Sue Jenkinson is the Head of Law at Staffordshire University. She is also a divorcee, a successful businesswoman and a mother of three. After meeting Dr Jenkinson at Staffordshire University’s Annual Family Law Seminar and hearing her inspiring story, I asked if she would contribute a post to this blog’s series on coping with divorce. Sue pays tribute to Prof Chris Barton in her piece. I echo all her sentiments: he is one great guy.
As an old proverb states: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now”.
I am a very lucky woman and the law has been good to me in an unexpected way. At almost 54 I have finally found my niche – and a very interesting legal niche it is. I know it is a cliché, but if life throws lemons, make lemonade. (And sell it at 20p a bottle more than it costs you to make…)
I was what was charmingly called a “gymslip mum” in the early 1970s. I managed to leave school with no formal qualifications, a beautiful bouncing baby son and a laser-like ability to choose hopeless boyfriends. When I was 21 and my son was about to start school, I met my husband and a blissful period ensued. By the time I was 34 he decided that the grass was greener (it very rarely is) and I had three children to support and raise: a 16-year-old, a three-year-old and a ten-month-old baby. I had no formal qualifications and no useful work experience. I fully believed that the magistrates court, and later the CSA, would make sure that the children were supported. However I soon realised that I was on my own financially. A pretty scary prospect, but I was determined that my children were not going to be the victims of my poor choices. I was also determined to use education to understand the system in which I was embroiled, but also to widen my horizons and develop a career.
Macclesfield College allowed me, for free, to take a Law A-level and to learn to use a computer. I also needed a back-up plan and an instant income so I took a City & Guilds qualification in soft furnishings. Ultimately I developed a small business, making and selling very high-end, bespoke soft furnishings to the prosperous of south Manchester and Cheshire. I also began buying and renovating the many rundown silk weavers’ cottages in my hometown. Whilst these activities made sure that my children and I ate (well!) I was also pursuing a legal education at Staffordshire University: an LLB, an LLM and eventually in 2006, a PhD (on the role of adultery in divorce, historically and today, ironic on many levels). I loved it: it was thrilling, intoxicating and fascinating. It was this intellectual exercise that gave me the confidence and belief that my business and family would succeed. Of course some of it was devilishly difficult and, if truth be told, dull. I remember sitting in a crime lecture and wondering what the hell I was doing there; the clever, bright young things made me feel like a dinosaur. In my third year I started family law with Chris Barton, an inspirational teacher, and really began to fly.
Ultimately I have ended up Head of Family Law at Staffordshire University – and it is thrilling. The curtains and footballers’ wives have gone, but I remain a landlady and my interest in property has, if anything, been enhanced by the recent downturn in the market. My children have had the opportunities I wanted for them and, in spite of frequent absences, they know that they are cherished, loved beyond everything and are my most important motivation. The absolute icing on the cake is my late blooming career in legal academia. To be able to work at the institution that gave me so much and to help future traditional and “non-traditional” students achieve their ambitions is a privilege.
If this saga of teenage promiscuity and divorce proves anything, it shows us that adversity really can push us all to do very unexpected and exciting things indeed. Divorce is a miserable, unhappy time, but it can also be a time of great opportunity. It can be a chance to reinvent oneself and be a person nobody could have predicted.