‘You can’t hug Skype’: Irish mammies on their emigrant children

‘None of us brought up our children to have them exported to the other side of the world’


It was the height of summer 2014 when Anne Power dug out her Christmas decorations, set up a tree with presents wrapped underneath, and asked her local butcher to order in a turkey.

Two of her three children and four of her grandchildren were back in Ireland together for the first time in four years and, having missed out on several family Christmases, Power was determined to recreate the festivities while they stayed with her in Ashbourne, Co Meath – even though it was the middle of August.

More than 250,000 Irish people have emigrated since 2008, leaving hundreds of thousands of parents and grandparents behind. Like many other “Skype grannies”, Power sees her family regularly on a screen, but as she puts it, “you can’t hug Skype”.

Technology and social media may have made communicating with family in far- flung places much easier, but parents, especially mothers, still feeling the loss. The Tilda study of ageing in Ireland, carried out by Trinity College Dublin, recently found that women over the age of 50 whose children have moved abroad are more prone to depression and loneliness than those whose children are still in the country.

“None of us brought up our children to have them exported to the other side of the world,” says Power, whose three children and eight grandchildren are now scattered between Perth, Melbourne and New York.

“For me, it is being away from the grandkids that is the hardest. It is the little things that you miss; not being able to give them a hug, to listen to their little stories, to give them a cuddle when they are ill.”

While visiting her daughter in Perth last year, Power set up a meet-up group on Facebook - Irish Grannies in Perth - for other mothers and grandmothers who were in the city visiting children.

“We would talk about how we miss our families,” she says, “and how it was great that they were out there in Australia with good jobs and were having a good time, but that they had left behind a lot of loneliness. We all had that in common, and it was good to be able to talk about it.”

When she heard another mother’s email recently read out on The Ray D’Arcy Show on Radio One, describing how lonely and sad and resentful she felt about her two children emigrating to Australia, Power instantly recognised the woman’s emotions.

She knew a similar social group to the one she had set up in Perth could provide vital support for mothers like her here in Ireland. So she set up a Facebook page – Irish Mammys of Australian Immigrants – and arranged a space in the Gresham Hotel for a Friday afternoon in April.

Fifteen women and two men (“sent by their wives!”) turned up for that first meeting. Each parent took five minutes to introduce themselves. Almost all shed tears as they told their family’s story.

Separation grief

At a second meeting last month, Teresa Clifford, a psychotherapist from Newbridge, Co Kildare, told the group that she felt very alone dealing with the “grief” of being separated from her adult children since her daughter moved to Spain 17 years ago, followed by her son, who moved to Australia the following year.

“Suddenly I found my world was falling apart,” Clifford says. “I was trying to hold on to being the mum. You have this image in your head of how you always thought your family would be like, and suddenly you have to let go of that.

“I remember the first time coming back from Australia after my son’s wedding, and I was devastated. There was another family travelling with us and they kept asking why I was crying, saying I should be happy for him. But in my mind all I could think about was not knowing when I would see him again, knowing there was going to be a grandchild coming along, and that I wasn’t going to be there to hold them.”

Clifford’s granddaughter Saoirse was a year and a half old before she met her, on her third trip to Australia in the past 16 years. She now has a six-month-old grandson who she has yet to meet.

As a therapist, she says she has come across an increasing number of other parents experiencing similar losses.

“It is a quiet kind of grief. People come to therapy because they are going through this and have a lot of negative emotions, frustration and anger. You have to recreate your life around this new reality of your kids not being there.

“A group like this should have happened years ago. I felt I belonged. I am just one of a big group of people going through the same thing.”

Power says it is especially hard for parents who have no children left in Ireland.

“I have good friends, but none of them have all their children living out of the country,” she says. “I envy them when their children call in. They don’t understand when you start talking about how hard it is.

“The other women felt the same. They just want someone who they can talk to about how they feel, someone they can relate to. They got that with the group, because we all understand what they are going through.”

Men talk

And what about the Irish daddies of emigrants? “You know your husband is missing them,” Power says, “but men are less likely to talk about these things.”

Men are also less likely to be affected emotionally when their children emigrate, according to the Tilda study, which found little evidence of an increase in depressive symptoms in fathers with kids abroad, especially those under the age of 65.

With a third meet-up planned for the last Friday in June, almost 100 people have now joined the private Facebook group.

Not all the mothers out there who might be interested in joining are on Facebook, so the group is preparing to spread the word using more traditional means: posting flyers in libraries, community centres and church halls around the country.

“We’ve already been asked to take the group up to Donegal to hold some meetings up there, which we hope to do in time,” Power says. “Every second mother in Donegal has a child in Australia. I can see this getting very big.”

Power says it won’t all be tears and sorrow; the group will be a fun social outlet as well. With an official committee now set up, the group hopes to arrange outings, holidays around Ireland, advice sessions on visas or travel insurance, and computer classes for those who don’t know how to use Skype or Facetime, or want help booking flights online so they can get the cheapest deal and the shortest stopover time.

Buddy system

Some of the women have never been out to visit their children in Australia because they are nervous flyers, or don’t want to travel alone. Power, who usually makes the 17,000km trip by herself, hopes to set up a travel-buddy system to help them pair up if they want company on the journey.

“They might bore you to tears,” she jokes, “but at least they are there for you if you need them. Some people would be terrified of flying, and with the turbulence they can think the plane is going down. If you are beside them you can calm them down, or help if they have a health problem. I’d be happy to do that.”

Stephanie Powell’s daughter Meagan, who now manages a construction cleaning company in Perth, spotted the group on Facebook and suggested that her mum attend the second meeting last month.

“She knows what I’m like!” Powell says. “Skype and Facetime are brilliant, and we message every single day. I’m in more contact with her now than I was when she was at home. But some days I cry for no reason, other than I miss her so much.”

Meagan graduated from a travel and tourism management course in DIT. When she couldn’t find work in this area, she and boyfriend Stephen, a qualified emergency medicine technician, moved to Australia four years ago at the age of 21. The couple intended to travel and work in Australia for a year, but have since been sponsored there and are in the process of applying for permanent residency.

“She was home last June, and we had a lovely time and I got my fix of her,” Powell says. “But when she was leaving she said, ‘I don’t know when I’ll see you next Mam’, and that was when it hit me. They are over there now with no intentions of coming back.”

“They have a brilliant life over there, and I would never say they should come home, because that is only me being selfish. But I do think it is terrible that so many of their generation felt they had to leave, because there were no jobs. That’s not right.

“So many of them have made their homes abroad now. And there are so many of us parents still here, missing them.”

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