Recession forced family to make toughest choice

Recession forced family to make toughest choice

2 November 2011

UNTIL just a few years ago Orla Leigh enjoyed a privileged life in Saintfield with her husband Mark.

Happily married and surrounded by a large extended family, she had secured her dream job as a teacher in Dundrum, had a lovely home and a big circle of old friends. Their happiness was cemented with the arrival of their first baby Alfie.

But the recession put a stumbling block in her young family's path. By 2009, Mark, who is a planning manager, had become increasingly aware of the impact of the recession on his career.

The company he worked for had started to lay off staff and Mark was travelling a lot, working hard to secure his position in a career world that was dependant on the dwindling construction industry.

Shortly after Alfie's birth 18 months ago, Orla and Mark decided it may be time to pursue a more secure and balanced family life and they began to look into a new life abroad.

After first considering Hong Kong, they found themselves more drawn to life in Australia and decided to make the move when Mark was offered a position in Sydney.

After spending a week in the country on a trial run, Mark and Orla broke the devastating news to their families that they would soon be emigrating.

Orla says her family, who are from Downpatrick and include her parents, three sisters, one brother and several nieces and nephews, were very upset by the suggestion of emigration.

"They knew we were thinking of going somewhere because we had mentioned

Sydney and Hong Kong, but Australia seemed so far and final," she said.

"Until then, we all lived within a quick drive of our parents' house and we are very close.

"But this was about finding more time for us as a family because it would mean that Mark would travel less and be able to be home every night.

"I suppose it was taking the very difficult decision of giving up some of our extended family for our own little family unit."

Orla secured a career break from her school, packed up three month-old Alfie and boarded a plane with Mark to Sydney.

One year later and despite the vastly improved quality of life for her family, she admits homesickness has been an unexpected cloud, blighting her first Christmas under cloudless Australian skies. She now reminds herself when she is struck by the blues for home that they are not under pressure to stay for a lifetime.

"Christmas was not the same in the sun and so far away from family, but I know it does not have to be forever," she says.

"I am trying to enjoy it for the here and now.

"When things pick up in the economy at home we still have our house in Saintfield to go back to and I have taken a career break so I have my job.

"But it does very much depend on how things turn out in Northern Ireland and at the moment we are hearing it is not good. We are just one of thousands of young families in the same boat."

In the meantime, Orla says the large expatriate community in her area and the classic outdoor life offered in Australia is proving a good tonic for homesickness when it strikes.

"People are always arranging

to do things with their children so it is easy to make friends," she says.

"It is also easier to get out and about with the good weather and the beach is five minutes away. It is a different way of life with everyone going to bed early and getting up early.

"We enjoy the weekends and have time in the evenings to get out. It is a wonderful experience and it is something I am enjoying more and more."

But Orla, who is now expecting her second baby, says her long-term goal is to return home.

"I can't see us staying so far away from family forever and it comforts me to know that we will eventually be back home," she says.

"But that is not practical right now. In the meantime I will go on missing family, the kids at school and the Daily Grind cafe."