Thursday, 13 October 2011

Tough Times: When Will This Economic Ice Age End?

If you’re currently living in Britain then you will be all too familiar with just how hard the current recession has hit the general population. If you are lucky enough not to have been affected greatly, then you are probably sick of hearing those less well off ‘whining’ about it, so I apologize in advance!

When the recession first began I was newly employed out of university into a fairly well paid position lecturing and studying for a PhD. I had just moved into a small flat provided by my employer, where bills and rent were included in my contract… wonderful! I remember thinking; ‘What is everyone whining about? Not much has changed!’ Sadly I wish I had started saving more earnestly, rather than buying things I hadn’t been able to afford whilst being an undergraduate (Car, TV, new bed etc.). Admittedly some of these things were necessary, but I could have saved a lot more in retrospect.
If you have read any of my previous blogs you will know that I am now married and have a little baby girl. It’s amazing and I’m so happy, however things have obviously changed and financially it has been a real struggle. My husband and I receive a small amount in child tax credits alongside my maternity pay and his small student loan (I was supposed to be receiving a much larger pay, but that’s another story!). It’s nowhere near enough and I have been borrowing money for months from my parents just to pay basic utilities. Anyway, that can’t be helped until I finish my leave, but I do find myself wondering if even when I return to work we will have enough to save to a house or anything else. What does the future hold for people in our situation…people who are really struggling, but not entitled to any real benefits? 

Looking on the bright side I think this recession has made me think a lot more about what I spend my money on. I have changed my supermarket and found one which is not only better quality and closer, but cheaper than those claiming to be the best value. I spend a lot more time looking at price tickets trying to work out whether things are really as good value as the big bright labels make out. We no longer buy much meat, just cheap cuts which can be roasted or slow cooked. I’ve really gotten into home baking, which is extremely rewarding I can tell you! I also try to use up as many things as I can before I put stuff into the compost and my husband and I grow our own food and forage for extras. I genuinely think that even when things get easier I will keep hold of this way of living and I’m determined to start saving every penny when I get back to work in January. 

My only serious concerns at the moment are the talk of a harsh winter in Britain. Our rented house is cold, damp and lacking in insulation. Luckily there are grants for free insulation etc. which we are taking up asap, but it's going to be very tough whilst on a tight budget for bills! I’m going to remain optimistic that things will get better and we will have our own house in the not too distant future, so spending money on important energy saving products will be much more worthwhile. Chin up Britain… we can get through this!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Customer is always right... or not?!

  Is it me or has customer service just gone downhill in most companies? I was up last night just thinking of how few times I have been pleased with the level of service my husband and I have received over the last year from various companies. It seems that the days when companies actually cared if you came back to them in the future are gone. All they appear to care about is a quick buck.

  The main thing that annoys me these days is the way companies feel they can get out of treating you badly by simply covering every eventuality within their terms and conditions and then just handing you a copy of that once you have made a purchase. The worst case of this I have experienced was last year when me and Neil decided to treat ourselves and buy a new sofa. We had one small one and an armchair and felt that seeing as we had the space and some money available it would be nice to buy a beautiful, soft, purple corner sofa from Harvey's. Sounds lovely? Well it was lovely and reduced too. Needless to say we paid upfront and ordered it, before being told it would take 10 weeks to be made and delivered. OK, not great, but hey it could be worse.

  Anyway, a couple of weeks later I had some terrible news that I would not longer be receiving my research bursary (which makes up around half our income every money), so we were suddenly in a serious situation financially. After thinking everything through we decided to cancel the order for the sofa and get the money back. So we called the Harvey's store and explained and were then told we would lose a large amount of the total cost including the delivery (despite the fact they wouldn't be delivering it). We were shocked as no one had told us that this might be the case. What was really bad though was that when we asked to speak to someone about it and hear an explanation the manager was extremely rude to Neil and basically said 'tough, it's not our problem and now you've cancelled you can't even have the sofa uncancelled'. After talking to several people they simple said they would send a copy of the terms and conditions which we were given so we could read this. They insisted we had been given this at the time and signed after reading it; which is nonsense!

