Many people who grow up in country towns leave as soon as they get the chance, vowing never to return. But life has a way of surprising us, drawing us back: a family member gets sick, the ache for country air gets too strong, or a drop-in visit evolves into something longer.
Returning home can be a big life transition, says Melbourne-based counsellor Jo Gniel. “In some ways, coming back can be difficult because you have to embed yourself back into the community or family life and find something to do that feels meaningful in that place.”
People can feel a range of emotions on their return, she says: “It’s totally normal to have an adjustment period when returning home. Although it’s a familiar landscape, there will still be new things that people have to navigate.” Ultimately though, it’s about “going back to things that matter,” says Gniel. So, what’s life like when you’ve left with no plans to ever return – but then do?
Publisher, 36. Returned to Tamworth, NSW, in 2011, after 12 years away.
I was living in Sydney when my dad was diagnosed with cancer and he was given four months to live. I dropped everything when I got that phone call and came back to Tamworth for a couple of months to help out.
I am very close to my family. Some people move away from the city and go home once or twice a year, but I’d go home once a month. Sometimes in the city I felt like just a number, but at home I had a community.
Even though Dad had been given a few months to live, he kept defying all odds; he ended up living for five years, and I was going back and forth between Tamworth and Sydney. I just knew when it was the last 12 months of his life, so I packed everything up to spend time with him, with the vision that I’d move back to Sydney afterwards.
I had been working with the digital marketing team at Time Warner and before that, I worked for years on the sales and advertising side of ACP [Australian Consolidated Press, the former magazine publisher].
Whenever I’d walk into the ACP building in Sydney, it was 95 per cent women and they were dressed in designer labels from head to toe. I always felt like I walked in there with a sign around my neck saying, “I’m from the country.” I never quite felt as though I had acclimatised to the city.
But it was an internal battle because I thought if I came back to Tamworth, then what would I do? I’d built up a career and there were opportunities in the city and part of me felt that if I did move back, I had failed. It would be like I couldn’t hack it in the big city.
Once I moved back here for Dad and settled in, I noticed that Tamworth had to so much more to offer than it did when I left.
Initially I really missed the vibrancy of Sydney, the beaches and the shops. I wondered where I was going to get my morning coffee, whether I could do a Pilates class and where I would shop. I slowly began to realise there was all this on offer in Tamworth, but I also had a feeling of being at home within the community again. The only thing was, what could I do career-wise?
I’d noticed that Tamworth didn’t really get promoted beyond the Tamworth Music Festival, so I started a small marketing business. One client told me that Tamworth used to have a magazine.
That put an idea in my head and I thought, “Why don’t I put together a lifestyle magazine that highlights all the quintessential parts of this region?” The magazine, Downtown, is now in its fourth year and has gone from strength to strength. I was told I couldn’t have children, so I threw myself into having my own business. Then I met someone here and ended up falling pregnant and starting the magazine within six months.
I was with my partner for five years. Now I’m a single mum with two children under two years old. But life is so much easier here than in the city. My mum and sister are just up the road and my team is a bunch of young, energetic females like me – they grew up here, worked in the city, and now they’ve brought their skills back to the country.
Publicity director, 48. Returned to Bendigo, Victoria, in 2015 after 29 years away.
Greta Donaldson. Photo: Supplied
I left Bendigo when I was 17 to go to uni, thinking I’d never come back. Leaving made me realise the world was much bigger than that little pocket and the friendship group I grew up with.
I studied in Warrnambool and then moved to Sydney. Then my little sister Peta got sick with ovarian cancer and the world ground to a halt.
I transferred to Melbourne to be close to her, but she didn’t make it. She was 21. That derailed me and made me realise that life is short. So I went travelling. The world was a safer place then, I felt like the universe was supporting me. I stayed in the UK for five years, but then the visas and opportunities ran out and I got homesick.
I came back to Melbourne and ran my own PR business. It was exhausting and stressful, but I loved it. When a huge development commenced next door to my townhouse in South Melbourne, I knew there was no way I could live next door to something that was seven storeys up and three down. I thought, “Bugger it. I’ll go back to Bendigo until I work out what to do.”
I knew I could run my business and maintain my [city] friendships from Bendigo. Initially I thought I’d give it 12 months, but once I got back here I really enjoyed the lifestyle. It’s what I needed to slow down because while I’d loved it, I couldn’t maintain the pace of life in the PR world in Melbourne.
For a long time I didn’t tell clients I was based in Bendigo because I was nervous about their reaction. When they found out they were surprised, but I’ve always made sure my commitment was to my clients; I didn’t miss meetings or photo shoots.
I love living in Bendigo, even though I sometimes feel like I’ve failed in some way, being back where I started. I do remind myself that I’ve travelled the world, working in some incredible locations and with some amazing companies and businesses.
The return has been emotional: there are a lot of memories here of Peta. I walk, run, cycle and drive past many of the places and spaces we lived and loved together, so sometimes those memories are overwhelming. But they’ve become quite comforting; they’re good to have.
One thing that does disappoint me about living here is that when I have spare time – usually on a Sunday afternoon – I might want to go to a homewares shop or buy pot plants or have a nice meal, but things are not open. I have to remind myself that this is part of living in a small country town.
I’ve started a second little business here where I make peanut brittle and sell it at the local markets. I realised that if I called a business Bendigo Brittle, then I couldn’t just pack up and go back to Melbourne. So this is it: I’m not going back to Melbourne.
Mother, 52. Returned to Newborough, Victoria, in 2012, after 16 years away.
Pamela Mead. Photo: Supplied
I first left Newborough in my early 20s after a breakup with a boyfriend. Doesn’t everyone run away to the city with a broken heart?
I was 39 and living on the outskirts of Melbourne with my former partner when I fell pregnant with twins. My boys were born prematurely, at 30 weeks, suffering from twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome.
Ryan [now 12] was diagnosed as deaf and then as having autism and it felt like we were in a black hole. We couldn’t access any services. And he was such a handful. We were told, “Your son is unassessable and has no IQ.” The wider community was so judgmental. I can’t tell you the number of times I would leave the shops in tears because of people’s comments and judgments.
Having a special-needs child either brings a couple closer together or tears you apart. And for me it was the latter. Five years ago, I made the decision to come home. In that time Ryan has gone from being a bashing, crashing, nonverbal, screaming, runaway child to moving through each of those stages.
His behaviour is pretty normal now and he is no longer defined by his autism.
It seems surprising, but the services here are second to none. People are really there for you. Ryan goes to a wonderful special school and when we moved houses, the bus driver didn’t want to upset Ryan’s routine so they shuffled their timetable so they could still pick him up. That would never have happened in Melbourne! He is embraced and accepted within the community.
People here have got your back. Local people know my boys and that makes such a big difference. They look out for Ryan; even the girls in the supermarket ask where he is if I’m shopping without him. Ryan’s brother, Daniel, attends the fabulous St Mary’s primary school, which has been so supportive and nurturing. Having a sibling with autism has been very tough for him.
I think I always knew I would come back to the Latrobe Valley. That saying is right: you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. I don’t miss one thing about the city.
I love this area; my boys and I are always off on an adventure. I’ve always been an outdoorsy person and we’re surrounded by bushland, bike paths and lakes where you can paddle or use kayaks. It does feel like the opportunities are endless here. Being back home has made me realise that you don’t always have to be in the big, bright lights.