Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Coping without grannies, granddads, uncles and aunts

Being far from family means we have to create new support networks for ourselves abroad, writes Clare Calvey.

Thu, Aug 2, 2012, 01:00


Being far from family means we have to create new support networks for ourselves abroad, writes Claire Calvey.

Members of the Perth Hills Facebook group

I was in a shopping centre recently with my one-year-old son Hugo, when I decided to stop for a ten minute coffee break. One hand balancing my tray, the other steering his buggy towards a table, I placed the tray down and glanced around for a high-chair. In a split second the baby had reached forward in his buggy and tipped the tray, splattering himself with the boiling hot drink.

The next twenty minutes are a haze; the baby – clinging to me in terror and pain — was doused with cold water and ice-cubes by helpful onlookers, and with the help of a benevolent stranger, we made our way to a clinic upstairs.

In the clinic he was administered pain relief and wrapped in wet towels, thankfully falling into a fitful sleep. As I waited for my husband to arrive to bring us to the hospital, and the shock of what had just happened started to subside, a thought thundered into my head: THE KIDS! Who will collect them from school?

At the time of this incident, we had been living in Perth for just five weeks and didn’t know a soul. We left our home in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, earlier this year, along with our five children – Emily (11), Oscar (9), Jude (7), Rufus (5) and finally one-year-old Hugo, as a result of the ongoing economic crisis in Ireland. Having previously spent three years in the Middle East, we’re not entirely new to the expat life, and understand the sacrifice involved in living so far from family and friends.

We’re not alone: Australia has become a shining beacon of hope for thousands of families who migrate here each year, with population growth rates for WA increasing faster than any other state. That’s a lot of people out there coping without grannies, granddads, uncles and aunts.

Ask any group of expat women what their biggest gripe about living so far away from home is, and they will unfailingly tell you it’s the absence of close family and friends; not just for comfort and family events, but for those times when you need someone to babysit, help with the school run, or simply need to borrow an electric drill.

Moving abroad is a traumatic event, particularly if you’re a stay-at-home mum. Many women who arrive to these shores are trailing-spouses — following a husband who has been offered a job – often leaving satisfying careers and social lives behind them.

The isolation may take some weeks to kick in. Looking for a house and school, or just figuring out where the nearest shopping mall is, can be exciting at the beginning, but once things have settled down — the kids are happy at school, hubby settled into work – stay at home mum may suddenly find herself in a very lonely place.

Since I’ve done the expat thing before, I’m acquainted with the inevitable culture shock and depression. The key thing is to get out and meet people, even if sitting in front of Facebook, flicking through a stranger’s photos, is more appealing (and it can be). And I try to sign up for a class or two – anything from zumba to Italian – as soon as possible to avoid ending up either a) cracking open the chardonnay at lunch time or b) taking the next flight home.

But there are times when the loneliness creeps in. Those days when, having dropped the kids to school, I drive slowly home – the day yawning ahead of me – and yearn for home and a familiar face.

Common sense will tell me that I’m lucky my husband has a job, as Europe economically implodes. What’s to be unhappy about? The sun is shining and the children love it here. I know I should be grateful, and I am, really, but as much as I love it here, nothing can alter the fact that my family are on the other side of the globe.

For those women who crave a familiar accent or just the company of other women in the same boat, a plethora of Facebook groups and chat forums organise weekly meetings in parks or coffee shops, so that mums can meet up and chat. I found one such group for Irish women up in the Perth hills, and I’ve been along to several meet-ups in nearby parks and playgrounds. It’s comforting to talk to other woman who can empathise with my situation, but also give good advice. Through this group I’ve met some lovely women, both Irish and local, and now count them as my friends.

Luckily for me on that unfortunate day with Hugo, I suddenly realised I had the phone number of an English neighbour I had met briefly. Mortified at having to ask a favour, I nervously explained my predicament. Without hesitation she dashed off to collect my children from school and cared for them until we returned from the hospital. She remains a good friend now.

I was lucky to have her and will pay it forward to the next woman who arrives fresh off the plane, shell-shocked and blinking and in need of a dig out. Without the comfort of an extended family, it’s crucial to build a surrogate family of women in the same boat. It’s also crucial to keep all hot drinks out of the reach of over-active toddlers; I learned that lesson the hard way.