Tax Attacks

When I was a child, the concept of financial planning didn’t get much more complicated than aspiring to a NatWest piggy bank. My parents were teachers, their parents blue collar workers; the really rich kids we knew were the ones with BMXs whose dads were riggers offshore.

It wasn’t until my world (though not my bank balance) expanded that I glimpsed what really growing up with money could mean. Not “with money” in the sense of having enough to have a comfortable life, but in the sense of having money with a life of its own beyond yours; money which demands shelter, nurture and advice.

1980s privatisations notwithstanding, I’d wager that for most of us, managing our finances involves a bank account, a pension (if we’re lucky) and a debt or two on one side, maybea bit of savings on the other. Tax is the bit that comes off our pay at source, or the amount we stump up after a sweaty-palmed calculation in late January. We’re vaguely aware of bonds and shares, trust funds and investment portfolios, but in the way that we know aboutthe existence of, say, grouse shooting.

I am no fan of David Cameron, but I am not particularly surprised to hear of his family’s apparent benefit from opaque financial planning. Under a system where there’s a fine distinction between the legal status of tax avoidance and tax evasion, after all, why wouldn’t he?

The issue here isn’t so much the affairs of one individual or even one group. It’s the interplay between the infrastructure of taxation and wealth management which, to someone not privy to it, seems designed for a mutual benefit that is simply not available to those of us who earn, and pay, and see the ever increasing caps on ISA and Child Trust Funds as something utterly irrelevant to our daily lives.

Yes, I would like a light shone on tax havens and dodgy financial planning. More than this, though, I would like a simplification of the tax regime as it applies to those of us who just earn and pay what we’re required to; a recognition that the self-assessment system is hopelessly inappropriate for low income self-employed; an acknowledgement that tax credits are labyrinthine and complex beyond the understanding of many of those embroiled in them.

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing, they used to say. Perhaps it doesn’t, if you have someone to hold your hand and walk you through the intricacies, let alone help you find a way to minimise what you pay. The rest of us, though, who can’t afford such a luxury, end up too often on the wrong side of something we’ve never been taught to understand; something which seems designed to trip us up, and where, in the absence of expert advice, there seems to be precious little credit for good faith.

Thats the real scandal.

Voting With My Feet (An Open Letter to Nicky Morgan)

Dear Ms Morgan

I have three units (sorry, children) currently at primary school. Actually, they’re at a primary academy, since our Local Authority withdrew its education function five years ago and forced a wholesale conversion throughout the borough.

It’s a good one, I’ll give you that. We have a dedicated and visionary head, who’s doing Good Things from a business perspective while, crucially, remembering that her stock in trade is the lives and hopes of several hundred small people. Of course she’s bound by the double-entry book keeping of finance and performance figures, but she manages to give the impression that remembering the names of the children in her care and turning up to sing in Assembly matter just as much.

I was a parent governor for a while, approached in my triple capacity as church member, commercial lawyer and, most importantly, person in a cagoule at the coal-face of the playground and the classroom door. It was hard work: not just the meetings, but the rightly rigorous training too, but it was also an honour to do it and I was disappointed when a potential conflict of interest meant I had to step down.

It sounds like the chances of me doing it again are minimal, since you’ve announced that mandatory parent governors are to be scrapped in favour of skilled individuals (the two, apparently, being mutually exclusive). Thankfully, though, you’ve reassured us parents that we won’t be silenced: we will still be “consulted” when the school is making decisions, and, after all, we can still “vote with our feet” if we’re not happy.

I agree with you that the present system isn’t perfect. If the parent governors are voted for, they too often tend to be those who win a popularity contest. If they’re co-opted,  it’s usually because they’re the conspicuous, conscientious type who look like they might have a particular skill and the wherewithal to make meetings. Parent governors aren’t representative, but they are, crucially parents. They anchor the governing body to what should always be the primary consideration: the experiences of the children who attend the school, not the relative position on a performance table.

As for “consultation”, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and accept that you wholeheartedly believe this is a functional and democratic way of engaging the families of children at school. Sadly, experience shows that it is no such thing. On the one hand, most parents are either too busy or too apathetic to give a shit. When we converted to an academy, the consultation process involved a handful of responses. Perhaps it’s natural, since people see consultations elsewhere on matters that concern them – from planning applications to cuts to local services – providing little more than a fig leaf before the process continues in line with the decision makers’ wishes. Perhaps it’s just a sign of increasing individualism. Have you tried getting people involved in a local initiative recently, Ms Morgan?

