By Jad, Matthew, Mellissa and *Rhianna
When the News of the Lockdown Broke (Jad)
On Thursday the 12th of March, it was Week 5 on the New Beginnings Programme and we were in the midst of covering Trust and Remembering when I heard my phone buzzing. Someone was trying to get hold of me and they weren’t giving up. It bothered me. Everyone I knew, knew I was in group on a Thursday so whatever it was, it must have been urgent. I checked my phone and the messages were from a friend and colleague at Lancaster who was telling me to look at my emails urgently as the University was about to shut down. The team wanted to know what the Director of Social Work (me) was going to do. They needed guidance and they needed it now. The problem was, I was in Stockport working on a project that was in an entirely different situation to that of Lancaster University. We were working in partnership with a local authority that would be seen as an essential service and the work we carried out not only supported parents but the professionals with whom we worked alongside.
It’s over a month later and yet I still remember the feelings I had at that moment. I knew lockdown was coming and I knew we were going to have respond somehow but I hadn’t properly thought through just how it would affect New Beginnings or the women I was sat with in that room, which incidentally felt like it was spinning. I must have looked strange as I can remember one of our peer mentors asking me if I was alright and if I was ready to put my phone down which I must have still been clutching tightly in my hands. My response was a knee jerk one. I told everyone to go and wash their hands and then to disinfect them. We all needed to have serious conversation about what the future held I said- and maybe with clean hands that conversation would be easier?! They did so- reluctantly- with some of them looking at me as if I was mad or over dramatic, whilst others looked less relaxed and a little more anxious, worried about what I was about to say and what it would mean.
With our clean hands in front of us we talked about the future of the group and how lockdown would affect us. We talked about how keywork sessions would take place, who had a smart phone (or more importantly who didn’t) and what would happen to childcare. But what we couldn’t figure out was how we were going to keep talking and meeting as a group and it was this that bothered the women the most. Although we were only on week 5, they had already come to love their group, their 'maternal commons' (see Tyler, 2013a), the place where the women could meet other women who ‘got it’. In relational activism, the maternal commons can be understood as providing a common space for individuals to come together, share words, deeds and accomplish transformational beginnings (Tyler, 2013a) or materialise the hidden but constitutive grounds of biopolitical protest (Tyler, 2013b). In the New Beginnings maternal commons, the women have an opportunity to meet others who not only ‘get it’ but with whom they can share their stories and together learn how best they can navigate the child protection system they are all at the heart of. We quickly realised that no longer having ‘our group’, in the physical sense, was going to be an issue, not just for the women but for us as team- the New Beginnings group runs twice a week and is what we all love and live for.
After the women left that day, we sat and thought further about what we would do. We agreed as a team that we would have to carry out keywork sessions by telephone and the theoretical part of the programme would have to become part of those weekly meet ups. Although none of this seemed ideal, we knew we had to do something to keep the momentum going. All the women were making great progress and something that worried us was how this good progress would continue without our weekly group sessions.
And so that is what we did. However, not everyone found carrying out the keywork sessions by telephone straight forward for a number of reasons such as: the length of time a session could take or the fact that for some, children were present and needed their mother or simply because there were other more practical issues that needed to take priority over ensuring the weekly group work content was covered. After a few weeks of trying it this way, we knew something had to change especially as the feedback we kept getting from the women was that they missed the ‘magic of the group’. They missed their maternal commons.
But the question was, how could we resume group safely? We were reluctant to use Zoom after the stories we’d read about Zoom bombing and client data breaches so we asked an old trusted friend for advice. She told us that the safest, most ethical method of carrying out group work would be to use Microsoft Teams. (You can read more about why here ‘My moves to becoming a Digital Odds Changer’ by Amanda Taylor Beswick). Teams felt good and familiar and we were already using it at Lancaster and because Lancaster already had the package, it was very straight forward to set up and use for New Beginnings. So, our Matthew went on a mission to get everyone set up as quickly as he could, with email addresses, roaming data and if needed, smart phones. Within a week we were good to go.
All that was needed now was for everyone to click on the link and join the group.
Ordinary Magic and the New Beginnings Maternal Commons (Matthew)
I have to admit I was somewhat sceptical regarding the likelihood of gathering the group together on Microsoft Teams. Having experienced near head-banging frustration borne of temperamental internet connections and dubious audio, I’d wondered how on earth it would work. Yet, despite the initial hesitation, I was soon buoyed by the enthusiasm of each group member who, with no prior knowledge of Microsoft Teams, was able to set up the app on their phone and join the group. Amanda’s idea was showing promise.
Our first ever virtual group chat began with Jad introducing herself and politely asking everyone to mute their microphones and switch off their cameras. Each of us in turn unmuted and said our ‘hellos’ and shared our news. We were all thrilled to hear that of one our group members’ daughter was due to return to her care and that another parent’s child was no longer subject to child protection. Rather than create a cacophony of congratulations over our microphones, the group was quick to react to the broadcast using the messaging feature.
Jad started off the group session by explaining that we would be discussing Attachment and Relationships today and that she would be asking questions which could be answered by using the chat bar. She also said that she would invite certain group members to unmute and share more if they wanted. I was intrigued that this setting down of rules was not too dissimilar to the ones that we’d already agreed upon in our earlier meetups. Somewhat like muscle memory, I felt that we were all slotting back into group mode and that I was back where the ‘magic’ happens. Ann Masten (2014) calls this the ‘ordinary magic’- the place where people come together to tell stories of strength and courage through ordinary resources and ordinary processes; stories which describe, and help others understand, how they overcame difficulties and moved forwards in life. I realised at that moment that we didn’t need to be physically together for the magic to happen; even a virtual group could be greater than the sum of its parts.
