11 Surprising Things About Parenting in Northern Ireland

For our Motherhood Around the World series, our fourth interview features Tiffany Wyse-Fisher, who, for the past two years, has lived in a village in Northern Ireland with her husband and three sons. Here are 11 things that have surprised her about being a mom in Northern Ireland…

Tiffany Wyse-Fisher grew up on a farm in Ohio but has spent most of her adult life in Peoria, Illinois. Two years ago, she and her husband Dustin quit their jobs, sold their house and most of their belongings, and moved with their two young sons to small town in Northern Ireland.

“I went to an adoption seminar one night (our oldest son is adopted from South Korea) and when I came home, I told my husband that our lives were too busy, too demanding, and that I wanted to quit my job and volunteer abroad,” Tiffany recalled. “At the time, I was an art teacher, and he was a graphic design professor; and we both owned freelance businesses. My husband also thought an adventure sounded appealing. We figured we’d spend a year planning and saving up, but instead we found jobs in Northern Ireland that required us to leave within two months.”

Now they Tiffany and her husband both work at an Irish peace and reconciliation center overlooking the sea. “We really love living here,” she says. “Our town is very small but self-sufficient, with four small grocers, six hairdressers, two butchers and a billion pubs. The government designated our village as an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’ Scenes from Game of Thrones have been filmed around here. We have to drive more than an hour to get to a proper city, which was hard to get used to, but it has been totally worth it.”

Tiffany and Dustin moved with their two sons, Liam, 3, and Miles, 5, to the local schools. Their third son—Ollie—was born nine months ago. She blogs about her experiences here.

On the slower pace: Irish culture is less about schedules and more about relationships, which means people are always late, but everyone is always up for a chat. This proved to be frustrating in the beginning, but we’ve come to love it. Our two-year visas are now ending, and I’m nervous about moving back to the States and facing a more hectic pace again.

On children’s books: Picture books have very adult humor and can even be quite dark. For example, Irish author Oliver Jeffers’s books are hilarious, but most of the time my kids can’t figure out why. There are also a handful of books my husband and I have gotten from the library that are a bit too disturbing for the kids. Whatever by William Bee is the story of a father who shows his child all sorts of cool things and his child just says “whatever.” Then on the last page, while the father is showing the son a tiger, the tiger eats the son and the father just shrugs his shoulders and says “whatever.”

On public tantrums: When your kids throw a fit in public, people get involved. Raising children here is all about joining forces and parenting as a village. I know, because my five-year-old has spent the last two years testing this theory. For example, we’ll be in the cereal aisle at the market when the wailing and tears begin. Up walks a nice lady with armful of groceries. She doesn’t pay me any notice, or shoot me any dirty looks. Instead, she bends down, looks my son in the eye, and says in her sweetest Northern Irish accent, “Ach, son. Now why you carryin’ on so? Look at yu’r Mummy. She’s so sweet, and she’s waiting for you to stop, so she can finish buying you food, so she is.”

On appliances: Priorities are completely different when it comes to home appliances. Washing machines are tiny. Refrigerators are tiny. I haven’t had a freezer for a year and half. But every home has an electric tea kettle. EVERY SINGLE HOME. I do know that when we return to the States I will invest in a really humongous, beautiful top-loading washing machine, but I may stick to the tiny fridge concept. With a small fridge you don’t run the risk of the forgotten leftovers that you find, unrecognizable, in the depths of your mammoth cold cave three weeks later. Food here is so fresh and local (it’s a small island after all) that people don’t refrigerate things like we do back home. Like eggs, for example, which you find at the grocery store un-refrigerated, next to the bread. People don’t refrigerate eggs in their homes either. They come right from local farms, so they’re very fresh.

Above is a caramel and shortbread “traybake” (which we would just call “bars” in the U.S.), which is a typical snack in a local cafe. No one would eat a traybake without a cup of tea, served in a stainless-steel pot with a cup, along with milk.

On drinking tea: One of the coolest things I’ve witnessed is an entire group of twelve-year-old boys sitting around drinking cups of tea. One minute they’re outside pushing each other down in the mud (like American boys), and then the next minute they’re sitting around on sofas sipping tea. When I was thirteen, tea was something only my mom drank after she put her on stretchy pants and turned on “Designing Women” on TV.

On pregnancy: During your pregnancy you carry a giant green folder—with your entire medical history—to and from all your appointments and the birth. It’s too big to fit in a purse, so it’s sort of like a giant ‘She’s expecting!’ sign around your neck. When I would pass another woman with the big green folder, it was like two motorcyclists passing on the highway; coy waves and understanding nods across the corridor. (I also had to carry my urine sample with me to my appointments in a little cup called a ‘urine pot.’ Believe me, nothing’s more embarrassing than pulling out your pee by accident in line at the post office.)

