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Dear Ireland

Dear Ireland

I don’t have long this morning to make my point, so I will be brief (we all know I can bang on a bit, so I know you’ll be a bit relieved to read that.)

I seem to be in a perpetual state of annoyance with you, but if you’d keep your word on the important things, then maybe I wouldn’t be quite so cross.

What’s been really annoying me lately is your treatment of refugee children in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais. Actually, ‘annoying me’ is an understatement. I’m actually spitting fire.  Ireland, what is wrong with you? These are babies. And you are turning your back on them. These are young hearts and minds and souls that you are deliberately failing. The damage that abandonment and trauma does to young minds is irreversible. It is. I’ve studied this. I know what I’m talking about. (I’m also an adult who was traumatised as a child, and had that trauma compounded by the state, so I have lived experience, too.) You, Ireland, by refusing to act, are condemning these children to a lifetime of psychological pain. And many of those lives will be cut short because of your inaction.  A generation of little babies damaged beyond repair. On your head be it, Ireland, because you are standing idly by and doing nothing more than wringing your hands and – I’ll bet – counting your blessings that Calais is not just outside Cork or Dublin or Galway.

I am disgusted, ashamed, and appalled by your treatment of these children who need help, and need help now. Honestly, though, I’m not surprised because – let’s face it – your track record on looking after babies and children leaves a lot to be desired.  But I don’t have time to list your past failings, I think what’s most important today is to address your current one.

Ireland, I know your memory for certain things is a bit poor. (Except the potato famine and the 1916 Rising, of course.) So let me take this opportunity to remind you of a document you signed, and then ratified on September 28th, 1992. That’s a while ago I admit; 24 years, one month and four days ago now. Let me remind you what it was – a wee thing known as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. You signed this, Ireland. You signed this as a solemn pledge to be bound by the contents of the document. You signed this, agreeing that it was right and proper and correct that children should be treated in accordance with the Convention.

Let me jog your memory a bit, Ireland, and remind you of your obligations under this Convention. Article 38.4, if you want to have a look at it, says that countries who sign up to the Convention

‘shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.’

Article 39 is a commitment to

‘take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.’

Now, Ireland, can you honestly say that you are honouring your commitment to these children? And don’t start whining about ‘looking after our own’ first or any of that nonsense, because I don’t want to hear it. Not least because these children are our own. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Really. If a child’s primary carers are unable to care for them, for whatever reason, then the rest of us need to step up and mind those babies and treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve. And, yes, love them. Love them fiercely and unconditionally and without reservation.

Do it now, Ireland. These children can’t wait any longer. Do it now and argue about it afterwards. Don’t be the country that saves banks, and sacrifices children. Step up, Ireland. Grow a pair. Open your doors and your heart and welcome these children. Hold them close, nourish them, help them to heal as much as they can.

I said I didn’t have long this morning to fire off letters to you, Ireland, but these children have even less time than I do. They need you to act now.

 

 

 

 

Timing is Everything

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One of the things I struggle most with is getting enough done in a given day. I go to bed every night upset with myself for not having been productive enough. I wake up with anxiety because I haven’t done enough the previous day and, therefore, I have even more to do ‘today’.

I’ve tried ‘to do’ lists – but they are always impossibly long and become a stick with which to beat myself. I’ve tried ‘have done’ lists – but they always seem impossibly short and I am sure I’ve been too lenient on myself and wasted time. I’ve tried not bothering with lists and just ploughing through the day, but find that means I don’t always prioritise correctly and I often end up finishing the day with an important job that hasn’t been taken care of.

Last week, I tried something different and put myself on a schedule. I even scheduled a few breaks, time to eat, and I was ruthless with the cold turkey app. This all resulted in a more productive me, but I still wasn’t getting through everything on the to do list. I was interrupted by unscheduled phone calls two days last week, that I took because I felt I needed to. (One was from a recruiter, and the other was work-related, but also slightly social: It, therefore, went on for longer than it would have, had it been just work-related.)

 This week, I’ve been managing better. I have a to do list. I am writing a schedule every morning before I get started. BUT the difference this week is that, for every hour of productivity, I am adding on an extra twenty minutes. So, for example, if I schedule a piece of work at 10am, expecting to finish at 12.00pm, I don’t schedule the next piece of work until 12.40pm. Most days, I’ve been ahead of myself, which makes me feel under less pressure, less anxious and – to be honest – just that little bit pleased with myself.

I’m sure there are thousands of people out there who stumbled on this little nugget of time management long before I did, but in case you’re not one of them, I thought I’d share!