 After looking into the situation it seems that companies are allowed to do what they like as long as they have a 'terms and conditions' which explains it, whether you sign it or not. There is also apparently nothing that can be done about such rude service. It makes me depressed to be honest as when I used to work for a retailer 8 years ago, the focus was on making the customer feel valued and happy with the service offered so they would come back! It worked, and I always saw regular customers returning to the store because they liked the friendly staff and quality products. Needless to say I will not be purchasing anything from Harvey's in future, no matter how reduced and beautiful it is!!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Social Networking Sites

 I am a member of a commonly used social networking site like almost everybody else these days. I was apprehensive about joining in the first place back when these sites really started to hit off, but so many of my friends where using it to communicate and organise meet ups etc. that I decided to give in. So I made a profile, added some reasonable profile pics and some basic information and I was well away. Over the first few years I began to use the site a lot, especially when I was living alone and in a new job where I had few good friends. It was a great way to stay in touch with old friends and check other people were still alive and well, without having to ask them or even contact them. Myself and some good friends also started using the ability to label snaps from horrendous nights out as a humorous way of dealing with the depression of a hang over the next morning. Nothing better than being reminded of something utterly stupid you or a friend did the night before!

 Since I got married and settled down things have changed. I find I'm not really interested in going out and then posting photos of drunken disasters anymore, I'm much more enjoy posting snaps from camping holidays with my husband or pictures of my garden. OK, perhaps that's boring, but hey it passes a bit of time.  Anyway... I've come to notice that the site often has irrelevant adverts down the site of the page; makeup, credit cards, football etc.'. I understand that the sites use demographics to target adverts at people, for example: female= makeup ad. married= credit cards ad. Unfortunately I'm not your typical woman and these makeup ads are not relevant so I often click to remove them and explain why in the resulting multiple choice box, however the same sort of ads keep popping up. I was at a loss as to understand why these sites do not feel that learning what their users want is important... don't they want better targeted advertising? If not why do they even allow you to remove said ads?Worse still... I have read and heard about several married men getting ads for dating websites appearing on their pages, despite the site having the information about their relationship status.  They click to say the ad offends them, but the next day there is another similar one there. Are these companies just asking the site to show the ad to ALL men? If so they are just going to annoy people. Not every man wants to 'hook up with hot local singles'.

  I have also noticed how the site seems to know things about me which I have not shared with them. For example, when I was pregnant with my daughter, it showed me ads for baby products, despite the fact that I had been keeping this a secret from my friends and hadn't mentioned anywhere on the networking site! I decided to look into the subject of ads and also information sharing on these sites... the results were a bit disturbing.

 Some ads are suggested due to demographic. OK I know that already. Some ads are suggested due to friends interests... again I know that. However what I found disturbing is the fact that the other ads are a result of the site accessing and sharing information from your emails and website cookies etc. as far as I can ascertain. Don't believe it? Try searching for a specific product on the web a few times in the same browser you use for a networking site, visit a few pages, then go onto your social networking page and check the ads. Chances are there will now be an ad for said product. So... how is it OK for a website to access information from your web usage for any reason? On further reading it seems to be even more complicated and accessed via apps, games etc. you might use on the site. Apparently some apps include statements in their terms and conditions to cover them accessing your information etc, so the only way to stop this is to go into your privacy settings and remove the apps and change all your privacy settings.

  That brings me on to my second problem. I change my settings to private and make sure to un-click all the right boxes etc, but every now and then when I check, all the privacy on apps, etc. has been reverted back to a default 'unprivate' setting. UG! Why should I have to regularly check to see if the site has decided to revert my settings to allow access to my private information? Surely respecting users privacy should be a default setting?

