Dear Prime Minister,
The expression “single parents are brilliant” doesn’t really apply to me – and it may be useful to explain why!
…but first let me take you back 12 years or so.
I had been invited to attend an interview at a Golf Club in Exeter. In those days I was doing some semi-notable work for the Diocese of Exeter in the field of property management. When I say “interview” I was in fact being head hunted to move into the private sector by one of the UKs blue-chip surveying firms.
I went along out of interest. Sat with a bottle of (good) wine and two glasses was one of the senior partners. He was dressed superbly. Open neck shirt, Christian Dior suit, and good shoes. His tone was both fluent and persuasive. He had clearly done his homework. Like his shoes, this was one polished individual!
I drank the wine, got my ego boosted and left the meeting with a spring in my step. I did not however, take him up on his offer. Well not yet, anyway!
I bumped into this senior partner about two years later. I’ll call him Steven. I was out for a walk on a Sunday afternoon with my eldest daughter (4yo) and decided to call into a pub for a swift pint and give my daughter 15 minutes in the “children’s corner”.
I saw Steven at the bar. Drinking scotch. He was unshaved and had clearly lost about two stone in weight. He explained that his wife had left home, that he was now looking after (clearly on this occasion, not looking after) his three children. They were living in rented accommodation and he had not been in work for a few months. When he was speaking to me I could see him physically shaking. This was a broken man -a mere shadow of the chap I had met two years previously. The sight of Steven at that point in his life came back to haunt me!
Three years after my wife left me, this was in 2007, I was working full-time (I had, at last, taken the offer of a move from the Diocese into private practise). I was working in Bolton at the time –still living in Devon – but needs must! I had arranged extended child care for a couple of days. I was speaking to an assembled gathering of 40 or so clergy from the area and was explaining (selling) to them the concept of a private surveying firm with specialist knowledge of heritage conservation, looking after their church buildings. My total collapse was sudden and unexpected…
…48 hours later my GP was explaining to me that I was “exhausted”. I was. Completely and absolutely at the end of my tether! Panic attacks became frequent in those days. The harsh realities of single parenting were becoming all too real. No spare money, redundancy, continuing ill-health, having to move house and change schools, all why having to care (full-time) for my two young and really emotionally hurt girls. These were dark days.
It was during enforced convalescence (if you can call it that with two daughters at home) I set up OnlyDads – as a resource for other single dads who I guessed would be struggling. With memories of Steven still fresh in my mind, I knew I would not be the only dad struggling to hold it all together. Or should I say, sometimes failing to hold it all together.
I was right. The demands of this fledgling organisation increase daily.
When I decided on that Sunday morning in 2009 to put myself forward as a potential Conservative MP – you can read my full story on Conservative Home – I did so in the belief that you and your party would be offering some fresh ideas and thinking on how welfare may work in the UK. I was (and perhaps remain) convinced of the thinking behind our Big Society.
Now, in 2011, I have to ask myself if I made the right decision. I don’t want to dwell on your Father’s Day article in the Sunday Telegraph, nor indeed the blaming of feckless father’s for various ills in society – because that just reflects badly on the single mums who will be doing their best. Rather, I want to look forward and leave you with three thoughts:
- Single parents aren’t necessarily brilliant. We are just everyday men and women – and what we want and perhaps need, is a country and a government supporting us with positive words and actions. More than anything else our children deserve this. And that means support and encouragement across the board – in all policy decisions and statements.
- In running OnlyDads for these last four years I have encountered and supported thousands of dads. Some, like me, look after their children on their own and others who see their children for just some of the time. And indeed other Dads who don’t get to see their children at all! What I have found is that when the offer of support and direction is made – dads are only to eager to take the advice. As a country we can and must do more to helps dads – of that I’m sure.
- Finally – I just want to talk about Big Society against the back drop of a real-life story. Three months ago OnlyDads received a call from a desperate sister of a recently bereaved Dad who was “going under”. Learning the dads location I needed to get in touch with another superb grass-roots Dads organisation, Dadshouse, to see if they could offer “on the spot” support. What followed would have been funny if it hadn’t have been so serious. At that precise moment, OnlyDads had had its internet connection cut off by BT for late payment of a bill and Dadshouse was without ‘phone access for much the same reason. For at least an hour we could not even get in touch with each other. Using Twitter from a mate’s computer, and a borrowed ‘phone we were able to make contact later that day, visit the dad, and reassure the family that help was at hand. Support by way of reassurance was offered and duly delivered.
The point of that story (and I can reassure you that Dad and children are now safe and happy and living in Germany with extended family) is that there are inspirational people doing great work and with just a little bit of support and recognition we could do so much more. It may interest you to learn that both Dadshouse and OnlyDads have never received anything at all by way of grants or donations. The work we have done with Dads has been invaluable in helping many dads keep going and play a more active role in the lives of their children. This for me is the very stuff of Big Society!
I also want to take my hat off to Jo (single mum, new business, and still finding the time to support and encourage single parents) with this campaign. Now she is brilliant
I’ll end with an offer. If any of your ministerial team want to meet with single parents like Dadshouse, and Jo, or me at OnlyDads, just ask. Looking at and hearing about issues from the ground up is a good way, perhaps the only way, for Big Society to really take-off.
With kind regards