On birth: One nice thing about the green folder is that throughout your entire labor, the nurses are taking notes in it, like “patient is really angry” or “patient is begging for an epidural” along with the times it is all happening. So when you go home, you have an exact play-by-play of the experience. Because of this I know that they tried to talk me out of an epidural for exactly 3 hours and 24 minutes. (Whereas, in the U.S., they were happy to give me the epidural as quickly as possible.) My suspicion is that they don’t encourage the use of an epidural here because medical care is “free”—meaning someone has to pay for it, but that someone isn’t the patient—it’s the government, or your tax dollars, or something. However, they do give you “gas and air” (like laughing gas at the dentist), which they encourage you to take throughout the entire labor. Most women use it here and swear that it takes the edge off just enough to make labor completely “doable.” I think they’re all lying!

On midwife visits: The absolute best part of having a baby in Northern Ireland (besides it being free) is that you don’t have to leave your house for any pesky doctor’s appointments. The first week I was home with Ollie, a midwife came to my house every day to weigh him and see how I was feeling. Once she finished all her visits, the “Health Visitor” took over, and now I never have to leave the house to take any of my kids to their wellness checks. It’s amazing. I’m still trying to figure out why the U.S. doesn’t do it. It would solve so many early postpartum issues.

On school: My five-year-old goes to a full-immersion Gaelic school. (That was the only one that had space by the time we applied. Everyone applies to the local public schools each year for placement.) Gaelic is not spoken anywhere in the world except Ireland, and most Irish people don’t even speak it, though they learn it in school. Every day he wears a little uniform—complete with a tie and V-neck embroidered sweater. He sits at a desk and learns reading, writing and “maths,” all in Gaelic, which, to me, seems a lot to ask of a five-year-old. Sort of like trying to pin down a tornado with thumbtacks.

On birthdays: There’s not the same “Pinterest Mom” culture here, with its emphasis on perfect-looking dinners, birthday parties, kids’ rooms, etc. Birthday parties only have one theme—birthdays. The cakes are store-bought and simple. Birthday invitations are just the fill-in-the blank invites you get at the grocery store. The first time I got an invitation for my son, I almost sobbed because I couldn’t believe life could be so simple. No one was slaving away at night gluing googly eyes on the PERFECT invitation.

On Christmas cards: Similarly, Christmas cards aren’t about the “perfect family photo.” They are about the written message of love from one family to another. Putting family photos in Christmas cards is rare. I have to admit, I actually like getting photos of my friends at Christmas. However, it’s made me examine why I stress over the family picture every year. I think there’s a sense here that you don’t want to take yourself too seriously or be self-important. If you stress out too much over your appearance, your Christmas photo, etc., then you must think everyone is watching you, which they’re not. The idea is: Get over yourself.

Thank you, Tiffany!

P.S. Motherhood in Norway, Japan and Central Africa, and why French kids eat everything. Plus, babies sleeping outside in Denmark.

(Thank you to my fantastic friend and writer Lina Perl for help reporting and interviewing Tiffany.)

  1. Shannon Murphy says...

    it never ceases to amaze me reading about Americans talking in awe about “free” health care. I simply cant imagine having to go to a doctor and having to pay for it -it just seems absolutely archaic

  2. Blair says...

    I am just reading this. American, of Irish descent, living in America (DC to be exact). I dream about moving our family to the UK (Northern Ireland/Northern Scotland currently vying for top place). Are you sure you will be headed back to US, why not stay?? It sounds heavenly!

  3. Andrea says...

    I’m a Northern Ireland girl living now in Australia. What I love about this piece most is that its all so true and unchanging. Tiffany describes it all just as I remember my mum and dad parenting me and growing up in NI years ago. The joy of a cup of tea is something that you are introduced to young back there. And as soon as parents can (the risk of scalding hot water doesn’t seem to faze NI parents) they teach the kids how to use the kettle and make it for them. I think was about six when I started making tea! Oh, and all my friends will attest…. the slow pace stays in the blood. I am ALWAYS late. As we say back home, I will be late for my own funeral.

  4. Kate says...

    The fact that having an electric kettle is novel has blown my mind – surely that’s on the normality par with having a lock on your door? Essential. People that don’t drink 5 cups of tea a day are missing out – big time.

    Love, a Londoner.

  5. Uhh. Gaelic is also spoken in Scotland and Wales too. Just not as widely as in Ireland….

    • Irish Gaelic only spoken here, different in Scotland (Scots Gaelic) and I never knew they had Gaelic in Wales? Thanks! — American Mom in Ireland successfully avoiding Irish homework and fobbing it off on my Irish husband 4 years and counting ;)

    • Caroline says...

      Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic are from the same roots so are fairly similar but Welsh is a different language. Welsh is in fact the oldest language in the British Isles. Welsh is the first language for quite a lot of people in Wales and English their second language. (Things I learnt as a Scot living in Wales!)

  6. Brilliant piece, love this series good work Joanna.
    I’m Irish/Northern Irish (does it actually really matter whether from North or South?? New generations are embracing the country and all its diversity without bitterness, thankfully) Anyway, I wanted to say, I’ve had 2 of our babies in Australia and our 3rd in Ireland & I can honestly say that I felt 100% more nurtured during and after the 3rd birth in Ireland (in hospital cared for by down to earth midwives and I had amazing aftercare & home visits) Daily life here is much simpler, people seem more grounded & real. It has definitely helped me to relax more as a parent. I realise what really matters. Yes yes to simple parties too!! Plus the landscape is stunning. I feel lucky to have returned to Ireland.

