It’s been over a year since we landed tired and weary at the arrivals lounge in London wearing just shorts and flip-flops. Our worldly possessions down to five overweight suitcases. An uncertain future ahead. No home. No income.
Our journey back to Plymouth was, in some ways, an ending. It was a line drawn in the sand. An itch scratched. A dream lived. A past laid to rest.
In other ways, it was the start of a new beginning. A chance to re-write the future. Edit the chapters and amend our end. Be the change we wanted in our lives.
The first days, weeks and months were as harsh as the plunge in temperature. Unbearably tough. Colourless, cheerless and desperate. A no man’s land – a bleak fog between the start and end. We ached to go back. Pushed to go forward. Longed to be anywhere but in between.
Nothing went to plan.
Schools declined our children a place. A home was impossible without proof of employment. We were torn between home educating and completing another round of job applications. Recruitment agencies continued to use Google as a character reference. Experience and qualifications proved worthless. We were thwarted at every turn. Caught in a never-ending cycle of rejection.
Behind our encouraging smiles and reassuring hugs, terror lurked. A panic so stifled it physically hurt. What if we failed? What if we couldn’t find our way back, or navigate a way forward?
Convenient solutions bit at our ankles, tempting us with promises of immediate comfort and relief. Yet our hearts responded with fury. ‘Don’t let all of this be for nothing’ they screamed, ‘You deserve what you settle for’.
Eventually, after 3 months of doom and gloom, we spotted an opportunity late one evening. A 20-year old static caravan in Cornwall with 24 hours remaining on an eBay auction. A flimsy shell that would lend us 6 months and enable our children to return to their old schools. We took a gamble and bid. And won. The following week we handed over our annual ground rent and commenced a 4-week restoration project way beyond our DIY capabilities. The clock was ticking. We had 6-months before the holiday season ended. 6 months to turn our life around
‘Ugly Betty’ as she was fondly named, was completely stripped and rebuilt on a shoe-string budget. She fought against us with every screw and bolt but eventually, a beautiful, safe sanctuary emerged for our little tribe. Our children loved her, and we were immensely proud of our DIY transformation.
The move back to Cornwall was indeed a turning point. Our escape from No Man’s Land. We had returned to the place we considered home. Our love affair with Cornwall resumed with vigour. Ugly Betty turned into a happy home, albeit cold at times, small and slightly quirky. Chris took a temporary job to enable us to eat. At times we really did live on soup. But we were content. Together. Rebuilding. Moving forward.
We lived in ‘Ugly Betty’ for 5 months and accumulated some fantastic memories. Evenings singing around the log burner. Summer mornings walking around the duck ponds. Afternoons bathing at the beach. Quiet hours reading at the Launderette under a flickering light. Ugly Betty was our saviour.
With proof of employment and a healthy profit from the sale of our beloved Betty, we were able to move to a small modest miner’s cottage just two miles from our children’s school. A one-hour commute, twice daily, was no longer necessary.
Our tiny two-up, two-down cottage had stone floors, whitewash walls, no carpets, no whitegoods, no appeal. We had to start from scratch. Again.
With donated goods and the benefit of free ads, charity shops and car boot sales, we gradually created our forever-for-now home. Inspired by our travels, we introduced colour and character. Love and warmth. Creativity. Resourcefulness and charm. We turned its tired frown into a satisfied smile.
Chris replaced his temporary ‘survival’ job with a fantastic promotion, replacing and improving on his previous salary. Our soup days were over.
But before we could even pop a cork in celebration, the inevitable happened. Chris’s past caught up with him. Again. The proverbial sledgehammer of doom came crashing down. Another thankless gift from Google.
Once more we faced the prospect of losing it all. Our immediate future hung in the balance.
‘It will be okay’ I soothed, wondering how I could possibly save him again. Knowing that this time, was the final time. Seeing him sink into a despair so dark, I could not reach him. My fury so intense, I would die trying.
Those two weeks waiting for a decision were agonising. Trying to mask our horror from our children. Pretending everything was fine. We burrowed deep into our hole and told no-one.
Then, rather unexpectedly, life turned our lemons into lemonade. It transpired that the Director of Chris’s new company had experienced a similar injustice at the hands of our judicial system. Rather than judge like his previous employers, she sympathised. She reassured Chris that the team had his back. He would never have to look over his shoulder again. Not whilst working for them.
I cried. Through relief. Through gratitude. But mostly for Chris. Because he is so worthy of kindness and compassion. Because someone believed in him as much as I do. Because this is how it should be.