 

Leave It Out!

Yesterday, 58,466 students received the results of their Leaving Certificate Examinations in Ireland. Cue the usual messages and platitudes on all forms of media – social and mainstream – telling those who had received their results that  they are more than the pieces of paper sent to them by the Department of Education and Skills. Posts popped up on Facebook and Twitter reassuring those who had received their results that they (the posters) had not been asked how they did in their LC since nineteen-splat. People posted stories of their own devastation, and gave jolly, positive endings to those stories.

Experts were heard on the radio telling parents how to deal with their children’s stress, disappointment, and changes of heart. There were also other experts discussing how to ask for a paper to be marked again, as well as how to cope with the financial issues that stem from having children going to college.

Pat Kenny, in the lead-in to introducing a guest and discussing the differences in the Irish and UK systems,  boasted ‘Stress? We’ll show you stress!’ as though having more than 58,000 (mainly) young people stressed over exams, and their results was a good thing.

I was struck by how, in this instance, Irish society seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. We spend at least two years instilling in our young people that this exam is the most important thing they will ever do; it is the focal point of the final two years of school. They are prepared and primed and goaded and scolded and lectured and cajoled into thinking and feeling that the result of this examination defines them and their futures. Then, once the results are out, the tune is changed significantly and the song is ‘You are more than the sum of your points‘. If you’ll pardon me for saying so, I think it’s a case of ‘too little, too late’ if you’re giving kids this message at this point in time.

Those who defend the current system cite our points-system as a ‘leveller’ – that the only thing that will get you into a course is having enough points. I disagree, however; students who struggle and who don’t get the help they need in school have to pay for help. Only those who can afford to pay for this help can access it; so there is a distinct advantage to students from more affluent backgrounds and the idea of a ‘level playing field’ goes out the window.

Why would we want to put our children through this much stress, worry, anxiety, and fear? As parents, educators and concerned members of society, why are we doing this to our young people year after year? People who complain about the Irish education system – from ‘having’ to get their children christened in order to get them into the local school (because it’s Catholic-run), to ‘having’ to put up the system that stresses, upsets and worries their children (and them) – but I do wonder why. There are alternatives. Scoring well in the leaving certificate is not the only way to get in to college or university in Ireland. Mainstream school is not the only option. In fact, in Ireland, we are very lucky to have a constitutional right to educate our children whenever and however we see fit. It’s time, I think, that more people explored the different options; time that more people thought outside the strictures of the Irish curriculum (which discourages critical thinking, philosophy, and ignores the needs and rights of gifted and talented children); and time that more people they wanted more for their children.  More for them than the stress and anxiety and worry – and the poor standard of education – that the current system provides.

More on Poverty & Education

My piece yesterday on education and poverty struck a nerve with many of you. I received a slew of messages here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on my phone, from women who found themselves in similar situations. Women who tried desperately hard to educate their way out of poverty. Women who tried to grab life by the scruff of the neck and gain an education for themselves so they could lift their families out of poverty.

Some of us end up pursuing more than one degree in an effort to improve our circumstances. Unfortunately, in Ireland, if you want to pursue a second degree that is not higher on the NFQ than one you already have, you will not receive state funding. That means that if you find the MA you have isn’t enough to secure employment – and you can’t, for whatever reason, pursue a PhD – you will have to self-fund. This is what I ended up doing. My intention was to use the money from a settlement for sexual abuse to pay my fees (and for the therapy I need as a result of the abuse to keep me mentally healthy).  The problem is that one of the brothers who raped and otherwise sexually abused me decided not to honour the settlement. In desperation, I launched a Go Fund Me campaign explicitly, exclusively and entirely to ensure that I stay fit enough to parent, and that I can finish my degree and graduate.  And, then, maybe – just maybe – get a job somewhere. Anywhere.

It struck me earlier today how gendered this all is. The men walk away from their financial obligations, and abuse the children they have decided not to support. They further abuse the women to whom they don’t pay child support because they know that (most) mothers will go hungry before they allow their child/ren to suffer.

The structures of our society and our legal system are patriarchal and allow men who do not wish to support their children, to walk away from their obligations. The women who are then responsible for every aspect of raising the children are then vilified by the society that does not men to account. This, in turn, enforces the belief that many of these men (and, to be honest, I am thinking of specific men; not necessarily men in general) hold; that women deserve to be abused. That women who stand up to the men who bully them need (in my ex-husband’s words) ‘to be taught a lesson’.

