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Sarah Whelan, Sydney

Who are you?

Hey, I’m Sarah, I’m a wife and mother originally from Ireland and living in Sydney, New South Wales. I’ve been married to a loyal and beautiful Irish man for almost 3 years and yes… we met in Sydney. I love him deeply.I love life. I love the outdoors. I recently started up my own online blog and I am starting my own life coaching business in the coming months to support expats. I want to help expats going through the indecision about whether to stay or go and the limbo land feelings I went through. I also want to inspire others who are struggling with repatriation in their home counties who returned to settle down but feel anything but settled.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I moved to Sydney from Ireland 12 years ago. First I came on a working holiday visa to explore Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji on a round the world ticket. My main reason was to see new sights and gain new experiences. I returned to Ireland a different person and after a year I made the decision to move back to Australia. Moving countries is massive but can give you experience like nothing else. Good and bad.

I was lucky enough to work in the financial industry in Ireland and the company I worked for had an office in Sydney. I felt like I had won the lottery when I took the opportunity to be sponsored by the company in Australia and transferred to Sydney.

I only realised when I left Sydney how much I loved the outdoor lifestyle and the beautiful sunny days. Shortly after my settling in period in Sydney I knew my calling wasn’t the financial industry so I made the brave step into the unknown and went back to student life. I graduated with my Bachelor of Social Work in 2010 and have been working with children ever since.
I have lived in Sydney the whole time and have made the most of the opportunities that have come my way including meeting my husband and starting a family.

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What challenges did you face during the move?

It was so long ago now but initially for the first year or so I really missed home and often wondered if I made the right decision to move. I was torn, confused and felt split between two worlds. Some days you feel so incredibly blessed with everything you have created for yourself and other days your heart feels torn and you get overwhelmed by sadness.

It has been worth it as I now have my citizenship, my social work qualification and a career where I feel really fulfilled and I am so grateful for my life in Australia.

When you are so far away from home and something happens you can feel really disconnected. A part of me went through a grieving period initially until I found my feet and built up my social network.

How did you find somewhere to live?

Finding somewhere to live in Sydney is relatively easy and straightforward. I have moved around a lot and there are no shortages of places to rent. I like living close to everything and the beach being a short drive away. The first place I lived in was with a colleague and we rented a two-bedroom furnished unit which are not all that common in Sydney. It was great for six months until I found my bearings and sadly he got really homesick and travelled back to the UK. I then moved into a shared unit and rented the room privately so that meant I didn’t need to be responsible for furnishing it. A few years later when I finished studying I purchased all my own furniture and rented a one-bedroom apartment which was really nice. Currently we rent a two-bedroom unit next to a park and walking distance to everything.

Are there many other expats in your area?

There are lots of people from all over the world where I live. I have met a nice community of Irish and UK mothers which is lovely as we can relate to being away from home without the support of family.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

I mix with locals where I live as there is a friendly vibe and easy going attitude. Most of them are parents also as I have met them while out and about so we have something in common. I’ve made life long friends through my job so I am really grateful for that. Otherwise it is hard to meet with locals as it’s a pretty busy and built up area and quite transient.

What do you like about life where you are?

I feel so happy and grateful for the work opportunities, delicious food like sushi, giant king prawns, Asian food in every foodcourt, oh the foodcourts… the stunning coastal walk from Bondi to Coogee, the sunshine almost year round, working with a fantastic group of people… the list goes on. Sydney is not as laid back as other parts of Australia but I feel safe walking around at night and I love how close everything is.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

Sometimes I feel like moving overseas is the best and worst thing that has happened in my life.

In the past a part of me felt sad that I was missing out on moments with my family back home in Ireland. Sad that I couldn’t sprawl out on the sofa watching TV next to my mother sitting in her favourite armchair feeling relaxed and peaceful watching TV. Sad to know I had missed out on nieces and nephews growing up. Sad to miss so many life events.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

There are not a lot of differences really between Irish culture and Australian culture other than mixing with lots of different cultures which I didn’t really do in Ireland. Much of the cultural foundation of Australia was laid down by the Irish and there is definitely a similarity in the enjoyment of socialising and drinking. It makes sense as to why there are so many Irish pubs around Australia packed with locals and Irish alike.

What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?

I absolutely love having barbecues and the variety of fresh fruit like delicious mangos, blueberries and avocados. I’m a huge fan of Asian food like sushi, dumplings, noodles and I especially like Thai food. My favourite dessert is pavlova which I never had before coming to Australia. Unfortunately I haven’t taken to Vegemite yet.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Guilt was a huge emotion for me to grapple with when I moved back to Sydney in September 2017 having spent 16 months back in Ireland after the birth of my little girl in 2016. For me, as excited as I was to move back to Sydney, I felt consumed with guilt for leaving my family behind. I would tear up easily when chatting to my friends about it.

If you struggle with guilt like many of us do look at the alternative option. You stay home, you miss out on the amazing opportunities but you never miss another family Christmas again. Your children grow up with the experience of their extended family around and you’ll get to care for your parents as they get older.

But you may be left asking yourself “what if”. Yes, you won’t feel guilty, but will you feel fulfilled?

Sadly, the guilt of leaving parents behind never really goes away but similar to grieving where you go through stages of shock, denial, anger and sadness you learn to have a level of acceptance.

Acceptance is when you take ownership of your actions and become more content as you move forward.

While I have still have rushes of guilt about living abroad I have learnt to accept it. You have to accept that other people don’t want you to move but you don’t have to let guilt get in the way of your decision.

Certain strategies may help to some extent like regularly communicating by phone, video call etc, visiting home for at least two weeks every year or bringing parents over to visit if possible. Otherwise seek out a trusted friend to share your feelings with or if need be a professional.

Ask yourself do you want to stay living where you are or take a risk and follow your dreams? Without guilt. Without shame. Without questioning yourself. My mission is to share and teach this to others as I am loving the journey that I am on right now. Know that no matter what, you will be happy because you followed your instincts.

What are your plans for the future?

My heart very much belongs in Ireland. I haven’t closed the door on raising my family there one day but there’s definitely more I need to do first to secure our future in Ireland to live our best life. My personal goals are always in the back of my mind driving me forward.

I really want to inspire other people like me to do the same and I know what it’s like to live in limbo land, torn between two worlds and not knowing which world you belong to. I want to support others to release their fears and embrace change.

My plan is to be a life coach for expats as I know I have lots to offer having been through so much in recent years. I want to inspire others to live their best lives.

“Your life doesn’t get better by chance it gets better by change.”

You can keep up to date with Sarah's adventures on her Facebook page.

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