Without disclosing any confidential information but with the permission of the members of our group, what ensued was a moving session linking past traumas to current parenting styles: “I find it hard to show love as I didn't really have it in my life”, shared one mum. The group reacted with compassion and sensitivity. As Jad facilitated the unfolding session, a member of our group started ‘liking’ comments using emoticons built-in to our Chat. Wow – suddenly everyone was joining in with ‘likes’ and ‘loves’. The verbal and non-verbal affirmations in group settings could be shared virtually also! When one member of the group was struggling with their own past mistakes, a chorus of compassion was ‘heard’ and communal ‘love’ was declared, exemplified by this comment: “But it's recognising that you make [mistakes] and then try to do things differently. We ALL make mistakes hun”.
Sitting back and watching this unfold was an education on how a virtual group that is adroitly facilitated has the potential for emergence – that magical life of its own which, in the case of New Beginnings is distinguished by the maternal commons. Reflecting on that session I’d witnessed a new reality: even a ‘virtual’ group could be catalytic, confronting and supportive and also have the potential to generate transformation. I later texted someone that “We were back”. It’s not that we had disappeared, but that the ordinary magic had resumed.
Parent’s view (Rhianna*)
Since we have moved the group online I’ve liked it. I even think it might be better than before because everyone is getting to talk more than when we were sat together. People are saying more than they used to which maybe because the girls are feeling more comfortable, being in their own home, rather than in the community centre. Or maybe it’s because of COVID. I know this has been the case for me because I’ve been through a lot recently waiting for my child to come home.
Things changed for me a few weeks into New Beginnings. I used to feel angry and upset all the time, especially towards social care, but I don’t feel like that anymore. I have a good relationship with my social worker and the support workers. I have always got on with the foster carers. I suffer from anxiety and depression and when I was told I couldn’t see the kids because of COVID it hit me really bad. I couldn’t get out of bed. I was in a dark place.
But then I listened to the advice I was given and I tried to do a small task every day. This got me into a routine and helped me through the day. It stopped me catastrophising- making everything worse than it seemed. I started reading loads and my favourite book is the Mrs Hinch- Hinch Yourself Happy book. It’s got me cleaning and I love my cleaning. I’ve also reconnected with old friends by phone. We put the phone on speaker and we do YouTube exercises together twice a day which keeps us going.
Having the group online has been another helpful distraction which I look forward to as it’s twice a week to be with women I love, those who ‘get it’. We’ve all been through hard times and we are all there for each other. We all love the online group; well, we won’t get off and are on there for over 2 and half hours so I think that says it all. The only thing I miss is the hugs. We use the Chat bar on the side of the chat room to support each other but we can’t provide the physical comfort in the way we used to at group.
I learned a few days ago that my youngest child will start rehabilitation home from foster care and I can’t wait. All my hard work has paid off and I’m now living for that day, counting the days and the minutes. I’ve got 13 days left til she’s in my arms and I’m smelling her hair. 13 days and counting.
Peer Mentor (Mellissa)
When Jad said we were moving the group online, I was worried it’d be slow and wouldn’t work. Or that some of the women wouldn’t have internet or the right phone. But I didn’t have to worry because the first session, and everyone after, has been brilliant. Everyone gets time to speak. There is no over talking, everyone has to be patient and wait their turn. This is something that the women have had to learn- to listen rather than butting in. It helps them with certain skills and helps them develop coping strategies too. Stop, listen and breathe.
There was something magical about that first day because it was the first time we got back together after a few weeks of being apart so there was something in the air. There was also lots of good news and the women were buzzing. I’ve learned that this group of ours, our maternal commons, gives us something no one else can. It’s more than dishing out praise when we get good news. It’s a place where we give each other determination. We drive each other on when life is tough. It’s a place where we get our strength from and it’s what we share in that space that keeps us going.
Some things I’ve experienced recently have blown my head. In the old days that would have affected me badly. But now I find I forget about my problems more easily because instead I focus on the girls. And they are my girls. They are what keep me focused and keep me going. I love my life and I love my job and I can’t wait to be where Jad is. Because one day soon, it will happen. I will be running this project alongside my girls.
A New Beginning
New Beginnings is, and always has been, about group work. And ‘the group’ has become the place where we come together, bond and build relationships with one another. The COVID pandemic has taught us many things in the past few weeks but what we have learned the most, is that relationships are still at the heart of what we do; whether those relationships are fostered in person or online. The relationships we make emerge from the telling of stories and through the recognition that ordinary people have the strength and courage to overcome adversity when they have the support of others who care. Our New Beginnings’ maternal commons offers a space in which each person plays an integral role in creating that safe environment, and where different group members learn to work together as ‘one’. We have learned that it is when we are together, wherever that may be, that the ordinary magic takes place.
*Rhianna is a chosen pseudonym
Masten, A. (2014) Ordinary Magic. London: Guilford Press.
Taylor- Beswick, A. (2020) My moves to becoming a ‘Digital Odds Changer’ https://www.boingboing.org.uk/my-moves-to-becoming-a-digital-odds-changer/
Tyler, I. (2013a) Revolting subjects: social abjection and resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London: Zed Books.
Tyler, I. (2013b) Naked protest: the maternal politics of citizenship and revolt. Citizenship Studies, 17:2, 211-226