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The Choppy Seas Of Parenthood

My involvement with Home-Start began when I came back to Oxford after four years in Edinburgh. I wasn't working, I'd ceased practice as a lawyer, my own children were grown. It's a cliché, but I really wanted to give back. I wanted to work with younger people, and I found out about Home-Start.  


Home-Start Oxford is one of over 200 Home-Start organisations, which are independent, but come under the umbrella of Home-Start UK.  


What appealed to me was that Home-Start trains volunteers to support families with at least one child under five. We then visit them in their homes, and for as long as there's a need, up to 18 months to two years, though volunteers can elect to continue contact with the family after formal support ends.   


It's value is that it’s a befriending model. It's in the home, completely separate from social services, we always say to the family, this is your choice, our coming into your home is something you have to feel comfortable with, it’s in your gift.  


I joined Home-Start Oxford in December 2010, as a trustee, at a time when it was in a difficult situation. There'd been a crisis, the funding had started to fall away. There was only one coordinator, working part-time, and at times no receptionist, so the trustees had to help out in the scheme as well as being responsible for governance and fundraising, we were really doing everything. There were only about five of us.   


Although I also wanted to work directly with families, and did the volunteer training in 2011, there was such a need for fundraising and recruiting, working towards getting up and running again, that I only supported one family. It was a very challenging time. We did eventually get a Big Lottery Fund grant, which enabled us to employ somebody who'd been working at children's centres, and we managed to keep it all going.   


The volunteer training is over a period of about eight weeks, in a group where we sometimes share personal experiences, but also learn a huge amount about safeguarding, the development of the child, and the development of the parenting relationship. The volunteer needs to either be a parent, or to have been in some sort of caring relationship with a child/children. Somebody who knows what the choppy seas of parenthood are like.   


We get referrals all the time. The referrals can be self-referral, or from health visitors, social services, the GP, even a neighbour. The family coordinators we employ visit the family at home to do an assessment, after that choose a volunteer to suit the family, and then there's a match visit, when the coordinator comes with you to meet the family.   


One of the great skills that the coordinators have is that matching choice. They have such a good sense of which volunteer is going to work with which family. After the match visit we arrange to visit the family, usually weekly for 2 – 4 hours. That way, you've got a chance for things to develop, to help out, even if it’s just holding the baby while mum has a shower, or gets a meal ready, all sorts of things. We listen, encourage, signpost to other organisations if for example there's an issue about finances or housing, or flagging a mother and baby group. We have supervision with the coordinator every six weeks to check how things are going, if there are any problems or concerns. Sharing, too, as they’re the one person with whom you can discuss anything that comes up in the family. So it’s all relationships of confidence and trust.  


I really believe strongly in the Home-Start model, it's so important for parents to gain confidence in looking after young children. So I took on the role of Chair in 2012 when that was needed. My husband was head of one of the Oxford colleges, I was often meeting alumni and I would mention my work with Home-Start. Several had heard of it, some were involved with grant-giving foundations, and suggested application to those. I spent a lot of time writing letters, getting funds in.   


One very successful fundraising initiative was music-based – a GradeOneAThon, as we called it. We got enough musicians to form an orchestra, they agreed to have a go at learning a new instrument to grade one level, and then put on a concert playing those instruments in Oxford Town Hall in September 20217. It was a triumph, and raised £40,000!!   


Part of being chair was amazing, but it was much more burdensome than I'd anticipated. You know, it was very hand to mouth, rarely more than one or two years forward funding, always having to think ahead, though I was really well supported by my fellow trustees.   


We had a quality assurance review in 2013 which gave us a kind of clean slate, really. We changed  the management structure, and recruited three new trustees, one of whom was subsequently employed as scheme manager in 2016, and is now our CEO. When she came onto the board in 2014, she'd come from a community foundation background in London, was aware of what the bigger grant organisations required, and how to put together really big funding bids. With her we moved from having an annual budget of about £50,000 in 2011 to having more like £250,000 currently. The organisation is substantially bigger than it used to be, too, in Oxford, and we've extended into Witney. When I started, the children's centres still existed, with lots of early years support, including stay and play sessions. So much of that vanished in the austerity cuts, and now we're doing more group work to deal with the primary problem for parents of young children, social isolation.   


After five and a half years being Chair, I was pretty burned out, stepped down in 2017, and finally retired as a trustee in April 2021. After being at arm's length, I just wanted to do something direct. I did the volunteer training in 2022, and from August 22 to April 23 I supported a family. So I've got the full experience. Back in 2011 I'd supported one woman for about six weeks. She'd come through really severe postnatal depression, and just wanted somebody to look after the baby, so she could pick up some of the threads of her old life, practising the cello, doing Christmas cards. It was really interesting to see how much you can give, in what feels like a very little way.   


The family I supported this time had more complex problems, but gradually they felt able to confide in me. While I was with them a baby was born, and I have had the pleasure of knowing that little one from birth. Volunteers always say ‘I don't know that I'm doing very much.’ You're sitting there, as part of the family, helping out - such a privilege and a trust. I know volunteers who’ve kept in touch with their families for years, really years.   


Mostly people think support is for families who've got quite significant challenges, financial or through disability or whatever. But it's not always like that. Having a child is an amazing experience, but it can also be really stressful. For women, in particular, but also fathers. One thing I’d like to see across the country is more engagement for dads. Everyone comes under stress with parenting, more so if they haven't had the most positive experience of being parented themselves, it can be very difficult. I've had three children of my own, and two stepchildren. I'm reasonably sanguine now. But there were times I remember holding the baby tight, thinking, ‘If this goes on much longer, I’m going to crack!’ I don't know many people who feel confident about parenting, especially in those early months, where this small being can prevent you from getting dressed during the day, getting out. With my first child, I'd originally planned to go back to work at three months – after all, I'd have a sling, I could breastfeed, disposable nappies had just come in - I thought it was going to be easy, I'd just have a baby as well! Ho ho! That changed very quickly!!  


Throughout my life, I've always done voluntary work, both when I was a student, and when I worked in law. I see need everywhere. It's just a question of where to focus, where I think I can be of use. At the moment, I want to do the one-on-one, be of direct help, to give back. It validates me personally. A lot lies beneath the surface of every person. If some of my experience is able to assist, support, empower somebody else, and I can give them a bit more confidence in themselves, then that's what I’d like to do at this point in my life.  


Actually, I was a very unconfident teenager and young woman. I think it's part of why I feel that link with the people I'm supporting. If anyone had said to me at 18, ‘One day you’ll stand in front of a crowded hall, talking about an organisation you care passionately about,’ I would not have believed them. I've gained a wealth of knowledge and experiences on the back of that decision to go to Home-Start. And become even more passionate about provision for children. I remain appalled at the way in which funding was taken away from early years provision. If I were younger, I would really think about going into politics to rage about it all. I mean, priorities are priorities. And what is more important than the next generation? And being custodians for them, and of the world to come?  


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