The notion of voting with our feet as the ultimate veto is entirely of a piece with this notion of choice in education. The thing is, even as a sharp-elbowed, well-informed, middle-class mother with oodles of options, I don’t really want choice. Most of us don’t. We want our children to go to their local school, with the children who live around them, in the community to which they belong. We want our children to scramble into a little learning and a whole lot of socialisation; to acquire skills and knowledge and ambition that will steer them as they grow older, not forced tall and pale like so many little sticks of rhubarb ready to be judged at an allotment show.

We don’t want our children to go to the best school, we want them to do their best at their school. We don’t want to sit, each August, in front of a data dashboard of outputs of all the local educational establishments deciding where little Philomena will go in September. These are our children, not the supplier of our electricity or the insurance we buy for our car. We want to commit to schools and see our children grow and flourish where they are, not uproot them to pot them on in some whimsical pursuit of perfection.

And, of course, “voting with our feet” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Where I live, there is no secondary school within safe walking distance, which means free transport has to be provided. The council recently decided that this free transport would only be available to the school which is infinitesimally nearer than that to which 99% of children have gone and continue to go since…well, forever. That it’s woefully undersubscribed and serially failing is, I am sure, a coincidence, although it does mean that the council’s spend on secondary school transport is effectively minimal – demand for that school is met by a daily taxi, while parents spend £500/year to send their child off with their friends on the same fleet of buses that have always run. Precious little choice, however, if you can’t find the cash.

Please stop and think. Please listen. Not everyone who is complaining about the direction of education policy in this country is a refusenik who fails to see any benefits in your proposed changes. I think encouraging entrepreneurialism in schools is a good idea. Helping them capitalise on their assets in a sustainable manner makes sense. But education cannot and must never be turned into an entirely free market.This isn’t creating a level field. It’s allowing a lucky few to build a Noah’s Ark and leaving the rest to deal with the flood as best they can.

HeadInBook

An A-Z of Parenting (the primary school years)

 

A is for Answers. Those you are asked for multiple times per minute, and those you get back instead of the “yes, of course Mummy” you were hoping for.

is for Bedtime. The hour of the day which is apparently light years earlier in your house than in every other home in the land.

is for Cuddles. Especially the stolen ones, and those ones when you realise with a pang quite how much they’ve grown.

is for Drama. Also Storm/Teacup; Mountain/Molehill. (Generally an object lesson in the difference in perspective, courtesy of door slamming, head tossing and a wail to the effect that you don’t understand).

E is for Examples. As in, trying to set a good one, and realising too late that the muttered remark at the idiot in the car in front was anything but.

F is for Food. Which is either a cruel and unusual punishment (anything with an air of vitamins about it) or What Everyone Else In The World Has For Tea (anything else)

is for Giggling. Quite possibly the best sound in the world, even when it’s accompanying a conversation about farts.

H is for Homework. During which time loses all meaning and half an hour becomes endless aeons of pain (see also D)

I is for Image. Also known as the sudden mechanism whereby 75% of the wardrobe becomes unwearable overnight.

is for Judgement. As in “trusting your own”. Easier said than done.

is for Knowledge. A commodity whose value varies. Priceless to you; approximately worthless to those you’re trying to share it with.

is for Love. Nuff said.

is for Minecraft. Lego THAT YOU CAN’T STAND ON. Genius.

is for Noise. A sort of aural collage of handstand thumps, FaceTime pings and the “pyow-pyow” of an imaginary battle with Stormtroopers.

O is for Optional Hearing. A strange condition which renders the sound of a sweet being unwrapped three rooms away pin-sharp, while the instruction to wash ones face is a muffled blur.

P is for Pyjamas. Items of clothing which are welded to bodies, especially ten minutes before it’s time for school.

is for Quiet. A largely forgotten relic of an earlier life which makes an occasional reappearance when Minecraft is engaged.

is for Radio. Capital in the car and on every other set within reach to ensure a wall-to-wall surround of the kind of music that sounds like someone’s hopping over hot coals.

is for Siblings. The components either of unbreakable alliances against you or implacable feuds you must resolve.

