In which Vicki Sigston looks at how much support exists for families in Medway in those vital early years..
Did you know that May 15th was the International Day of Families? It was first celebrated in 1994 by the United Nations who wanted the opportunity to reflect and celebrate the importance of families, communities and societies around the world.
As an antenatal practitioner I have been lucky enough to be a tiny part of the journey into parenthood for hundreds of families. It is a real privilege to watch them traverse the magical, and often tricky path that comes when extending a family unit.
As a society though, I think we are letting families down.
When I had my first son, almost twelve years ago I was looking for support. I had friends and family, but many of them were not local to me and even fewer had children of a similar age to mine. So I looked to the community around me. I found bustling Sure Start Children’s Centres, welcoming NCT branches, playgroups, drop ins and peer support. I found answers to all my questions. I found sanctuary when times were tough and, most importantly of all, I found friendship. I found my own little tribe of friends, some of who, twelve years later, I count as my family. These people have helped me become the parent, the person I am today.
If you follow my social media pages or have attended an antenatal course of mine then you no doubt will have heard my most repeated mantra:
It was never supposed to be one or two adults raising children, it is supposed to be a village of adults raising children, all working together, all supporting each other.
This mantra was born from my experiences. I am so blessed to have my village, my tribe, but it seems to me that it is much harder now for new parents and families to find the support they need.
Let’s start with parental leave following the birth of a child. The UK offers an abysmal two weeks leave for a new parent who’s partner has had a baby. Often meaning new mothers are relying on support from friends and family at a time when they will still be physically and mentally healing and adjusting to life as a new parent. But in a society where families are geographically spread far and wide, and people are working more hours than ever before, many new parents just don’t have that support.
We need to be better at flexibility around working hours/days, and to give new parents more time to adjust and settle in to what their new family looks like.
We also need to make sure that families have places to go to access support. I mentioned how important my local Children’s Centres were to me in those early days. Centres within walking distance of my house, run by staff who organised daily drop in groups, who could answer my questions, or signpost me elsewhere if they couldn’t. Centres where I could meet my friends, access toys, books and educational resources. Centres where feeding support groups, baby massage classes and coffee mornings could all be held.
In 2017, in what can only be described as a direct attack on Medway’s children and parents, the Conservative council made the decision to close the majority of these centres, in a move, they said would save much needed council funds, but in reality meant that the most vulnerable families in our community lost vital support. Although we do still have some of these much needed centres (now called “Children and Family Hubs”) the support is much more spread out, with centres having to share staff and resources, meaning the five days a week, very local support is not the reality for most families in Medway. Earlier this year the Conservative administration admitted that the number of visits to these centres since the closures and changes have fallen by nearly 100,000 (from 278,000 in 2015–2016 down to 184,999 in 2017–2018) .
We must move back to putting families back into the centre of our policy making. At a time where families are relying on foodbanks more than ever before, and the numbers of children living in poverty in this country is the highest it’s ever been, we must stop and think about how this is affecting everyone in our society.
On this International Day of Families we need to think about the bigger picture, There are so many expectations on new families that can lead to them struggling, physically and emotionally, yet our decision makers are stripping away every avenue of support bit by bit.
I truly hope you have your family, your tribe, your village, your community around you.
If you don’t, please reach out. Reach out to your health visitor, your local NCT branch, a local parent/toddler group, your local breastfeeding group, there are still people and places who want to support families.
Vicki Sigston is an Antenatal Practitioner and Breastfeeding Counsellor currently living in Medway. She and her husband have 2 boys that they home educate with support from Medway’s incredible home ed community. You can follow her work life on Facebook and Instagram.
Vicki has a website called Mum of 2 Boys that she likes to post (hopefully) useful bits and pieces on too. She also suffers with a chronic condition called Endometriosis and she shares her journey with all of that here.