Returning emigrants underestimate how hard resettling will be

Meeting others who have recently moved home made me realise I’m not alone

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This article is part of an ongoing series for Irish Times Abroad about James Parnell’s experience of returning to Ireland after 16 years in Australia.

Last Monday, six months since my return to Dublin from Sydney, I went to see Coming Home, an evocative new documentary about Irish emigrants leaving or returning home. The outcomes for the people featured varied, but it struck me how each story was so unique and personal.

Having spent 16 years overseas, watching the film was emotional. Airport departures - that rite of passage to which all emigrants can relate - brought tears as I focussed on the faces of those left behind. I’m glad we no longer travel by boat; those minutes before being out of sight would be excruciating.

I took great inspiration from the bravery and resourcefulness of two couples in their 70s coming back after many decades away.

But it wasn’t the film that I valued most. Chatting with fellow emigrants before and after the screening meant so much more. The group gathered at Dublin City Council for the screening, organised by Crosscare Migrant Project, comprised of people from the film, recent returnees and support groups. It was - essentially - therapy.

Surprisingly perhaps, little of the discussion among those in transition was about the logistics emigrants overseas tend to ask about, like jobs, mortgages or rent. The ridiculous price of car insurance was mentioned but not dwelt on. The weather - out of courtesy - was blamed as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

For me - as I strive to settle - I was keen to learn what comes before that straw. What weighs so heavily that a straw can break? Here is what I heard:

Returning emigrants - including myself - make assumptions and believe myths without testing or research. Even then, some things just cannot be understood without experiencing them. There is a significant difference between preparing for a challenge and going through it.

I had this return well-researched:

Coming Home trailer

* I knew some things were expensive. But I hadn’t planned to curse each bill individually.

* I knew the weather would be terrible. But I forgot how excruciating that cold pain in my fingers is until I felt it.

* I knew family and I had changed. But I didn’t realise the gap until I had to bridge it.

* I knew friends had moved on. But I underestimated the effort until I had to re-connect.

* I knew my career would change. But I didn’t know how innovative I needed to get to create options that present themselves overseas with less effort.

Six months in, I realise there is much work to do. I expected a hill. I underestimated the slope. I stand at the start of a steep climb and I’m short some gear. But now I can see others on the hill. Together we have a chance. I remain steeled and will embrace the challenge. The view will be sweeter for the climb and the company. And let’s have perspective - these are first world challenges.

The other big thing I learned was about the assumptions I and other returning emigrants make, which are often misconceived:

#1: Everything you left is still there

Everything has changed. You changed. Others changed. Ireland itself has changed. Ironically, the biggest draw - and the hardest challenge - of our “homeland”’ is familiarity. Don’t let it fool you. Treat Ireland like a foreign country. Embrace the new and take advantage of the familiar. Re-invent your life (again!).

#2: Relationships will fall right back into place

Family have moved on. They have learned to live without you. Being closer should make it easier. But those calls you mightn’t have got overseas become less explainable if you don’t get them at home. Complacency is the enemy of relationships. Each one needs nurturing. You have two options: expect it to be automatic or make it happen. “Nothing changes if nothing changes.”

#3: Ireland is “home”

They say the happiest people in Ireland are the ones who never left. A recurring question among the group last week was “Where or what is home?” Emigrant’s ache is replaced with returnee’s drift. Nobody completely belongs as they once did. Ireland currently does not feel “home” - in the traditional nostalgic sense at least. It hurts to admit that. Because I want to feel that way. I think it is best to accept that. Sometimes, I use the expression “based in Ireland” because it lends itself to more possibility. I will explore ways to keep the holiday feeling that a life overseas offers through new experiences and new places here in Ireland.

#4: The grass is greener

Ireland is a beautiful garden. But you left it untended. Weeds grew. It became overgrown. Now you are back. Dig the garden again. Remove the weeds. They will come back. Remove them again. Redouble your efforts. Struggle for a long time. Then maybe the harvest can be reaped. (Or maybe a storm will come and wash the harvest away like it did for us in July when my wife Anne-Marie’s mam passed away shortly after we returned). Lower or change your expectations. But decide that you have the heart to tend the garden for years - and start planting seeds for the garden you imagine.

#5: I can come back as I am, unchanged

One lady mentioned re-invention during the group discussion. Here is the truth. Every time you emigrate you must re-invent yourself. You have done it once. You know it’s possible. But some lose the appetite to do it again - and that’s OK. In the life before you emigrated, something triggered you to leave. Explore that deeply. You must re-invent it.

It is clear that logistics enable or prevent a move abroad. I am lucky to have had the choice to leave, and to move back home again in recent months. But it is the mental and emotional challenges - and our reaction to them - that determine whether that move lasts. That should not surprise when the reasons for returning are emotional.

Larger questions arose also during the discussion. What is our ideal life? What would we do if nothing was an obstacle? We all have constraints. But we have to recognise the difference between a constraint and a challenge. We can’t allow a challenge to be an excuse. We have to overcome it to have the life we want. Everyone should be allowed to dream.

To quote, one of the film’s retired returnees: “A lot of people say it. But we acted on it.”

James Parnell is the founder of Ernest Consulting which provides business design, agile coaching and corporate performance training to businesses, and personal life design coaching to individuals. He blogs at james-parnell.com.

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