“My nan taught me what it was to be a strong woman”

Deborah Bullivant and her son
Deborah Bullivant and her son
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Deborah Bullivant knows all about strong women.

For starters, she was raised by one; her grandmother, Ivy Ibbotson.

Deborah Bullivant aged 18, with her son

Deborah Bullivant aged 18, with her son

“Nan was the perfect role model; an amazing woman who never lost her temper,” Deborah recalls with a smile.

“She was chair of the women’s guild, a comedian and poet, and a real community activist. She was born in 1904 and got behind the sufragette movement, spending her life campaigning for equal rights.

By the time I was 12 I was doing community work with her, and I’m so grateful to her for my own strong moral compass.”

Ivy, who was 63 when Deborah was born, stepped in to raise her granddaughter when parenthood became all got too much for Deborah’s parents.

Deborah Bullivant and grandmother

Deborah Bullivant and grandmother

“Mum was 17 when she got pregnant with me, and she and my father were just too immature to handle it,” reveals Deborah.

“They tried when I was first born, but they quickly struggled to deal with the demands of parenthood; they wanted to be out having a good time, not home with a baby, so nan stepped in and I moved in with her.”

For a time, Deborah says, life was perfect. She had the best of both worlds, living with her nan, and visiting her parents when she could. But everything changed when Deborah was 15 and her grandmother suffered a heart attack.

“The doctor who looked after her said that he didn’t think someone of her age should be looking after a child, so at 15 I ended up leaving the only real home I’d known and going to live with my parents. It was a tough change,” says Deborah.

Deborah Bullivant and her sons

Deborah Bullivant and her sons

“Then my parents split up and my mum had a breakdown. I ended up dropping out of school to look after my mum and get a job.

“I was really isolated and I didn’t want to share my worries with my nan, because of her health. During this time, my self-esteem just plummeted, and I lost my way for a while.”

Aged just 18, Deborah discovered she was pregnant.

“My son and I ended up in a mother and baby home,” says Deborah.

Deborah Bullivant and grandmother

Deborah Bullivant and grandmother

“I was in a bad way, I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing, and suddenly I was going down a path I didn’t recognise.”

Deborah wound up working three different jobs that fit in around caring for her son, and at 20, began putting herself through college, to finish up her education.

“Before I was forced to leave school, I was getting good results,” she says.

“Once upon a time, I’d dreamed of being a teacher, but that all seemed impossible now, as a single, struggling mum.

“Luckily one tutor at Sheffield College felt differently and began encouraging me to get my teaching degree. Within three years, I was a coordinator, teaching at Sheffield College.”

Deborah is one of a number of women who will share their stories this evening at a reception to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The event, held at The Holiday Inn in Barnsley, is designed to share, reflect on and be inspired by local business women’s personal journeys, achievements and challenges both professionally and personally.

And in Deborah’s case, her story definitely has a happy ending.

After years of teaching, and working nationally on education strategies and policies, Deborah - who turned 50 last year - founded, and now directs, Grimm & Co - a national writing charity based in Rotherham that encourages young people to unlock and realise their potential.

She also finally has stability in her personal life. Following another relationship, in which she had her second son, Luke - now 25 - she met and married Keith.

“Keith is fantastic, he’s always let me just be me and that’s something I hadn’t had before,” says Deborah, who lives with her husband in Thurlstone, near Penistone.

“As well as Karl and Luke, I now also have two wonderful step-daughters, and - earlier this year - my son Karl and his wife had a baby, making me a grandmother, which is just wonderful.

“I’ve never been happier than I am now. For a long time, it was just myself and my young son against the world. I had a lot of motivation to make something of my life, because I wanted more for Karl. Now, life is really good.”

And she’s come a long way from that 15-year-old school drop-out, with two masters, in literacy and language, and education management.

“Education is everything,” she adds.

“It’s the best thing we can give our children.”

Deborah’s youngest son, Luke, will join her onstage in Barnsley this evening, as she tells her story.

They will discuss their relationship and talk about life, from her perspective as a single, working mother, and about his experience of being raised by a single, working mother.

She said: “I wouldn’t change anything that has happened to me, even the really tough parts, because it’s all a part of my foundation. I feel better equipped to support other people because of my own experiences.

“I also credit my desire to give back where I can, to my nan, as she taught me firsthand what it means to truly be an active part of yout community, to commit and to give back, and to look after your family above all else.

“I learned all my important life lessons from her and now - as a grandmother myself - if I can just be one tenth as fantastic a grandparent as she was, I will be really happy.”

This is the third year that Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber’s Women in Business working group will gather to recognise and celebrate the contributions made by women to daily lives, communities and the business sector.

This year’s theme is #PressforProgress, which marks the 100th anniversary since women got the vote, following the passion and determination of the Suffragette movement.

Speakers at the event will include managing director of Gulliver’s, Julie Dalton, and Chamber president Lisa Pogson, who will all take centre stage to discuss how working women blend and manage work life and family life, as well as exploring how businesses in the future can attract and retain talent to create a workplace which is reflective of a more diverse society.

Local author Kathryn Littlewood will also be sharing her story. Kathryn’s autobiography, ‘Cultivating Madcow,’ tells the tale of her mental breakdown and struggles with depression, alochol, insomnia and bipolar disorder. In 2004, the Sheffield mum survived a 13-storey fall from the top of the old car park on The Moor back in 2004 - a failed suicide attempt which broke almost every bone in her body and left her permanently disabled.

“The message is that there’s a way back, with the right support,” says Kathryn.

“It just takes somebody to reach out a hand, and help.”

There will also be a number of ‘Sofa Chats’ - like Deborah’s - hosted by mothers and their children.

Jackie Freeborn, chair of Women in Business and co-host of International Women’s Day, said: “We have a fantastic line up of speakers who will be sharing their inspirational journeys, their achievements, and the challenges, as well as their motivation, drive and words of wisdom for all to learn from.

“Press for Progress is a fitting theme as this is the 100th year anniversary of the start of female voting rights in the UK. All are welcome in helping us celebrate the massive contribution that women make to our lives, in business, in the community, and in family.”

Today’s event runs from 2.30pm to 7pm at The Holiday Inn in Barnsley. Visit www.brchamber.co.uk for tickets.