independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Weekend wives

More and more couples are living apart as one or the other goes aboard in search of work. But it can put a strain on young families. How do they make it work?

Keeping it together: Audrey Finnegan pictured with her girls Cara (3), Orlaith (5) and Laurie (2), is often apart from her husband Niall

Semigrants, weekend wives, extreme commuters. Just some of the terms used to describe a relatively new phenomenon. More and more people are living long distances from their families for days, weeks or months at a time, usually for work purposes.

The effects of this lifestyle on Irish families have never been studied – until now.

Dr David Ralph, from UCC, is currently researching the effects of long-distance commuting on families.

"There's no Irish data, but a European survey in 2010 found that seven in every 1,000 workers are cross-border commuters and live in a different country to their families," he says.

"I'm looking for more families in this situation to contact me, but for the majority of those I've spoken to so far, it's an economic thing and stems from the poor state of the Irish jobs market," he continues.

"For others, it's a lifestyle option. They might be high- flyers in the world of banking or finance who enjoy being a globetrotter. Then there are those who do it to progress their careers. They might accelerate a promotion if they take up a commuting placement."

David frequently encounters one issue. "Loneliness is a problem at both ends, for those who stay at home and for those who commute," he says.

We asked two people in long distance relationships how they make family life work.

Audrey Finnegan lives with her three children in Mullingar. Her husband Niall works for an engineering company and spends a lot of time in Sierra Leone.

Audrey had time to get used to the idea of her husband moving abroad. "We knew it was on the cards that Niall may have to move to Africa," says Audrey. "His company had been looking at a contract out there and asked him to travel out. We knew for definite three or four weeks before it happened.

"He left for economic reasons," she says. "Work was thin on the ground here for the last few years."

The importance of Niall maintaining a secure job was brought home two weeks after he left for the first time in July of last year, when Audrey was made redundant from her job as a solicitor. She's working again on a short-term contract, but knows her family's financial security owes a lot to the sacrifice her husband is making.

"It's harder on him than me, because he's the one who is away," Audrey says. "I'm focused on home because I have to be. The kids need me. I can't just be sitting around."

Niall has returned home for a few weeks at a time since he first left and is home at the moment, although Audrey admits he will probably have to leave again soon. Staying in touch while they're apart has its difficulties.

'Skype doesn't really work because it's such a remote area," she says. "We phone each other and he texts in the morning to let us know he's okay. He spends a lot of time in mines so he's off the beaten track."

Audrey misses Niall most in the evenings when the kids get tired. "My middle girl especially would say 'I miss my Daddy, I want my Daddy'. It's hard to see her missing him so much," she admits. "My youngest was just one when he left, so I was concerned she wouldn't know him when he came back.

"I feel it when the kids go to bed at half eight. You're on your own in the house and you're housebound," she says.

"But he's lonely out there as well," she says. "He would find it really hard at times. When they're busy, he can focus on work, but if he has any downtime, it's very hard."

Audrey can see this unconventional situation continuing for the time being. Niall doesn't know when he will return to Sierra Leone, but knows he probably will.

"Work is very unsure for me at the moment," she says. "If there's work there for him, he probably will take it. But it is so much easier when he's home. It's great to have his support and his company."

Mairead McGuinness is MEP for Ireland East and spends most of the week in Brussels or Strasbourg. Husband Tom lives at home in Co Meath with their four children.

The prospect of leaving her family for days at a time when she became an MEP didn't create a huge dilemma for Mairead McGuinness.

"Before I entered politics I was a journalist who did a lot of travelling," she says. "If I had gone from being at home all the time, to having to be away all the time, it would have come as more of a shock."

Husband Tom is a farmer and based at home, which makes life easier.

"I've often said – half in jest – that if you are intent on having a career that takes you away, a spouse as a farmer is no bad thing," Mairead says.

During the political year her routine means she has to leave home on a Monday morning, often not returning until Thursday. Occasionally work commitments mean she'll have to stay in Brussels until Friday or longer.

Mairead's youngest was just three when she was first elected, but she's never found it difficult to say goodbye when she has to leave.

"It's amazing how quickly children adjust," she says. "They never pined, or if they did it was short term. I think if children are settled where they are, then they're happy out. They have their Dad and we're in touch every evening.

"There are a lot of people in this country, I'm thinking of Filipino nurses for example, who are separated for years from their families," Mairead continues.

"I chose this career. I like my work and it's an honour to do it. I think the longer you do it, the easier the lifestyle gets."

Mairead admits it would have been impossible to even run for MEP without her husband's support. "It would have been very hard to come home to someone who was visibly unhappy with our arrangement," she says. "In my case it was quite the opposite. It was a question of establishing a routine and we did that very well.

"I suppose I do miss out on things sometimes, but I find that when I'm at home I get better value out of things now," she says.

"I come and go and can see the seasons change. I think if I had to be away, as some people do, for economic reasons or whatever, I'd have a different view of things. And being away for two or three weeks at a time would be tough. The big issue is choice. If you choose to do be away, it's very different from if you feel you've been forced to leave."

Irish Independent

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