‘Being a parent is a huge learning curve...’ says Cork woman at the helm of Parentline

The Cork woman at the helm of Parentline knows only too well the joys, as well as the challenges, of parenting. Mum of five, Aileen Hickey talks to CHRIS DUNNE about family life and her plans for the new role
‘Being a parent is a huge learning curve...’ says Cork woman at the helm of Parentline
The new CEO of Parentline, Aileen Hickie photographed at home with her dog Scout. Picture: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

THE new CEO of Parentline, Millstreet woman, and mother of five, Aileen Hickie, says that parenting in our society has never changed over the different generations.

“The same boundaries you struggle with remain in place,” says Aileen.

“You are trying to pull the kids in and they push away. It is the same scenario no matter what generation we’re talking about. Nothing has changed.”

Parenting brings its own rewards and challenges.

“I found the most challenging years rearing children are between the ages of 14 and 19,” says Aileen, who is married to radio presenter and journalist Matt Cooper. They are parents to Andie, 21, Aimee, 19, Millie, 17, Zach, 15, and Harry, 12.

“87% of callers to Parentline are mothers and two thirds of their calls are related to their teenage children,” says Aileen, who stopped practising as a barrister in 2007 to become a full-time stay at home parent.

Matt Cooper and Aileen Hickey have been married 25 years. Picture: Phillip Massey/Getty Images
Matt Cooper and Aileen Hickey have been married 25 years. Picture: Phillip Massey/Getty Images

“I thought I could have it all,” recalls Aileen.

“I thought I could keep all the balls in the air. Then I realised I didn’t really want to keep all the balls in the air. I wanted to be present.”

She wanted to be a hands-on mum.

“Matt, an only child, is a very hands-on dad,” says Aileen.

“But I wanted to be there for the play-dates, the homework, and the activities. I wanted to be the parent at the school gate.”

She also wanted her children to be self-sufficient.

“I re-acquainted them with the dish-washer and the washing machine!”

The issues and the chores that go with parenting have remained the same throughout the ages.

“Things haven’t changed at all,” says Aileen.

“The problems today are the same ones your mother and my mother faced rearing their children.

“Exams, anger management, aggression, establishing boundaries; are common things parents call Parentline about for advice,” says Aileen.

“Anger and aggression is a recurring common topic.

“Teenagers these days can experience a lot of angst finding their place in the world. There is no hand-book on bringing up teenagers.”

Dr Spock was a go-to book for babies, wasn’t it?

“It was!” says Aileen.

“I remember reading a similar book trying to survive when I was a first-time mother.”

But babies grow up.

“That’s for sure,” says Aileen, who had five children under seven at one stage.

“Your kids turn into people you don’t know for a while. They become strangers,” Aileen adds.

I tell Aileen that my own teens used to threaten to call Childline when I made them make their beds or clear up the kitchen table.

“Mine too!” she says laughing.

How did she respond?

“I’d say, ‘go ahead and ring them. Have you got the number? I won’t be moving house anytime soon. But you might!’”

Parents are always learning too.

“It is a huge learning curve; sometimes you are getting by on the seat of your pants! Teenagers are struggling, finding their way. Being a teenager today with so much peer-pressure around them is hugely challenging.”

Parenting can be a lonely station.

“Parents rearing teens can feel isolated,” says Aileen.

Times have changed.

“Gone are the days where you meet up at the parent/toddler group or stand at the school gate where people swapped notes and chatted about their children. Nobody wants to air grievances about their kids to other people. They feel like they are letting the side down. We can make a competition out of parenting.”

Aileen Hickie and Anna Barry pictured at the opening of the Gaiety Theatre’s major new production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, recently. Picture: Brian McEvoy Photography
Aileen Hickie and Anna Barry pictured at the opening of the Gaiety Theatre’s major new production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, recently. Picture: Brian McEvoy Photography

In our modern, ever-changing world, parents can face struggles that they need help with.

“Children abusing parents is a huge issue that is becoming more common,” says Aileen.

“There is no typical call to Parentline, but our fully trained and experienced volunteers have heard it all before and they know how to answer. Parents want to verbalise the problem for validation. They want a listening ear which is both confidential and anonymous. The majority of calls can be resolved,” says Aileen.

“Bigger problems can be referred to a counsellor. Often, parents don’t want family, friends, or neighbours to know what they may be dealing with. I still think, ‘it’s make sure the neighbours don’t find out and don’t tell the family.’ Problems can re-surface.

“There is a fear that telling somebody about a phase or a problem your child might be going through will permanently lodge in the mind of your family member or friend,” says Aileen.

“It could be brought up on the child’s wedding day!”

“Parents rearing teens can feel isolated, keeping things under wraps for those reasons and for many other reasons,” says Aileen.

That is why she believes Parentline, a confidential, non-judgemental sounding board, providing information and advice, is a valuable free resource to parents.

“Parents just want affirmation that what they are doing or dealing with is the right approach,” says Aileen.

“They want guidance when dealing with a certain situation. It could be about giving permission to their kids to go to the teenage disco or permission to travel to Electric Picnic.

“Hearing their own voice over the phone saying out loud what the issue is, is often a relief in itself for the parent.”

Aileen, a busy mother of five and a keen marathon runner, who often appears as a panellist on TV, has plenty of energy in the tank to embrace her new job as CEO of Parentline.

“My aim is to raise awareness about the service,” she says.

“I want to increase the capacity of the organisation and recruit potential volunteers who are vital to our service.

“Some of our volunteers, numbering 40- plus, have been with Parentline doing their three hour shifts for 30 years, which shows huge dedication.

“Also, I would like to expand the service to weekends. At the moment we operate Monday to Thursday from 10am to 9pm and on Friday 10am-4pm. There is a voicemail facility at weekends and we return all calls.”

The service experiences peak times.

“The bulk of our calls are in the mornings,” says Aileen.

“It is often the time when nobody else is at home and the parent has an opportunity to make a call to Parentline without interruption. It is just them talking one-to-one to a trained volunteer. Calls can last for 20 minutes or for 40 minutes. There is no time constraint.”

There is always consolation for the caller.

“We never get call-backs,” says Aileen.

Looking back; did she always want to have a big family?

“It happened organically!” she says.

“Matt loves having a big family. When our kids are bickering, he always tells them to be nice to each other because he always wanted to have a sibling.”

Aileen and her two siblings went to boarding school in Millstreet: “My sisters and I went home very second weekend. I grew to like boarding school and it made me grow up quicker and gave me more independence.

"I left home at 17 for college in Dublin. I didn’t know a single person.” One single person is a great role model in Aileen’s life.

“My mother is brilliant, so interested in people and in doing things.

She is currently knitting hats for premature babies. I don’t think she’s ever missed a trip with her Active Retirement Group,” says Aileen.

“Even though she lost my Dad; my mother has flourished in later life.” Aileen, flourishing as a mother, and embracing her new role as CEO of Parentline, admits some things don’t ever change over generations.

“Harry our youngest, is the blue-eyed boy and I know he is spoilt!” says Aileen.

She knows something else.

“I know there is no perfect parent or no perfect child.” Her more recent baby is very important to her.

“I want people to know the Parentline service is available and it is accessible to everyone and that it is nationwide.” This summer; Aileen will broaden her horizons.

“Matt and I are married 25 years in August. I want to wake up in Hawaii! 

Parentline: 1800 927 277 or 01-873 3500, operates from 10.am- 9pm Monday-Thursday.

Friday from 10.am -4pm.

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