The lives of mothers in Walton and Woolton
'I've gotta make it work for her, because it's only me'
By Mollie Simpson
In the playground on Quarry Street in Woolton, around the corner from cottages with wisteria growing over the windows and neatly manicured front gardens, Helen is watching her son go down the slide head first. “Go on, I’m watching you!” she says when we begin chatting. She is a mother of three and works as a fraud investigator for a high street bank. Her husband is a police officer. “I find the juggle really hard,” she says. “Working, and looking after kids. I hit a wall a few times.”
When I started working as a journalist in Liverpool, I once got Woolton and Walton mixed up in a conversation with my editor. “They are very different places,” he replied, before explaining the yawning gap between the two. Walton, north of Anfield and east of Bootle in the north of the city, has the second highest level of child poverty in the city region, according to a 2017 estimate, with 37% of children living in “relative low income.” A neighbourhood profile about Walton prepared by the NHS writes that “persistent absenteeism at both primary and secondary school age is significantly higher than the city average.” Woolton, on the other hand, is one of the city’s most affluent suburbs. In the south east of Liverpool, it is described by one estate agent as “an incredibly desirable area to live,” and is known for its good bars and restaurants.
It’s often noted that there are yawning gaps within Liverpool when it comes to measures like poverty and life expectancy — and some of those gaps have been getting wider. Michael Parkinson shows in his 2019 book Liverpool Beyond the Brink that during the period of austerity between 2007 and 2015, poorer neighbourhoods in the north of the city remained very deprived, but some affluent communities in the south of the city improved by almost 25%. “In other words,” writes Parkinson, “the gap between the poor and rich parts of Liverpool is not only big, it is growing.” People in Woolton can expect to live to 81.72, two years above the national average, according to data released by the council. Just a 25 minutes’ drive north, a child born in Walton’s ward of Warbeck can expect to live to 75.79.
So, in recent weeks I decided to spend a bit of time in both areas, to find out what life is like in each. I ended up settling on the idea of speaking to two mums: one who is bringing up her family in Walton and one in Woolton. I wanted to hear about hopes for their children and the issues their families face. What kinds of challenges do they have in common, and which ones feel very distinct in these two sharply contrasting bits of town?
‘As long as they do good in school’
In Woolton I pass a steakhouse, a luxury childrenswear shop and Woolton Tuition, which offers private tuition in English and maths and helps with entrance exams for competitive grammar schools. The neighbourhood’s schools perform well in Ofsted reports and the Sunday Times recognised Carleton House, a successful prep school on Menlove Avenue, as a top ten independent school.
Helen’s youngest, Paul, a chirpy five-year-old who runs around us, and her ten-year-old son Ryan, go to Much Woolton Catholic Primary School, and her daughter goes to St Julie’s, Woolton. She describes schools where the teachers are attentive and engage with every child. “I think they are good schools around here,” she says. “There’s girls' schools and boys’ schools, and you know, the grades they come out with are quite good grades. I don’t worry about them at school, the teachers are all good teachers.”
Helen’s daughter is in top sets for everything, and her son “always performs above average”. “We were worried about this one,” she says, gesturing to her five-year-old as he hangs upside down on a swing. “He struggled because he just didn’t wanna sit still and learn on the computer. He’s only picked it up now. And I can see massive improvement.”
During the lockdowns, she tried to focus on giving them books they’d like, or baking together, or playing in the garden. I ask where she sees their future, and she’s unsure. Her older son, Ryan, has talked about pursuing finance or becoming a policeman like his parents. “I’m not a pushy mum,” she says “As long as they’re happy all round, and they do well in school.”
Paul runs up to us.
“This isn’t my hat!” he says. “It says ‘Ryan, age 4’.”
“Yes, it was Ryan’s, but you’re five now, so you can have it,” she says, looks at him adoringly, and then turns to me. “He always checks the labels on everything, reads whatever he can. He just wants to do everything.”
She worries about her kids’ mental health — she suffers with anxiety herself, and noticed her daughter was lethargic during lockdown. Her 10-year-old son started to spend every day gaming in his room, talking to his friends on his headset, who were all doing the same thing. “He literally didn’t see the sunlight, he lived in his room. We were outside sitting in the paddling pool one day, me and my daughter, boiling hot, and he wouldn’t come out,” she says. “A teacher even asked him when he came back to school, have you had any sunlight? Other parents worried too.”
Helen admits she’s a worrier anyway, and says her anxiety has eased since lockdown measures have been curbed. But she laments the loss of freedom in her life: “We haven't had a holiday in two, three years, and I don't even know whether we're going to this year,” she says. “The two kids, the older ones, are like ‘Mum, are we going to go on holiday again?’ I’m like, ‘I don't know love.’”
