My son shares a birthday, by coincidence, with his best school friend, something they were naturally unaware of when they first pushed toy trains and cars around the Reception class floor, at just 4, the youngest children in the whole school. Now they’re six and a half, still close, with plenty in common in terms of temperament, ability and interests. They are also both mixed-race, and adored only children. But that’s where the similarities end.
The friend is about to become a big brother. His mother is literally half my age, and my son knows better, now, than to beg me to follow suit. I’m happy anyway, I hope my boy, who likes babies, will experience some second-hand pride, and there’s a good chance that with a new baby, his friend’s mother won’t be quite so overprotective of her precious first born as she has been up until now. She’ll let me take the boys out, for example, without her supervision, and worry less whether I’ll be able to find hers something suitable to eat! All that will be good news for us all.
But when she told me, while her boy was having his weekly piano lesson upstairs at our house, and my son, who has his lesson afterwards, played quietly (all ears) on the floor in front of us, my first thought was where the heck are you all going to live? Their current place is a one bedroom council flat, with a bedsit kitchen/living room. All three of them sleep together; soon it will be all four.
The council, she says, won’t consider transferring them until the baby is in her arms. Before that, she might try a “bedroom tax” swap, the housing officer told her, with someone in a larger flat they could no longer afford. If it worked, I’d have to modify my critical Guardian-influenced position on the policy, I suppose. Is there any chance of it, in an inner-London borough like ours?
And what about school – suppose they were sent to the borough’s outer rims? Will she and son, complete with new baby, be expected to travel the distance on the bus twice-daily?
After they’d gone, piano lessons over, fantasies flooded my mind of accommodating them all in my smallish but super-convenient house right opposite our beloved school . . . It would solve their transport problems and be an answer to my own son’s ongoing dream of his own big family. The boys could share his bedroom, the couple and new baby move into the basement . . . but my own partner quickly scotched the delusion. Once off the council housing list, he said (with the benefit of some experience) they’ll never get back on. You’d be doing them no favours. And you’d end up having to do everything for them.
Nor would it really solve the overcrowding issue, since we only have three bedrooms, into which we’d be squeezing seven people. That’s without addressing how much space two very different families might actually want to share, indefinitely, even if the boys are best school friends.
So what does this young family do? What can they expect? Any expert answers out there? It’s possible that the one bedroom they now have may be a luxury compared to some of the boys’ classmates. One child is one of 11 siblings; all of them, I imagine, sleep in a 2 or at most 3 bedroom council flat. My son’s other good friend is the privileged tenant of a relatively spacious two-bed council flat with his single mum – on the 14th floor.
At the other end of the scale are the two or three children from tall, spacious owner-occupied town houses which make mine look like a cramped little cottage. Try as we might – and I do try, much harder, really, than these other white-middle-class-mums – to pretend all the kids are all equal, all the same, look at them all doing equally well, at the same homework, in the same school, with the same teachers, naturally facing the same start in life – this is a lie. No credit to us, our anxieties about our kids’ future (are the local state secondaries good enough? Could we manage tutors and a private school scholarship? And what about university tuition fees?) are in a different league, and it’s an insult to the rest of them to pretend they are remotely comparable.