Radio 4 blasts from the kitchen. Then. The social worker arrives. Senses rule judgement and if the first thing she hears from the speakers is a respectable middle-class accent reading a worthy play about the Fall of Saigon… or something… then I’m off to an auspicious start. Cleaned the flat. Washed up. Sprayed a whole tumour’s worth of Oust. Toilet Duck is performatively squirted blue around the bowl. Little tip: don’t scrub it to gleam – that’s suspicious, needs to look natural, lived in. Needs to say: yeah, we live in this flat and we piss because we drink, and we shit because we eat, but we clean up after ourselves. We’re not beasts. And…
Offer the social worker a cuppa.
She’ll want the builders’ stuff with the proper milk – probs a couple of sugars – but you should suggest a green or even peppermint. She’ll respect you for that. Get extra points by showing her your carton of almond milk. Enjoy the look of approval in her eyes.
Don’t ruin your good work by serving it in a big Sports Direct mug. Offer a Jaffa Cake – on a plate. Then. Place her at your clutter-free table, completely clean apart from the purposefully placed Sunday newspaper. And…
Fuck sake… I shouldn’t have to say this (but I will):
Don’t- do- a- tabloid.
Know your audience. Go broadsheet or go home.
The Observer, The Sunday Times – that’ll do the job.
And it’s true, I am a good mother, it’s just that women like me, those below the poverty line, those fleeing abuse, those without stable accommodation, we just have to work that little bit harder to prove it.
The social worker, she takes it all in; to the naked eye I’m a woman well turned out and from my listening choices I demonstrate conformity to powerful voices – meaning I aspire and obey. I’m not like the other women she deals with; the ones who smoke above cots or inject in their veins. She questions herself – why is she here to judge a woman like me? There must be some kind of mistake. Her senses are saying – Radio 4, good mother. Her instincts are telling her – this is the correct level of middle-class aspiration for a good mother to have. And the house is clean. The subject (that’s me) she’s ‘bright’, the bookshelves are filled, the child has toys, the subject is forthcoming. Boxes are ticked: I. Am. A. Good. Mother. And it’s true, I am a good mother, it’s just that women like me, those below the poverty line, those fleeing abuse, those without stable accommodation, we just have to work that little bit harder to prove it.
We always have to be playing a part.
And one misjudged performance and it’s all over.
In the GP’s office. Don’t mention how last night you tried to top yourself. Hint at depression but act like suicide is a faraway pose. Use meaningless terms like ‘low mood’, ‘insomnia’, ‘stressed’. Brush your hair. Wear lipstick. Act bloody sane, think before you speak, be proactive, make a request for talking therapy, suggest a dose of Valium but mention you’re aware it’s addictive – you just need one good night’s sleep. Be anything more than a little bit sad and you’ll lose your kid. And. Details- are- important. Talk about your healthy diet, family meal plans and exercise schedule. Talk about Mark Warner holidays – no one takes children from women like that.
At an interview for a demoralising job: Declare yourself educated but only enough to appear capable. Sure, lie about the grades you never got but not enough to hurt the fragile ego of your potential boss. Make up a degree. Don’t say the Russell Group. That’s- overegging- the- fucking- pudding- love. You did Theatre Studies at London Met; you did something pointless at South Bank. You got a 2.2. Fill in gaps in unemployment with tales of travel or untraceable jobs abroad. Throw your CV off the beaten track; a year as a nanny in Moscow. You went to live in Russia because you… love Chekov. Say you visited Stanislavski’s grave. You saw Pussy Riot. You love Putin. You hate Putin. Whatever. Talk about things people don’t understand and for a while they’ll think you’re… smart.
Always keep in mind: those who employ people on zero-hour minimum-wage contracts need to believe they are your master. So. Act like the wage slaves do on the telly – ‘Thank you Lord Sugar, thank you for the opportunity Lord Sugar.’
‘Libraries protected me at my most vulnerable’: Kerry Hudson on why libraries can’t be lostLowborn author Kerry Hudson is proudly working class, but she was never proudly poor. She shares the vital role that libraries and books played in her life, and why we must do everything in our power to protect them.
They like that. They’ll offer you an unpaid trial. And you must say – ‘Thank you, thank you for the opportunity.’ And when they ask about childcare because ‘you single mothers always have issues with childcare’, you’ll reply ‘Yes sir, yes, I have a very supportive family to help out a single mum like me. Yes sir, of course my family will help me out when you require last-minute, extra, shifts…’
Never. Reveal. Your. Dysfunctional. Family.
Never use words like estranged.
Or no contact.
Estranged families create vulnerable women. And. Humans attack vulnerable women.
Whenever a woman reveals any kind of abuse or disenfranchisement she will be placed under scrutiny akin to a convicted child killer. You know how this all works by now, right? This has been the story of outsider women for centuries. Whenever a woman speaks candidly about being mistreated or othered then she will be questioned, and she will be researched to the point of violation. A throw-away comment she made ten years ago will be used to condemn her, a man she was once unlucky enough to share a bed with will be called upon to damn her morals and deem her character untrustworthy. Her sanity will be doubted, smears will be circulated, and her credibility sanctioned until she must mute.
So, spin another line: ‘I’m from a huge, supportive, stable, loving family’. Throw in some shit about your Dad’s 60th birthday party in Greece (even if you haven’t seen him since you were 12). Don’t- alert- anyone- to- who- you- really- are. Never let anyone get close. Never reveal to ANYONE that you navigate this world completely alone.
And anyway, best to start any new job with a fully functional (fictional) family – dying relatives make good funeral excuses when your babysitter cancels.
Whenever a woman speaks candidly about being mistreated or othered then she will be questioned, and she will be researched to the point of violation.
When meeting estate agents – soften your accent. Dress like Allsopp. Offer a landlord reference (ask your best mate to write it). Offer a work reference (ask a different friend). Don’t reveal that you’re a single mum. But when they learn the truth always have to hand details of a made-up ex-husband who lives in Dubai and pays high amounts of child support each month. ‘We’re no longer together but he’s very supportive, a wonderful father, very much part of our daughter’s life, pays a huge chunk of money each month to help out with the rent. ’
(If a man vouches for you they won’t treat you like the scum. And nothing is a lie if it helps you to survive.)
At the school gates with the nice mums – regale them with stories of Build-A-Bear parties of birthdays past, your obsession with gin, be a bit saucy but never crude – offer up a naughty dream you had about Tom Hardy, ohhh they’ll love that! Do whatever you can to fit in. For as long as you can. Until…
The game is up.
When you’re evicted.
When your abusive ex finds you.
When you just can’t keep the act up for another second.
…Disappear as quickly as you arrived. Don’t go for a farewell glass of wine. Don’t make promises to keep in touch. Pack a small suitcase. Leave behind your furniture. Sell your clothes. Stop all your direct debits. Get a new address. A new SIM card. Do a deed poll. Delete as much of yourself as you can. You were never really real anyway.
And then do it all again.
Skint Estate: A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood and Survival by Cash Carraway is out now.