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Not everyone loves this time of year. For many out there, the approach of Christmas only adds to barely manageable existing strain. Liadán Hynes talks to a mother of two about how the work of one Irish charity has changed her family’s life.

“I’ve lived the last four years in a state of fight or flight. It’s been one event after another, then the pressure to provide for the children, and care for them.”

Alison* is a separated parent of two, a daughter and a son, aged nine and six. Her son was born prematurely, at 27 weeks, with lifelong complications meaning he requires full-time care. “I had a very difficult separation,” she explains. “My husband suffered from mental health issues. When I married him, I didn’t realise the extent of it. I didn’t know he’d a gambling addiction until we separated.”

Since their separation, there have been ongoing issues around the children’s father’s access, with repeated court dates necessary in order to obtain court orders regarding access, and safety orders. Alison, who works full time, is the main financial provider for her children, and has no family living nearby. “They only see their dad for an hour a week, so I have them all the time. That’s grinding, that level of responsibility. My son’s needs are such that he could get ill, and I’d have to rush him to Temple Street. I have to think about who’s going to look after his sister. There’s no one to share the load with you.”

The situation means it is impossible for her to ever switch off, and late last year, as Christmas approached, she reached a personal nadir. “My ex can be very abusive. There is a constant threat; there were times he’d drive by the house. You’re always in high-alert, adrenaline-mode. It’s kind of like guerrilla warfare; you don’t know where he’s going to pop up, and what he’s going to do next.”

“I didn’t realise that it was burnout, but I just completely hit the floor. By December, I was on my knees, just exhausted. My ex-husband made lockdown extremely difficult. I couldn’t sleep, I wasn’t eating, the anxiety was just revving up. I didn’t feel safe in my own home. I had to go to the courts and get another order. It was just horrendous, a loop, over and over again.”

Her doctor put her in contact with a social worker. Tusla became involved, and they set Alison up with Barnardos. The services provided by the charity have made a massive impact on Alison and her family. Since May, her daughter has been attending weekly appointments with a play therapist from the charity.

“I don’t discuss the situation in front of the children, but unfortunately my little girl, who is fully able, has been having a very difficult time with her dad. Barnardos have been wonderful in helping her to realise that although this relationship, at the minute, isn’t working the way she wants, that this is only one element of her life.”

Organisations like Sonas (domesticabuse.ie), and Voices of Disabled Children (voicesofdisabledchildren.eu) have both been very helpful too, and the professional play therapist has allowed her daughter to realise that none of this is her fault, her mother explains. “She’s come on so much. She’s much calmer in school, and able to stand up for herself if her dad says something. It’s a huge relief to me, because her brother is non-verbal.” The play therapist is also working with both parents to try to improve the situation, acting as a sort of neutral mediator.

“In Barnardos, our aim in all of our services is to be needs-led,” explains Barnardos CEO Suzanne Connolly. Beyond practical support, Barnardos will also provide family members, predominantly mothers and children, with a safe space in which to talk. “The mum needs time for herself, and the children need the same, somewhere where neither has to worry about the other.”

Barnardos centres are what is referred to as trauma informed, Suzanne explains. “They’re safe, and nurturing. It’s all about giving children the opportunity, whatever’s happening, to talk about it in a safe way.” In a situation like Alison’s, the charity will help the family cope with the challenges of a volatile parent. “It’s particularly difficult for the protective parent. They have to manage their own feelings about the partner letting the children down all the time, but they also have to be there for the children, and manage their disappointment,” Suzanne comments.

“Children can be very resilient. It’s amazing how they benefit from the support they get.”

Christmas is, she adds, a difficult time for many of their families. Not just financially, but emotionally. “There’s this massive hype, and this expectation that everything’s going to be fabulous. For anyone who’s going through a tough time, that must be an extra strain. Where is their permission to say, ‘Well, I’m feeling sad, or things are difficult, I’m finding it hard to feel happy’?”

It’s also challenging for parents in financially straitened circumstances not to feel pressure around what they can provide for their children at this time of year. In Alison’s case, the stress during Christmas is created by her ex-husband’s obstructive behaviour. “I have to work something out with him around the children. It’s quite difficult to agree things with him too far in advance, because he’ll change his mind; there’s a real control dynamic. So you’re waiting and waiting to see what way Christmas is going to pan out. His control and monitoring still continues; you can’t get away from that.”

She is hopeful that they will have a more settled legal situation by then. “If I get a long-term safety order for Christmas, then I’ll feel content. Once that is in place, if your ex-partner puts you in fear, or threatens you, they can be arrested. That would give me peace of mind over Christmas, if he decides to up the ante, or becomes abusive, I can ring the guards and they can do something.”

Importantly, thanks to the services and support provided by Barnardos, she no longer feels alone. “They were an ally to us; we aren’t alone anymore as a family. The lockdown was horrendous, the isolation, and the legal system doesn’t understand. Because of Barnardos, for the first time we weren’t alone. Somebody would listen to us and help us. That meant everything. I knew we needed help, but I didn’t know how, or where, to get it. As a parent, you’d do anything for your children, you’d do without yourself, you just want your child to get the best help. Now we have it, we can look ahead.”

*Names have been changed.

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

Barnardos

The children’s charity has 45 centres throughout Ireland that provide a safe space for vulnerable children and families all year round. Barnardos provides support to children living with domestic abuse, neglect, parental mental health issues, poverty, and alcohol or drug abuse. Additional pressure is put on families at Christmas – with the support of the public, Barnardos can ease the burden. Please support Barnardos with a donation this Christmas. Because childhood lasts a lifetime. To donate, see barnardos.ie.

Let’s Help Direct Provision

Aiming to improve the day-to-day lives of people living in direct provision, Let’s Help Direct Provision is a fundraising initiative that aims to raise awareness, and also collects items needed by those living in direct provision for donation, including sanitary products. Their Let’s Match Mums service pairs individual parents with children of relevant ages. To donate or get involved, see letshelpdirectprovision.com.

Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP)

The largest voluntary charitable organisation in Ireland, the Society of St Vincent de Paul’s mission is to eliminate the causes of poverty. As well as direct services, they aim to promote community self-sufficiency. Their services include person-to-person contact with volunteer visits to the home, the provision of hostels to those experiencing homelessness, holiday centres for individuals and families, and day care centres for older adults. To donate, see svp.ie.

Barretstown

Barretstown offers free, specially designed camps and programmes for children and their families living with a serious illness – supported behind the scenes by 24-hour onsite medical and nursing care. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the charity had to close its doors and cancel many of its key fundraising events in 2020 and 2021. Now that the gates are open again, Back to Barretstown is an appeal to get the 10,000 children and family members on Barretstown’s waiting list back to Barretstown camp. To donate see barretstown.org.

Simon Community

A network of nationwide independent communities that provide homeless, housing and treatment services to people facing homelessness, with the aim of ending long-term homelessness, and ensuring that when homelessness does occur, it is short-term and non-recurring. To donate, see simon.ie.

This article originally appeared in the Winter issue of IMAGE Magazine.