T is for Toys. Also known as random articles of tat which are of no interest whatsoever until it is time to leave the house or set the table.

U is for Untidy. Not so much a state as an apparent independent Being which wreaks untold havoc in the blink of an eye.

is for Values.There is nothing like passing them on to make you question your own.

is for Why? A question asked less and less, but which gets harder and harder to answer.

X is for X-Box. Like a youth club in your telly.

Y is for Young. They are, you’re not.

Z is for Zhurely that’s enough by now, I’m off for a glass of wine (see A-Y)

 

Inspire, Expire…

As Tori Amos almost said, I never was a coursework girl.

It isn’t so much that I have the big-match temperament, more that I am programmed to thrive with a metaphorical gun at my temple. I managed to garner a reasonably illustrious academic record procrastinating my way through the term in an impressive variety of ways (game of solitaire, anyone?)  and then sweating and weeping through a night of pre-exam cramming.

I’d like to say I’d grown out of it, but…the internet.

The internet is doubly the foe of those of us who would never consider doing today what could reasonably be put off until next week.

Firstly, it is nothing more or less than the Whole World And Everyone In It, there, always, just a thumb scroll away. Dangerous, when you’re of the disposition which finds vital import in  a tea towel that needs washing or a desk that needs tidying whenever a deadline looms.

Secondly, though, is that beyond the simple potential for distraction however,

*****pause while I check Twitter*****

is the insidious effect that seeing a world of possibility has on the mind which knows that tomorrow is always the first day of the rest of its life.

Don’t get me wrong. I like, as much as the next person, to read about those who’ve started over. Whether it’s a new life in Brazil, a spanking new career, kicking the booze, losing twelve dress sizes, finding God or simply reaching the bottom of the ironing basket, it’s heartening to know that people really do change things. More, that they really do change themselves.

But when I see these changes day-in, day-out; when they’re in blogposts and articles and Facebook memes alongside the ever-open Tesco tab and the daily emails from online retailers, the potential for transformation, for redemption, starts to feel a bit like a commodity. Like it’s available to order, whenever I’m ready; an offer with no expiry date.

Maybe I’d have thrived better in the olden days, with the priest thundering the threat of eternal damnation at me every Sunday and tortured gargoyles underlying the or-else.

Maybe we need some imagery for that secular modern-day equivalent of the soul that dies unshriven; the life that lives unrealised.

It’s very easy to kid myself that I have forever to get around to it all, when every time I see some kind of a miserable “before”, it’s in counterpoint to a “happy ever after” rather than an abrupt full stop.

“Remember, man, as you pass by” my grandad told me he’d seen written in a graveyard in his childhood, “as you are now, so once was I”. Perhaps it was a Cork stonemason’s early attempt at Instagram, but it has an impressiveness, to someone whose childhood was noticeably lacking in graveyards, that goes somewhat beyond that of an inspirational quote set against a sunset.

****some time later****

I wondered about how to finish this, but the usual bathetic attempt at uplift seemed hypocritical at best.

The abrupt full stop seems fitting.

 

 

Flipping Heck

Today is the first Shrove Tuesday in many years when I haven’t made pancakes.

I have lots of memories of other Tuesdays; Tuesdays in which I have berated myself for not remembering that pancakes take forever and a day to cook, and that running between stove and a table peopled with hungry, grumbling children is actually not as idyllic as the wholesome image I have in my head of presenting a stack of pancakes to universal delight.

(Pre-heat the oven, people. Pre-cook the pancakes, then bring the children in for a final, flipping flourish once you’ve got the hang of it and you know that there are plenty to share.)

Still, even against previous dismal attempts, this year I didn’t come close to owning Pancake Day. I had no eggs. No lemon. My husband had bought a pack of ready made ones, but we didn’t even need those.

The children were always going to have pancakes at school (they did), at wraparound (yup), and – in the case of No2 and No3 –  at Brownies and Cubs too (barf), so I wasn’t too bothered about the fact I’d be working, and therefore swearing at a laptop, rather than at a pan.

Instead, I picked all three children up from wraparound, drove them home, ruined their lives (apparently) by feeding them a healthy, home cooked meal from the slow cooker, and then, having dashed No2 to Brownies, left the boys to their favourite pastime – the Xbox they got for Christmas.

