of the promised money seems to get siphoned off, away from mental health. Then large and unwieldy contracts are put out to tender which are only eligible (or manageable) for the large providers. Smaller organisations don’t stand a chance. Then the process is repeated every few months with a new set of faces. The smaller organisations still don’t get a look in and many face collapse because of it.
The women that attend our Mothers Uncovered groups have often attended NHS run support groups carried out by health professionals, but what they really value is the peer support we offer. Several say we quite literally have saved their lives. Additionally, since we have published both a book and a couple of articles on the topic, I receive regular emails from women around the country, either asking if something like Mothers Uncovered exists in their area or can they create it, if not. We are looking to expand, but we don’t want to bulldozer Mothers Uncovered into an area when there is a group already operating. There are many small groups operating nationwide, geared to the needs of those communities, but they struggle to survive because they often can’t afford to publicise, and peer support normally gets lumped in with volunteering, therefore it is not valued or supported and is often not sustainable.
I can see why peer support creates a problem for those in charge – how can it be monitored, assessed, held accountable? But we know the NHS is creaking at the seams and something I think, needs to change. The NHS Perinatal team in Brighton, for example, is completely swamped and overworked and cannot see all the women that need help, unless they are deemed high risk. I often hear from mothers saying that they wished they’d heard about our services. In fact, I quite often hear from those in higher up positions that they have ‘never heard of us.’ It is said almost triumphantly, which is slightly galling and I’m not sure what purpose it serves. We do our best to put the word out – we have flyers, social media, Mailchimp. What we critically need is signposting from GPs, midwives and health visitors, which they are not currently allowed to do because they can only recommend NHS services.
I attended an event on maternal mental wellbeing in Parliament on Dec 10 last year. Yes, another of the ‘Days of Brexit’. It was chaired by a male obstetrician and sponsored by 3 male MPs, but luckily there were also some women on hand to discuss their experiences [eyeroll emoji]. I raised a point with Tim Loughton MP, and asked for his reassurance that smaller peer-led groups would in fact be championed. I’m not sure he entirely welcomed it (!), but it got a cheer from several of the women in the room 😉. He did say that the Brighton CCG had been somewhat obstructive in collaborating on initiatives, so perhaps we are just unlucky.
The biggest problem peer support groups have (and this is true across the board for all social care, not just maternity) is that while the route to mental health care remains through the NHS, nothing will change. The system is too large and unwieldy. I’m no medic, but from my observations (which are shared by many other groups working in the field of peer support), a considerable majority of people’s problems can be better managed by attending peer support groups and initiatives than by being referred (usually after a wait of several months) to a clinician who will provide the ‘expert’ treatment and possibly medication, but not the empathy and sense of community that is more useful long-term.
Peer support is also much cheaper. One of our Mothers Uncovered five week groups, for example, costs about £1000 to run and provides care for up to eight women and their babies. If any one of those women had not attended and spiralled into PND (and several past participants say attending is the DIRECT reason this has not happened), necessitating a hospital stay, the cost of her care, not to mention the emotional fallout for her family and friends, would be way in excess of that.
The CCGS are somewhat suspicious of peer support groups – the charitable reason you might ascribe is because they feel they are untested. Getting fed up of that attitude, and also knowing that we might stand more of a chance if we had an official report, about four years ago, Mothers Uncovered jointly commissioned a report into the effectiveness of peer support services. The report has been published in two academic journals, you can see links on our site http://www.mothersuncovered.com/sussex-peer-support-network-support.html . Here is the evidence, you would think, but still nothing changes, leading you to wonder if it is the wresting away of control from large providers they are more concerned about.
Following the report, I founded the Sussex Peer Support Network (SPSN) to represent some thirty organisations across Sussex. I had a meeting with Caroline Lucas, who wrote to Alistair Burt (then at the Dept of Health) about creating a pilot to prove the effectiveness of peer support groups. He batted it back to say she should contact the local CCG, which she duly did, then the matter was sidestepped and eventually fell apart. SPSN has pretty much fallen apart as well, as none of the groups have the spare time or money to manage it, and funding for it proved impossible to find. We are trying again with a different funding stream, so maybe this time we’ll strike lucky.
It seems that the best way to get action is to reach to the decision-makers, i.e. government. Sadly, the nightmare that is Brexit means that none of them have much time and who knows will even be in office in a few months anyway! At the event I mentioned earlier, the excellent Luciana Berger spoke about exactly all of the things I have mentioned. Obviously, she’s had a spot of personal bother herself recently and is shortly off on maternity leave anyway. I am hoping to have a meeting with Jess Philips at some point in the next few months. What is needed is a cross-party group of MPs who could push for the introduction of a peer support national database of services. I’d like for it to be for all services, but because I only have a certain number of hours, I’ll concentrate on maternal mental health. I’ll also be in two magazines banging this particular drum – Sussex Life in April and a new magazine being launched at the end of March by Anna Ceesay, who I met at another event.
