Wednesday 23 January 2019

Motherhood opens you in a way that’s extraordinary

Nora Twomey is an animator and director of the Oscar-nominated film The Breadwinner. Mother to Oliver (10) and Patrick (8) with her husband Michael McGrath, she reveals what parenthood has taught her

Nora Twomey. Photo: Ste Murray
Nora Twomey. Photo: Ste Murray

I didn’t realise how all-consuming children were

Before I had children, I had some kind of idea in my head that I would be working away on my computer and my little toddler would be quietly playing away beside me. The reality of children hit me with a big slap across the face.

Motherhood changes you as a person

When I had Oliver, I remember the first six months, I couldn’t actually listen to the news. I felt like my heart had been opened up and I realised what it took to raise a precious little being, what it was to be a mother, and the idea of people taking that away, like you’d hear it in a sentence or two on the news, I couldn’t cope with it. It took me a while to try to find some kind of emotional distance again from everything. It’s something that I’ve talked to other mothers about, as well — it opens you in a way that’s really extraordinary that you can’t explain beforehand. It certainly makes you a more empathetic being.

As a parent, I’m easygoing

My husband is a full-time dad. When Patrick was born we decided that one of us needed to quit working. I’d been one of the founders of Cartoon Saloon and I’d been director with the company for many years so I knew we couldn’t continue on, and we don’t have family in Kilkenny so we decided that Michael would give up for a few years. He’s a wonderful man and a great dad but I would say I’m the one who returns from a trip with presents and he’s telling me that we needed to have a little bit of discipline because somebody had done something very naughty and then I’d be sneaking the presents behind the back.

No matter what, you feel guilty

When you’re in work, you feel guilty that you’re not with your kids and when you’re with your kids you feel guilty that you’re not in work. I found it difficult, and over the years it’s changed, and as the children grew up it changed. I breastfed both children and Michael used to bring them in at lunchtime and I would breastfeed and pump in work. As the boys have gotten older, they understand that I need to go away on a trip whereas when they were toddlers, how to explain to a child that I’ll be back in two weeks? They have always been in and around the company, Cartoon Saloon, and I have always tried to use my position in the company to send a signal not just to the other women that I work with, but men as well, that it’s OK to have family, it’s OK to be human, it’s OK when your child gets sick to bring them in or to take a half day or be on a video message with your kid playing around in the background or interrupting you. This is all part of life and honestly, it makes everything more human. When you look at what we do, we’re an animation company telling stories and stories primarily for families, so you need to have a realistic view of what family life actually is like. We also try not to put unrealistic expectations on the people that we work with, it doesn’t serve anyone. 

The word cancer is something you don’t ever want to say to a six-year-old and an eight-year-old

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 but by trying to be honest with the children and taking every day as it came — because we didn’t know what the future held — having that kind of honesty there just gave them some stability when everything was up in the air. There is a fantastic charity here in Kilkenny called Cois Nore that runs workshops for children who are affected by cancer, children whose siblings or parents or grandchildren have a diagnosis and it was great because it gave them a vocabulary around it and a safe space to ask questions and things that maybe they didn’t want to ask me in case it was upsetting. It made everything, in a sense, matter of fact but in a very positive and healthy way.

The thing about being a mother and a director is that one informs the other

When my kids were quite small, they’d ask for two stories at night time, one from a book and one from my imagination. We talk about the work that I do and we talk about the characters so I make sure that they’re involved as much as they can be, and then they feel a sense of ownership of what their mother is doing as well.


‘The Breadwinner’ is now in Irish cinemas. The Breadwinner Exhibition, looking at behind the scenes, runs in the Butler Gallery, Kilkenny until the end of July.


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