Monday 23 April 2018

The Irish people bringing up babies abroad: 'We would Skype home every day if we could'

The Irish people raising children abroad.
The Irish people raising children abroad.
Eva Heffernan, from Dublin and her husband William Marinus, from Belgium, now living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. They have two daughters, Alice (6) and Zoe (3).
Kelly McGrath and Stephen Price with daughter Millie
Lisa and David Balfe with son Conor

Isabel Hayes

Thousands of young Irish people have emigrated in recent years, put down roots in their adopted countries and are starting to have families of their own.

So what's it like bringing up babies and children overseas, away from home comforts and on-call family babysitters? Isabel Hayes talks to three families about their experiences

David Balfe, from Dublin, and Lisa Balfe, from Australia, now living in Perth, Australia. Their son Conor is 18 months old.

Lisa and David Balfe with son Conor

When David, 34, first met his Australian wife-to-be in Dublin, in 2006, he knew she would want to return to Australia one day. "Dublin was very much a working holiday for Lisa," he says. "She wasn't able for the cold winters in Ireland."

The couple lived in Dublin for another five years before they eventually moved to Perth, where Lisa's family is based. They lived with her parents for the first year while they got jobs - David is a pharmacy technician and Lisa, 34, is a pharmacist. They've since got married over there, had their first child, Conor, in May last year and are expecting their second baby any day now.

"Migrating was a fairly easy task because I was engaged to an Australian citizen, but while it was an easy enough move, nothing can make you fully appreciate how much you'll miss all your family and friends at home," says David. "When Conor was born, I sent my family a picture of him every day."

The couple brought Conor home to Dublin last April, where he met his Irish relations for the first time. "Everybody fell in love with him," says David.

But the trip home was also a stark reminder of the grim Irish weather. "We had to wrap him up and put the rain cover over the pram to protect him from biting winds and chills, which is something we simply don't have to do over here," says David. "The warm weather here means he's outside whenever possible."

Two months after the Irish holiday, Conor contracted a mystery stomach illness and had to be hospitalised for more than five weeks. Numerous tests were carried out as doctors struggled to understand what was wrong with him. It was an incredibly difficult time for the family, especially as Lisa was pregnant.

"We couldn't have managed without an amazing support network here," says David. "Lisa's family and friends took turns doing day shifts with Conor so we could both work. The health service was also exceptional. Unfortunately, my family and friends were in Dublin for all this. I spoke to them on a daily basis, but it wasn't the same as if they'd been here. That's just something you have to accept in the circumstances."

Conor was eventually diagnosed with a condition called gastroparesis and has to be fed through a nasal tube. He's out of hospital now and continuing to get better at home.

"I don't think a day goes by when I don't think of home and family and friends," says David.

"To my mind, Dublin is home. Always has been, always will be. But we're definitely staying in Australia for now. I'd move back to Ireland tomorrow if I could, but there'd have to be a major economic turnaround for both countries for that to be considered."

Kelly McGrath and Stephen Price, originally from Dublin, now living in Sydney, Australia. Their daughter Millie is 20 months old.

Kelly McGrath and Stephen Price with daughter Millie

When Kelly, 37, and her husband Stephen, 38, found out they were expecting their first child, they knew they would stay in Australia. The couple made Sydney their home in 2007 after falling in love with the country during a backpacking year.

"My parents are retired and they always said they would come out to Australia when we had a baby," says Kelly, a nurse. "True to their word, they spent four months here when Millie was born and then I flew home to Ireland for two months with them. So I had incredible support for the first six months of her life. They spent more time with Millie than they probably would have if we were living in Ireland."

Living with her parents for six months made it extremely hard for the family to eventually separate, however. "They had built up such a strong bond with Millie, it was very difficult to leave them," says Kelly.

Sydney's fine weather and outdoorsy lifestyle make it a great place to bring up a child.

"Sydney has excellent parks, playgrounds and family friendly beaches, so there are always lots of activities for us to do as a family," says Kelly.

Childcare is expensive and difficult to obtain, however. Expectant mothers are advised to put their children's names on waiting lists as soon as they find out they're pregnant while day-care centres can cost as much as $160-185 (€110-127) per day.

The couple have good friends who often babysit, but they miss having family members on hand for emergencies. "Now that I'm back at work and Millie is at day-care, the biggest challenge I find is having a back-up support for when she's sick and can't go to day-care," says Kelly.

The couple have brought Millie home to Ireland twice now and will be home again for a holiday after Christmas.

Kelly's parents in particular miss Millie: "More than words can say," she says. "We Skype about three times a week and if not for the time difference, they would Skype us every day if they could. But we always have an upcoming visit to look forward to and I bombard them daily with photos and videos."

Eva Heffernan, from Dublin and her husband William Marinus, from Belgium, now living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. They have two daughters, Alice (6) and Zoe (3).

Eva Heffernan, from Dublin and her husband William Marinus, from Belgium, now living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. They have two daughters, Alice (6) and Zoe (3).

Eva, 38, and her husband William, 36, were given the opportunity to move to Amsterdam through their jobs in March last year and since then, they've made the Dutch city their home. Eva already had two sisters living in Amsterdam. "So it was kind of a no-brainer," she says.

It took the family a little while to adjust to their new lives, however, particularly Alice who started a new school. Finding childcare for Zoe was also a bit tricky, as most Dutch mothers work three or four days a week and Dutch childcare isn't geared towards full-time working mothers.

"That was really challenging because when I rang the crèche, they were saying, 'Oh nobody works five days'," says Eva. "So we now have her in crèche for three days and a nanny two days. It was a bit of a juggle."

Zoe has some developmental delays and the Dutch healthcare system, she says, has been an "eye-opener".

"It's much better than we would have had at home. All of the testing happened much quicker. We were on waiting lists in Ireland and we immediately jumped to the top of the waiting list here."

The Dutch lifestyle is also extremely child-friendly. "We bike everywhere," says Eva. "There's a playground on every block. In the summer time every local park has a paddling pool set up. So many cafes have areas where the kids can play while you have brunch or coffee. It's amazing."

Eva's two sisters are a huge support and babysit often, but she misses the rest of her family back home. "I have one sister left in Ireland and my parents, and I miss them very, very much," she says. "It was hard to move the kids away from my parents. Whatever about moving ourselves out of Ireland, putting our kids on the airplane was very tough. I fly home at least once a month for work and I bring the kids home pretty often."

Irish Independent

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