Monday 22 December 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
Audrey Finnegan and her husband Niall, who works in Sierra Leone
Supporting each other: MEP Mairead McGuinness manages being away from her family as her farmer husband Tom is at home to look after their four children

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.

"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.

Irish Independent

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