'Memories are something I'll always treasure' - well-known Irish dads on grief, financial struggles, separation and fatherhood
In honour of Father's Day, we spoke to a number of men on their experience of being a parent. Today's fathers are no longer the distant figure - often at work, behind a newspaper, or on the receiving end of a hot dinner - they might have been in the past. These men speak to Liadan Hynes about becoming a father at a young age, dealing with life when things go off the path of what you expected, of staying at home full-time, of regret, loss, joy, and blending two families after separation. Of what it is to be a father now.
TV presenter, businessman
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
I was a very young dad; Chloe came along when I was 21. She's now 18, and doing her Leaving Cert, which is bonkers. Becoming a father at that age was nuts. My mates were all going on their lads' holidays, and there I was minding a one-year-old child. It was a total shock to the system, and a total 'wow, I'm a dad, and I'm 21'.
Growing up, I was always babysitting; minding my cousins, or the next-door neighbours. And I was the middle of six children in our family. I grew up being around kids all the time, so it didn't phase me. When I became a dad it was like 'yeah, I know how to change a nappy, I know how to make a bottle'. So I kind of took it all in my stride and really enjoyed it. Now I have Ollie and Louis, who are six and three. They all get on famously. Chloe is Louis's godmother, which is great.
I think if you spoke to my wife Pippa, she'd say she's the strict one, and she puts manners on them, which she does, in fairness. And I'd be the messer, the one they'd go to for a bit of fun; kicking the ball, a bit of sport. Ollie's at the age where he loves his golf, so that's great, we can do that together. I brought him out a couple of weeks ago for nine holes. I was saying to Pippa 'there's no way he'll last nine holes', but he did not want to come in, he absolutely loved it. So I'm looking forward to when Louis gets that bit older, and we can all play golf together. I love the stuff they say, and seeing their personalities grow. They pick up on everything. You might think they're not listening, so I think you need to be very careful. But I just love their little personalities.
Writer, musical comedian
My daughters are 11 and 13. I grew up in Carlow in a family of three kids; I had a wonderful experience, with very loving parents. So for me that was ideal, and I've always wanted kids.
When Ailbhe was born, it was the best thing ever. Martha and I had just bought a house, the job was going pretty well, and I remember thinking this is the happiest I've ever been. I had a real, distinct feel of 'this is exactly what I want, and it is going to be great'. And for the first year, it really was. She was a great baby. We were like 'we're nailing this parenting thing. Everyone said this was going to be hard, but actually, we've got this. Let's have another one'.
After about a year with Ailbhe, some of her autistic traits started to come through, and she got very frustrated in herself, had difficulties in communicating. We didn't really know what was going on for about a year and a half. We were kind of 'what are we doing wrong, what have we changed?' Myself and my wife, we're good at communicating. But at the same time, we both had suspicions about things, but it's very hard to vocalise it. It makes it very real. It was actually my wife who rang me one afternoon and said I think she's on the spectrum. When she said it, I was like 'yeah so do I'.
Ailbhe would be what they call high functioning, there's no better word than that I suppose, and Sophie would be more profound.
We had to do a parenting course, which I think everybody should have to do. It was great. This is what you need to do, this is how you deal with this; the rudimentary stuff.
The recession came along in the middle of all of that, which was great fun. I was working for a large development company that went to the wall, and I lost my job. I was out of a job for about six weeks. The stress of that was immense. The idea of being a father, and not having a job; I really felt the pressure on myself, rather than on myself and my wife. This is something I should be doing, and I'm failing. I'm going to fail to keep a roof over my family's head. Luckily, I did get a job, but the pay was about half of what I had been getting. I think we went into nearly €10-12,000 of arrears.
Martha suffers from chronic depression and from hypersomnia, which means she needs a lot more sleep; 12-14 hours a day. Because of that she has gone to counselling. So when people ask me 'what do you do?' to help with stress; I do musical comedy.
I went back to music, and to writing songs, just for stress relief. Going out and doing gigs was a bit of not being a father for a little while. When things started to settle down, I did start to write material about the family life, and that actually was very helpful as well. To get outside of it.