  So, there you have it. I have come to understand that social networking sites have no respect for privacy or the interests of their users. As long as it's in their terms and conditions then they are covered and no longer responsible. It seems the only way to avoid the problems of privacy and offensive ads is not to use any sites of this type. I am seriously considering deleting my profiles from all such sites unless things change. I urge any readers to check your privacy, app settings etc to prevent any privacy issues.


Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Little girl in the UK

I'm usually proud to be British. I've always really loved our country with it's rainy weather and the black humour of the British people. I've never really considered moving abroad and I've always felt this was a good country to live.Today however I find myself wondering whether or not this is the right place to raise my child and if so; where is the safest and most comfortable place I can bring her up?

  I've been watching all the UK riots on the news and it has come to my attention that a problem which I was already concerned about is a much bigger issue than I first thought. It's the problem of society and the 'yob culture'. The majority of people who are rioting seem to have no real reason to do so, they are just using the original protests as an excuse to loot and basically cause havoc. Classic quotes of 'We are doing it to show the rich people we can do what we want' and 'It's cos of the government', just make me furious. These people don't even know who's in power! They are also smashing up small shops owned by local families and burning houses and cars owned by locals! It's just mindless vandalism and there is NO excuse for it.

  When I was young the country seemed to be so different (and I'm not that old before anyone says anything... I'm 25). OK I lived a fair amount of my life in small villages and on army bases, but I don't remember there being such a thing as chavs or gansters... at least not this kind of gangster! I used to go out and make dens in the woods or hang out with my friends playing games like hide and seek. I didn't start going out more with friends until I was about 14, when I moved to a new place and started mixing with different types of people. Up till then I had never seen young people smoking or drinking and it was a bit of a shock to me. Now it all seems commonplace; we see stories every day about young people involved in random violent attacks and we see young people out on the streets drinking and smoking all the time. I find myself wondering if there is any hope for my little girl to grow up without being exposed to too much of this sort of behaviour. I would be devastated if she started smoking or if she admitted to having sex underage. OK she's only 2 months, but surely the situation in the UK can only get worse?

  Right now I'm watching a program called 'Cherry's Parenting Dilemmas' and it's really striking a chord. There are kids on there going out and binge drinking with their friends, before getting in trouble with the police. I started going out late and drinking when I was a little too young and if I could go back I would change that and steer clear. There is also a mum on there who has gone to a hippy extreme and is home schooling; right now I'm inclined to say I'm loving the idea. Being a lecturer I have to say I feel a little more qualified to take on that role than most parents, so I might be biased, but it's got to be a good way to prevent them getting involved with the wrong crowd. Does it limit their social advances though? How do these kids make friends?

  So...what can I do? Keep my little girl locked up inside and home school her? Seriously; that is looking like a good option right now. Wouldn't it be better though to just find a nice quiet village somewhere and settle down, hoping that this will reduce her chances of exposure to this yob culture? I think a careful balance of both these options and an open, honest relationship will be the best thing for me and her. I can be honest about my experiences and how they have affected me, in the hope that she will learn what is best for her.

  For all those parents in the same boat... let's hope it doesn't get any worse in the UK.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

A Special Dedication...

'The World's Best Husband'
... and now...the world's best Dad

   I want to make this post a dedication to my husband Neil. I remember seeing something like a 'Dad of the month' award on Bounty or somewhere similar, where you could nominate your husband/partner as the best new dad and I just knew that no-one would deserve it more. Unfortunately I have looked online and cannot find it anymore :S. So... instead, I am going to write a post explaining why my little daughter and I are so lucky to have this wonderful person in our lives.

  Let me start at the beginning. Obviously I think he's the most gorgeous man alive, but that's my very biased opinion. I will mention here that I love drawing and a few of my friends have commented on how Neil looks a lot like the male characters I used to draw; so I'm not just saying it, he really is my ideal man looks-wise (long hair, beard, not too muscular etc etc). He's perfect for me in every way and for once I found someone I could talk about intelligent things with and also have a laugh. We hit it off so well that he proposed to me in a beautiful bluebell woodland at sunset, while we were out filming deer. We had an amazing wedding in a castle and although Neil had to work away all summer on a farm to get us some extra money, we still managed to have a wonderful honeymoon in the caravan he was staying in. He made an excellent husband from the beginning; always more interested in spending time with me than going out with mates drinking or doing anything else normal husbands do.

