At 28, Thupayal Hussain has a career on the trading floor of a City of London bank, he has a first class degree in business management and earns good money – but it wasn’t always like this.
Thupayal’s dad left when he was nine and the family were immediately dependent on state benefits and his mum’s scant earnings as a cash-in-hand homeworker in the east London garment trade.
“She provided as she could,” Thupayal says.
His mum had come to the UK from Bangladesh as a 19-year-old bride, so there was little support from extended family – but it was an accident when Thupayal was 15 and his brother, Mohammed, 11 that truly turned their lives upside down.
A fall down some steps left her in hospital “in a whole heap of pain”, Thupayal says.
Her health collapsed. “She has arthritis all over her body. She suffers from depression. She has irregular heartbeat. She suffers from diabetes. She has a lot of physical conditions that restrict her mobility,” he says.
Thupayal had to take charge of the household. He became his mum’s carer and, effectively, a parent to his younger brother.
He was woken frequently in the night.”She’d ring me on my mobile if she was having difficulties getting up. Some days I didn’t go to school because I was tired,” he says.
“It literally went from not really having to worry about much in life… to helping her up, to get dressed, taking her to the toilet, making sure she could eat, that her medication was given on time.”
Last year, research by BBC News and the University of Nottingham estimated that as many as 260,000 11- to 16-year-olds were responsible for a high level of care for a family member.
And in 2017, analysis by the charity Barnardo’s suggested some spent 30 or more hours each week on care.
Thupayal estimates he lost about 20 days of schooling a year during his GCSE studies – and his grades suffered.
In particular, a D grade in maths meant he couldn’t go to his preferred sixth form or take the A-levels he wanted.
Despite support from social workers, he had to fight to persuade the council to provide adequate care for his mum.
The scheduled visits were often so short the carers barely had time to check on her let alone help her properly, he says.
College was rocky, with Thupayal juggling his efforts to gain qualifications with care for his mum.
He was coming home most lunchtimes to check on her and, on top of that, working part time at McDonald’s to bring in some extra cash.
His AS-level grades were poor and he told his mum he wanted to give up and train as a bus driver.
“Mum, there’s no point in me wasting time. Let me make money for the house,” he remembers saying.
But she persuaded him to continue and after three years and three different colleges Thupayal had gained a diploma in business studies, an A in his GCSE maths resit and three C grades at A-level.
At about the same time, the council finally agreed to fund 32 hours of care a week and paid for a stairlift and hospital bed for his mum’s room.
“That was a turning point in my life,” Thupayal says.
It gave him at least another four hours each day to concentrate on his studies – and the discipline he’d had to learn as a teenager paid off.
In 2012, he left University of Greenwich Business School with a first-class degree, the only student to gain top grades in every module.
These days he works for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the City of London as a compliance and operational risk specialist, helping ensure the bank adheres to UK regulations, while Mohammed has just completed a degree at University of Middlesex.
Both sons still live at home and Thupayal is always on the end of a phone during the day in case his mum needs extra help at short notice. “The bank is incredible, very supportive,” he says.
And his mum takes great pride in their achievements. “Even now, she’s still my mother,” Thupayal says.
At 26, he was able to go on holiday for the first time in his life, to Marrakesh, but although her physical needs are largely met, Thupayal knows her mental state is still fragile and she needs constant reassurance.
“I see my friends but I have to be conscious and mindful of how my mother’s mood is all the time. So, you know, I have to be wary,” he says.
“Every time she’s talking to me, I have to listen to what she’s saying. She sees herself as a burden. She doesn’t want to be a burden to us.
“It’s about reiterating that there’s no burden here, it is what it is.”
Thupayal says even as a child, before her health problems, he worried for her.
“She was alone, right. She was alone. She didn’t have family around her. All she had was her boys,” he says.
Thupayal says thinking about his own childhood keeps him grounded and he is an enthusiastic fundraiser for the bank’s official charity, Honeypot, which funds respite breaks and support for young carers.
He says he was 19 when social services first asked him if he needed a break from his caring responsibilities and “I found myself thinking, ‘It’s too late for that’”.
And asked what his childhood was like, he responds: “I’d say, ‘What childhood?’ to be honest.”
The charity strikes a particular chord with him as it supports children from the age of five who have caring responsibilities. “Their stories are incredible,” he says.
“This charity gives these kids the opportunity to be a kid.”
Illustrations by Katie Horwich