This column first appeared in The Western Mail in September 2022
Fifteen winters ago, I stared at my baby boy – not yet one year of age, wrapped in layer upon layer in his cot – and felt as powerless as I have ever felt. That was the winter things went wrong for us.
Instead of cherished memories of my son’s first year on this earth, I remember the worry the most. The endless nights spent staring at the ceiling, wondering how I’d manage until payday.
I had a good job, worked long hours and was constantly exhausted, but it never seemed like enough. My salary didn’t quite stretch far enough. And I felt like a failure.
Because I was doing everything ‘right’ – or what society told me was right, anyway. I’d worked hard at my chosen career. I’d put in the hard yards. So what was going so wrong?
“Don’t be a single mum on BENEFITS!” screamed every piece of cultural messaging I’d ever absorbed. And how I’d listened! I was brought up in the valleys during the miners’ strike and witnessed first-hand how the benefits system appeared designed to trap and dehumanise. So, when I became a single mum, I chose to go back to work. Mathematically, it made very little sense, but I was determined I would manage. The idea was that I’d build my career, earn more, and build a future for us over time – the hyper-capitalist dream.
I continued to do the ‘right’ things. I budgeted. I cut every expense I possibly could to the bone. I scoured the internet for second-hand furniture and clothed my son in hand-me-down bundles from charity shops and eBay. And still, the bills kept coming in – nursery fees, gas, electricity, water – and the knot in my chest grew a little in weight and darkness with every week that passed.
We were living in an overdraft that stretched a little further each month until the computer said no and it didn’t anymore. Looking back, this was at a time when the Labour UK Government topped up wages with tax credits towards childcare costs. I don’t know how I could have returned to work without that policy.
Later, I realised that something in the system is very broken when the Government has to top up low wages with tax ‘credits’ to fund cripplingly expensive childcare. But I didn’t have the capacity to consider the economics of it all back then. I was mainly grateful for the additional payments, which meant I could just about keep us fed, clothed and warm. Just about.
And then, because this is how these things always seem to happen – when you feel least able to cope with them – our boiler broke down. It was a rusty old relic that I knew would need replacing (“one day”). I hadn’t expected that day to come so soon. And, of course, I had no home cover insurance (I learned then that peace of mind is a luxury afforded to those that can afford it). There were no savings because my maternity leave had eaten into every penny I’d saved for the arrival of my baby boy. So we were on our own. And it was COLD that winter. I haven’t looked at the temperature data; I remember the gnawing creep of icy air under the duvet and swaddling the sleeping lad in another knitted blanket. It took too many bone-shakingly cold weeks to find a viable way to pay for a new boiler (an overpriced loan that took years to pay off).
And that, towards the first year of my son’s life, is how things went wrong for us. I don’t like to think about it too much. It’s painful remembering how powerless I felt. How I’d look at my beautiful baby and think about how much I was letting him down.
But when I do think of that period between the big bang and the new boiler, I also remember how my friends showered us with kindness, how they brought food and plug-in radiators and piles of cosy socks and jumpers.
This was before food banks were mainstream enough to be deemed legitimate photo opportunities by a particular breed of politician. But a mum friend told me about a project the local Salvation Army was running, where you could pick up a big bag of fresh fruit and vegetables for £4. It was designed to help those on a low income eat more healthily. The first time I went, I felt such burning shame. I had a job that involved wearing a suit – how was it possible to be turning to charity? I’ll never forget the enormous smile of the volunteer who greeted me that day. How welcome she made me feel. How grateful I was.
It is the kindness of others that helped us most that winter.
My son is now fifteen, I’m an elected councillor in Cardiff, and that powerlessness I felt back in the winter of 2007 is back with a vengeance.
Because there is a harsh winter ahead for many, many people. As energy and food prices soar, yet more people across Wales will have to make difficult – inhumane – choices between heating or eating. Locally we are doing all we can to support residents, but it will never be enough. The scale of the crisis terrifies me.
So this winter, I’ll be trying my best to repay the kindness offered to us when we needed it most. There are many ways to channel that feeling of powerlessness. We can check on our neighbours, donate surplus jumpers and blankets to charity projects and share leftovers on the Olio app, which reduces food waste and helps tackle food poverty at a community level.
As we square up to the human cost of this economic clusterf*ck, we will need the community spirit we saw during Covid like never before. But the good news is that – to paraphrase J-Lo badly – kindness doesn’t cost a thing.
Time to dig deep, people.