I will keep on trucking. Women’s lives depend on it…..
It's been a busy half term. The usual flurry of admin surrounding the Mothers Uncovered courses; including a new one called The Teen Years, for those navigating the later years of their offspring. The continual quest to make our work more sustainable, involving attending meetings and conferences. Livestock’s separate project SoulFood, currently going down a storm in food banks, and our forthcoming M/others Uncorked immersive show about school curriculums. And of course our book launch of The Secret Life of Mothers.
I am so proud of our book - and of course, major props to Silverdart, our publisher, for their hand in making it the lovely thing that it is. To my knowledge, there's not another book exactly like it. There's been lots of books about mothers, mostly written by mothers, but generally it's the overview of one person, citing examples of others. This is truly the work of those 50+ mothers whose stories appear in it. All proceeds from the book go back to our charity to run more peer support activities at low cost, should you be wondering whether to purchase. (Please do! Also available on Amazon!)
We were fortunate to have Caroline Lucas both write a foreword for the book and attend the launch. Seeing as she is so much in demand, I could tell people were surprised that she had found the time. It probably helped that she has been a supporter of Mothers Uncovered for some time. We had first met at the end of 2009, completely by chance. I was attending a focus group set up by a friend’s husband. I was going because it paid £30 (!). I think it was to do with local services and potentially voting Green. Caroline, then an MEP and still with time to answer her own correspondence, came along to hear the opinions. I subsequently invited her to a performance of the work from our 'Your Stories' course at The Tarner Children’s Centre. Many of those writings appear in the book. Since then, she has been a staunch supporter: attending a couple more of our events and occasional meetings about various projects. The book idea came up in 2011 and she’d agreed to write the foreword then, but the idea had to be shelved due to lack of funding. This year, partly as a result of some personal reasons, I thought stuff it, we’re doing it anyway, even without funding. Luckily, she’s a woman of her word 😉.
Of course, in order to garner maximum interest in our event, I had promised Waterstones and all our social media channels that she would be present at the launch. Until the moment she walked in the door though, I wasn't entirely convinced she'd make it. Not because of any lack of willing on her part, but because her timetable is so fiendishly busy I'm surprised she finds time to sleep. When speaking to her office about options two months earlier, the date we chose was the only one out of about six that she was available and even then there was no guarantee: a major parliamentary incident might arise.
I happened to bump into Caroline a few weeks earlier in North Street and said that her presence would be excellent, but of course, if there was a last minute vote to overturn Brexit for example, we'd take one for the team, which made her laugh. God knows there's not much else to laugh at in the whole debacle. More a Munch-style scream at the unfolding horrors.
By the time she had completed her earlier commitment in conversation with Helena Kennedy QC and reached us, the night was quite well advanced. I was a little giddy by this point and can’t remember exactly what was said. Other than she thinks Mothers Uncovered is a unique, amazing service and should be protected. And that she’d like a group to deal with the empty nest syndrome. (I’m sure one will come when I’ve reached that stage). There is a clip here detailing some of her speech from the Q & A https://vimeo.com/300061521. The full version was less guarded, but that's her story. Eloquent, engaged and with more integrity than certain others with far more power in Westminster. If only that could be bottled. Eau de Lucas.
We were both interviewed by the somewhat idiosyncratic Latest TV (link below). I make an inappropriate quip about people‘s extended coffee breaks; I actually meant that the work culture isn’t particularly conducive to enabling those with limited time to partake, being riddled with bureaucracy, long hours and endless meetings. But if there’s ever a chance to put my foot in it, I do, rest assured. Thank God I’m not an MP. (Although my grandfather, who was an MP, had a similar tendency and it didn't do him any harm. He did fall foul of the racists in the 1964 election, but that's a different story).