I don’t think I worry unduly about being a bad mother, but it made me laugh and fret at the same time that my children, who’d been away from me and their home for all but about 45 minutes since waking up, were happiest blasting clones and being Princess Leia.

So, being a 21st century mother with a penchant for sarcasm and a hungry Facebook account, I shared the moment.

I love finishing work a bit early so I can spend quality time with my children

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And they got it.

“Your house looks like my house”

“I recognise this scene”

“At least they’re in the same room as you!”

When my eldest was a newborn, I kept in touch with the women I’d met at antenatal class via text. We gave our babies morning scores out of 10 to record how they’d slept the night before. It’s gone on ever since, with the same friends and new ones, via Twitter and Facebook and wry eyebrows at the school gate.

It’s fashionable to say that social media has made mothers judge each other more; that it’s created a broader palette against which we can find ourselves lacking and a forum in which we can reassure ourselves by trampling those whose fingers stray nearest our heels on some impossible ladder to an unattainable perfection.

It’s probably true, to some extent, but no more so than the impeccably turned out family in every community since time began whose presentability was frantically smoothed over to hide the cracks beneath; the one you’d look at with envy in the market or at church and whisper about afterwards with your sister.

Tonight, though; feeling frankly inadequate at what on many levels could be read as a double mother-fail, the comments of my friends, all so different, all the same, made me smile.

Village, schmillage.

When life doesn’t remind you to buy a lemon, friends come to your aid.

 

Schrödinger’s Mum

I don’t know Schrödinger, you understand, let alone his mother. I think they had a cat, but I think that may have ended badly. Or maybe not.

So it’s silly, really, to say that I thought of her (the mother, not the cat) this lunchtime, as I made an emergency dash to the Post Office to get some cash.

I was working from home, you see, feeling smugger than smug after a productive morning job-wise and happy in the knowledge that I’d got two loads of washing out on the line too. The sun was shining, I had some interesting work to pick up in the afternoon, and I was relishing the novelty of re-tracing the steps of a gazillion school runs without my ankles being in imminent danger from a scooter.

Then I saw her, as I sped past the park. Pushing a toddler on the swings, the pair of them wrapped up warm and presumably filling in time before going home for lunch and a nap. I couldn’t see her face; couldn’t tell if she was revelling in the moment or deflecting wails and grizzles from her child and counting down the minutes till they could decently go home.

It was a lovely image, one of those snapshots of motherhood that matches exactly the gallery we all seem to carry within us: This is what being a mum looks like. The image that we look forward to and the one we miss when it’s past.

She could have been me, that mum. Me on any one of a hundred days, standing in the park, playing with one or two or three children; making the most of a break in the weather or just desperate to get away from CBeebies before the programmes started all over again.

“The hours are long, but the days are short” they tell us, those whose children are long grown and gone. We know they’re right, and yet it’s hard, to be in the picture and behind the lens; to try to provide in the now for the wistful regret we know we’ll feel in the future.

Knowing that this precious time is fleeting but, sometimes, desperate for it to pass.

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Leaving Mummy Behind

Once upon a time, I had motherhood sorted. I almost always packed the nappy bag properly, I could tell you the CBeebies schedule to the second, and I could reel off a stack of research on anything from carseats to caesareans. I didn’t know it all…but I knew where to found it out.

And then my children got that little bit older.

It isn’t that it’s harder, these days, it’s just that it feels harder to know when I’m doing it right (or wrong). There isn’t such a wealth of resources against which to check how I’m doing.  They’re people all of their own now, my three; no longer a composite project of bottoms to be wiped and tantrums to be managed. They have complex lives apart from me, and problems I won’t always know about, and although I don’t miss the icy-footed nighttime visitors, I do pine for the days when it felt like I could make the bogeymen go away.

