Saturday 14 December 2019

The pain of emigration most affects the mothers left behind

For the young, emigration is often a golden opportunity. But new research shows that parents left behind - particularly mothers - suffer the most from depression.

Mary O'Connor Skypes her children at her home in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry this week. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Mary O'Connor Skypes her children at her home in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry this week. Photo: Don MacMonagle
The O'Connor family, from left, Mary, Jacinta (Limerick), Kenneth, Adrian and Raymond (all New York), Jack (Naas) and husband John.

Graham Clifford

On a beautiful winter's evening in Kerry, with the turf burning on the open fire and the wind blowing through the trees, a now common sound interrupts the peace of the twilight hour.

The ringing of an incoming Skype call has become a regular noise in the O'Connor household in recent years.

Here, in the stunning mountainous area of Glencar, the house once buzzed to the sound of children, five in total, but now the mother of the house, Mary, and her husband, John, are growing accustomed to living in a more subdued dwelling.

Three of their five children - Kenneth (34), Adrian (30) and Raymond (28) - now live in New York. Jack (33) lives in Naas with his wife and young family and Jacintha (26) has her own hair-dressing business in Limerick.

The boys' GAA medals, dating from when they first kicked a ball in the red and black of the local club, are framed carefully on the wall.

"We were busy morning, noon and night with our crowd when they were younger, between driving them to football matches and this and that. . . but, looking back now, we were only happy to. They were all close in age and grew up together but then, when the time came, they all went together too," says Mary.

The O'Connor family, from left, Mary, Jacinta (Limerick), Kenneth, Adrian and Raymond (all New York), Jack (Naas) and husband John.
The O'Connor family, from left, Mary, Jacinta (Limerick), Kenneth, Adrian and Raymond (all New York), Jack (Naas) and husband John.

A new report by The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), led by Trinity College Dublin, reveals that mothers of children who emigrated experienced increased depressive symptoms and greater loneliness than mothers whose children did not emigrate.

Clinical psychologist Dr Marie Murray believes mothers struggle more to adapt once their children emigrate.

"A key factor for women is the loss of role when their children are overseas, loss of the more casual interactions, calling in to see their children and supporting them. When their children have to leave to forge a life for themselves, they lose that supportive role," says Dr Murray, adding: "Also, because women still tend to outlive their husbands, there is a subliminal insurance in having one's children around in the future if either parent should find themselves alone."

"I wouldn't call it depression but of course I miss my children terribly everyday," says Mary O'Connor of her family's situation, adding: "I wouldn't be human if I didn't. There's a great sense of loss, any Irish mother who has children abroad will tell you that. I often think that people who have their children living in the same area or country as themselves don't really know how lucky they are."

Eldest son Kenneth settled in New York in 2001, though initially only went to play Gaelic football for the summer. He got a good job in construction and met his soon-to-be wife. In 2008 his brother Adrian followed and in 2012, with the chances of employment in the Kerry area slim, Raymond decided to join his brothers Stateside.

"They're flying really and have their own construction and demolition business. The only consolation for me is that the three of them are together and can look out for each other," says Mary.

She tells me of the heartache experienced when Raymond left for New York two years ago: "It was dreadful, it really was. If there had been a job here for him, he would have stayed. I hated to see him and the other boys go but I would never hold them back. I'd rather they went and did what they wanted to do than stay here and be unhappy."

However, in the TILDA study, researchers found that not all mothers felt the same way as Mary. "It was interesting to note that most mothers in our study were happier to have their children at home, even if they were unemployed, than have them working away in another country," says Professor Alan Barrett, one of the authors of the report.

Mary O'Connor Skypes her children at her home in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry this week. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Mary O'Connor Skypes her children at her home in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry this week. Photo: Don MacMonagle

In 2010, while playing Gaelic football, Mary's son Adrian was injured in an accidental clash with another player in New York. Unbeknownst to medics, an artery was bleeding inwardly in his leg for a week. For his mother that was one of the most difficult times to be thousands of miles away.

"He was lucky to live really. It was very serious. The other boys didn't want to worry us so they told us, initially, that it was less serious than it was. But it was such a worrying time. You just want to be there to look after them, but you're so far away," she says.

Kenneth now has four children, two boys and two girls, while Adrian became a father to a baby girl in July. "We went over for the christening. Both Kenneth and Adrian are married to American girls of Irish descent. Of course we wish that we'd see our grandchildren in New York more."

Mary's Irish-based grandsons often come down to Kerry from Kildare to stay with their grandparents for a few days at a time.

"We love having them, they bring great joy into the house," says Mary.

The TILDA study also found that, with the exception of dads aged over 65, fathers did not suffer an equivalent decline in mental health following the emigration of one or more of their children.

"This was one of the more surprising findings of the study," says Professor Barrett adding: "While men's mental health does suffer from the death of a partner, health decline or even retirement, the emigration of a child appears to have less of an impact."

So why is the impact of emigration felt less by the father?

"Their identity, in terms of life-long role, is still less bound up with their children, especially when men continue to have a primary role in the workplace," says psychologist Dr Murray.

She adds: "Once over 65 and retired, their parental role increases and so loneliness at losing their children to emigration becomes more defined."

In the O'Connor household though, Mary says her husband John misses his sons in New York as much as she does.

"John finds it very hard too, without them nearby. I know they say this isn't the case for all fathers whose children emigrate but he misses them greatly."

The findings of the TILDA study might make us see emigration as more of a family-level decision process and one that affects others than just the emigrant, says Professor Barrett.

And what of the future for the O'Connor family in Kerry? Does Mary think her three strapping sons, who have all represented New York at inter-county GAA level, will return to Glencar's rolling valley?

"With every passing year the lads inevitably put down more roots over," says Mary, adding: "Their children start school, make friends and so on. Their work is going well, two of them are married and Raymond has an American girlfriend; life is good for them there. Workwise what's there to come home for, really? I don't think they'll ever move back to Ireland. . . but I hope I'm wrong, I really do."

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