‘There are people out there who could do with the services of Parentline’

Mother-of-five Aileen Hickie brings first-hand experience to her new role as CEO of an organisation now 40 years in existence

Aileen Hickie:  new CEO of Parentline. “I would like to raise the profile and the awareness, mainly because I would like more people to know what a fantastic resource it is.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Aileen Hickie: new CEO of Parentline. “I would like to raise the profile and the awareness, mainly because I would like more people to know what a fantastic resource it is.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

“Small children, small problems. Big children, big problems.”

It’s a saying that is of no comfort to parents of young children but resonates with those who have struggled through to complete lap 18 – and then realise there is no finishing-line.

The statement may also be borne out by the fact that nearly two-thirds of people who contact the confidential support service Parentline want to talk about a child who is aged 13 or over. (More than one in 10 callers has an issue with an adult “child” aged 21 or over.)

The profile of Parentline callers reflects not only the challenges of parenting teenagers but also how isolating it can be when children are older. Gone are your days of parent and baby/toddler meet-ups and gatherings at the school gate, when there were plenty of opportunities to tap into collective wisdom.

The new chief executive officer of Parentline and mother of five, Aileen Hickie, totally identifies with the angst of parenting teenagers. She has no doubt that, for her, 15-17 are the worst ages.

“Three of them have gone through that and it would have been the same for all of them,” she says of Andie (21), student of Business and Polish in Trinity College and now on a Erasmus year in the University of Warsaw; Aimee (19), an engineering student in UCD and Millie (17) in fifth year at secondary school. The two youngest children of Hickie and her husband, broadcaster and author Matt Cooper, are Zach (15) in Transition Year and Harry (12), who is in sixth class at primary school.

She acknowledges it’s a cliché to say “you don’t get an instruction booklet with a newborn”, but, equally, she points out, “you don’t get part two when they become a teenager – the Windows updated sort of section”.

There are huge stresses for the teenagers too of course: “Hormonal changes, peer pressure, curiosity – we weren’t any different ourselves but it probably comes a little bit earlier now. Maybe the world moves a little bit faster. Once they hit 18 it starts rebalancing – they start turning into human beings again.

It’s wondering about things such as how long do you let them stay in the bedroom before you try to drag them out

“I don’t know how often I have said to Matt I wish they were back in the cot and I knew they were there,” she continues. The certainty of those sleepless nights can seem less stressful than now lying in bed late at night waiting to hear the front door open as older offspring return – “and then for the door to go again half an hour later when the man from Deliveroo arrives”.

Even for youngsters who are perceived to be “good” during those years, “it’s still a tricky time”, she suggests. And for the parent, it’s wondering about things such as how long do you let them stay in the bedroom before you try to drag them out . . .

“It’s just everything,” she says with feeling, as other thoughts seem to rush into her mind. “It’s just a bloody minefield. Sometimes you wonder how you get through it – with them sane and yourself sane.”

Social workers

She too saw the camaraderie of other parents dissipate as children moved on to secondary school. Coming up to exam time there may be more opportunities to meet parents of children the same age but that’s the time a lot of parents walk away, she says because they don’t want to be sucked into comparisons.

Many parents are mindful of their teenagers’ privacy and she says she would not discuss her children’s exam results with anybody.

“But I am very conscious there are parents out there who would post the results in a Whatsapp group; I don’t know what planet you would be on to do that.”

Parents Under Stress was the name given to Parentline’s genesis in 1980, when a group of social workers and public health nurses, concerned about the isolation of young mothers in Dublin, started weekly support meetings. A helpline was established in 1983 and the name changed to Parentline a decade later.

Strictly speaking, the organisation should be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. However, that comes as news to Hickie, who has just taken over the part-time CEO position after the retirement last November of Rita O’Reilly, who had been at the helm for 18 years.

“Rita O’Reilly ran a fantastic ship,” says Hickie, whose initial priorities include spreading the word about Parentline services, which are provided primarily by a team of more than 40 trained volunteers.

“I would like to raise the profile and the awareness, mainly because I would like more people to know what a fantastic resource it is. There are people out there who could do with the services of Parentline and who simply don’t know it exists and all the things that it does.”

A lot of parents today, she says, think they are very trendy and progressive and very different to the previous generation. “Whereas I don’t think they are. I think parenting hasn’t changed.”

It’s also a fallacy, she suggests, to think “don’t tell the neighbours” is a phenomenon of the past.

“Anything to do with what you perceive as a problem or issue with your child – whether it is the child’s problem or the problem is just the problem – I still think it’s ‘make sure the neighbours don’t find out and don’t tell the family’.”

There is a fear that talking about what’s a temporary phase for a child will lodge permanently in the mind of family or friends.

That is why she believes Parentline, as a confidential, non-judgmental and anonymous support, is so valuable. Parents can use it as a sounding board, reassured by the bona fides of the volunteers at the other end of the line.

Listening service

Hickie notes that many calls are completed between 20 and 40 minutes and there are no call-backs necessary. Parents may have simply been “looking for an answer they already have – they just want a different view on it or affirmation that what they’re doing is along the right lines.

“Or they just want to hear the sound of their own voice saying it because sometimes when you say something out loud it makes a big difference – sometimes I don’t know I’ve thought it until I’ve said it.”

While the telephone listening service, receiving more than 4,000 calls a year, is the core of the organisation, volunteers are available for face-to-face support sessions and to give parenting talks. Some are also trained in Non Violent Resistance (NVR), which can help parents to respond to adolescent anger and aggression.

Parentline, which is based in Carmichael House in Dublin 7, offers NVRP on a one-to-one basis and on the phone, says Hickie. Parents who want to follow the programme commit to take a call from the same volunteer once a week for around four to six weeks.

