Monday 16 December 2019

Emigration, loss and a mother's hidden pain

Emigration makes mothers lonely in ways they may never realise, a family psychotherapist reveals

Emigration will crash through bleak levels last seen in the 1980s this year as people flee Ireland looking for work
Emigration will crash through bleak levels last seen in the 1980s this year as people flee Ireland looking for work

Claire McCormack

LOSS of sex drive, appetite and enthusiasm are just some of the ways parents can be affected when their child emigrates, according to a leading family psychotherapist.

Since the recession hit in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people have left Ireland, leaving thousands of "grieving" parents and family members behind.

In a radio documentary on how mothers cope with emigration, Trish Murphy, psychotherapist at the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, said "the silent grief" was causing huge emotional and psychological problems for parents throughout the country.

"It affects sleep, it affects eating, it affects enthusiasm, interest - it even affects their sexual desire. So it definitely affects us, it shuts us down," she said.

For Ms Murphy, the most common factors were huge loneliness, isolation and a feeling of withholding their real feelings from the children, but she believes these emotions are covered up to benefit the child.

"They do it out of a sense of protection and not wanting to cause further worry or harm to their children."

However, she said this natural instinct to prevent the child from knowing how they really feel is "damaging" to both in the long run.

"It's really serious because parents start to connect love and protection," she said.

"There is a danger that if we over protect it means that children don't get to express themselves and then they protect their experiences from the parent."

And, in her expert experience of speaking to families affected by emigration, this desire to protect is most noticeable in mothers.

"I think particularly mothers can be awesomely lonesome, in a way that might even surprise them. That absence, that sense of distance is so huge."

For mothers it's often missing "the little moments" that spark a feeling of the loss.

These include: not having their child around for a chat, to pop into town, to go for a walk.

And although there are multiple methods to connect with their children through Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, emails, text messages and calls, these moments of happiness can bring sorrow too.

"Skype does help enormously, because you can see the life people are leading," said Ms Murphy, adding that a lot of parents would rather speak to their emigrant children over the phone.

"On the phone, you can be sad and you could have tears running down you face and yet not express it in your voice. You can't do that on Skype, so I wonder does it make people pretend even more because they can be seen as well so they have to put a face on before they go online," she said.

According to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office a total of 81,900 people of all nationalities left Ireland in the 12 months to April this year.

However, the number of Irish people emigrating for better opportunities abroad fell for the first time in seven years last year, dropping 20 pc from 50,900 to 40,700.

But even though more and more emigrants are expected to come back as the economy improves there are many who will never live in Ireland again.

This week, a new study on ageing (TILDA) from Trinity College Dublin found that mothers experienced increased "depressive symptoms" and "greater loneliness" than mothers whose children did not emigrate.

However, for fathers, the study found that they did not suffer the same decline in mental health following the emigration of one or more of their children.

Speaking about the significance of these findings Dr Irene Mosca, TILDA Research Fellow in Economics at Trinity, said: "Our report shows a channel through which the recession has significantly affected the mental health and well-being of mothers in particular."

The study also suggests that society needs to be more aware of the pressures which older people have faced through emigration.

According to Ms Murphy, the impact of emigration affects different age groups of parents, so it isn't always obvious that they are struggling. "Many parents see themselves as vibrant and having lives of their own and they know the value of that, so they are not going to sit and put on the black ribbon in a way that people might have done in the past," she said.

But she believes parents can have both, if they open up and talk about it.

"You can be vibrant with lots of energy and also express loss and sadness and moaning and groaning.

"We can have a good solution for everybody," added Ms Murphy.

Marie-Claire McAleer, a senior research and policy advisor at the National Youth Council of Ireland, said she would welcome more research on the "filtering of emotions" through emigration.

"Mum and Dad put on a brave face and encourage their child to travel and to make the most of the education they've received in Ireland because they know that given the economic situation it was the best option for them," she said.

"But in terms of the social and emotional side of emigration there hasn't been enough spoken about in terms of how it affects the social and cultural fabric of Irish society and indeed the family."

Sunday Independent

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