Even before I became a mother, I knew one thing; no woman creates a child on her own. Not even those who have virgin births or those who claim impregnation by entity. To continue to promulgate the myths around mothers who are forced to raise their children on their own shifts the focus from those who are doing nothing for their families to those who are doing everything they can for their families. Those who are doing all they can to make their lives, their children’s lives and, therefore society better.  Ironically, we are frustrated by the very society we are trying to improve as we are trying to improve it.

Ireland may no longer lock up lone mothers and sell their babies, but it has a long way to go before it can become in any way congratulatory over the way it does treat them.

 

 

Educated Poverty

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Yesterday, I read this piece in the Journal. I didn’t write it – but I could have.

Those of us who parent alone – and the vast majority of us are female – experience the highest rates of deprivation: Nearly 60% of those in single-parent households live with the lack of basic necessities. And, according to the CSO, more than half a million people live in one parent families. That’s a lot of lack.

Like many poor people, lone parents are blamed for their circumstances and for their poverty. In spite of the fact that many women are married, or in stable relationships when they have their children, they are judged as feckless ‘young wans’ whose only desire is to ‘sponge off the state’. May of the comments on the piece I’ve linked to above demonstrate this. One of the things that bothers me about nasty comments and judgements aimed at single mothers is the fact that those who deride them are picking on the wrong parent. They are picking on the parent who is actually parenting. They are picking on the parent who didn’t abandon their child. They are picking on the parent who is doing their best, in spite of the odds, which are stacked against them.

For the longest time, the accepted narrative is that the only way out of poverty is education. Sadly, that’s only half the story. As a woman who has been parenting on my own in Ireland for nearly 12 years, I have direct, personal experience of this. I returned to education when my eldest was 3.5 years old, and my youngest was just 16 months old. Four years later and I was able to put the letters BA (Hons) after my name. Now I had a degree, I was sure I’d find (or make) work for myself.

Sadly, I was wrong. I graduated in 2009, when the Celtic Tiger was in its death throes. Few places were hiring. Even fewer were hiring new graduates. Even fewer would even acknowledge an application from a single parent of two young children. After a year of trying to secure gainful employment (and giving many, many hours for free to NGOs and charities and publications), I returned to education. In 2012, I added ‘MA’ to those letters after my name. Now, surely, someone would hire me.

Again, I was wrong in thinking that I would be offered a job by a company in Ireland. To add insult to injury, several of those employers who deigned to employ me had no difficulty accepting my services for free before they had ‘openings’ for which I applied. Repeatedly, when applying for jobs I was already doing for NGOs and other agencies for whom I had done volunteer work, I was told that I lacked the ‘law piece’. So I applied, and was accepted, to the Law School at Queen’s University in Belfast.

In between finishing my MA and starting my LLM, I was accepted on to a PhD programme at Trinity College, Dublin. I did the first year ‘off books’ (a term meaning that – while I was studying – I hadn’t paid fees, so I wasn’t technically registered, and my access to certain things was restricted). When it came time to start my second year at Trinity, I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t commit my kids to another three years of poverty. I opted to go to Queen’s instead, thinking that I was better off to spend a year studying intensely and get myself a degree at the end of it, than spend a year studying intensely and still only be part way through a degree. Even if that degree was a PhD. So far, the idea that a primary degree and two Master’s degrees will open up employment opportunities has proved unfounded – but I live in hope (because, frankly, I have little else).

Tertiary education, to me, means being hungry. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. When I’m studying, I can’t afford to eat three meals a day. So I don’t. I drink a lot of coffee (that I bring from home), and insist that it’s all in a good cause. And anyway, I can afford to lose a few kilos. Plus, I’ll get a job at the end of it, I tell myself on the days and nights when the gnawing in my stomach distracts me from the words on the page. That last, so far, has proved to be a lie.

No matter how highly educated you are in Ireland, you can’t be sure you’ll get a job. I think part of the reason for that is a lack of ability on the part of Irish employers to recognise, and understand, the value of transferable skills. The idea that the skills single mothers use on a daily basis – financial juggling, multi-tasking, fire-fighting, negotiating, prioritising, communicating with government departments, healthcare, etc. etc. – are useful in the workplace, completely escapes Irish employers. There is also a reluctance to acknowledge that people can retrain, change direction, and bring their previous experience with them. The Irish way is that you have a box that you have been put in, and you must stay in that box forever. Especially if you are a woman. And most especially if you are a woman raising children on your own.

Education, on its own, won’t help lone parents lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a start – but it’s not the complete solution. We need access to jobs once we’ve graduated – and access to quality childcare, and employers who understand that we are no less committed to our jobs than our childfree colleagues. In short, we need support from the state and the society we’re living in. We need the opportunity to put our expensive educations to good use.

