Maia Dunphy on the loneliness of the long-distance marriage
Author Maia Dunphy talks to our reporter about the singular complications of her marriage to comic genius, Johnny Vegas - who lives in England while she resides in Dublin with their son - and how she envies women who are upset at their husbands for coming home late
A text message arrives from Maia Dunphy. "Collected baby Tom last night from my mum and asked her your question about what I was like as a child. She said I was 'very self-contained, extremely kind and a terrible worrier'." Frankly, I'm surprised that her mother Helen is even talking to her at all...
When the author/broadcaster was seven years of age she wrote an essay at school about how her mother and father, Tom, - a finance director at IBM and the president of Dublin Zoo until a few weeks ago - met. The subsequent literary masterpiece was a complete tissue of lies, of course, which her mother discovered to her horror when she opened one of Maia's old copy books. The inspiration for the tale that so mortified her mother came from the time when Maia and her family moved to Paris. She was "mesmerised" by the automatic toilets on the Champs-Elysees - "and how when you put in your money the door would open. Anyway, I was only seven. And I wrote that my mum was using one of these loos in Paris and my dad was waiting for her and then the door of the loo opened. Not true!"
Sometimes you feel that if Maia Dunphy didn't exist, some novelist (Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf or Harper Lee perhaps) would have to make her up. Adorable and kooky in equal measure, she is a work of fiction in and of herself. Earlier that day, over lunch in Dublin, Maia had said she couldn't quite see herself morphing into an ageless, permanently kale-juicing, yummy mummy in later life. "I'll just be a wrecked 60-year-old who enjoys life - and chips."
She is one of the most refreshing and entertaining women on television. Rattling with a hangover from the launch of her book The M Word: For Women who Happen to be Parents the previous evening - "I drank too many Cosmopolitans; how post-modern!" - Maia can't stop herself from being crushingly witty in person for 90 minutes. (I imagine she and her English comic genius husband Johnny Vegas, whom she married in 2011, staying up all night trying to outdo each other with profound witticisms on modern life.)
She claims that "two well-known people in television, who I can't name, told me when I was 35 'to take five years off your age now and you will get away with it'. I think it is really important that we see women on telly who are getting older as well. My currency is not beauty, clearly," says Maia, who actually looks like Julianne Moore in a certain light.
"I'm not a model. I don't have the teeth for telly. I don't have Botox. I have a wonky mouth. I'm one of the only people who doesn't have a crease-free forehead. I have never sold myself on how I look and I think that will stand to me. My eyebrows move and I have lines on my head. God, I wonder if I could just get rid of those. But I can't just get rid of those. I would look like a dinner plate.
"And I don't want to look like a dinner plate," says Maia eating her healthy chicken wrap with hummus and not looking remotely like a dinner plate.
Here ostensibly to talk up her new book, Maia is, in fact, officially the worst self-publicist in the history of book campaigns. (She is happier to talk about her granny and the Spanish civil war.) In the new book, she recounts being asked what she did with her placenta after Tom was born. "It was a revolting question!" Maia harrumphs, eating her chicken. "Personally, I find it slightly odd, but I love the defence: 'Well - animals do it'. [Eat the placenta.] Yeah, but that is for reasons of survival and predators, which hopefully doesn't apply to us. So, I didn't see my placenta. I had a C-section!"
In the book, she writes that motherhood is a lonely place. I point out to her that it is an even lonelier place to be in when her husband is in London, or further afield, and she is here in Dublin with their two-year-old, Tom.
How does that work? And how does she cope?
"It is very hard," she answers. "I am effectively a single mum, most of the time. I can't even take the bins out without bringing Tom with me because I wouldn't leave him six floors up on his own."
Tom is in a creche two days a week and her mother takes him a day or two a week. She says she is indebted to her mother for all the support she gives her with toddler Tom. "I wouldn't be able to work in the erratic way I inevitably have to if it wasn't for her."
I ask Maia has she perchance ever heard the phrase, 'If you want to know me, come live with me'.
