‘I am only eating the bread I make just so my children don’t go without food’

“Another hungry day. I’m thankful I can make bread as that’s all I’ve been eating, just so my children don’t go without… It’s three weeks till pay day and I’m so worried about how we’ll make it through,” Maria Thompson, a single parent of two from Belfast, writes. Milly writes: […]

“Another hungry day. I’m thankful I can make bread as that’s all I’ve been eating, just so my children don’t go without… It’s three weeks till pay day and I’m so worried about how we’ll make it through,” Maria Thompson, a single parent of two from Belfast, writes.

Milly writes: “Mental health of mine and husband is quite bad atm. I really hope things will get better soon.”

Alex writes: “Stress is an understatement… Took dog out for a quick walk. Watching families out together, coffees to go, chatting. I have no one.”

These are just some of the thoughts and memories recorded by the Covid Realities project, which is tracking the experience of low-income families during Covid-19.

By creating a rolling series of short, but deeply personal online posts by participants, the project provides a real-time record of the pandemic.

Maria gave up a job in electronics to look after her disabled son

Scrolling through, you feel their fears, sense their frustrations, and share their small joys and victories.

For Maria, 37, who gave up a job in electronics to look after her disabled son John, the project has been a lifeline.

“We’re having to make hard choices,” she says.

“Do you take your kids on public transport? Do you risk it to get to the food bank – to get three days of pasta and food? What do you need when the kids need new shoes? … There were times during the first lockdown when I’d have 19 days without any money, so I’d have to borrow.”

Of the second lockdown she says: “It’s worse already isn’t it? When it was the first one it was summer but now it’s dark and cold. My gas bill is already £30 a week not £5 a week and food prices seem to have doubled.

She adds: “This project is really important. I want to try and change things and to do that, we need people with power to understand how we’re living.”

Maria says the second lockdown has been worse than the first for her family

Covid Realities is led by Dr Ruth Patrick with colleagues from the University of York, Birmingham University and the Child Poverty Action Group, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

“It’s vital that we understand the impact the pandemic is having on families living on a low income, who have been almost completely forgotten in the government’s response,” Dr Patrick says.

“All too often, we hear talk about what lockdown and restrictions mean for people who can usually afford to eat out, to go on holiday, and to meet friends in pubs and cafes.

“What we don’t hear nearly enough about is the experiences of families who can’t afford to do these things, even in normal times; and who feel excluded from our national conversation.”

Parents log into a safe, online space, where they can answer big questions of the week and complete online diaries.

Their experiences are then shared back onto the Covid Realities website, creating a rich and valuable archive of lives lived in the time of coronavirus.

“Before this I was in full-time employment in the NHS, I was married with children, I was buying my own home with my husband via a mortgage, I was studying for a degree,” says Shirley Widdop, 53, a mum of three, living in Keighley with her son, Jack, 15.

Maria has noticed her bills going up

A former nurse, she has been unable to work since being diagnosed with a spinal condition which affects her mobility. Now she survives on disability benefits that haven’t been given the £20 uplift offered to those on Universal Credit.

“I have got into some debt, just to buy the essentials, to get my son what he needs,” she says.

Caroline Rice, 47, lives in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, with her nine-year-old daughter. The pandemic forced her to reduce her hours as a childminder, leaving her relying on Universal Credit.

“It’s exhausting, having to constantly check your bank account,” she says. “I was always wanting to work, I didn’t set out to be a single parent but we all need help sometimes.”

Aurora, from London, lost her husband three years ago. She has been left to raise their children, 7 and 11, on Universal Credit after her part-time hospitality job ended with the pandemic.

At one point she writes: “I’m not able to afford my rent this month. The debt from past benefit payments has been restarted, as a result we may become homeless… I’m so tired of this all… My kids worry about me, I know they do. It’s never-ending.”

On the project’s notice board, Connie G writes: “It’s taken a few months to really notice but I am missing the hugs, a full bear hug is needed sometimes to squeeze away the worry of life.”

Ted S writes: “Sitting here with HSBC page in the background. I don’t want to look just yet… still 11 days before paid again…”

At other times, these parents share joyful experiences that are unique to living through Covid.

“So we ended up in the front garden on a blanket,” lone parent Victoria B writes, “with neighbours in each of their respective gardens, shouting at each other over how loud and pretty and fun the fireworks are.”

Most of all, these families share how important it is to be listened to. One parent writes: “So easy to think we’re alone in our struggles. Being able to share with and listen to others is such a precious thing.”

Aurora adds: “It’s somewhere to tell people what life is really like, a platform where we can be heard and that does give me some hope.”

The project continues all the way to next June, creating a remarkable portrait of an extraordinary time.

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