When author Mary Laura Philpott arrived in Dublin with her husband and two small children, she thought a change of scenery would lead to a change of self, but she soon realised reinvention when you’re a party of four isn’t so easy, and life in a new city doesn’t mean a new life...
I figured out early on that changing your scenery can help you change yourself. I couldn’t help but learn this lesson as a kid, when my family moved cities every few years for my dad’s medical training. So when I arrived in Ireland from the United States at the age of 32 with my husband and two small children, I expected to become a new me in this new place.
It had worked before. When I couldn’t seem to extricate myself from a toxic romance in my youth, crossing an ocean had proved just the trick. I left my college campus in the US and settled in at Cambridge in the UK, where none of the props that surrounded me in my former life prompted me to maintain my weepy old habits.
I broke up with the bad boyfriend over a very-long-distance phone call, and by the time I returned Stateside a couple of months later, I had new friends, a WonderBra, and a boatload of self-esteem. Goodbye, sad girl. Hello, confident woman. I was reborn.
Over a decade later, when my husband’s banking job relocated us from Atlanta to Dublin, I looked forward to the change. I’d been spending a lot of time at home in those years, nestled deep in the day-to-day tasks of raising babies. My world – formerly bustling with interesting work events, romantic dinners out, and trips with friends – had shrunk to the size of my kitchen. I couldn’t wait to see how I would feel when it expanded to the shape of a green island in the North Atlantic. Who would I become this time?
When we arrived at our corporate housing – a townhouse in Ballsbridge – we felt, at first, the rush of novelty. I walked a mile to Tesco, picked up some groceries, and toted them back, accidentally putting frozen goods into the refrigerator and items I meant to refrigerate into the freezer. (I woke up the next morning to find the milk and eggs iced solid. You can defrost milk, sort of, but there’s no hope for frozen eggs.)
What I failed to anticipate was that once I was part of a bigger whole – no longer a student boarding a plane with a single suitcase and hopes for a fresh start, but a mother, a spouse, and a person with tangled ties to countless other people – reinvention couldn’t happen so easily. It’s much harder to become a new you when there are people depending on the old you. You still have to make breakfast, give baths, wait out naps.
I documented our Dublin adventure in photos: sipping tea at Bewley’s, toddling down Grafton Street to St Stephen’s Green, feeling the warmth on our faces when the sun came out over Sandymount Strand. It all happened, and so much of it was wonderful.
But as I write in my new memoir, I Miss You When I Blink, emailing those pictures to friends back home made it look like I had started a whole new life, when in fact, the only difference was the scenery. And that’s how I learned that sometimes, a woman struggling to figure out who she is will struggle no matter where she is.
We spent a couple of months in Dublin. My son developed a fondness for banoffee pie. My daughter took her first steps on the brick path outside our temporary home. But the delusion I had that I might swap nap times for train times didn’t quite come to pass. I was lonely there, and I was lonely when I got back. And it took me years to unravel the sources of my loneliness.
I’d like to go back sometime, without putting pressure on Dublin to change me. I’d like to see it now, years later, for what it is.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of the memoir-in-essays I Miss You When I Blink: Dispatches from a Relatively Ordinary Life (Murdoch Books, approx €17.50), out now. Photograph by Heidi Ross.
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