Part of an ongoing series for Irish Times Abroad about our experience of returning to Ireland after 16 years in Australia.

We celebrated our “returniversary” recently – 12 months since our return to Dublin after 16 years in Sydney. It’s a natural – but perhaps premature – time to ask “has the move been a success?”

The answer depends on who you ask in our family. After a relatively short time back (just one year compared with 16 away), my wife’s answer is a resounding yes. For me, as I expected, the jury is still out.

As an emigrant living in Australia, people used to ask me “do you like it here?” As a returnee, people ask “Are you happy you came back?”

My wife Anne-Marie and I were both asked this recently and I noticed something. I hesitated. During this pause, Anne-Marie answered immediately and resoundingly. She has settled. As have the kids; they, like most children, are a perfect example of living in the present.

Maybe it’s just that question. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy. Am I happier, though? Am I happy because I moved? I’m not sure.

We headed to Dublin Airport in March for a week away. Every single time in the last 16 years – probably about 15 times – this would be a silent trip as we returned to Australia. I asked Anne-Marie could she imagine going back. The thought filled her with dread.

Every day, I can find ten reasons to be unhappy or ten to be happy. Each morning I wake, I know I have loads of reasons to be happy. In the evening I go to sleep grateful. I am a very happy man, as I was in Australia. But overall, I’d say Ireland is providing more challenges to chisel some character.

Maybe “emigrant’s ache”, that combination of guilt, homesickness or misplacement many emigrants feel, is replaced by “returnee’s doubt”. Did I do the right thing? Do I long for my old home? There is a difference between love and longing, the latter being for something you cannot have.

I know these feelings are natural. I love Ireland and Australia for being places worth longing for. Haven’t we been spoiled by choice? We all have countless paths down which our lives could have gone. I have a parallel Sydney life that some small trigger will cause me to think of. The Sydney life just happens to be easier to imagine because I have lived it; and good friends still are. I envy parts of their lives, just as I’m sure they might envy parts of mine.

Speaking of unhealthy comparisons, I came across this quote on Facebook recently: “Comparison creates doubt. Doubt is the fuel for fear, and fear stands in the way of everything you want.”

The glances over my shoulder to Sydney and the pang of longing are a small price to pay for having the absolute privilege of having lived in two beautiful countries. Comparing them might be natural, but they are so different; the comparison is rendered obsolete.

Barbecues in Ireland are definitely different.
Barbecues in Ireland are definitely different.

I’ve come to realise both countries serve completely different needs depending on who you are and where you are in life – and that the comparison and outward search for the “optimal place to live” needs to move inwards. Most people who’ve contacted me for advice since I started writing this column about my experiences of moving back are struggling to figure out who they are and what they want in the first place. You need to get that clear first.

Either way, each country will give you all you need if you give it everything you have.

So I dream of a big future. I try to avoid comparison, but don’t always succeed.

I will always be grateful to Australia for being the place where I gained a different perspective and built healthy habits that help me to thrive. I was going to credit it with allowing me to grow and become independent, but of course that came from my parents, and continues to this day. I remain indebted to Ireland and my family here for giving the strong roots that allowed my branches to reach outwards.

We had our first barbie of the summer last week. It naturally wasn’t the same as it would have been in Sydney. The weather was not quite as reliable. I found myself comparing. A mob of kids were milling around the garden. The last time we cooked outdoors, we had a swimming pool ten feet away. A different world, yes; but not necessarily a better one.

These glances back are regular. I try to neither dwell on them, nor beat myself up when they happen. But I’m aware if I look back too much I won’t enjoy the present.

Our re-settling continues. An old friend told me it took her five years. Maybe there is no definite end point. I have comfort knowing doubt is natural and that living through it brings me closer to “home”. Sure, in this increasingly globalised world, I will probably end up emigrating again someday to follow my children and their children. “Home” is a different place and different people at different times.

Anne-Marie was asked recently would I be happier if I had a “proper job”. I presume they meant “with one employer, nine to five”. But the job I have now is the most “proper”’ I’ve ever had – because I created it. Just as Ireland is the proper place to be because we chose it.

Am I happy? Yes. Am I settled? … (Pause)… Not yet!

James now helps emigrants settle in Ireland, as a launchpad for designing the life they want. Check out our Returning Emigrants Programme here.

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