What Happened to the Oyster?

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There’s a lot I don’t remember about high school: stuff about glacial shifts, what an ion is, most of the French they tried to teach me and how to do trigonometry (and why I would need to). Some things I do remember though. How totally shit it was to be bullied in the 3rd year, how to ask for a beer in Spanish…and that with qualifications tucked under my belt the world would be my oyster.

As it turns out, only some of the stuff I picked up at school was right. ‘Una cerveza, por favor,’ does indeed get you a beer in Spain (and sometimes the waiter’s number too). But Suzanne Webb wasn’t right when she said she’d beat me up after school. I do look at my life though and wonder what the hell happened to that sodding oyster?

Maybe I just didn’t make the most of opportunities out there. I wanted to travel the world, live in London and do something exciting with my life. But I lacked the confidence to strike out on my own and the direction to know how to achieve my dreams. When I found a track and bluffed my way into a job in travel close enough to London to commute in for a social life it wasn’t too long until I found I was pregnant. Back to my home town. Back to square one. Do not cross Go, do not collect £100.

I’ve tried to catch up over the years. Although family life is too settled and family finances too tight to go gadding off abroad on adventures, I thought studying for a degree as a mature student would open up my options. I’d become a teacher, earn a decent salary (especially compared with most earning potential in small-town Norfolk) and we could at least gad about in the summer holidays. But then I got pregnant again (damn and blast my uterus!) and teacher training doesn’t work so well with small children, what with both demanding sleepless nights and early starts. Toddlers and piles of paperwork mix as well as wine and spirits on a big night out. A big old mess and a raging headache guaranteed.

Again, back to square one. Do not cross go, do not collect £100.

Being a stay-at-home mum is lovely, but there’s increasingly too much month at the end of the money. So I’ve been looking for a job. Nothing oyster-big. Just something that can squeeze into my life without having all additional income sapped by childcare fees or having to rely on an assortment of complicated family manoeuvres. (Damn and blast the slow learning curve of small children this time.) Preferably something I can leave behind in my head at the end of my shift, so I can listen to the little chattering voices of my children instead of the one nagging me to get on with something more productive and urgent.

I thought I’d found something. Reception duties, part-time, within school hours. I had experience and the right skills. And I’m obviously a wonderful, rounded person who’d be great to have on a team. The trouble is, I’m not the only one looking for flexible work that will fit around family. Low-paid, but low-demand they become as hard to come by as hen’s teeth. They were swamped with applications. I didn’t even make it to interview. I’d been let down by my oyster.

So I applied for a small franchise, selling kids clothes at parties. Not my dream career, but it’d be flexible and bring in some spare cash. I was enthusiastic, excited even. I’d be making my own luck. I didn’t even get a call or email to confirm my interest.

It seems my oyster is full of sand, gritty and undesirable.

So what now? Part of my problem is that I’m fussy. I’m not willing to miss out of my family for just any job. I don’t want to miss out on all of the halcyon days of my children’s childhoods. They’re few enough as they are. And I don’t want to dump on family members for a pitiful sum of cash and a job I loathe. Their time is worth more than my bank account having some cushioning.

And I don’t have the body for stripping.

I need to sell myself in other ways, but on my terms. I need to dust myself down and come up with a genius idea.

In the meantime, I see the disillusionment of the oyster lie all around me. Friends who’d worked at school and then careers becoming mums and reduced to shop work or care work. From managing multi-million pound contracts to selling sweets at £2.50 a pop, from heading meetings to washing old ladies. It’s valuable work – I couldn’t cope if there wasn’t someone to sell me chocolate and old people need wonderful, caring people like my friends to look after them and bring some sunshine into their day. But it wasn’t what they chose. It was never in their vision of their oysters.

And the next generations seem to be getting hit even harder. The student loans are bigger, the job opportunities harder and harder to come by. I can see it on Eve’s face already. Unemployed, living at home with a baby wasn’t her oyster plan. Baby aside, it could very possibly be Indy’s reality after university too. Not that I want to break it to her yet. Or know where we’d put her.

We’re sold the idea of dreams coming true from our early years. From Cinderella to Tiana, the girl always becomes a princess. Our teen years are filled with stories of girls plucked from obscurity in Top Shop to modelling in Paris or boys spotted playing 5-a-side football to being signed to a Premier League team. A level results day is a endless assault of smiling 18-year-olds waving papers that will allow them into Oxford and Cambridge, whilst behind the scenes their parents wonder how they’re going to be able to afford the whole thing. Our TVs are filled with reality chances: record contracts or cookery book deal or cold, hard cash from a TV Dragon. A chance to crack open the oyster and seize the pearl. Success becomes the expectation and yet most don’t make it to the very top.

The thing is though, I don’t want to entirely give up on the idea of a dream being within reach with determination and hard work. I don’t expect to be handed a silver platter with my dreams on it in an easy-to-digest bundle. But I don’t want to dissuade away from striving with the reasoning that things might not work out. Without a sense of optimism, what’s the likelihood of trying? Isn’t that part of the problem of the poverty trap? The system is such that people can’t help themselves so stop trying. Their children are shown that there’s no point in trying and the cycle is perpetuated.

So far the world hasn’t been my oyster; my family has been. It’s a shame that in our society the family is valued so little by those who set the rules; by government and economic forces. Because if family was seen as important and valuable, maybe things would be more accessible, there’d be greater flexibility and women returning to work wouldn’t be written off.

At least now I have the confidence to seize an opportunity when it comes by. I’m happy to put myself out there even if it doesn’t always work. The right chance will come by sooner or later, or at least something close enough to it. I just hope they don’t need me to speak French or do trigonometry.

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