Back to school has a different meaning in our house tonight. It is a little after midnight, and an overflowing suitcase, tuck box and shiny new uniform sit in the hallway. Thanks to a spectacular performance in a scholarship exam, and the persuasive skills of my ex, F. will not be going to the local comprehensive.
Tomorrow morning, I will be taking him to a charity boarding school. An hour ago, when the reality of what was about to happen hit home, I cried my heart out.
Regular readers may remember my son F. appearing in this column before. In 1996 he was a bouncy toddler with the chickenpox. In 2000 he asked questions about the nature of computers, the colour of the sky, or the workings of a video-cam. He is all grown-up now: size-nine shoes and a voice as deep as Sean Connery’s.
His new school offers facilities and opportunities that most can only dream of. But how will he cope? Will he be able to sleep alright? What if he is ill? I try to remember why I am doing this: the prize scholarship, the Elizabethan theatre, class sizes of 10 or fewer, archaeology field trips, music tuition, and the school’s charity status, which ensures that he won’t be surrounded only by the privileged.
But right now my head says yes but my heart says no. Despite the hardships – perhaps because of the hardships – our bond is just too strong. I think back to 1993. Back then, I was a pregnant student studying engineering at Swansea University. From the fourth to the seventh month of my pregnancy I had no income at all. Sadly, despite having no savings or income, I was ineligible for benefits.
F.’s dad and I lived in one room of a shared student house that was heated mostly by the mountains of cigarette butts in the lounge. I’d recently been diagnosed as having epilepsy. By month five I was having seven seizures a day.
This summer, the Government announced it was setting up a task force to try to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. It is easy to see why; for many people, becoming pregnant at a young age is the worst thing that can happen. But for me, at the age of 21, it was not the end of my life: it was just the beginning.
Motherhood brings joy as well as exhaustion, and before long, I began writing for the Evening Post, to bring home enough money to support my family. Later in 1995, I finished my degree. I went on to complete two more, becoming Dr Gristock in 2002. I’ve worked with the top UK scientists in my job as an academic. But best of all, F. is a kind and thoughtful person, and as happy as a child from a one-parent family can be. He does see his Dad, but of course it is not the same. For all of us.
What the Government task force doesn’t realise is that it is poverty, and not pregnancy, that makes life miserable for young parents. I may have missed out on my youth but if I had my time over, I would not change a single thing. My hardest times were also my happiest: I remember our kitchen, decorated with pictures from the food pages of newspapers; our house, shabby but full of laughter. I remember how it was before the struggle drew a painful wedge between F.’s father and I.
Tonight, as F. sleeps, I realise that I won’t just be feeling the absence of my beautiful son, I will also be missing my best friend.
But best friends don’t act selfishly. So I think about his future, zip up his suitcase, and pour my grief into the computer.