Yomiko Chen on why pregnancy can be scary for a model - 'I could see my body changing every single day and I got really blue'
Model Yomiko Chen on struggling to cope with the impact of pregnancy on her body
Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30
'Any time soon!" Those were Yomiko Chen's last words in an interview she did with me for LIFE last Easter. She was only weeks away from getting married when we met, and already she felt that starting a family was the logical next step.
Still, it all happened sooner than she ever expected.
When we meet now, Yomiko is pregnant, and counting down the days to her baby's arrival in early April.
"Yes, I wanted a baby!" she exclaims, laughing. "But we did not plan it so soon."
Babies have a way of pointing out the folly of trying to make plans, however. While Yomiko's Bray wedding to her Offaly-born husband, Ian Conway, went to plan, their planned autumn visit to Japan and China, to introduce him to her family, was scuppered by the discovery that she was pregnant.
"We found out that I was pregnant, and I was so sick the first few months that we cancelled the trip home," Yomiko says.
"Also, autumn/winter would be the busy time for me in modelling, and I knew I wasn't going to work again for a long time, so I had to do every single show. I had to. So that means that my family still has not met my husband. That was disappointing for me, but they will now come when the baby arrives.
"It will be a lot all at once," she says, laughing.
Yomiko is not a girl who is afraid of a challenge, though even she concedes that imminent parenthood has given her the odd wobble.
The only daughter of a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, Yomiko has spent her life adapting and adjusting. As she explained to me the first time we met, her parents' cultures do not traditionally blend or enjoy harmony, but she manages to strike a balance between them both.
Yomiko's parents separated when she was very small, and she shuttled back and forth between them, which was no inconsiderable thing for a little girl. She is very careful - in a respectful way - not to dramatise this, however. It was all she knew, and she was happy.
Later, Yomiko's mother moved to London, for work, and Yomiko went with her. From London, then, while still in her teens, Yomiko visited Dublin and decided, quickly, that Ireland was somewhere she could make a home. It's not Japan or China, that's for sure, so it wasn't a case of choosing one parent's culture over the other. Or, for that matter, choosing one element of her own cultural character over the other. Instead, Yomiko's move to Ireland was one designed to give her a fresh start, where she could forge her own identity. And, without doubt, that's what she has achieved here, to the point that she is one of Ireland's hardest-working and most in-demand models.
Of course, now that she's pregnant and on her maternity leave from modelling, Yomiko feels like that carefully built sense of identity has been shattered. And, in a way, her feeling of being in some sort of identity crisis is like an exaggerated version of what every pregnant woman, every expectant mother, goes through.
"I finished modelling in December.
"I finished all the big shows, and the whole season. I was hiding it well," Yomiko says, explaining with a laugh how a big, loose coat has become her pregnancy staple.
"I cried at the end of every show. Because I knew it would be my last for a long time. And now I'm missing it already. I finished autumn/winter 2015, and now I'll be gone for spring/summer 2016."
Yomiko says the last sentence as a statement of fact, but it's a question as well. She looks at me for reassurance that this will be the case - as in, that all she will miss is one season. This happens a lot in conversation with pregnant Yomiko. As she admits herself, she's ravenous for reassurance. She has no family in Ireland to tell her how it is to be expectant and then a new mother, so she picks the brains of every parent she meets for tips and pointers and comfort.
And she cries at the drop of a hat, she admits. And she cries when I'm with her, out of fear that the modelling life she worked so hard to create will disappear now.
"I don't know what I think," Yomiko says. "I don't know what tomorrow brings. And now, my body is changing all the time and my mind is swinging. It's really hard, and I hate changing. I have been modelling every single day for so long. Doing the same thing, meeting the same friends at work. And then, suddenly, I have to decide to give up everything.
"And with my job, the figure and the body is most important," Yomiko continues. "So, especially the first three months, I could see my body change every single day and it really kind of . . . I got pregnancy blue. Is that a word?
"For my job, I don't feel good if I'm not at my best. I feel bad if I'm not at my best: it's not professional. That's on my mind all the time. People say, 'pregnancy will change everything', but I didn't know it would change this much, until I was the one. And now, when I look back at pictures of myself, I realise I should have appreciated more what I looked like.