We have just ten more minutes before they’re shooting off to pick up her son from dodgeball practice. Tomorrow night is football, and the weekends are usually spent playing crazy golf or swimming, or visiting the adventure park in Otterspool. “They like to do stuff after school, we’re always out and about,” she says. “I'm cold standing for two hours outside watching them play football, but it’s worth it, to be able to do a bit more,” she says. It’s twenty-past five. The sun is beginning to set. “Right, we need to dash,” she says to Paul. He flashes me a cheeky smile and takes her hand as they walk away.
‘I’ve gotta make it work for her, because it’s only me’
When I meet Ella, she’s watching her three-year-old daughter, Rosalia, play in a sandpit in the playground in Walton Hall Park. Her hair is swept up in a ponytail and she’s wearing natural makeup and a soft pink hoodie. Two small dogs strain on their leads. “We go to the park a lot,” she says. It’s a cold January afternoon and there’s about an hour of light left. “She has so much energy, and she just loves it.”
Ella was 18 when she had Rosalia. She always wanted to be a nurse, but she briefly left that ambition behind, instead training as a make-up artist and an air hostess. She would eventually start work on a school bus helping disabled passengers get to and from school. “I took that because it was only three hours away from her,” she says. “When I had her, she was my main concern.”
Her mother and nana live nearby and help to raise Rosalia, looking after her when Ella is working. Other than that, she does the parenting alone. “Her dad doesn’t see her anymore,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work trying to juggle it all. But I’ve gotta make it work for her, because it’s only me.”
When schools closed and a nationwide lockdown was enforced, Ella lost her job as a passenger assistant on the school bus. She signed on for a few weeks, but didn’t want to do that forever. “I was like, I’ve got all this time, why don’t I do something I want to do?” she says. Lockdown presented an opportunity to pursue something for herself. She took out a loan, and now, she’s in her third year of an adult nursing access course, with a specialism in adult trauma. In September, she’ll move to full-time study at Liverpool John Moores. The timing is perfect, because Rosalia will start her first full year of primary school that same month. Ella is taken with the idea that her daughter will see her graduate while raising a young child; she will see that it’s possible.
The pandemic wasn’t easy on Rosalia’s confidence, though. She thought the new rules were normal, that when the playgrounds closed, she would never be allowed to play again, or that she’d always be home with her mum. Bringing her into nursery was harder work than Ella thought it would be: she noticed Rosalia clinging to her legs instead of running to play, her behaviour shifting. When Rosalia did see Ella’s friend’s children and her cousins again, she didn’t know what to do. But since Ella got the dogs, she’s been less shy, happier to play.
We’re watching Rosalia play on the merry-go-round, and then she stops and runs towards us. She smiles shyly at me and then looks at her mum. “Can we see the dog?” she asks. She’s pointing at a big dog across a nearby car park.
“No, we don’t know if it’s a nice dog,” Ella says.
“The dog is nice!”
“You don’t know that, it’s not your dog.”
The pandemic has created challenges that are shared between the two mothers I meet. They’ve both seen their kids make slower progress in school and struggle with social interaction. They both talk about juggling work and keeping kids happy, and the impossible task of doing both under one roof. “Being a mother is being close to burnout all the time,” Helen says.
Ella tells me she doesn’t want to live here forever. Once she’s qualified as a nurse, she wants to emigrate to Dubai. “It’s only getting worse here,” she says. “Kids are stabbing kids, I don’t want her growing up with that.” We’re talking about the tragic death of Ava White, the 12-year-old from Toxteth who died after being stabbed in the city centre by a 14-year-old boy, and Ella thinks it marks a trend: “I’ve seen a real change in the youth,” she says. “Before Ava, I wasn’t too worried, but when I heard of Ava, I thought, she was 12-years-old. My girl is three. Is that going to be her in nine years? That scared me the most I think.”
“I hung out in very similar crowds to Ava, a very similar environment. And it’s really changed. Before, when you argued, you’d just have an argument. Now you can’t have an argument without someone getting stabbed.” That impression about crime isn’t just created by the place she lives — it’s also fed by media coverage. “I feel like I read about crime all the time,” she says.
We spot a ladybird crawling over a bollard. Rosalia cups her hand, tenderly, and holds it for a while. “You want to take a photo of that?” Ella asks me. “That’s sweet.” They head home, walking through the grass towards the adjoining terraced streets near County Road, the main thoroughfare dotted with pubs and newsagents and fried chicken shops. In nearby Fazakerley, Rosalia will start primary school in September, where Ella grew up and where Ella’s mother and nana live too. “We’re very family oriented, she sees them a lot,” she says, smiling. I ask if Rosalia would find it hard to adapt to living in a different country. She thinks for a moment. “Yeah, she probably would. It would be hard. But I’d be doing it to better her life.”