From teen mum to career highflyer

Posted 3 October 2017

Sacha is 42 and lives in North London. She has two children, Ricky who is 25, and Saffron, 17. After becoming a single parent at 16, many people thought Sacha would never amount to anything. Through hard work and determination she has built a successful career for herself in the education sector, winning an award as Britain’s Most Exceptional Working Mother in 2007. Here Sacha talks about leaving home as a teenager, steep learning curves and letting her and her children’s achievements speak louder than the stereotypes.

No alarm bell

I’ve been a single parent pretty much all my life. The first time I was 16, and the second time I was 26. I’ve raised both my children on my own.

My dad had left the family when I was young and I think that lack of stability really affected me. I started a relationship with an older man, who I now recognise was a kind of substitute father figure for me. When I fell pregnant at 16, he left.

I was told I had to leave the family home, so I also became homeless. I was housed in a hostel, which was where I had and raised my son, Ricky. No one was allocated to help me, there was no alarm bell sounded if anything went wrong for me, there was simply no support. I was instantly completely responsible for myself, and soon enough for a very young child as well.

Practical decisions

Ricky was delivered by caesarean section. I was on my own for that too – I woke up, and I was in a room with a tiny baby! My mother came to visit me, but things were still very strained between us. I had to be the one to make these big, practical decisions for both my son and myself from day one.

I learned to budget on a very small amount of money, to work out my meals when I had no fridge to keep my food in, and basically to just get on with life at 16 years old. It was a very sobering experience. It taught me how to be a parent.

My son Ricky and I lived in the hostel until I was 18 when I was housed by the local council – another steep learning curve. I was handed the keys to a flat without any idea how to get the gas turned on, where to get carpets fitted, nothing! With a hardship loan I was able to buy second hand furniture to get our home together, but it was down to me to find that information out, no one helped me get there.

Two options

At that point I realised I had two options – become a statistic, or rebuild my life. I had always been fairly clever at school, so I started to think how I could get myself back on track and what I could do within the situation we were in. Ricky was now two and a half, and there was a nursery on the estate we lived on which he began to attend. I started volunteering there in order to get some experience on my CV and show that I could manage responsibility.

Working at the nursery spurred me on to go to college and study childcare. Being back in education made me really happy. I’d lost sight of who I was, but studying helped me feel like I was getting my identity back.

Leaving our life behind

At about this time I began a new relationship. Like the older man before him, this guy seemed like my prince charming, but soon there were signs that he had anger issues. I decided to sit tight and hope they would work themselves out, but one day he pinned me to the floor and held a dumbbell over my head. I cried out to him, ‘If you hit me with that, you’re going to kill me.’ After that, we had to leave.

This time I decided to move us from Luton, where we had been living, to Tottenham in London, which meant leaving behind my college course and my voluntary work. I was back to the mode of thinking through what I could do within my current parameters.

We lived near a leisure centre, and each week I would save £10 out of my benefits so I could take a lifeguarding course. I had always loved to swim and thought this would be a good way to use the talents I had to gain employment. I eventually got a part-time job as a lifeguard. The casual hours meant I could fit the job around Ricky, which was great. From this, I got a place on a sports management degree at university.

Survival mechanism

I’d just finished the first year of my degree when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, Saffron. I was really happy. I was in a great relationship with the baby’s father, my degree was going well – things seemed to be getting back on track.

When Saffron was 10 weeks old, her dad just up and left. I was already suffering with horrendous post-natal depression, and losing him made it ten times worse. I was 26, with two kids, in the middle of a degree, living in a house I couldn’t afford and facing homelessness again. It was the lowest point of my life.

We were moved into a B&B and I did my finals there, writing essays in our little room with two kids playing around me. I don’t know how I did it. Single parents have an in-built survival mechanism that just kicks in. You dig deep and you keep going for your kids.

Head and heart

My life then started to take a more positive turn. I had passed my degree and was now teaching for the Football Association – my claim to fame is that I taught Chelsea captain, John Terry! I later got a job at a further education college and started my career in education. Following that I became Deputy Head of School, and then Head of Faculty, at a college in Hackney.

My life experience is what gave me credibility with the students. When they came to me for help, if they were pregnant or they’d been kicked out of their house or whatever, I was a kindred spirit. I could give them advice from the head and from the heart.

My next career move was working for a Sector Skills Council. I wrote the first creative apprenticeship programme, which aimed to get students from minority and hard to reach groups, including young mums, into apprenticeships in the creative environment – a sector which can often be dominated by people from a certain kind of background. I am very proud of the work I did there.

‘Your skills make you employable’

By this time it was 2007 and my son Ricky had started his own degree in fashion design. He saw an article for a competition to find Britain’s Most Exceptional Working Mother and nominated me for it. I couldn’t believe it when I won!

Having picked up this incredible award, I knew I had to use it to help other single parents like me. I particularly wanted to find a way to give something back to young mums and to say to them, ‘you can do this, your skills make you employable.’ So I rang Gingerbread and offered to help in whatever ways I could. I ended up speaking at Gingerbread’s annual conference in 2009, which was a fantastic experience.

I’m now Deputy Director at City and Islington College, where I’m responsible for 2,000 young people. I take a lead in safeguarding issues and pastoral care. I work with quite a few ‘mini-me’s – young people going through difficult periods and trying to find their path. My focus is always to ask myself, ‘how can we make this young person’s life as enriched as possible?’

My children

My son has graduated from university and is now a fashion designer. He’s even been on TV alongside Rihanna! My daughter Saffron is training to be a chef. People assumed we’d be a failure because we’re a single parent family, but my kids are doing as well as anyone.

When I saw the Centre for Social Justice’s report which basically blamed single parent families for all of society’s problems, all I could think was ‘I should really introduce these people to my children.’ They are a real testament to me and to what single parents can and do achieve.

Success in the face of stereotypes

I think addressing the stereotypes about who single parents are has been the biggest challenge for me over the years, more so than any of the practical issues we’ve faced. It’s so difficult to get people to take you seriously when they’ve already decided you’re going to fail. A lot of employers don’t see parenting as a skill but it really is. I’m a problem-solver, a budgeter, a finance officer – all of it. The challenge is how you turn that prejudice around and make it work for you.

I’m immensely proud that I’ve used the skills I gained from being a single parent to make a success of myself. I have two incredible children, who have never suffered because we’ve been just the three of us, and it’s wonderful for me to see them following their dreams as young adults. And I have my award to remind me what I’ve achieved for myself and for them through hard work. Those things are my pat on the back for the last 26 years.