It’s not easy being a mum even at the best of times. But a decade of austerity has created a generation of families who have forgotten what it’s like not to struggle.
No one knows that better than Cash Carraway, the 39-year-old author and playwright whose honest and cuttingly funny memoir Skint Estate laid bare the reality of single motherhood on a budget. Carraway’s story of poverty, depression, sex work and escaping domestic violence brings austerity-wracked Britain to life – and while things are better for her now, it will still be the reality for thousands across the country this Mother’s Day.
The Big Issue spoke to Carraway about being trapped in a cycle of poverty and the difficult realisation that money makes you a better mum.
What are the daily worries of raising a child in poverty?
Are we still going to be here next week? Is my daughter going to be able to stay in this school? My daughter’s in her fifth school now. She’s nine years old. That’s one of the biggest challenges – keeping your child feeling safe. Having community and routine is a thing that keeps a child feeling nurtured.
You’re struggling to pay your rent and know you’re going to have to move. On top of that, you’re struggling to buy food and school uniforms and school trips. It’s constantly on your mind.
It’s constant chaos. I always talk about the chaos of poverty – my mindset hasn’t recovered from that yet because it’s such a traumatic way to live. You’re constantly on the go and thinking about how to save your arse.
And how did that change once your writing career picked up, lifting you out of poverty?
My life is completely different now. I write for TV so obviously my income is a lot different to what it was just a year ago. I handed in my social tenancy and live in a nice house in an area of London that I choose to live in. I can afford to eat. I don’t have those general day-to-day worries.
You really forget what it’s like to truly struggle – I’ve started to understand privilege. It’s so easy to take these things for granted. Before, I could never quite understand when people couldn’t see how tough it was out there. People would say, ‘Well it’s of your own making. It can’t be that bad.’ And I can see why people would think like that now – when you have money and stability it’s hard to see that anything could be any different on the outside of that.
I’ve never seen my daughter so happy. And I’m someone who suffers from depression, but I suffer from depression a whole lot less now. Everything has changed completely.
I always talk about the chaos of poverty – my mindset hasn’t recovered from that yet because it’s such a traumatic way to live
Is there a specific stigma to being a mum living in poverty?
People say the reason you’re in poverty is because you made some mistakes. I’ve heard that a lot. Actually, I didn’t make any more mistakes than someone who was born into the middle class – I made the same mistakes, you’re just not playing the same game as everyone else. There’s no safety net. You make a mistake and your life is thrown into chaos.
People have told me I should have aborted my daughter if I was so poor. Others said my daughter should be taken away from me and into care. The suggestion that someone who’s living in poverty doesn’t love their child as much as someone with money is outrageous.
Then there’s the idea that young women give birth so they can get a council flat. That they’ve got no ambition and just want to live off the state. It’s a ridiculous notion anyway. There are no council flats!
You, like many women, were made homeless when you escaped domestic violence – made more difficult by having a dependent. What is the level of support like once you’re living in a refuge?
In 2010 I was living in a refuge, just before the coalition came into force. The facilities were amazing – there was counselling, you were given support to stay away from the perpetrator if you had been a victim of domestic abuse. But what I noticed when I went into a refuge in 2017 was how different things were.
It was much harder to get a place. And once we were in there the staff weren’t trained to help with the diverse range of complex needs. There’d be people there who are coming off drugs, there will be people who have special needs, people who can’t speak English. And the staff, while lovely, were 22-year-olds who had just graduated from a social work degree, earning minimum wage, who couldn’t cope with the reality of eight women and 13 children who had just escaped domestic violence.
Later, the benefits cap was introduced while you were living in a privately rented flat. How much did that affect you?
I noticed it straight away. The benefits we were on covered rent in that area, so you didn’t feel the struggle the same way. We didn’t have a lot of money but we knew we would have a roof over our heads because housing benefit covered it. Then the cap came in and what would cover our rent was halved. Immediately we had to move. Now my daughter has had 15 different addresses.
Landlords were suddenly refusing to take you, then once Universal Credit was introduced everything got a million times worse. There’ll be one or two properties in the area that would be covered by housing benefit, and otherwise it’s out of the question. [Last year the Women’s Budget Group research showed there was no region in England where the average home to rent was affordable for women on median earnings.] Often you end up having to pay on top of that benefit just to have somewhere to live. If you’re on low wages or unemployed it becomes impossible to eat. Foodbank usage goes up. It’s a domino effect.
Before the benefits cap it wasn’t perfect but it was livable. The difference it made was really noticeable.
Looking back, how much does having security change you as a parent?
I look back and I know that I wasn’t a bad mum but I know that I’m a better mum now because I have that time to give her. That’s not to say that anyone who doesn’t have that time isn’t a good mum. It’s really conflicting for me, I loved my daughter exactly the same as I do now, but it’s just that I’m me minus the worry now. I’m more present. That’s something I wasn’t really able to be before. Intention can only do so much if you don’t have a safety net.
Homelessness and poverty really lit up my addictions too. I’ve struggled with alcohol and it was really exacerbated by that because you’ll do anything you can to forget what you’re going through.
I find it easier to be sober now that I’ve moved away from that precarity as well. It’s amazing what having a stable home and stable income can do to a person.
Skint Estate by Cash Carraway is out now (Ebury £9.99)
Interview: Hannah Westwater @hannahjtw