And just like that, everything fell into place. We were safely over the barbed wire fence and running through the fields of safety – to our new future.
Laughter, foolishness, joviality and humour returned to our life. The walls of ‘Chapel House’ echoed with fun, music and positivity. The comfort of Cornwall embraced us. The fear of failure passed. We could, we would, make it. We were by no means out of the woods. But the fundamentals were in place – and now, anything was possible. Safety, food, shelter and love are important enablers. Without them, we simply existed. To thrive and achieve our full potential we had to stand on the shoulders of solid foundations.
Whilst our children went to school and Chris set off to work, I spent most days working on Mohobo –convinced that the idea had a divine synergy with our travels, therefore it must be right. I combined our love of travelling with my passion for art, to create bespoke gifts for fellow wanderlusts. I waited in anticipation for that feeling. That excitement. That buzz…
Enthusiastically I prepared for my first trade show, envisaging success. I had a niche. I’d researched. I ‘d completed my homework. It had to be the start of something great.
Alas, I did not account for the Great British weather. Mother Nature in all her glory, decided to unfurl years of fury over one weekend, leaving my stock floating in a quagmire of mud and misery alongside my tattered confidence and aspirations.
Stood in borrowed waterproofs and wellie boots, holding on to the gazebo for dear life in gale force winds, I waited to be rescued by toothless Marshalls in high vis jackets. As the moat around my stall increased with every inch of rain, I was taken by a moment of absolute clarity that played out in slow motion…
‘What the hell am I doing?’ was the message. Loud and clear. This is not for me. Chasing money from people who don’t need or want my wares.
It was a crushing blow.
I smiled falsely, trying to appear optimistic. I reassured my bruised ego. It was just a setback. I wouldn’t give up.
In reality, I was really annoyed. If Mohobo was the right thing, surely the universe would conspire to help me? Not obliterate my very first efforts? Whilst the optimist might dismiss my luck as ‘Sod’s Law’, laugh, brush themselves off and keep going, I delved deep into the hole of doubt, as per normal, and over-analysed every detail. Questioned every action. Every motive.
Was this really how I envisioned my future? Stood in a tent, drinking bad tea from a polystyrene cup between a brolly seller and a fudge maker. Watching a magic mop demonstration for the 54th time. Dashing to the portaloo with a bum-bag full of loose change and a handful of spare toilet paper. Arranging and rearranging merchandise to stay warm. Discounting another pound just to break even.
It’s easy in hindsight to see where the plan failed. I’m a creator by nature. I love developing ideas. Turning concepts into actions. Developing thoughts on paper into tangible entities. Launching new services. Building new projects. Proving I can when everything suggests I can’t. Or shouldn’t.
I’m excited by firsts. Trailblazing, cutting-edge, pioneering projects that lead the way for original ways of working. Fresh concepts. Innovative possibilities. The accolade of achieving something fresh. I’m a serial opportunist. An addict, always distracted by possibilities. I divert my energy to anything but the mundane task at hand. My brain never calms. My mind has no filter. No task is too big. No challenge too extreme. It seeks out the adrenaline rush that comes from creating. And literally dies in the repetitiveness of routine.
Whilst this might win awards, the realisation that I am not a completer-finisher hit me hard. I had to admit the truth. I get bored with the doing. After the initial implementation phase of Mohobo was over, I struggled to stay motivated with the day-to-day function. As much as I tried to focus and persevere, inevitably I procrastinated. Deferred. Mentally quit.
I’m not sure if it was the calamitous failure of my first trade show that crushed my confidence in Mohobo, or whether it was simply a matter of time before I lost interest. Either way, Mohobo will not thrive under the leadership of a professional grasshopper. It needs to be loved. Enjoyed. Cultivated. Refined. Developed. Above all, it needs someone who believes in it. Whose heart sings at the thought of its potential.
And at the moment, that person is not me.
For whatever reason, I just don’t believe in it. I’m trying. I really am. I want to find my moho-jo. I really do. Spade in hand, I’m digging deep to find the motivation. To unearth the conviction to do it justice.
But I’m my own worst enemy – for I’m acutely aware of my flaws. Nobody could be more disappointed than me. Confidence, or lack of, has always been my Achilles’ heel. Despite a history of professional achievements, I never feel adequate or good enough. I feel inferior to the better artists, smarter writers, intelligent academics, gifted business guru’s, brighter leaders – and I let it intimidate me. Rather than face it, I walk away and retreat to my solitude – generally with an excellent excuse.