We're probably at the best place we've been in a decade now. The rule we have is we can't both be crazy at once. So my wife says 'if you need time, let me know'. When things were going really badly, and I knew I was going to lose the job, and the girls were on the spectrum, and Martha was suffering from depression, I was sort of taking everything on myself, I had a little bit of a meltdown. There was a broken toilet seat involved, let's put it like that. Martha said 'OK, you need to get away for a few days at least'.
Part of that for me was going out and doing the gigging. The thing we didn't expect was that I would get successful at it. That put a bit of pressure on us again. I went and did this comedy competition 'So You Think You're Funny'. And I won it. I got about €6,000 for it, so I was able to go into the bank and sort out most of our arrears. So the comedy was a stress relief in two ways.
I did it for a couple of years after that, until it was starting to get in the way of family life. I decided I was going to draw a line under it. Now when I come home from work at six o'clock we have dinner together as a family.
Ailbhe is 13 now, she's into the teenager zone, so she just wants to be left alone. Whereas Sophie, she's like a very large toddler, she takes a bit of looking after, and she can be dangerous when she's left on her own. So to write my book (Corn Flakes for Dinner: A Heartbreaking Comedy about Family Life), I had to have her beside me, in the spare room where I have the computer set up.
I'd put her in the bed beside me, she might be on the iPad for an hour and then she would go to sleep, hopefully. She has ear defenders, because she babbles a lot. It's very hard to write with that. So I would wear her ear defenders! One night, I was sitting there, and I thought 'I'm just too tired, this is too hard'. I was about halfway through the book, I thought just for tonight I'm not going to do it. I'm done. Sophie came over and said 'no, Daddy, chair. Daddy chair, Daddy write'. She likes the little structure; 'this is the way this is now, and I'm happy with that'.
With Sophie, the thing is she's always going to be with us. That thing that other fathers get, where there's going to be a progression in life here, I have that with Ailbhe, but not as much with Sophie. There is that underlying worry of what happens if I get sick. What happens to her when I get old, what's going to happen to her after we die. It's always there, the low-level hum.
I'm fine with it, but I feel like I'm going to be stuck at this level of fatherhood with Sophie for probably the rest of our lives. She can be challenging at times, but we go out to the cinema, we go for walks, we have fun. It's just different, from the sort of fun I thought it would be.
Cornflakes for Dinner: A Heartbreaking Comedy about Family Life, Gill Books.
Managing Director, Sugarculture
I have five children; Charlotte 13, Isabella 11, Ely is nearly 10. I have those three children with my ex-wife Paula Callan, I now have Riley who is five, and Frankie, who is a newborn baby, with Amy.
I was 33 when Charlotte was born. You're lured into this false sense of security when the baby first comes out. Everything's so wonderful; you're in total awe, falling in love. And then I suppose a few days go by, and then all of a sudden you realise that the feeds are continuous, the changing the nappies are continuous. There's broken sleep. Your life has to change, because you can't just do what you want, when you want. You have to pre-organise everything. Even going to the shops, you're packing your bag, planning what you're going to bring, timings for feeds.
A newborn baby is so small, so fragile, there's a nervousness there. Even now, on my fifth kid, I find changing my new baby Frankie's nappy nerve-racking, while I would have no problem changing nappies of eighteen-month-old kids.
I'd like to think I'm very hands-on as a father, that I am setting a good example. I'm as firm as possible, but of course you can only be so firm. A lot of the time with fatherhood, or parenthood, you're like a referee.
Paula and I are very fortunate in that we have forged a very good friendship. And we have learnt to be allies. Most break-ups are challenging, unfortunately. But I remember very clearly what happened with me and Paula. She was expecting Caleb at the time, with her partner Kev. We were going in and out of court, and I remember saying to her 'you're bringing a new child into the world, and we already have three beautiful children, let's just try and do this as amicably as possible'. And she totally agreed. The day we had that conversation, and we decided to put the kids first, was the day everything changed. Slowly. It didn't instantly do a 180. It was like trying to turn the Titanic a little bit. But it did turn.