"We tried that. It didn't work!" she says, her face of the non-dinner-plate variety vibrating with laughter.
"So we just went back to commuting. I am, of course, joking. You see, Johnny has a 14-year-old son," Maia says meaning Michael, his son from his first, short-lived marriage to Kitty Donnelly. "Otherwise Johnny would probably be over here more, but he always travels for work [too]."
Asked did she and Johnny ever live together, she says that they did for a time in London. "But the longest time we spent together before three years ago was our honeymoon of two weeks. That was the longest stretch of time together. That was really weird, and probably not very healthy."
Maia Dunphy's life is nothing if not complicated. Her initial plan was "to work for a little bit and then try for a baby. I got pregnant very quickly. I just spent the first three months in London going, 'Oh God! I'm pregnant'. It was quite lonely. So I had Tom over there."
Maia's mother came over to London for the first five weeks to help until Maia started coming back to Dublin when Tom was eight weeks old. "And then more work offers came in Dublin. So I just took them, pretty much every month."
"Johnny is away a lot. So I had to be in London for my stepson every second week and then I was flying back here. For about six months I was flying back every second week with Tom. It was really tough on the baby."
And on you, I say.
"I was exhausted. I was coming back for work and people were going, 'God - you look wrecked'. I was like, 'I know, and it is not just the baby. I was stuck in Heathrow for five hours'. It is a logistical nightmare. Four months ago she said to Johnny that she would rather be based in Dublin than London.
So, I joke, what is the secret of your happy marriage, Maia? You live in Dublin and he lives in England? "But you know what though? For a programme I did on relationships I spoke to different people about the different permutations and combinations of relationships and what works, and Margaret Nelson of FM104 said that she and her husband Joe Nally have done that their whole married life: he lives in London and she lives in Dublin, and they raised two kids."
Maia has an apartment in the Gasworks in Ringsend. "It is fine for me and Tom; when Johnny and Michael are over it gets a bit cramped. They were over last weekend. During the summer, she didn't see Johnny for two months because he was in the Lake District in England filming a show for the BBC. "I'm just used to it. It's not ideal."
Does she want to have an ideal marriage?
"I would hope, in time," she says. "With kids, it is very unpredictable. We don't know with Michael where he will go to college. I hope the plan would be that when Michael finishes school, Johnny would be based over here more. The thing is, he will always travel for work." Does she find that emotionally difficult?
"Oh, hugely, yeah," she replies. "I was sitting with my best friend last week and I just burst into tears. There are days when I am so tired and I envy women who are giving out about their husbands coming home late at 7pm. I just think, 'Oh, you're so lucky'. But you can't live your life that way either. It was my choice. It is not as if I married Johnny and we had a conventional set-up and he just pissed off."
In fairness, there was more than a touch of the unconventional in Maia Dunphy from an early age. She went to six primary schools growing up. St Patrick's in Dalkey; the International School in Paris for a couple of years; then the family moved back to Dublin where Maia went to Loreto College, St Stephen's Green for two whole days. "My mum just said: 'I didn't like leaving you with the nuns'. I was a really soft kid. I just panicked," she says adding that she was shuttled off to Rathdown for two years and then St Andrews."
Maia Dunphy is, she says, the classic middle child. She has an older brother, Mark, who lives in Ireland, and a younger sister, Anna, who lives in London. "Tom is the first grandchild in our family. He has brought so much joy. It wasn't something I anticipated because I was never sure I wanted to be a mum. I got pregnant so quickly; I was in a complete tailspin. I never anticipated the joy Tom would bring to my family."
Had she planned not to have kids? "I didn't plan not to have kids. I like change. I like spontaneity. Five-year plans are for dictators. I never make huge plans like that. But as you get older, you have to make plans. It was just that other things took precedence. I mean, Johnny would have 25 kids if he could. He adores kid. He got married. His first marriage didn't work out. I think it was hard for him to start again, but I know he said, 'If you want to have six kids, I'll have six kids'."