  7. Interesting blog/article. I am from co.Antrim area in Northern Ireland and my husband is Korean-American, and we live in Wisconsin. It was interesting and familiar for me to read about your experience in NI, I go back at least once a year to visit family. We do not have kids (yet?) but I think a lot about the differences in having them here tv’s there.

  8. I followed this link through another blog and I am glad I did! Like Tiffany, I also lived near Peoria, IL and now find myself on an international adventure. My husband and I are raising our daughters in China. It has been a great experience and we are so glad to be here!

  9. I flipped at the Gaelic school part. And the electric kettle. Laugh so hard.

    I’ve lived for months in US but didn’t realise this! So funny.

  10. Ummm you have sold me on Northern Ireland! Can I come live in your village? I am of Irish decent so I will fit in fine! I think I am made for the simple life…sign me up!

  11. Hold on, HOW ON EARTH do people in the US make tea?!

    • Caroline says...

      Stove top kettles! It takes so much longer to come to the boil. I loved coming home to an electric kettle after living in the states for a year.

    • Keli Embrey says...

      OR we put a tea bag in a cup of water and stick it in the microwave! ? BUT we will spend hundreds of dollars on a ridiculously complicated “Gourmet Coffee Station” and then go to the nearest Starbucks and get coffee there anyway! LOL! Yes. We American’s are barbaric where tea is concerned! Thanks for the article!

    • Colleen says...

      A lot of devoted tea-drinkers in the US do have electric kettles. My mom always had a stove top one when I was a kid, but she bought me an electric kettle when I moved into a college dormitory in 2002. It still sits on my kitchen counter and works well after 14 years of near-daily use! At the small school where I work at least three of us have electric kettles in our classrooms.

      It’s taken a long time to catch on. I think the popularity of French press and pourover coffee has helped, as you have to heat the water separately for that rather than using other kinds of coffee-specific machines, and also “just add hot water” convenience foods. It’s now very easy to find electric kettles, some plain and some as decorative as a china teapot, at Walmart and other national chain stores. Plastic electric kettles don’t seem to be popular, though–stainless steel, glass, and ceramic ones are common.

  12. I now want to run away with my family to Northern Ireland!
    And I took Gaelic as my language in college so I’ll be able to help with homework (if I can recall any of it properly…)!

  13. I’m loving this series and I look forward to what you have to share from other bloggers! I was especially excited to see a post for Northern Ireland. My husband and I recently went there as part of our honeymoon in April. We absolutely loved it there!

  14. just to add: epidurals aren’t as common in the UK/NI as in the US for lots of reasons – one being that midwives like you to move around and get into crouching/kneeling/standing positions for as long as possible. Or at least that’s my experience. Plus water births are offered at most hospitals and you can’t have an epi then.

    Having said all that, epis are still pretty common in the UK/NI, they are just not the first resort. It is seen as totally doable to get through birth with minimal pain relief. A friend of mine just did it on two paracetamol.

    • Blair says...

      Just to add, I had all three of mine unmedicated. Totally doable and I highly recommend. Birthing babies is my most favorite thing in the world!

  15. In case you’re wondering why American don’t have electric tea kettles, it’s because we hardly ever drink tea. (As a whole, that is.) I use a microwave when I want a cop of tea.

    • Kate says...

      This is so funny! Thanks for sharing, I was definitely wondering about that!

  16. Having lived a year in Ireland with my husband and 2 year old daughter, I can attest that every thing she said is SPOT ON!! So true!! (I may have over-done it on my daughter’s birthday party shortly after we moved there…ooops!) :)

  17. nice pictures all of in this blog !

  18. i love to read a post about my country! makes me miss home

  19. I am just chiming to say that I love this series so much too!

  20. All of my mama friends and I are talking about how wonderful this series is! The Congo one was especially eye-opening and moving. I see above that a lot of people think this series should become a book and I agree! Reminds me very much of Peter Menzel’s amazing photo books: Material World and Women in the Material World. Can’t wait to see your book on Amazon! :)

  21. These interviews are so revealing! I love what nuances I am learning about the society of other countries through the lens of American mothers. Joanna, this series was a fabulous idea. I hope you keep it going for awhile!

    Jamie B.

  22. adore this series. I have read your blog for a long time and never really commented. But this series…? WOW. Love it.

    I’m British and live in England. And I want everyone to have a RAPID BOIL KETTLE. Seriously, it rocks. ? Do you boil water on the stove for pasta from tap cold? Rapid boil it. We had to use a gas stove once to boil water. Never again.

    Love the picture of the Giants Causeway. Its on my bucket list.

    This is my new Monday night read. In its honour this coming Monday I will brew up a pot of tea and sit back and soak in the next lovely instalment.

    Thanks its great!


  23. I had my son 3 months ago. I am from the US but am living here in Chile and there are so many differences, starting in pregnancy. I am sure as he grows I will notice and appreciate more of the differences! Love the series!!