Again, there is a seeking look in Yomiko's eyes. She is talking about what it's like to be a pregnant model, but the hormonal swings she describes are familiar to anyone who has ever been pregnant. And I reassure her that everything will be fine, and that all of this is normal.
"I was really negative about all the changes until week 20," Yomiko confides. "But then the baby first kicked me. And I saw Ian was so happy and the shocked face on him. I thought, 'OK, that's a real life inside me and it's not just my body, not just my changing body'. That was a real turning point for me."
The pregnancy has been wonderfully bonding for Yomiko and Ian, she tells me, even though they were very close already. Together, the couple are not just married, but partners in business, with three Kokoro bento sushi bars around Dublin. These afternoons, Yomiko walks from the Liffey Street shop to South William Street, to the Baggot Street branch, keeping an eye on things and keeping fit.
She really appreciates how hard Ian works, Yomiko says, now that she's in the business all the time. "I've been spoiled," she laughs.
"Another turning point for me in the pregnancy was when I realised that it made me miss home," Yomiko says. She didn't necessarily want to go home, for that matter. She would have missed Ian too much and, since her mother died of breast cancer three years ago, she would not be returning for that mother-love, either. So, instead, Ian strove to create an Asian sense of home here for his new wife.
Yomiko could no longer eat the raw-fish sushi during pregnancy, so Ian began literally cooking up tastes of home for Yomiko. Ultimately, she realised that ramen - soup-based bowls of noodles, vegetables, meat, fish, or whatever you're having - was what she craved. And, out of that, a business idea was born. The back room of the South William Street branch of Kokoro is home to a new ramen bar, with an impressive ramen-making machine flown in from Japan, along with the special noodle flour, and even specific Japanese ramen water. Talking about the project animates Yomiko like nothing else, and you can see how it has proved a welcome distraction these past months.
"That has helped me not to count down the days," Yomiko says, smiling.
Yomiko and Ian are having a baby girl, she tells me, and the name they have chosen is a combination of Asian and Irish. Yomiko felt that there were so many elements out of her control, and she was so out of her cultural comfort zone, that she wanted to have one bit of certainty; so they found out the gender. She and Ian are delighted, as is her family in Japan and China.
"They are happy, yeah," she says. "Now they want to see the baby and have family bonding, so they will come soon after she is born. In China, you know, the way with the family is that the new couple know nothing. So the family take over and do all that, while you look after yourself," Yomiko explains. "And my family wanted to do that. But me and Ian decided we wanted to do it all ourselves.
"It is a surprise to my family that I want to do it this way," she adds. "They worry, because they think Ian doesn't know how to look after a baby, and the new baby is the hardest, and they want me to be relaxed and get my body back, so they are worried. But for us, we do everything together and it always makes us stronger, and we can learn fast. It's a cultural thing."
Do they think this is a sign that she has become very westernised, I wonder. "No," says Yomiko, decisively. "No matter how many years I stay here, I'm still Asian. My mind is still Asian. I think I find a balance."
Ian, she says, is very pleased by the idea that she will introduce Asian blood into his family. And she loves the prospect of the new beginning, too. "Having a business makes you close, and getting married makes you closer," Yomiko says, "but a baby is going to give you the greatest closeness and strength as a couple."
When Yomiko says this, it's with full confidence. She's not asking for reassurance, she feels on steady ground with this one. And, in a matter of months from now, she'll have found her feet as a mother, too. She knows that her priorities will change once her little girl arrives, and she's not sure she's ready for that - "No one is ever ready!" - but that will work itself out. She will be the model mum, of that I have no doubt. And Yomiko's heartfelt desire is that the model mum will also get back to being a working model soon after that. The hormone-induced confidence-wobble is there, though.
"I'm still thinking and hoping, 'Have the baby, get my figure back, go back to work'. But maybe it's different when it happens," Yomiko says, looking for me to reassure her that it will go this way.
All I can say is that motherhood is, of course, always different when it happens. But mostly for the good.
Mary Grant, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, 59 Sth William St, tel: (01) 675-0881, or see marygrant.com
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Photographed by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
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