How Gingerbread helped me

Posted 8 October 2012

Tamsin lives in South West London with her children Amber, who is nine, and Oscar, who is seven. She is the group co-ordinator of the North Barnes Gingerbread group. Tamsin recently spoke about her experiences as a single parent and how Gingerbread helped her family at a reception Gingerbread held at the House of Lords celebrating our 95th birthday. Here is the speech she gave.

I am certainly glad I live in a time when Gingerbread is around. This was brought home to me on a recent trip to the cinema to see the long awaited Les Miserables. It just goes to show that the plight of the parent ‘on their own’ is nothing new. Fantine, the film’s single mother trying desperately to provide for her daughter in 19th century France, could definitely have done with a helpline.

I meet lots of people as co-ordinator of the North Barnes Gingerbread Friendship Group, who all have a very different story to tell. Mine isn’t particularly special, but I’m here to tell you a little about my journey. I don’t get to tell my story much these days, although in the beginning it was all I could think of after my life had been turned upside down.

Hard to cope

It was seven years ago that my then-husband left. We were living in Hong Kong at the time, having moved there for his work. I was far away from family and I had no one to turn to. A few months later I returned to the UK and moved in with my mother.

I remember the day as it was 3 March 2006, which was my mother’s 60th birthday. Having seen all her children married with their own growing families, she didn’t expect me to be living back at home with her. But after the shock of what had happened, I found it hard to cope with even the most basic day-to-day things.

I first heard of Gingerbread when my sister ordered me some free factsheets giving advice on what to do after separation. It was all very mind-boggling. In my search for some answers I went to my local Citizen’s Advice Bureau. It was there I saw a leaflet advertising a Gingerbread group in my local area. However, when I called the number, to my disappointment, it was a bakery. I didn’t need cakes – I needed conversation.

Questions

I had a real need to speak to people in the same situation as me and to discuss how they had come to deal with all the issues surrounding being newly single with young children. When, if and how often should the children see their father? How do I get divorced? Where can I get financial help from? How do I have a conversation with my husband without getting upset? How do I change my name?

The questions were endless and however many times I read my trusty factsheets, it all seemed very foreign. I looked at people in the street and thought ‘are they single like me?’ As a parent on our own we don’t have it tattooed across our faces. I assumed everyone else was a happy two-parent family.

Building Futures

The next few years were tough. The children and I lived in a hostel for nine months. I took my local council to court, went to mediation, moved home a few times, spoke to many solicitors, wrote to MPs, and lost all my hair to alopecia. In the meantime, Oscar learnt to walk and talk and Amber learnt to write her name and use the ‘big’ toilet.

In 2008 I moved to my home in south-west London, where I am today. It was here that I got involved with my local community centre and the Castelnau Community Project. Through them I found myself on my first Gingerbread course, Building Futures.

The aim of the course was to help us back into work. It ran for a total of 20 hours over five weeks and helped us find the tools and resources that many of us came to realise we already had to get into employment, and build up our confidence to take those first steps. The main part of the course was to put on a community event, organised by ourselves for people in the local area. We opted for a children’s party and organised food and entertainment.

A group is born

The event was a great success. It had a real feel-good factor, which made us want to do more. We managed to secure some funding from the North Barnes Partnership for three more events the following year. One of the conditions of our funding was to set up a support group for parents on their own. We decided that the best way to do this was with Gingerbread and the North Barnes Gingerbread Friendship group was born. I’d come to realise I wasn’t on my own.

Today we organise teatime meet ups, picnics, coffee mornings, family trips, as well as parties for the children and nights outs for the parents. Gingerbread is close by to offer support, with factsheets, the helpline, local support groups and a great website.

Not on my own

The group is constantly evolving. People come and go, children grow up and parents start work. There are still many questions, only now they are different. How do I get a healthy work and family life balance? Can I afford childcare costs if I work? How, if and when do I consider a new relationship? Will child benefit changes affect me? What is Universal credit?

My motivation for co-ordinating the group is to create a place for parents like myself, to give us the chance to get together and support each other. It is great to know that there are other people out there like me. The statistics say there are quite a few of us so someone parenting on their own doesn’t have to feel alone. My children and I enjoy sharing our days out and have made some lifelong friends.

For detailed step-by-step advice on everything from benefits and tax credits to childcare and your wellbeing, read our guide to separation.