Once we started making kinder gestures towards each other, and started to show more positivity to each other, then slowly the trust came. The anger started to dilute a little bit. Our friendship has been vital to us as parents.
My children adore their mother, and they don't want to hear their father saying a bad word about their mother, and vice versa. So if they hear me being positive about the woman they love, that makes them happy. They feel secure in themselves, and feel that the environment that they're living in is a very positive one. And that's the way we both want our children to be brought up.
My kids were young enough when we separated, and I remember thinking they were young enough that it was never going to be a problem. But of course one day the penny did drop, and they did realise. Things like 'why am I going back to Daddy's house for a week? Why do I have two homes?' It did, of course, bring challenges.
If there was separation anxiety from their mother, we had to listen to the children and give them what they needed. It broke my heart, but I had to step back a little bit and let them stay in their mother's house more; we had a week on, week off, arrangement. I had to wait for them to come back.
They need to know sometimes that if they need to be with their mother, that is OK. I found that very hard, and I remember the therapist saying 'are you going to be OK?' and I was like 'well what can I do? My children have to come first'.
I was very nervous about how my older children would feel about my new children. More about this baby, to be honest, because the kids were a little bit younger when Riley was born. I was nervous about the dynamics. Thankfully, they have embraced it massively. The day we told them, my two daughters burst into tears. Myself and Amy instantly thought the worst. I was like 'Good tears, bad tears? Good tears, bad tears?' I must have said it 10 times. Eventually they took a breath and said 'good tears'. It has been a very positive experience from that moment on.
As they get older, you find you're all sitting down together and you realise you're having a real laugh. I'm really starting to enjoy the company of my children. At the much younger ages, you can't wait to get them to bed for that bit of peace and quiet. Now, I'm starting to buzz off them. These are great little people, and they're great craic.
I am a father of three. One of them is 25, one is 23 and the other is 15. I was about 39-40 when my first child was born. It was brilliant, from the word go. It was just the next phase, and it was fantastic, couldn't have been better. You get the bit where they are kids, the bit where they are teenagers - and I never minded that bit, I quite liked the teenage bit. I still do, because I've got one right now. They're all kind of cool, and they raise their eyes to heaven because dad has said something stupid, but you do it kind of deliberately, because dads are meant to be slightly uncool.
I am so not strict to the point that I sometimes think maybe a little bit more of that might be a bit better sometimes. But do I regret being completely laid back and not giving two f**ks about anything? I don't. You let them live their life, and you live yours, and you meet in the middle. Generally, I think I can be beyond reason not strict, and sometimes I think maybe that can be a bit much. Maybe I should have been a bit more. I just didn't give a damn; in a good way.
My own father was very much in the background when I was very small, as was the case in those days. I really got to know my father much better when I grew up. We would go for dinner together and have a pint or two at least once a week. His words of advice to me were that if I was ever lucky enough to have children of my own, to spend as much time with them as possible. I wish I had listened more carefully to his wise words.
When I first became a father myself, Sallyanne and I were ecstatic. Here was this little girl, Sarah May, that was not only a part of us, but that was totally dependent on us - on me especially. That's how I felt. When Andrew came along six years later, I was elated. I love my daughter, but having a boy and a girl was a blessing in my mind. My friends used to tease me that I had a 'gentleman's family'. It brought a whole new meaning to the word fatherhood. I was very hands-on with both Sarah May and Andrew, but having two children was so much different. Both myself and Sallyanne worked long hours to try and make a better life for our children. We had them both in school in town; just around the corner from l'Ecrivain Restaurant. It meant that I could share in the driving them to school every day as well as collecting them. Those hours in the car in the morning and afternoon were precious. It kept me in the loop. I never left lunch service until the last main course was served, so I could be a bit tetchy if people were late for lunch in those days because it meant I would be late collecting the kids from school!
I was always a sailor and loved the sea. We enrolled both children in the Sailing School in Courtown, Co Wexford. For years we had a mobile home there, where both kids would spend the carefree summer months. We were very lucky with nannies and babysitters. My mother-in-law, Sadie, was always amazing with our kids - and they in turn adored her too. My one big regret is that I was always working. When other families were spending Friday evening and Saturdays doing family things, we were working. We were always shattered on a Sunday after a busy Saturday evening in the restaurant. However, saying all that, we always made the effort to go out on a Sunday.