  When we decided to have a baby and Neil really became a perfect husband. My pregnancy wasn't 'the most amazing time of my life' as some people describe it; I had morning, noon and night sickness for three months, then chronic tiredness for the rest of it. Aside from that; being a small person I found my bump made breathing etc difficult and sleeping became almost impossible not long in. Neil made it all so much easier from the beginning though. He made me drinks, snacks and ignored my mood swings. He let me sleep as long as I wanted and hog all the pillows. He went to almost all my antenatal appointments and scans and took me out to buy baby things on regular occasions.

  Through the labour and birth Neil was caring and devoted. He made me as comfortable as possible and unlike all the other people crowding around at the birth giving me useless advice like 'Push, push, push!' etc., he just stood by my side, holding my hand and feeding me water every so often. Now our little daughter is here and he's become the most amazing dad I could have wanted for her. He is absolutely brilliant with her and never stops talking to her and smiling. It hasn't been easy for us, as I have insomnia and will spend hours trying to sleep without any luck, but he has been patient and devoted, letting me sleep in the daytime while he looks after her. We take it in turns to feed and change her and I am so proud when I tell everyone how great Neil is a dad. We are both so lucky to have him to look after us the way he does. I'm sure I don't deserve the treatment I get and I'm probably a terrible wife sometimes!

  For all those really devoted superhusbands and superdads: You are real men and you rock!

-You clean, cook, do DIY, know the best wild foods, look sexy in wellies, drive tractors, work hard, aren't afraid to show your emotions, you're an amazing dad...the list goes on. Neil I love you and I never stop being grateful that you let me into your life. Happy anniversary for the other day, I'm sorry I didn't get a card, hope this will do.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The struggles of maternity entitlements

From early in my pregnancy I had planned to leave work as soon as I was possibly allowed, to go on maternity leave. I had nice ideas about working full-time on my PhD research and starting the write up, so that I would be well ahead on return to work. My part-time work as a lecturer makes great demands on my time as I teach a good 12 hours a week within 2.5 days and it requires hours of prep; no mean feat I can tell you.  Anyway; I had hoped that my leave would be a nice relaxed situation, as I was promised that my monthly research bursary would continue as long as I continued my research and this would mean that along with the Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) I would be on a much lower income, but still be able to get by as long as my husband and I stuck to a good budget. I will mention here that he is a full time undergraduate student and therefore receives a student loan to supplement our income. 

 Sadly my plans were never to be. I was called into human resources for my final discussions on my leave about a month before I was due to take it and informed that due to the fact that the college pay my bursary, they felt that I should not be carrying on with my research over the course of my maternity leave. OK so that sounds fairly reasonable? Well unfortunately I could not put the research on hold as the summer season is the only time I am able to collect the ecological data for my project and my leave coincided with the summer months. I explained this to them very clearly, but they seemed uninterested and made it very clear they would not be paying me the bursary as they were against me continuing research whilst on leave, despite the fact that it was the perfect time for me to do this. Normally I am so busy with work I hardly have time to think about the research, even on my allocated PhD days. 

 Obviously I was distraught, as the reasonable income I had hoped for, was now down to about £700 in total including my husband’s loan payments. Sadly that amount doesn’t even cover our monthly outgoings of around £800 (rent, bills, and my own loan payments etc., food not included). The SMP pay by the way starts off alright at 90% (remember however my bursary of half my monthly income is gone regardless), but quickly falls to a very low amount. In order to pay our bills and then have more money for food and baby products we were going to have to find some help financially. After a tearful conversation with my own parents they assumed me they could help us if we needed it and I told them that would be a last resort.
 I took legal advice on the situation and help from the university’s financial guidance team, but apparently there are no benefits, grants or any other sources of income available due to the fact that I work and my husband is a student. I also took advice on the cutting of my bursary, but apparently there are no laws governing maternity rights of research students with regards to bursaries and if an employer doesn’t want to pay it they have the right not to, even if it is bad practice not to continue the payments!