Some reminiscences from our recent holiday in Greece
We had a brief sojourn in Athens, visiting the Poet cum Sandalmaker-to-the-stars, a pootle round The Acropolis and rummage through the flea market. Then on to the lovely island of Hydra, to stay with an old friend of mine Matina. She lives on the mainland, but comes back to her childhood home island for the summer with her son and husband. Her parents still run the taverna in the town – each day they sent a food parcel of lunch via water taxi (no roads = no cars). Clearly they thought their daughter could not be trusted to cook properly for the guests. On our last night we ate at the taverna. At a neighbouring table was this bunch of bright young things. Matina told me they’re connected with an incredibly wealthy naval business family, the Ecclestones of the sea world. I’m glad the Douskous were the recipients of these folks’ unearned cash, but my socialist hackles were growling. Amongst the many things ordered were two lobster platters - cost of 100 Euros plus each. They sat there braying and haw-hawing away about who of their party they’d leave on a desert island. I know what my answer would be.
Leaving the hackles aside, we went then to Naxos. I love a journey. Mine, or someone else’s. I get overwhelmingly emotional at the movement of modes of transport. Trains, planes, not automobiles especially. Even in the now joyless experience of the airport, with its 100ml liquid limit/speedy boarding scrum/everyone cramming too-big bags into overhead lockers, I get a thrill at the taxi down the runway.
Boats though. That’s the big guns. It’s all I can do not to blub as the ferries come and go (and there you were thinking I had a heart of flint 😉). My boys don’t share this - I don’t know if that’s an age/gender/personality thing (I’ve always loved boat journeys) - or maybe just the age in which we live - ‘What were you doing out on deck all that time?’ they ask incredulously. They each stayed briefly to watch a departure and an arrival, but their hearts were not in it.
I was delighted that on our journey to Naxos we called in at Paros first so I could indulge myself in welling up at another coming in and going out, without the kerfuffle of having to get off.
I also like watching the officials, who have the harried, self-important air of head chefs as they scurry hither and thither, blowing their whistles with gay abandon.
What I like about camping you could fit on a pin head (discomfort, rain, noise, needing a wee in the night necessitating a major expedition) I’ve yarped on about it elsewhere. http://www.maggiegordon-walker.com/detail.aspx…
Anyway, the thing I DO like about camping is the challenge of cooking with minimal equipment in inclement conditions.
The same sense of excitement happens looking at the interestingly equipped kitchen in a holiday apartment, such as the one we had in Naxos - here we had a prodding fork thing but no decent knives (usually the case) - it’s a challenge , but a good one. The joy of empty cupboards to fill with new things rather than the fusty old quinoa you have at home festering at the back that you know you should eat instead of the pasta you actually want. LOOK though at the curious little contraption here! At first glance this looks like a grill and oven, but no. It’s THE TINIEST DISHWASHER IN THE WORLD....!
I’ve been feeling a bit jittery the last few weeks. Partly it’s been the heat, which has taken all us Little Britain-ers by surprise. Hot is all very well when you’re on the beach, or beside the pool, or in a hotel room or apartment geared towards hot weather. It is not the same when in a carpeted house with double glazed windows and an attic bedroom trying to continue to function. I hadn’t realised quite how poorly I’d been sleeping until the rains came back and I slept the whole night through. I’d spent many nights in the previous few weeks starting up in sweaty terror at 2am convinced I was, in fact, about to die from a parched mouth.
The summer holiday brings with it more expectations than the Christmas and Easter holidays, which can be summed up as mass consumerism and chocolate respectively. Everyone is away from normal duties then, but the long summer stretch of absentia belongs to families and those that work with children. The belief that becomes more insistent as July rolls around is that everyone will have a marvellous time, moving from one sun-dappled location to the next, getting on with each other beautifully.
Of course this cannot be. I am self-employed, so am lucky enough not to have to scrabble around frantically trying to find daycare for my offspring. In any case, they are now 13 and 10, so can be left alone for a while if I have to pop out for a meeting. I still must shoehorn bits of work in here and there, which seems much harder to do while they are in the house, even if it is at 9am and they won’t be awake for at least an hour because they’re not going to bed much before midnight. #badparentalert.
The problem lies in the gap between expectation and reality (mostly the case with any experience). I am tired. So are they. Part of me wants to be going on a picnic or country walk, another part of me wants to stay in bed and look at pictures of other people’s picnics and walks on social media. My boys also want to immerse themselves in screens. They will come out for the occasional picnic or swim, but I have to let them have their holiday the way they want it.
It takes some time for the jitters to subside, the negative voice in my head that I am not doing it right to be quieted. Even if I am not ‘working’, the ‘work’ of the household, especially as I am a sole parent, does not go away. I’m still schlepping round the supermarket, cooking and doing the washing. I have a fantasy of some (fully staffed) tropical island, where we can decamp to for six weeks, along with several of our friends. The super-rich do have this kind of lifestyle, but perhaps some of them long for home.