Once the very first shock of the baby days was over, early motherhood allowed me to find myself, or at least find a sense of myself that felt good.  It’s a sense of myself that I’m losing again. Holding firm to principles is tough when it brings a beloved child into conflict with his peers; I find myself second-guessing my own “Yes” and “No”. In a masochistic sort of way, it’s a relief to be past the secure certainty of that fleeting phase of toddlers and pre-schoolers when making it to bedtime was promise enough of another chance tomorrow, but the flip side is the realisation that a lot of what is yet to come will be the same middle of instinct, compromise and (hopefully) serendipity that has characterised my own life so far

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve left Twitter, for a while. My eldest is frighteningly like me, and I’ve seen how very easily he could become addicted to his screen-time. And I can’t in good conscience tell him to spend less time on his tablet or X-Box while I’m glued to the words of a myriad of others via the phone permanently present in my palm. We sat down together earlier and I deactivated my account. I will miss it horribly, but it feels like the least I can do At least I’m acknowledging to him that sometimes it’s hard to do what you know you should

 

 

Don’t Call Me A Busy Working Mum

I have three children, a full-time job, and a to-do list with a life of its own.

I am a mum, and I work outside the home, and I am busy.

Yet I will never, ever describe myself as a Busy Working Mum.

It’s just a description, isn’t it? So why does even the sound of it make my teeth itch?

After all, I should be the perfect target demographic for all those adverts I see aimed at the Busy Working Mum, trying to sell me everything from frozen Yorkshire puddings to all-inclusive holidays. Last week, I even saw one offering ready meals just perfect for my lifestyle. I can only imagine that they promise to keep my efficiency and selflessness topped up to optimal levels as I whisk briskly through my days.

So yes, it may be a description, but it’s hardly a definition. It means precisely zero. What value is there in a label available to any woman with offspring in receipt of a salary and withheld from any who’s not? What, after we all, do “we” uniquely have in common?

It is nonsense to suggest that there’s some commonality of experience which binds together the woman doing a couple of school-hour days round the corner with the single mother scraping by on minimum-wage night-time shifts; the high flyer with a nanny clocking up a working week in triple figures with a part-timer whose parents or partners are on hand. Do we really believe that the simple fact of being paid for a portion of our time means that life is unavoidably harder, busier and more stressful than that of someone who doesn’t or can’t work for whatever reason?

If it’s not a definition, then it’s certainly not an identity. It’s not the badge of honour I see it used as so often on Facebook posts or comments underneath articles online. “As a busy working mum” they start, before going on to outline why the commenter wishes she had the time to do or be or worry about whatever the subject of the article is. It’s a hard thing to say in this climate of “doing the right thing” by working, but having a job doesn’t confer any virtue or superiority in and of itself. I’m owed precisely nothing for working beyond the salary agreed with my boss. Sure, I pay tax and National Insurance, but that’s because I work, not the reason I do it. If you disagree, and you yourself work fewer hours or at a lower wage than you could…well, that doesn’t really stack up, does it?

And if I reject it as an identity, then I sure as hell won’t accept it as a destiny.

In our fairly bog-standard journey to parenthood, there has been one solitary inevitable given in the combination of family life with employment: that it would be me who would need some period away from work while the babies made their exits. All the rest, from (our relatively generous) maternity leave to who gets the call when little Jimmy barfs on the carpet at story time is the result of our society and its (and our) expectations. There is no particular chromosomal composition that confers a greater ability to RSVP to party invites and buy school uniforms, but “Busy Working Mum” in all her harassed glory suggests otherwise.

Perhaps I’m being over sensitive. Perhaps you wish you had the time to be bothered about it. Perhaps you’re right. But do me a favour. Look out for references to “busy working men”, or “busy working carers”, or “busy working daughters”. And if you don’t see them, maybe just wonder…why not?

The unforeseeable future.

I have a recurrent dream in which I am sitting an exam for which I haven’t revised. It’s not an uncommon dream, I know, but mine has the added fun of featuring an exam on engineering. Not only have I never revised engineering, I have never studied it. In fact, I am so far removed from every being likely to pass an exam in engineering, despite being married to someone who has done just that lots of times, that, dear reader, I once tried to pre-heat a metal baking tray in the microwave. Try that on a rainy day to liven up the children.

Why am I telling you about my dreams, my marital status and my culinary disasters? Well, mainly, because every time I have come to write here recently, I have had a strong sense of being in the wrong place. I have felt, frankly, like a bit of a fraud.