If ideas were a profession, we would undoubtedly be millionaires. As it is, I’m destined to be a poor inventor – an obsessive schemer who spends days, weeks, months and years madly sketching out solutions to life’s big social dilemmas – wasting hundreds of hours researching, testing theories, refining, reading, harvesting, studying and hypothesising. Mohobo is just one small plate being juggled (badly) in a room full of spinning plates, cups and saucers.
The unfortunate problem is, I’m also comfortable with failure. So long as I fail fast and fail forward. I have successfully sourced solutions, created services, trained in disciplines and developed new initiatives over the years and walked away. Many businesses are flourishing today under the captaincy of others. Of that, I’m thankful and very proud.
So, I plod on. Researching. Watching. Reading. Learning. Creating. Scanning for opportunities. In pursuit of something. Anything. I don’t really know. Seeking out that Buzz that makes my heart sing.
My ever-patient husband endures my impulsivity with commendable loyalty and regard. He believes they are a vital part of me. He smiles when he returns from work to see me still sat typing, painting, hammering or planning in the dark. He rides the coattails of my latest infatuation, passion or mad idea. I could fail a million times, but he would only be disappointed if I stopped writing about them. This is the unwritten rule.
Every failure is fodder for writing. Take the experiences, write about them and move on to the next challenge, he encourages. Something will happen. It always does.
And it did.
But not in the way we envisaged.
In December 2017, unexpectedly, I become a home educator. My most challenging role yet.
After a herculean effort to survive school, our daughter Lola, began to weaken after just 9 months back in the UK education system. In the weeks before she was removed, her anxiety increased to a point of abject fear. Her face contorted in dread. Her eyes reflected the weight of her woes. The constant culture of testing and berating during school hours made her nose bleed. Her heart palpitations so intense she would faint. She returned from each school day physically exhausted. All her energy consumed enduring the constant panic. Sleep evaded her, for the terror never subsided. She lived in a constant state of distress.
Meetings with the school were futile. Actions and promises were empty platitudes. With no confidence left in the system, we made the long-overdue decision to remove Lola from school. However, it was two weeks before Christmas and she wanted to enjoy the last few days of the term with her friends.
Regrettably, they had other ideas. Knowing she was leaving, her friends started to taunt her about being a ‘school drop-out’, laughing at her for being a failure, convincing her she would never achieve anything without GCSE’s. For such a sensitive soul, this betrayal from those who were her only relief and enjoyment at school, was the last straw. It broke her. She just gave up.
We received a call to collect her. I arrived to find her sitting alone in the school reception, tearful and slumped over. I walked in, scooped her up and hugged her so tight, our surroundings fell away. It was just us. In the throes of the unknown. Enough was enough. It was over.
In the car, I looked at our daughter crestfallen in the passenger seat. She was hot, red and bothered. I turned to her and carefully removed her school tie. Kissed her cheek. Held her face in my hands and promised that she would never feel this way ever again. We drove out of the school, stopping only to dump her school bag in the waste bin, and smiled all the way home. In that 10-minute journey, I watched the weight lift from her shoulders. It was a visible, instantaneous relief.
That night we had a huge celebration.
We raised a toast to health. Freedom. Youth. Happiness. Family. Safety. Success.
Little did we know as we clinked our glasses together, that at that precise moment, the government were planning to release a statement to the media the following day. It would outline their plans to regulate home education – under the guise of safeguarding vulnerable children from abuse.
The irony was not lost on us.
Our toast to freedom had been premature. The education system wasn’t quite finished with our daughter just yet.
For the next 5 months, we were thrown into a legal and political battlefield that required us to fight valiantly and determinedly for Lola’s rights. We were thrust back into ‘No Man’s Land’ with a thick fog between us and our freedom to educate our daughter according to her individual needs.
We researched. Read. Studied. Petitioned. Campaigned and contested against new controls that would oppress her legal rights. We met with MP’s. Lobbied Lords. Wrote articles and attracted media attention. We were invited to Westminster and asked to feed into the (predetermined) government consultation.
As our frustrations grew, our abhorrence of political agendas swallowed all enthusiasm for being back in the UK. Our fears about being restrained, owned and churned in the mighty wheel of government power consumed us. We felt aggrieved. Incensed. Targeted. Hopeless. Choked by the fog.
Above all, as Lola’s parents, we were furious. Outraged that the government intended to force us to sign a mandatory register (much like the sex offender register) because we were now considered a greater risk to our child than ordinary parents who send their children to school. Infuriated that we would be forced to succumb to inspections in our private family home and exasperated that the local authority would assess Lola’s home education against a set criterion – a ‘world-class’ curriculum – the same curriculum that failed her so miserably in school.