Yes, we all are. I'm not laying especial claim. The busyness I have been particularly embroiled in recently is the putting together of the Mothers Uncovered book, The Secret Life of Mothers, created from writing and interviews of our participants over the last ten years.
It is a compilation of over 50 women's first-hand experiences and stories of their motherhood journey, from expectations through to the reality, thoughts about their own mothers, relationships with family and partners, their struggles with identity.
Its is, I hope, something that will appeal to many and not just mothers. At the beginning and end are quite political pieces by myself and one of my contributors, Claire Robinson, in which I lay down a small call to arms in a desire for the language and treatment of women in pregnancy and birth to be overhauled.
I hope I don't come across as too strident, or worse, not in possession of a GSOH. I've written funnier pieces at other times, mostly about Natwest or Ryanair. I like a laugh, I am frequently not PC, which is one reason why I couldn't go into politics, along with the lack of patience I know I would have as they all start braying and 'hear-hearing' their mates in the House.
Anyway, it IS a serious subject. But there are laughs within. And joy, hope and tears too. AND a foreword by powerhouse Caroline Lucas.
Please buy - it's on Amazon. Or get in touch with me and I'll send you a copy.
It’s been a funny old week because of the snow. It feels like the Blitz spirit should be alive and well, yet most of us are transfixed by forecasts on our devices, fretting about the detrimental effect on work rather than having a jolly good old sled down a snowy hillside. Or maybe that’s just me, who had to cancel three work things this week. It meant I had more time to wrangle with the reading for my upcoming module on Qualitative Research (hard. Very hard. I am slightly concerned!) and transcribing interviews from Mothers Uncovered participants from eight years back for our upcoming book. Fascinating listening to people’s stories.
The previous week had brought the sad and very sudden demise of Nic Grundy, formerly lesser player on The Archers, going out in a blaze of glory in hospital with sepsis. Highlighting this dangerous condition is undoubtedly a ‘GOOD THING’, even though it meant I couldn’t have my companionable Sunday omnibus prattle from Borsetshire on in the background as I pottered about as I knew where it was headed. Possibly in memory of those who have gone, I made my first ever fish pie that evening. That was always Chris’ dish, so I felt I shouldn’t before that.
Back to the snow though. Down in ole Brighton, it was a fairly inconsequential amount. It closed some schools, but not others, leading to grumbling. Twitter and Facebook timelines quickly filled up with the white stuff. Warnings were not heeded by some about the Beast From the East. There is still a redoubtable Brit resistance to being told what to do.
And now it is gone again. And it is damp. And the expected temperature for the time of year. Cold, but not too cold.
I love being out and about, observing people. I assumed everybody did it, when I was young. I found out in my teens this was not the case. My mother and I used to get the same train in the morning, me to school, she to her job in London. Being a small country station, the same faces could be seen on the platform, day in, day out. I would observe them keenly, noticing new haircuts, changed expressions, who was hiding behind their paper. Now they'd all be deep in electronic devices, but this was the 80s.
I made an observation to my mother once about one of the regulars. She had no idea who I was talking about. It transpired she was busy watching the buds on the trees or the development of the flowers in the changing seasons. Diff'rent strokes.
The first person I observed in the last week or so was a student on the bus back into Brighton from the university. About 20 or so, with badly dyed, pastel-pink hair, she was talking enthusiastically to her companion about the tattoo she was planning. Not on the throat, because that would be painful, but on the side of her neck, perhaps. One of her friends had had carved (sorry, I'm not into tattoos) into his neck a line from Anne Boleyn's speech written the night before her execution, something about greeting death like a sleep. Anne, you did not die in vain.
The second person I saw was a street cleaner by the side of the park, his high vis jacket a welcome spot of colour against the dark bareness of the winter trees. As I approached I could see he was very animated on his phone, his litter picker-upper perched in the crook of his arm as he leaned on his trolley. As I walked past him, I noticed he was Facetime or Skyping a woman entirely in sign language and she was reciprocating. From the grin on his face, I guessed things were good.
The third was in fact a couple who sat opposite me on a London-bound train. They got on at Gatwick, heavy with bags. I think they were Portuguese, although my knowledge of languages is woefully shaky. They each got out an M & S sandwich and removing both halves, stacked one on the other and took a bite through all four slices of bread. In between these mammoth mouthfuls they chatted animatedly. Why the double stack, I wondered? Was it a Portuguese trait or was it just them? I asked on Facebook and it being Friday afternoon a spirited discussion soon sprung up, complete with emojis. Some Portuguese were consulted and they said they'd never heard of such a thing. One person admired the time-saving nature of the practice, another contradicted saying it would take just as long to eat as the mouthfuls were bigger.