It’s almost six months since I went back to work, and it has changed me. Not in the sense of having less time to blog, or less interest, but more in a sense that I have lost my voice. Once upon a time I was anonymous here and on Twitter, with no responsibilities beyond my family. Over time, I have “come out”, so that (to my never knowingly underthought mind), it is now a doodle for anyone so inclined to link the professional me with the person whinging on here. My preoccupations of the last few months have continued to revolve around the conundrum of reconciling family and work lives, but with the complication that whatever I write feels like it will be taken as a personal reflection, a comment on my own situation or colleagues or employer, even when it isn’t.

There is more, though. I still want to write about motherhood, but it becomes harder as my children become older. There is a universality in the shits ‘n’ giggles of the baby and toddler stages that doesn’t apply as they grow up. I can’t disengage my own feelings and experiences of the problems and joys of developing friendships, school journeys and puberty from the knowledge that these are secondary to the fact that my children are actually living them, and – again because Real Life people read this – it seems an invasion of their privacy to write in any detail about the challenges involved all round.

And finally, there is just a feeling of it all having been said. There is so much excellent writing around, that adding to it with half-baked pontifications of my own feels like a waste of everyone’s time. I never felt as though I was writing for anyone else other than myself; even I am  bored of it now and would rather spend my time reading what might actually do me good.

I had an amazing experience in November, courtesy of Mumsnet Bloggers Network; sitting on a stage with real, proper writers. I think that gave and continues to give me an acute case of Imposter Syndrome, if I’m honest; inhibiting me from wittering on here in the acute consciousness of inferiority. I waxed lyrical there about the importance of making time to write, or indulge whatever form of creativity took ones fancy, especially as a mother, and then came home and did precisely nothing about it. Underneath it all, though, is a realisation that it’s not the writing itself I’ve had enough of, but just perhaps, this blog. And that it’s fine.

I saw a headline yesterday that made me smile, although the subject was anything but funny. It talked about a flood-affected bridge being closed “for the unforeseeable future”. I think that’s probably the best line to finish on. For now.

 

Ovary and out

I can’t believe, as I get older, how  quickly time seems to go by.

Take today, for example.

I can’t believe that my eldest child is nearly ten. I can’t believe that it’s almost Christmas again. I can’t believe that it’s been a whole month since I last had to reach for the Tampax…oh, hang on. It’s not.

With the help of a lovely, gentle book I found online, I am currently preparing my daughter for the wonderful possibilities  indignities and inconveniences that lie ahead of her courtesy of her anatomy. And yet, at the same time after two and a half decades of uneasy co-existence, however (wanting my period to come, wanting it not to come), there doesn’t seem to be any such guide for me as I start the long and probably painful break-up with my own menstrual cycle.

It’s not the menopause, not yet, not really. It’s more a sense that my body knows what’s coming and is trying to make hay while the oestrogen shines, with all the subtlety of a child wanting the teacher to pick them to take the register back. I can see why, in the days before the Pill and the nigh-on standard issue vasectomy after the nigh-on standard issue 2.4 children, “change of life babies” were such a thing. No wonder that women got caught out when our bodies suddenly go from being fertile every four weeks or so to managing it almost twice a month. It’s hard enough to keep track of it all with an iPhone. It must have been murder when there was only the moon on hand

It’s a funny kind of feeling, having your body so thoroughly at odds with your mind; being broody despite not wanting any more babies. The car alarm went off at 2am yesterday,  and I was destroyed with sleep deprivation for the whole of the rest of the day. The thought of repeating the early years of my children’s lives makes me want to weep, even as I look at their giant shoes and incomprehensible Christmas lists and sigh over the small people whose world I once was. And yet, my reproductive system seems to have been taken over by Mrs Doyle, coaxing and cajoling with a bashful upwards glance that knows already it’s unwelcome. Ah g’wan. G’wan, g’wan, g’wan.

The pieces that have made up my life over the last twenty years or so: study, marriage, career, children – each one could have been interchanged with any other and brought me out in a broadly similar position to the one I’m in today. It’s easy, from the vantage point of a happy 40, to look back and think that I would have remained constant. And yet, now, I’m on the cusp of losing something I always knew I was expected to do, then that I was afraid to do, then that I almost gloried in the ability to do, I wonder where I was amongst it all. I wonder who I’ll be after.

And I’ll cling for dear life to the calendar in the mean time.