To some people, these demands might seem entirely reasonable. After all, we should support any sanctions that keep the nation’s children safe. We should all compromise for the greater good. We should all make sacrifices and forgo our rights to protect our nation’s security and save our children from abuse.
Of course, it sounds reasonable. The law currently gives parents the right and responsibility to choose the right education for their children. The law states that this must be age, ability and aptitude appropriate. The law states that the private home is sacred unless there is suspicion or evidence of abuse or wrongdoing. The law states that home education on its own does not meet the threshold for such concerns.
It goes without saying that we should relinquish our rights under English law, without hesitation, and hand all control and power to the government for the greater good of the children. Of course, we shouldn’t question it or insist that the laws are changed through the correct processes. Our liberty as home educators is completely secondary to the government’s responsibility to protect children.
Of course, we should accept that with grace and humility.
After all, it’s not the first time a nation has been asked to make such sacrifices. I’ll leave it to you to Google this;
“The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.”
If this new focus was really an issue of child safeguarding, of course, we would roll-over and submit without a fight – but it is not about that. Despite how it is masked. The truth is, the government already has all the powers it needs to monitor home education and to investigate and respond to safeguarding concerns. It already has the powers to close down illegal schools or investigate radicalisation.
These proposed changes to home education are about control. Nothing more.
The number of children, like Lola, being removed from state schools is increasing by the day at an alarming rate. A large proportion of these children have special educational needs (SEN) that are not being met by the education system. These children are being squeezed out. Discriminated against under the Equality Act.
So, when the government insist we follow their ‘world-class’ curriculum at home, you might understand why we want to scoff in their face. If the school provision is world-class, then we should all thoroughly hang our heads in shame. Our current treatment of children with special educational needs is nothing short of a national disgrace. An injustice. A travesty.
To add some perspective to this, and with Lola’s permission, we would like to highlight why…
It was four weeks after Lola left school, that an appointment was finally forthcoming to see a neuro-disability Paediatrician to investigate her processing issues. It took her just 10 minutes to determine that our darling girl has autism. High functioning Aspergers.
10 years of schooling. 5 formal SEN assessments – and no Educator ever guessed. Yet, by all accounts, she is a ‘textbook’ case.
They might be forgiven on the basis that we, as her parents, never considered it either. I ruled it out on the fact that she was able to enjoy meaningful friendships with one or two peers. I had no idea that this was also a symptom. That children with autism generally have few, very meaningful relationships. That they are loyal and committed friends. And as they reach the fickle teenage years of friendship breakdowns, they simply don’t cope. Their social skills are exposed. They flail.
On reflection, everything now makes sense. Her quiet, sensitive nature. All the times her teachers told us she ‘lived in a world of her own’, her pickiness with food and clothes, her infatuation with dogs, her need for routine, her crippling anxiety and lack of social skills, her inability to communicate openly, her love of her own space and peace, her incredible talent for art and writing.
It’s all there. In all its beauty and complexity.
In addition, our unique bundle of quirkiness also has severe dyscalculia and introversion. Just to add some spice to the mix.
Consequently, she doesn’t quite fit comfortably in the mainstream box. In fact, when I think about how much she has had to battle to shadow her ‘able’ peers, how many times she has been forced to conform to societal expectations, how often she was made to feel odd and inferior as an introvert, how long she spent outside of her comfort zone, how much energy she used surviving every day, how remarkably brave she was to persist as long as she did in an environment that completely rejected her unique needs – I have the utmost respect and adoration for her. I bow to her courage and resilience. She is a queen. A lioness.
From here on, everything we do will be in the best interests of Lola’s future. No more curtailing to conformity or justifying ourselves. No more rolling over and accepting untruths. No more games. No more mediocre.
She needs us. So, we will fight. We will be strong. If Lola is going to make her mark in this world and the modern workplace, we need to prepare and equip her with the skills and confidence to go forth and live a happy life in the community she wants to call home.
As her parents, we need to protect her rights to be educated at home with a tailored curriculum that enhances and develops her talents and unique skills. We will make no apologies for pushing back against government control of this right. We will do everything in our power to make up for the wrongs and give her a chance.
Faced with the appalling statistic that only 16% of people with autism in the UK are employed full-time, our efforts will not be easy. Without GCSE’s that task will be even harder. Entry and selection criterions for colleges and employers make it near on impossible.
But, we are not your average family. And Lola is not your average girl.