 Well needless to say I was forced to remain at work until I could no longer carry on physically (Outdoor teaching is very hard work and I also work very late nights wardening for the college on a regular basis), about a month before my due date. I have been forced to borrow a large amount of money from my parents and ask for family to contribute towards other costs where they could. This has been so difficult for me and even harder for my husband, as he feels terrible about relying on my parents so heavily. I had to sell my car to get a more economical and cheaper to insure/tax model and we have cut all our bills to the lowest we can afford, but we still struggle to get by. Whenever I have mentioned it to collegues at work, people have been appalled, however one of my male managers stated that he thought that if I chose to have a baby I shouldn’t be allowed to work, but that my husband shouldn’t be doing a degree but working full time! I’m sorry fella but getting a job at the moment isn’t easy, especially if you don’t already have a degree. I have been informed by advisors that I could sue the college for harassment and discrimination, but I know it would make everything much harder when I want to go back, so I have just given up and resigned to the fact that we will have to owe my parents for years to come. 

 Well there it is; the story of our struggles with maternity leave and pay. Here I am wondering how different it would have been if I were a single mum! Benefits galore I can imagine…

Monday, 25 July 2011

Nice to meet you... I'm an alien

OK so I don't think I am actually an alien, but sometimes I do wonder...

  Let me introduce myself... I'm a part-time lecturer and PhD student in the field of Applied Sciences, I have been married one year today to my amazing yeti husband Neil and we now have a wonderful baby girl who was born six weeks ago. My main interests lie in the field of conservation ecology and now of course the science of parenting. Yes... I see most things from a scientist's perspective; however being slightly eccentric, many of my ideas tend to verge on what most people might class as crazy.

  So... to explain the blog title. I'm not your average woman and certainly not your average mother. My husband and I have what seems to be an atypical relationship; with both of us sharing the usual marital roles. I work and bring in most of the money, whilst trying to get my PhD and he is an undergraduate student who spends more time at home. I was most drawn to him because he isn't your average macho man; he hates football and he gets emotional at almost everything. He was attracted to me for the fact that I'm a tomboy with more brains than fashion sense. I always thought I was born to be a man and I finally found someone accepted me for who I was. If I believed in soul mates then I would use that term, but personally I just think we were a perfect match. With that in mind we were engaged three months after we got together and married two months after that. Please note: planning a brilliant wedding does NOT take years; we are living proof of that.

  Since as long as I can remember I have been very disinterested in babies and children (People always made the mistake of handing me babies because I am a woman only to find I would just sit there looking like I was holding an unexploded bomb). Neil mentioned he had never really wanted kids, but soon we realised we wanted to replicate our genes together and we decided to procreate. Since our daughter Willow was born I have realised what people meant when they said that the birth of your first child is the most special moment in your life. I love that little girl more than anything and I will look after her till I die. That being said, I'm not going to start attending parent and baby groups because women and other people's children annoy me and I'm not going to give up work and become a housewife... I have a husband to do that stuff for me.

  I plan to write about my experiences as a mad lecturer, useless wife and dedicated mother. I think my work as a lecturer teaching teenagers, special needs students and undergraduates has given me a lot of experience with the way the UK education system works and also how not to bring up children! Trust me, I have worked with some horrible young people and I'm sure their parents are mostly to blame.

Thought of the day*: Feminists are stupid... how can you go on about being treated equally to men and not being judged for being a woman, then make sexist comments which stereotype men as stupid neaderthals?

* I decided to add this to my blogs, because I don't want to start posting pointless blogs about my obscure thoughts, I'd rather just add a section for me to include a 'thought of the day'.