You're just not long enough in the same country together to have sex, I joke.
Whatever about six children, are Maia and Johnny planning on having another child? "I think I am too old. I'm actually 42. Everyone thinks I'm 41."
The source of her youthfulness is doubtless her love for Mr Vegas, whom she met in 2008 in Dublin. A few years previously, GQ Magazine dubbed Vegas the comedian who "has now stolen Robbie Coltrane's mantle as the Big Bloke Ladies Find Strangely Sexy". So it was to prove for Maia Dunphy.
"I was going out with someone for nearly eight years before Johnny. A really nice guy," she says. "We are good pals now. It wasn't acrimonious It just came to a natural end."
Maia had arranged to interview Vegas for a magazine. "I was trying to make extra money so I wouldn't have to rent the spare room in my apartment after my boyfriend moved out. Johnny was well known for disappearing and going out on the piss all night."
Sitting in the appointed venue at the agreed time, there was no sign of Vegas. "I thought he hadn't turned up and I texted him. The phone beeped and he was at the table behind me." He had a baseball hat on, had lost four stone, and was drinking herbal tea. She didn't recognise him. Herbal tea quickly dispensed with, Maia and Johnny then went "on the piss for 12 hours" and ended up in Lillie's Bordello nightclub on the night when the clocks went forward in March. "He was such a gentleman and not what I expected at all. I was only three months out of a long-term relationship."
Thus, when Johnny texted to ask if he came back in a few weeks could he take Maia out, she was about to reply that it was just a bit too soon for her - "and maybe our paths will cross again".
Then the postman - and more importantly, fate - intervened.
A letter arrived in the post with a waxed seal, with a beautiful handwritten card inside. "And my friend Maria said to me, you can't not go on a date with a man who sends you a handwritten card with a wax seal. So I did."
What was her parents' reaction when she told them who her new boyfriend was?
Maia's 80-year-old grandmother Conchita had just died. (Maia takes her middle name from her late granny.)
She and her family flew to Spain to scatter Conchita's ashes. Maia took the opportunity to tell her parents that she'd met this guy they might know from the telly.
"My mother's face fell. The worst thing was," Maia adds, her non-dinner-plate-face rattling with laughter once more, "when you Googled Johnny Vegas, the first picture of him you get is him naked doing the Demi Moore pose!"
Maia Dunphy's book, The M Word: For Women who Happen to be Parents, is out now, Gill Books, €14.99
ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (AND HER MOTHER)
"My granny Conchita had a really tough life. My granddad left when my mum was only a few months old and went back to Portugal. My granny fled Spain in the civil war and arrived in England just in time for World War II.
"She didn't speak English. She didn't have shoes. She always said that because she was beautiful that life is easier when you are beautiful. People helped her out. I think she got a job stitching parachutes initially in a factory. It was really tough on your hands.
"She was from Motril, south of Granada. Most people aren't familiar with that part of Spain. Johnny and I were married in Seville because of her. I love that part of Spain.
"In the post-Franco years there is still a shadow over Spain. There is a darkness to Spanish people who don't talk about it. Before my granny died I recorded her about it. I was chatting to my cousins and uncles after she died and they said: 'Oh, that's not true at all'. That's why they always say that history books can't be written until at least one generation has passed.
"My mum was born in England and stayed with Conchita until she was about four but then went to live with her Aunt Maria in Weston-super-Mare while Conchita stayed working in London. Her Uncle Arthur became a dad to her. I never knew him sadly. My mum ended up being raised by her aunt and her uncle because when my granddad left she just couldn't..."
"Conchita was a born coper. She was pretty tough. But she was doing whatever jobs she could, working long hours in catering and living in a flat in a tower block in London. So she knew my mother would be better off in Weston-super-Mare. My mother was really happy there and is a well-balanced person despite her upbringing. It is kind of extraordinary.
"My grandfather married again and, we think, settled in Lisbon. My mum never saw him again."
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