When Andrew was about six, he started quad biking and that led on to motorcycle racing. He loved anything mechanical on wheels. By the time he was 12, he had begun motor racing and at 14 he was driving in the Junior Ginetta Class in Ireland. Motor Sports Ireland are so great with the encouragement they give to all the kids, both boys and girls. I was never a big motor sports fan, but I was so happy to support my son and travel to venues all over the country and abroad with him. Andrew was a great sportsman and a great sport. He played rugby in Clongowes and I had played in St Conleth's School too; it was something we both had in common. We all loved going to watch Leinster and Ireland play rugby. The schoolboy rugby matches were somewhere both Sarah May and Andrew and Sallyanne and I loved to go to as a family. We did lots together and my one regret is that we did not do more.
Memories are something I will always treasure. We had some wonderful holidays as a family, and got to see a lot of the world together. The time I spent with my children growing up is a time I wish I had over again. I keep thinking I might have done more and maybe made more family choices as opposed to work choices. Since Andrew died in 2012 I have had a lot of time to think about the past. But that conversation is for another day.
Stay-at-home dad and blogger
I have two daughters, Mia turned seven in May, and Elle is four next month. For the last three years I've been a full-time stay-at-home dad, which was largely driven by health issues. I was diagnosed with multiple signs of heart disease in both sides of my heart at 37. Four stents later, I'm a very lucky person to be here, such was the damage to both sides of the heart. All gene related. But it's actually turned out to be the best bit of bad news I ever received. I was in a sales and account management job with an Irish tech start-up company, which I loved. After the stents I was in a cardiac rehab programme, trying to get my confidence and energy back. The blood pressure was going through the roof. I had gone back to work, but I had gone back too soon, I wasn't selling. I was putting pressure on myself; I became this negative stress ball. My wife, Mel, was starting a new job, our au pair was moving on, and it just dawned on me, why would I not look after my own kids?
It was a difficult decision to make, but for me it wasn't because I was banging my chest, going 'I'm the man, I need to provide'. There was a small element of that, but because I was working for a start-up, my wife's salary dwarfed mine, so for me it was more a bit of fear, more than anything else, that I would be solely responsible for these two little human beings. And that kind of put the fear of God in me for a while, until the penny dropped and I thought 'why wouldn't I?'
But it was great, I literally took to it like a duck to water. I had worked remotely before, from the house, which helped. So the huge mind shift that a lot of men go through, when they're used to commuting and they have the office buzz, it wasn't a huge shift in my mind, going from working in the house as my office, to just being around the house.
You know that saying in Little Britain, the only gay in the village? Well, I swapped that, for saying I was the only dad in the village. I went to lots of groups, nine times, if not 10 times, out of 10, I was the only dad in the group. I had no problem doing that, getting stuck in. The response was usually warm. Once or twice, for an initial minute, maybe 10 seconds, you could see for a split second a double take. Oh, it's a dad! Within 10 seconds that changed to fair play, that's brilliant, come on in. I never felt isolated.
At times there is a natural want for Mammy, and sometimes you get the brunt of that. It doesn't' happen that often, but in the past I struggled with that. You'd think 'I'm doing everything I can, it might not be the exact same as Mammy would do it', and then you're kind of comparing yourself. But, thankfully, it hasn't been a huge thing.
Myself and my wife have set up our own company, called bookywooky.ie. It allows people to create a 100pc personalised baby board book. With regard to going back into the workforce to work under somebody else, at the moment I've no plans to do that. I love what I do with the girls, that I've time to blog, and write for Family Friendly HQ, and to spend quality time with my kids. I can't see why I'd want to change that. That's also a huge compliment to my wife. She has an amazing job, that allows me to do what I do. Mel, my wife, says 'well it works both ways. What you do allows me to do what I do'. So it's a lovely combination.
Bookywooky.ie, the stentedpapa.com