Problem debt: headteacher Lisa’s journey as single parent to three-year-old son

Posted 8 February 2021

I had two options: to use the little energy I had to be bitter and seek revenge or to focus on our future, rebuild my life and be happy again. I chose the latter.

To most, this photo will just look like any new mother cradling her baby. But to me: this was my lowest moment. I was broken. The tears ran down my face, hitting my little boy’s cheeks as I did the night feed and I wondered…How will I recover? How will I get myself out of bed in the morning? I was drowning in debt and I could not think about anything else – it was the noose around my neck.

In July 2018, following a difficult pregnancy, I was so relieved when they placed my chunky baby boy in my arms and he was safe. My relationship was under huge strain: we’d drifted apart and I’d lost trust in him. He always had excuses for not having money and whenever I tried to speak up it was twisted and I was left feeling at fault. Secretly, I contacted my bank and blocked all gambling transactions as he would take money directly from my account without my permission – some days, I wasn’t even left with enough money to drive to work. I clung on to empty promises and spent my pregnancy desperately hoping for better times.

While I was in labour, I was in the birthing pool and he was sat on his phone, gambling. I’d never felt more alone. Within hours of my baby being born, I received a text from my landlord saying our rent hadn’t been paid again and this is the real reason we were being evicted. My ex-partner said it was a mistake and assured me everything was ok. The lies really started to unravel; there were loans, payday loans, credit cards, rent arrears – all outstanding.

My ex-partner had borrowed money off my family and friends and stolen money from my parents’ credit card. He admitted he had a gambling addiction and promised to get help. I stood by him for the sake of my family. By the time my little one was seven weeks old, more lies came out; stolen money, promises of getting his own income and cheating on me throughout our relationship and pregnancy.

The final straw was finding out he’d gambled our rent money on Chinese basketball: he’d lost £8,000 since the day our son was born but, even after having the proof in black and white, he still denied it all. He called me a liar, belittled me and made me feel like everything was my fault. I decided to leave: I gave up my home and car and my friends and family had to watch me sell all my belongings on Facebook Marketplace to help me pay back some of the now debilitating debt. I remember clearing out my home, tears streaming down my face and singing ‘twinkle twinkle’, trying to settle my little boy.

I have amazing support from my parents and family. My parents knew some of what had happened and my little boy and I moved back in with them. Being back in my childhood bedroom in my 30s with my newborn wasn’t something I’d thought I would have to do but I will always be grateful for their support. I still spoke to my ex-partner most days: I believed we could get through this for the sake of our little boy – but, by the time he was 4 months old, my ex had started to ignore my messages and he drifted further and further away. I felt alone, gut-wrenchingly heart-broken and used. The realisation quickly sunk in: I was going to be a single mother and I’m the only person who can fix this.

In the beginning, weeks would go by and we wouldn’t hear from my ex. Then, it was months, and nearly three years later, we’re now counting in years.

As a new mother with not very much energy, I felt like I had two options in my control: to use my energy to be bitter, chase my ex-partner and seek revenge or to focus on rebuilding my life and building strong foundations for my little family. I chose the latter.

The first step was totally honesty: the debt racked up to around £45,000. Dealing with it on my own didn’t work and everything felt like it was spiralling out of control. I felt overwhelmed and trapped in fear as there were talks of bankruptcy or going into a debt management programme. It was scary and embarrassing and I felt ashamed. I felt so angry that someone who I thought loved me, had just got to walk away and start a new life. I lay all the debt bare in front of my parents and asked for help. My family came together they lent me all their life savings, including my parents taking out a large loan against their home. They believed in me and I knew I had to keep going. We came up with a plan to re-pay all the debt: it meant living on a bare minimum. I had to cancel my maternity leave and go back to work full-time, sacrificing half of my monthly salary for at least the next six years. I sacrificed whatever I could to pay off the debt.

I know how lucky I am to have family to offer me support. I will be forever grateful. The pressure can feel immense; my parents have had to make their own sacrifices to help and I feel riddled with guilt. I am now nearly three years into my debt sentence… losing half my salary hurt – it still hurts. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t think about money. I obsessively check my bank account every morning and use every single credit score platform to double and triple check my accounts.

I work in social care and education. Working throughout lockdown as a keyworker has been the toughest in my career and I, even though I do not have much to show for my efforts, I’m a step closer to freedom. In the early days, I felt like my life was over; everything was out of my control and, on some of the very dark days, I wondered how I would put one foot in front of the other. The months went by, my little boy turned one, then we quickly hit the terrible twos and I started to see my efforts pay off. In just over two years, I had repaid £20,000 and the time was right to start thinking about the next milestone – buying my own home.

When I told my parents that I wanted to buy my own home, they looked at me like I’m crazy. My credit score still screams ‘poor’ – I have six defaults on my account – and it was beyond a long shot. I spent six months seeking legal advice and speaking to different mortgage advisers. I found a female mortgage adviser who offered to help and, again, I told my story. Reliving everything was tough – the sleepless nights, flashbacks and nightmares all came back – but I kept fighting. We found one lender out of the 100s and, with the help of a government help-to-buy scheme, my mortgage was approved.

In September 2020, in the midst of COVID-19, we moved into our new little home and my little boy and I finally have somewhere to call home. I finally feel like I’m able to move forward and I can start to come to terms with everything we’ve been through; as I tuck my little boy into his new bed and kiss him goodnight, I know we’re going to be ok.

Debt ruled my life and I felt like there was no way out – but, by opening up, talking and taking little steps, I started to gain some control and, even though there are still some difficult years ahead, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. One day, I will be debt-free and I’ll look back and think: “I did that! I paid back every single penny while I rebuilt my life and building a future of my beautiful little boy”.