We will find a way. Resourcefulness is a lesson we are familiar with. Resilience is our lifelong friend. She will succeed – we will succeed – in spite of the hurdles and barriers. Happiness and good health are our measures. We’re already on the right path. Lola is blossoming at home.
Her artwork is developing to a semi-professional standard. She is receiving tuition from a professional illustrator and animator. She also attends a creative writing group. The work she is producing fills us with optimism. It is the only validation we need to confirm we have made the right decision.
So, in the interim, whilst Lola requires all of our attention and encouragement, I have returned to my consultancy work within the field of domestic abuse to make ends meet. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a backward step. It is an important enabler – and actually, one I enjoy and care about. I have unfinished business in this industry and I am grateful for the opportunity to remedy it. It also facilitates me to write for a living – which was a goal I set myself. It may not be the most pleasant of subjects, but it does indulge my love of structuring sentences. Bringing words to life. Making important points succinctly. It’s the one activity in my life where I lose all track of time. Forget to eat. Wish for more hours in the day.
Everything else in life, including Mohobo, will just have to tick along for a while.
Returning to this blog has taken much longer than desired too. Life has very much interrupted its flow. We questioned whether readers would still be interested. Pondered whether it had reached a natural conclusion. Then, out of the blue, we were approached by a lady who discovered our blog and was inspired by it. She also sought an update – which made us realise that some people have followed our story since the start and are invested in our journey. Keen to hear about our progress-post travels. To some extent, we failed to notice that our journey is ongoing. Constantly challenging us as individuals. Encouraging us to be better people. We may not be travelling the world, but we are still travelling forward.
With that notion in mind, we decided to keep blogging. For now. Whilst we post it publicly, it also serves as an incredible personal memoir of our adventures as a family. In time, it will provide our children with great insight into the decisions we made, the challenges we overcame and how hard we tried to protect them, nourish them and prepare them for life beyond us.
One day, in the near distant future, our formidable little unit will disband. Our children will go their own way, create memories of their own. It is important that they look back and remember, not just the stand-out moments, but the quiet times, the family meals around the dining table, late night quizzes and board games, evenings roasting marshmallows on the open fire, sneaky trips to our favourite cake shop, dog walks through deserted country lanes. The days when we had no plans. When our only drama was watching Dad clear the garden pond.
We have certainly entered a quiet and sedate phase of life. We have little interaction with others. Spend days enjoying our solitude. Watching movies, working, drawing, walking and talking. Weekends are spent watching Jonah practice his trampolining. Indulging his ambition to compete at the 2024 Olympics – or ferrying him to Scuba Diving classes so that he can pursue his dream of becoming a master diver by 16 years old. We do this knowing that he is already preparing to leave us as soon as he is old enough to travel the world on his own. He has the travel bug. It’s in his blood. And we are comfortable with that. Proud even.
We know that our son Jonah is completely different to us. He was born with a sense of purpose. Never really needed us. Unlike us, Jonah is confident, assertive, driven, academic and extrovert. This world is his oyster and we are just his guardians until he is old enough to flee the nest. We have done our very best to teach him well and prepare him for life, to shape and guide him into a kind and decent human being with good morals and principles. He is charming and sweet and unbelievably charismatic. So much so, that he even inspired his headteacher to pack up, sell up and travel the world in September. His enthusiasm and zest for life is infectious. There’s just something about our boy that others are drawn to too. He makes you feel like you are balancing on the edge of brilliance when you’re with him.
He still attends school and is sitting his SAT exams. He enjoys the social side of school and finds the curriculum a breeze. As such, we respect his decision and support him wholeheartedly. If his choices change in time, we will be present and ready to respond accordingly.
He is the Yin to Lola’s Yang. He adores her and will always be her protector and friend. In return, she will be his constant. His safety. His home. His retreat when the world kicks his ass. The offer of a spare bed when he is kicked out of his own. The shoulder when he needs to be vulnerable.
And when the bedrooms become bare and the silence becomes deafening, Chris and I will finish what we started. Return to the life we love. On the road. With no plans. Nowhere to be. No one to answer to. Just us. Living out the rest of our days together.
It tortured us to turn down a free motorhome for 18 months at the start of the year. The inability to fund our travels was the only thing that stopped us from driving off into the sunset once more. We are working hard to remedy that loophole. When opportunity knocks again, we aim to be in a position to jump on it.
We may be happy and content for now, but our hearts will always be on the open road.
Life is too short to live in one place after all.
The Cotter Family x
Please follow Lola’s home education account on Instagram: Lolas_home.ed