A native of Millstreet, Co Cork, Hickie attended boarding school from the age of 11, at the nearby Drishane Convent.

“I could practically see my bedroom window from my dormitory window.”

With her parents running a business and her mother also a nurse, she and her two younger sisters went there for “logistical reasons”, although their one brother went to the local community school. Hickie says she grew to like boarding school, going home only every second weekend.

“It had a very strong influence on me. I grew up quicker and it gave me more independence.” She had no problem at the age of 17 going to college in Dublin, not knowing a single person, and has remained there since, and now lives in Rathmines.

After studying communications and doing a Master’s in journalism, she worked in the Sunday Business Post in the early 1990s, where she met fellow Corkonian Cooper. For their 25th wedding anniversary later this year, she hopes to “wake up in Hawaii” – an ambition dating back to the days of Hawaii Five-O in her two-TV-channel childhood.

I am not sure if anybody can have it all

Hickie went to study at King’s Inns in 1996 and was called to the Bar in 2000, when she had a one-year-old and was pregnant with a second. But she stopped practising as a barrister in 2007.

“I knew at that stage I couldn’t have it all. I am not sure if anybody can have it all, but I certainly couldn’t keep all the balls in the air – and I didn’t really want to keep all the balls in the air.”

Regular panellist

She wasn’t “able to see the benefit of anything I was doing” and, needless to say, they were “throwing a bucket of money out the window for childcare”. She was asking herself why did she bother having five children.

“I did want to be on top of their play dates, their activities, and I wanted to be at the school gate and with the other mothers. I didn’t want to be the mother on the phone getting the call from the childminder saying ‘I have just been asked to pick up X from school’.”

Although Hickie is a regular panellist on RTÉ’s “Today with Maura and Daithí” and Today FM’s “Mario’s Sunday Roast”, this new, 25-hours-a-week post with Parentline is the biggest work commitment she has taken on since leaving the Bar. But with their youngest child due to start secondary school in September, she felt the time was right.It’s a transition for the whole family.

“We have said to the kids to step it up,” she says and she believes they will become more independent, “rather than me helicoptering them all the time”. She has “reacquainted” them with the washing machine and the dishwasher.

However, while cutting up onions at seven o’clock in the morning for dinner on the day we talk, she admits she was reflecting on how “I am very much trying to present as the swan but I am very much paddling furiously”. Keeping a large family on track requires a lot of life admin.

“I still have to be on top of everything else; I don’t have a pass on anything, whether it’s homework or lunches. That’s no disservice to Matt, he would be very much a hands-on father – in as much as he can be because he’s out at work so often.

“I would still be the one who would take all the school notes and worry ‘did I sign off on that’, ‘did I spot that going through’ ‘did I get that bit of uniform sorted’, ‘what’s in the fridge for the lunches tomorrow’. He doesn’t do that. It’s mundane stuff, nitty gritty, but it has to be done. And if the school rings, it is going to come to me.”

Meanwhile, she has to reserve plenty of head space for the new day job. In tandem with raising awareness of Parentline she wants to increase the capacity of an organisation that currently operates on an annual budget of approximately €80,000, most of which comes from Tusla.

Recruitment of more volunteers is a priority, with training starting this month. This involves 36 hours of initial training, then 10 hours of listening in on calls and 10 hours of being listened to taking calls, before flying solo. There’s also ongoing education, including a monthly talk on a relevant topic.

One of Hickie’s ambitions for Parentline is to extend manning of the helpline to weekends, from the current Monday-Friday with voicemail on the other two days. The helpline, 1800 927 277 or 01 873 3500, currently operates from 10am-9pm, Monday to Thursday and on Friday from 10am-4pm. She pays tribute to the “fantastic” volunteers, some of whom have been doing their weekly three-hour shift for up to 30 years.

While on the surface parenting problems may appear to change over the decades, in essence the issues remain constant.

Parental self-care

“We’re no more fancy as parents than a generation ago; we kind of think we present better but it’s the same thing,” says Hickie. “Almost everything is back to boundary pushing – you’re trying to pull them in as they’re trying to push away.”

She is a great believer in parental self-care and will be running in her eighth marathon this April – in Paris.

“I try to do one thing I like for myself every day – whether I go for a run or play a couple of hours of tennis or go to the gym. That is not all about physical fitness, that is keeping my mind healthy – walk-away time.”

It’s all part of the parent-child dance of life, for which a change in tune can come out of the blue.

You never know when this is the last time a child wants you to hold their hand or will let you kiss them goodnight, she points out.  

“You don’t know that day has arrived, until it has passed.”

Parentline by numbers
– 40-plus volunteers operate helpline.
– 18% of calls are about anger and aggression, the most common topic.
– 33% of calls relate to a child aged 13-15.
– 54% of calls are about a male child.
– 13% of callers are male.
– 49% of callers are married or co-habiting. 
Source: 2018 annual report

Note to younger self . . .
The one bit of advice that Parentline CEO and mother of five Aileen Hickie is trying to pass on is that you don’t have to be constantly bringing children to activities.

There are so many things children could try. Maybe they will get a black belt; maybe they will be a great violinist . . .

“I fell into that trap myself,” she says, recalling endless ferrying and plenty of dinners in the back of the car out of a Tupperware box.

We can make such a performance out of parenting, she agrees, “and a competition – did you win at your parenting? Which one did you win the gold medal on?”

Parents are tearing home from work at five or half five, not to sit down with their children but to put them into the car “to bring them to three activities before nine that evening. They’re putting themselves under pressure and the kids under pressure – never mind the cost.”

Her recommendation is: “Row back on all of this – they really don’t need it.”

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