....and the tequila shots. I am a student once more! I'm doing a module in Qualitative Research in March. This is because I might be doing some further study subsequently. The word 'PhD' has been mentioned. Not by me particularly, but by my champion and collaborator on some previous research (and bona fide academic doctor herself) Kay. I am a little hesitant, because while I'm good at yapping on here, I'm not sure my mind is sturdy enough for this level. It's somewhat rusty, having last submerged itself in academia back in the 90s (ACCCIIIDDDD!!! - actually no, I was far too timid). Anyway, a module seemed a good plan to test the waters.
The woman in the Student Services said - 'Are you happy with the photo you've uploaded?' I detected a slight hesitancy in her voice.
'I think so,' I replied. Truth be told, it was some weeks back that I filled out the enrolment online. Goodness knows which photo I used.
'It's quirky,' she said. 'Very colourful.'
It was this one below. Bloody hell, I thought, it's lucky she's not met my alter ego Mary Christmas if she thinks that one is quirky.
So here I am, prancing about the campus, imagining myself in Educating Rita and marveling again at how many books there are in the world. Rows upon rows in the library, just about Qualitative Research, many of them theses by those brave enough to have deemed themselves worthy of study.
To my delight I discover a half-eaten brownie in the bag I have taken, still fresh enough to be eaten. Waste not, want not, I'm a student now....
Nothing overly sinister. Not gas, either of the dodgy pipes, or rear end variety. Why have you gone there, Margaret? TMI!
No, what it is, is that my deodorant has changed their recipe (is that the right word for non-edible?) - maybe composition would be more apt. And I don't like it.
For years, I have opted for Nivea Men Cool Kick. Men, yes. Not because there's something I'm not telling you, but because I found women's deodorants to be overwhelmingly cloying and sweet-smelling. Cool Kick was exactly that - fresh and zingy.
Now, my deodorant has an unwelcome floral niff. And looking at the can, I see it has changed its name to Protect and Care, whilst the design remaining exactly the same. Protect and Care - very female, no doubt.
The only other thing of note this week is that I was paying for fuel the other day and the card machine presented me with a new option. Like the 'Add a Gratuity' prompt in restaurants, the up-frontness of which always unsettles me, this machine wanted to know if I'd like to 'Give 25p to charity' whilst paying for my fuel. Which charity, I hear you ask? Well, exactly. I do give to charity, in fact. But I like to do that in my own sweet time, I'm not going to be bumped into a donation (however small) to something nameless while I'm paying for fuel, thanks. I'll set my cool kick on you first.
A few days ago I received my annual New Year's card from J, who lives in the States. I met her about 25 years ago when I was doing a drama summer school. While all the 20-somethings were stumbling around, hungover and complaining, J, who was already about 60, would be there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to start work at 9am.
She was always one of those people who are good for the soul. In the years since, I've seen her every few years when she's been on one of her many UK trips. The lady goes everywhere and she's always been keenly interested in everything, intelligent, humane, kind. The sort of person you could tell your feeble troubles to and feel better about them.
However, last year I received an email with a sentence in it which made me think something was not quite right. I pushed away the thought - it must just be my imagination. She was visiting England with her son and suggested coming to Brighton for us to have lunch. This was duly arranged and a few months back I met them.
This time, however, there was no mistake. Midway through our lunch, she told me how wonderful it had been to attend a Trump rally recently, how bad a press he got and what a great job he was doing.
I was stunned. We have an image of what Trump supporters are. My friend, who as an actor, has worked with gay people and ethnic minorities, not to mention believes in championing women, the poor and the under-privileged, does not fit that mould. It made me think about the Brexit debate, which seems the UK's equivalent situation to the orange monster. I remember a quote at the time: Not all Leave voters are racists, but every racist voted Leave.
Readers, I'm afraid I said nothing. Just changed the subject as quickly as I could. I know, it was spineless and this is how fascism took hold. My friend is in her mid-80s though. In all likelihood, I might never see her again. Was a political argument, that could only end in ill-feeling, the best last meeting to have? I felt guilty about it though. And I still do.
Back to a few days ago. I put the round-robin (more Trump praise) that had come with the card straight in the bin.
I've been reading one of Alan Bennett's diaries (very slowly. Not because I don't enjoy it, but because it's in the bathroom, reserved for my post-shower sit in towel to dry off). It made me realise I would LOVE my own 'What I've been up to this week!' type column in a paper/magazine. So would many thousands of others, I'd imagine. So, I've created my own additional section here. Less ranty, reflectiony or reviewy than the other bits.