* Colleen Hennessy is a Maine native who has been living in Ireland for the past 11 years. She studied Political Science at Tufts University and later earned her MA from NUI Galway. She now lives in Kerry with her husband and two children and is moving back to the US. Here's why.
I wish I had some insight or advice for the Irish families living in the US and around the world considering whether to move home now, later, or never, but all I have is my own story. Every family has different priorities, challenges and opportunities, but many families with young children and working parents do face the same problems here or in the United States.
There is one challenge that many of us living abroad share and that is the challenge that has affected me the most in recent years. It’s not easy raising children and pursuing a career without any back-up plan or ‘in case of emergency’ and this is why it’s time for us to try out the snowier side of the Atlantic now.
A back-up plan is crucial for mothers. Amongst my friends, colleagues and acquaintances it is the women generally who handle the day-to-day arrangements for childcare. It is the women who factor this cost against their earnings, the women who carry the guilt for outsourcing child care duties and it is the women who scramble to find a back-up plan for the dreaded change of plans.
All parents know the day-to-day is manageable. Every minute and detail is planned and executed and the routine keeps both children and parents stable and sane. The ‘change of plans’ due to illness (child’s, your own, babysitter’s, your neighbor who drives the girls to ballet), canceled appointments, rescheduled activities, car trouble, family emergency, or a toothache mean a scramble of calls, texts and emails to find a solution to the new logistical situation. This network of mother’s, friends, neighbors, doctors, babysitters and colleagues takes a lot of work to cultivate when you have no family or old friends around to rely on for your back-up plan or in a real emergency.
Again, it’s usually the women and mothers that spend the time and energy to create these networks through building friendships, having children over, helping other families and returning favours and childcare. I realize there are strong communities of Irish families living in the US that support each other like family but it’s not the case for me here in Kerry.
Life is definitely much easier here for new mothers than their American counterparts. I had six months paid maternity leave so I cannot imagine the pressure mothers and families are under in the US to make childcare arrangements for newborn babies without any family help. This is a major (and cruel) challenge. When I went back to work my son was six-months-old and I had a childminder in the house. If she was sick, I took a vacation day. Again, I had an enormous number of paid holidays compared to my counterparts in the US so this was manageable for a while. When she decided she was going back to college at the last minute, I was truly stuck.
I had only been back to work a few months and my husband had just been taken back to work on a temporary contract so I was faced with finding new childcare in a matter of days. My mother ended up flying over from Maine to help out for a couple weeks.
Once my son started day care, I was then taking a day off work most weeks because he got sick every week that first winter in the crèche. There were also times when I couldn’t reschedule work and brought him to meetings when I was really stuck. It’s not surprising that women’s careers plateau after having children.
It’s the bigger crises and change of plans that have left me shaken and worried about our lack of safety net here in Ireland. When I was nine months pregnant with my second child, my son had an accident. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital and ended up spending one night in our local hospital and then being transferred to Cork which is two hours away.
We were in town at the time so the ambulance took ten minutes and the hospital was five minutes away but if we’d been out at home the ambulance could have taken an hour. It wasn’t life or death but the possibility scared me.
If I was home alone now with the two children and something happened to me, we would be in real trouble. If something minor happened to me and I couldn’t drive or was sick for a long period, I’m not sure who would help my husband take care of me, the children and work. After my son’s accident my mother flew over again (without me knowing) in case I went into labor while my son was recovering from surgery or back up in Cork for follow-up.
My worries were of course blown out of proportion at the time because I was nine months pregnant and very anxious, but it’s unfair (and expensive) for my mother to keep flying over because we have no back-up plan here. If something happens back in the US, it’s an equally expensive and stressful operation to get home with two small children, and now that one is in school, it’s a bigger disruption for them.
Right after my daughter was born I had to fly home last minute with both children and my husband couldn’t come because his tourist visa took six months to process. Aer Lingus suspiciously claimed all the flights were full for a week but there was room in Business Class at a cost of €5,000. I recouped some money after writing an angry letter regarding the circumstances, but again these circumstances are added stress for everyone living abroad and the financial cost can be huge.
There are many Irish immigrants in the US who can’t fly home at all for family emergencies because of cost and visa issues. Unfortunately, happy occasions are rarely a time for trips home. It occurred to me recently at my son’s birthday party that there are some things only family will do.
Supervising a houseful of five year old boys hopped up on sugar smashing a piñata is one of these things. As I waited for the birthday boy to arrive home from school with his friends, I felt strangely homesick. I would have loved someone watch my two year old while I blew up balloons so she didn’t hide under the table and open gifts and I would have loved some of his family to witness my son’s excitement rather than see it on a computer or phone screen.
I decided to take a layoff package after my second child was born both because my career in Kerry County Council wasn’t exactly teeming with opportunity for advancement and because it was much less stressful for us as a family. My husband drives almost 50 miles to work each day and he works shifts starting at six or finishing at midnight so he’s not available to help with the children or any child related driving, homework, shopping, playdates and laundry. There are no comparable jobs in his industry closer to home and there are many men who travel to Dublin or abroad for work.
I am grateful that I had the choice and option to be home for the past few years, but now it feels like I don’t have the choice to go back to work while we’re here. My son’s school starts at 9:30. There isn’t any after school care at his school or transportation to after school care anywhere else.
School finishes at two for his first two years, but the bus doesn’t go home until the other children finish at three and they aren’t allowed to stay at school in the meantime so someone has to collect him at two. There are also no extracurricular activities at the school so these are all done at different locations after school. The local pre-school where my daughter would go runs from 9:30 – 12:30 and then closes. There is a crèche in a neighboring village but no transport from my son’s school to the after school and it only runs three days per week.
The military operation required via multiple childcare providers, drivers and facilities is overwhelming on a good day and impossible on a bad day. I haven’t mentioned the cost because childcare is very reasonable in Ireland and significantly cheaper than the US, but I realize cost is a prohibitive factor for many women without any relatives to assist.
I’m not under the illusion that anyone can have it all when it comes to a career and family life: men or women. Everything is about compromise and priorities and often the mother’s career becomes the compromise in many families.
I’m not claiming that families have an easier time in the US than in Ireland and I might be very naive in hoping that going back to work will be easier with some family support, but we need to try now while the children are young. I might be dreaming that in a different culture and different economy things will be easier for us all, but it’s time for me to go back to work and I don’t want to leave my children without a back-up plan anymore.
Read more from her here - Colleenhennessy.wordpress.com.