Meet the Irish parents bringing up babies abroad
With family support 15,000km away, Irish mums are coming together in Australia for support and friendship
Two weeks after Nicola Daly gave birth to baby Ariana in Perth last year, her partner Ruairí’s paternity leave ended and he returned to work. Like thousands of other Irish men who have taken construction jobs in the mines in western Australia in recent years, Ruairí, a plumber, is on a fly-in-fly-out (fifo) contract, spending four weeks 900km from his family at the Tropicana gold mine, before returning to Nicola and Ariana for a week in Perth.
With Ruairí gone and her parents 15,000km away in Co Cork, Nicola was desperately missing the support of family and close friends.
While pregnant, she heard from a friend about a new playgroup starting up for other Irish mums and babies in the northern suburb of Padbury. As soon as Ariana had all her vaccinations at six weeks old, Nicola took her along. They have since become the group’s most regular attendees.
Having a baby abroad, especially their first, was identified as a “crisis point” for a lot of young Irish women in a Government-funded report on the needs of emigrants, published by the Clinton Institute in University College Dublin (UCD) in 2014.
With so many other Irish women around Nicola’s age now living in Perth, similarly experiencing motherhood a long way from home and family, several playgroups have sprung up around the city specifically catering for the Irish community, especially mums with partners on fifo contracts.
“For the little ones, it is about growing little friendships, but for us mums it is about coming and having a chat and realising we are all the same,” says Linda Morton, who started the group shortly after moving to Perth from Dublin in 2014 with her husband Chris – who was also working fifo – and their two children, Christopher (now 4) and Lily (2).
“We all have the same parenting challenges; we are all treading the same water trying to manage without having close family nearby.”
The Irish Mums NOR (“north of the river”) now meet for two hours every Monday and Wednesday morning, with playdates and family activities held in the afternoons or at weekends to get the dads involved too. About 40 families have signed up, and more new faces are joining every month. Similar groups have been set up for Irish parents in the bigger cities across Australia, including Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Most of the parents are Irish, but there are a few expats of other nationalities too, like English woman Helen Gillon, who had tried several other local playgroups with her two daughters, now aged six and two, before joining Irish Mums NOR. “I find it a lot different from the other playgroups,” she says. “Everyone is really supportive and nobody judges you. It is more of a support group than a playgroup.”
Although they aren’t exclusive about it, the “Irish” aspect of the playgroup is very important, Linda believes. “We have an understanding of how we were raised and what we know. It is an affiliation with home . . . and I think it helps with homesickness.”
It is a rare dull and drizzly morning in Perth when The Irish Times visits the playgroup for the first day of the new term, so most of the children, ranging in age from two months to four years, are playing indoors for a change.
In the kitchen, the kettle is on the boil for tea, and a loaf of home-baked Irish soda bread and two apple tarts are sliced and waiting to be shared out among the mothers, all of whom are eager to share how supportive the playgroup has been for them.
“It is really hard when you are here on your own,” says Nicola. “I am a first-time mum so I have loads of questions. At the start, I was constantly ringing [the other mums] going, what do I do here? Have you advice for this? It was great, because you don’t have your mum here to turn around to.
‘I’ve made great friends’
“When I am really tired, mums offer to come mind Ariana, give me general support when I have been upset, or when I am at the end of my tether. I’ve made great friends and relationships, and Ariana has loads of friends now too.”
Nicola admits she still gets lonely at times, but has learned to reach out and ask for company from the other mums when she needs it, especially those whose partners are also working fifo.
“Monday to Friday I am fine. Then the weekends come, and the [other women’s] partners are off work. I meet the other fifo mums for coffee, or the mums who don’t have partners. But I can’t wait for Monday to come to get up into playgroup.”
Maria Homan, who moved to Australia in 2012 and has two children, Aaron (4) and Ava (2), says “friends become family” when you are living so far away from close relatives. “They have taken the place of our sisters and brothers and cousins from home,” she says.
There is unanimous agreement among all that although distance from family in Ireland is a huge drawback, the lifestyle and the facilities and activities on offer for children in Perth far exceed what they would have if they were living in Ireland.
“Obviously, being stuck at home on your own with a small child without family support is difficult, but I think once you get past that, there is so much to do,” Maria says. “Even leaving aside the Irish Mums group, there are dance classes, music classes, baby sensory classes, swimming classes. There are so many parks that are free, and play centres . . . We have a better standard of living here.”
Perth is famously very family-focused, so having a child there has enhanced the social life of many of the women in the group. Allison McCormack Baxter, who is attending for the first time with three-month-old Elliott, says she found it very lonely in Perth as a married person in her 30s, before her son was born.
“Since I have been on maternity leave I have never been so busy,” she says. “I haven’t been lonely since Elliott arrived; he is the reason I’ve finally become grounded here.”
‘Stuck indoors at home’
The better weather is a very obvious bonus, too. “They would be stuck indoors all the time at home,” says Alicia Butler from Co Louth. She moved to Australia with her partner, Gerard, in 2008, and they have two daughters, Alice (2) and Annie (6 months). “Yes, they would have loads of playmates, but for me it would be cabin fever. It is very dark and dreary. Yesterday morning it was grey and raining, I just felt tired and lethargic and didn’t want to do anything. Having that constantly at home is definitely not something I would want.”
The size of the houses in Perth compared with what they could afford in Ireland is mentioned by several of the mothers as a huge plus for raising a family there. Four or five bedroom homes, complete with swimming pools, are common, in this group at least.
Better wages in Australia have also made it possible for most of them to stay at home full-time with their children, supported by their partner’s income, a luxury they don’t think they would have if they were living in Ireland.
“Here we have that work-life balance that everyone always talks about,” says Maria, who used to work as a retail manager but has been a full-time mother since her first child was born in 2012.
“Because my husband is a teacher, he is home by 4pm at the latest. He has school holidays so when they are off, he is off. We don’t have enough to fly home once a year like we were hoping to. But we decided that it is more important to us that I stay at home full-time with the kids. If we go back to Ireland, I am not sure I am going to have that luxury.”
There is general agreement among many of the mums that not having family around can have its advantages sometimes, though there is a reluctance to be quoted on this.
“There is more freedom to live your life as you want,” says one. “You make different decisions about what to do with your time . . . there are no expectations from other people.
“I think a lot of women here have a rose-tinted impression of what it would be like to have family down the road. The reality is, they are not going to be there every day to do the laundry and change the nappies. Chances are you’d be cursing them as you’re on a two-hour drive to yet another birthday party.”
The distance from family in Ireland versus a better quality of life in Australia is a toss-up all of these women have had to make; most of them seem fairly certain that Perth wins out, for now at least.
But they tell of other Irish families they knew here who found the homesickness too much, who have recently made the move back to Ireland. It is a decision Nicola has been battling with herself, since a five-week trip to Cork last Christmas when Ariana met her family for the first time at seven months old.
“When I came back, I was really really lonely, missing my family. I said I would give it a year and see how I feel. I thought I would be here for life, but since having her everything has changed,” she says.
“I know there are better opportunities here. I just love looking at the kids cycling to the beach with their surf boards on their back. They are so active and there are countless activities, there is something for everyone. I am out five days a week with Ariana . . . it rained every day of the five weeks we were in Ireland. I couldn’t even take her for a walk, it was really claustrophobic.
“If I was to go home, I would only be going for that family support . . . I am terrified of making the move and then regretting it. If my family moved over here, I honestly couldn’t see myself moving back to Ireland.”
Next week in Health+Family and on Generation Emigration online: Irish families in Australia – how parents are keeping the Irish connection alive for their kids.
This article was researched with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs' Global Irish Media Fund.