 

Charity Begins?

It’s been another rough week for charities in Ireland. That is to say, it’s been a rough week for mis-behaving charities in Ireland. The revelations about misappropriation of funds meant for suicidal people by the charity Console has left the country reeling. Then, news came of financial irregularities in the St John Of God organisation. These come while scandals at the CRC and allegations against Bumbleance are still fresh in the public’s collective memory.

The effect of these scandals is that people who have contributed are – understandably – hurt and upset by the fact that money they have donated, or worked hard to fundraise, didn’t reach the people for whom they intended it. People are also more wary of giving money to charities. It also means that people question how this was allowed to happen. There are supposed to be checks and balances, aren’t there? Isn’t there supposed to be some sort of oversight to ensure that this kind of oversight doesn’t happen? Well, yes, there is.

I sit on the board of directors of an Irish charity and I can assure you that we take our responsibilities very seriously. We are aware that the buck stops with us – that we are personally responsible should there be any irregularities in the finances – or elsewhere – that we don’t report. We have regular board meetings and, at each of these, our accountant comes along and goes through the finances with us. He invites questions, and answers them thoroughly. We are audited annually. Recommendations made by the auditor are acted upon and we were delighted that this year the auditor had no recommendations to make, except for us to keep doing as we’re doing.

Directors of Irish charities are not allowed to accept payment for their work on boards. They are allowed reasonable expenses. In the case of the charity on whose board I sit, this amounts to transport paid at the rate of public transport, a lunch when at the meeting – we sit through lunchtime – and an allowance of just over €10 for a meal if you are away from home for more than eight hours. We sit on the board because we believe in the work of the charity and we want to support it. We sit on the board because it is a way of ‘giving back’. We sit on the board because we feel what we’re doing is important. We do not sit on the board because we want to be given millions of euros for so doing.

I think part of the reason we have trouble with charities in Ireland is that there are so many of them. I’ve said this before, but I think the Irish charity sector has a bit of a ‘People’s Judean Front’ mentality (to borrow a phrase from Monty Python). What this means is that we have a glut of charities in the country all doing essentially the same thing. We have over 20 charities and NGOs working in the area of suicide and self-harm prevention. I’m not entirely sure we need so many – though, of course, each agency would argue for their own unique angle on the issue. I still think that there should be one charity responsible for tackling suicide and self harm, and that all other charities working in the area be amalgamated. I do think that it would be much easier to keep an eye on sector’s behaviour – financial and otherwise – if there was only one agency to deal with.

Normalising

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The family is the first social environment that a child ever encounters. It is the family that tells a child what ‘normal’ is, and what ‘acceptable’ is. If ‘normal’ is tea from china cups and linen napkins, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is no TV after 5pm, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is sexual abuse, then the child accepts that, too. This is how sexual abuse survives and thrives in homes up and down the country. Children who are abused from the time they are tiny have no notion that what is happening to them is unacceptable and abnormal, in a wider societal view.

 

So when people – genuinely puzzled – ask an adult who was abused as a child ‘why did you never tell anyone?’ the answer has a few threads to it: First of all, the abused child has no idea that what is happening to them is not supposed to be happening to them. Abuse does not happen in isolation in a family. Families where children are sexually abused are toxic environments where there are many harmful practices; for example, neglect and abuse often go hand in hand. Put in its most simplistic terms, one parent will neglect the children while the other abuses them. Children in these families will often have no, or few friends, who are allowed to visit. There will be strict rules about having other kids home to visit as well – ‘drop-in’ visitors will not be encouraged and the child who ‘allows’ or ‘encourages’ such visits will be punished. Children who are being sexually abused will have most elements of their lives controlled and ‘managed’ by parents who need to keep the secrets of the home within the four walls of the house. So, with all the other controls exercised over the child, the abuse does not seem out of place (to the child); there is nothing remarkable about it, so they do not think to mention it.

 

Another reason children don’t disclose is because they don’t have the language, the vocabulary or the ability to disclose. Often, children are threatened with vague or real threats of what will befall them if they do discuss what goes on at home. These threats often include the child being told that the abuse is ‘love and no one else would understand’ or that the abuse is the child’s own fault and they will be punished by others if they tell. Shame is often used as way of keeping children quiet about the abuse they are suffering.

 

What happens to children within their families is ‘normal’ to them. As a society, we really need to stop allowing sexual abuse – and, indeed, any abuse – being any child’s ‘normal’.