Last week I spent the best part of an hour on the phone to the Inland Revenue for them to tell me what I already knew: I am not entitled to any working tax credits, or the childcare element of them.
I was going through the entire 'computer says no' questionnaire rigmarole with them anyway, as they had written to me, and I wanted to check they had a record of what they rather politely like to refer to as my 'change of circumstances'.
The whole humiliating experience stuck in my craw for many reasons but mainly because this was the second time recently I'd had to justify my family set up and answer the question 'are you working?'.
I HATE that question. Mainly because it is usually asked with a heavy dollop of assumption: of course she's not. She's a single parent. It makes me want to snarl back "Yes, I bloody well do work, why wouldn't I?", but then I do have something of a chippy shoulder with regard to earning one's keep.
But anyway, what really got me down over the whole tax credits conversation was the fact I was forced to quickly calculate how many hours I work each week, and between my "well, I'm freelance, it changes on any given day" and "well I work MOST evenings" and "erm, well, I usually do an hour BEFORE my son gets up" we (me and the guy on the phone who got friendlier as I got more exasperated) decided between us that I work well in excess of 39 hours a week and because I earn X I am therefore entitled to O. Not even any help with childcare care costs? No. Sorry, nothing.
I have spent the whole of the last week analysing that conversation. Because of it, I've had to stop myself writing knee jerk 'I resign' letters. I've had to sit on my hands to prevent myself from deleting emails offering more work. I've bitten my lip to stop me spouting forth with swear words when other forms, people, departments, casual enquirers have also posed the question 'are you working?'
So why has it wound me up so much? Two reasons. One, because I work extremely hard to support my son (and obviously myself) because I do not want him to have any change in the lifestyle he had when he was part of a two-parent family just because he is now part of a one-parent family (stupid expression, he still has two parents).
Also, I work because I can and because I believe I should, and because I enjoy it, and because I want to do it. BUT when I sit down and work out just HOW much I work, how much time I spend at my desk, and the knock on effect this has – ongoing vile, horrible rows over childcare; constant to-ing and fro-ing; frequently having to cut short meetings to get to school for pick-up time because I can't afford a regular child-minder or au pair. Then there's the cancelling (work) events and trips when there is simply no one else to look after my son apart from me, spending school holidays silencing him and shushing him and shooing him out of my office because I have deadlines to meet, calls to make, reading to do.
When I consider all these things, I am often left wondering: is it really worth it? Am I actually, by refusing to budge from my beliefs on work and money and paying one's way, doing the entirely wrong thing by my child?
Would he be better off having a parent who was actually always properly there for him? (Given that often I am physically here, but my no means 'here' with fingers glued to keyboard, phone stuck to ear).
It's a close call, but my firm belief that I SHOULD be working will always win through, but my God, no one makes it easy for you when you choose this path (Working! A lifestyle choice!) as a single parent, do they?
Does the cost of childcare and the need to work longer and longer hours make you wonder if you'd be better off NOT working as a single parent?