I haven’t seen my family for more than a year – and the separation has taught me what matters

I sometimes think about the fact that I’m pretty sure I don’t want children and wonder where the roots of my disinclination lie. I still have the ingrained pregnancy terror of the Catholic girls’ school, 14 years after I left it, and I’ve rarely felt financially stable enough to bring a whole new hungry mouth into the equation. But what you could kindly call my ambivalence about motherhood – or more accurately term repulsion – is really down to what I am like as a daughter. It isn’t that I was the most nightmarish disaster kid imaginable – though I was at times – but that I’ve always been such a morbid, mawkish child.

I’ve fixated on my parents’ eventual deaths since they were still more or less kids themselves, vibrant and good-looking and in their 30s. When I was 15, my dad tried to talk me out of a hysterical spiral I’d worked myself into, and when he asked what was wrong I cried: “You’re going to die!” like some two-bit soothsayer. Children already act as horrid little portals into the abyss of mortality, flourishing while their parents decline, so it seems especially excessive that I insisted on spelling this out so often.

When I moved to London from Ireland six years ago, my fear changed somewhat. There was no time to contemplate death when, by day, I was late for one job on my way from another, and by night I was comprehensively, maniacally making my way through Tinder. I was better able to live in denial while I was away, safe in the knowledge that should anything go wrong with my parents, I wasn’t far away. The guy I was dating when I moved to England, seeing that I was nervous, kept telling me that all I ever needed was 50 quid for the Rail and Sail back to Dublin, that we were so close by it was hardly like moving at all. This was something I clung to when I was miserable and failing in London, or floored by homesickness. If, one morning, I wanted to, or needed to, I could without notice be on my mam’s front porch in the space of eight hours.

The pandemic, of course, has changed that; I haven’t seen any of my family for more than a year. I try to keep sanguine about this. What’s a year? I ask myself. I know plenty of people who live further flung, in Australia and Asia, who routinely go a year or more without coming home. But the morbidity of my youth has re-emerged and sometimes derails me entirely. What’s a year, except that I’ve only been alive for 30 of them, and missing out a whole one doesn’t seem all that insignificant when you think about it proportionally.

I think many people like me, who are close to their families but live in different countries, are forced to maintain a certain level of delusion that in our absence everything remains the same. I like to imagine that when I arrive into Waterford at Christmas the whole place unthaws and can resume its activity, and when I leave it freezes over again, awaiting my return. Part of this is just narcissism and wanting to feel that I’m the protagonist of reality, of course, but it’s also a coping mechanism that allows me to get on with things over here and avoid dwelling on what I am choosing to lose out on by living away. That delusion has been punctured by the pandemic, and when my parents send me pictures of themselves getting on with things, out on their walks or in the garden or having a drink on a Friday night, I find myself having to put the phone away so I don’t begin examining them for signs of age, signs of imminent loss, signs that I’ll spend the rest of my life bitterly regretting that I spent my lockdowns alone in England instead of with them in Ireland.

I know this is a foolish fear, that as much as I love them they also raised me to be independent. I’m particular and protective about my space and a year under each other’s feet would have been no good for any of us. But after the past year I suspect I am not alone in recalibrating how I feel about living away from my home country, in having it driven home with unwelcome force what is most vital in my life, what can’t be done without.