Vicky Phelan: ‘I do try and have the conversations to try and prepare them for what’s going to come’

From the Irish Times archive: The women’s health advocate on parenthood and how she told her children about her terminal cancer, from our Parenting in My Shoes series

Vicky Phelan with her family, Amelia, Darragh and Jim, at the launch of her book Overcoming, at the University of Limerick. Photograph: Alan Place

“I didn’t expect parenthood to be as hard as it is,” says Vicky Phelan, author, women’s health advocate and mother of two. “I’ll never forget the pain of giving birth. You can never really prepare someone for it and I think parenthood is the same.”

Vicky, whose daughter Amelia and son Darragh are 15 and nine respectively, says a six-year age gap was never part of her plan, “In my head, I would have had maybe a two-year gap, but there was no way. I just wasn’t ready.

“Darragh’s was a textbook pregnancy. Nothing happened with him. Amelia was a totally different kettle of fish.”

When Vicky was 28 weeks pregnant with Amelia, a scan revealed a problem with her baby. She was hospitalised for three weeks as doctors attempted to uncover the issue. It was discovered that Amelia had congenital toxoplasmosis. ”It was horrendous, not knowing what was going to be wrong with her,” Vicky says.


“They couldn’t tell us whether she’d be blind or brain damaged. It was a horrible pregnancy. And then for the first two years of her life we were up and down to Crumlin every six weeks, in and out to the local hospital three times a week, injecting her three days a week, medication three times a day. It was horrendous, horrible. And we still really didn’t know until she got older what she could see, and she was very slow with all her milestones.

“I got terrible postnatal depression after I had her. That put me off for years. I nearly didn’t have Darragh, to be honest. It was my mother who convinced me to go again the second time. I’m glad she convinced me.”

"I took up running after Amelia. I was like Forrest Gump. I ran and ran and ran and it worked for me. That and acupuncture. And I found a postnatal support group online which was fantastic for me at the time."

Vicky Phelan.

Darragh’s pregnancy was problem-free, but Vicky suffered postnatal depression once again following his birth. “I hated the baby stage,” Vicky admits.

Vicky didn’t share with many people what she was going through. “I didn’t talk about it publicly. My mother knew, my sister knew, but that was it.

“You feel ashamed. You go through the stuff in your head – ‘What’s wrong with me, I’ve a perfectly healthy baby here’, particularly when Darragh came along. I should be feeling happy – ‘Snap out of it.’

“Before I had cancer I always felt guilty, for lots of reasons. One of the reasons particularly was postnatal depression. I had nearly two years of it on Amelia, and with Darragh a year and a half. That’s 3½ years of postnatal depression with two kids. During a lot of that period I hated being a mother. I didn’t want to be a mother. I would have gladly walked away from it, to be honest.”

With her children now older, Vicky says she has learned “that children are far more resilient than adults are, and much more accepting and better able to deal with things. I take a lot of my cues from my kids.

“Amelia had a hard life. She was born with a rare condition. She’s got a visual impairment. She got very badly burned at seven.”

Amelia developed epilepsy when she hit puberty. “She had her first massive epileptic seizure in school at the age of 11 and she nearly lost her eyesight twice.”

What am I going to do, wait until it happens?

Vicky hasn't shied away from speaking with her children about her terminal cancer diagnosis. "I remember saying to someone recently about talking to Amelia about my death and about throwing my ashes out at the beach in Doonbeg and asking her did she want to get a necklace she could keep ashes in. I remember saying this to somebody and they were horrified and they said, 'How can you talk to your daughter about that?' and I said 'Because we can'. What am I going to do, wait until it happens?

“You have to talk to your children and give them information. I think what they imagine is worse than what is actually happening. I’ve always told them, along the way, what’s going on. They’ve never been left to wonder or to imagine, with my cancer, what’s going on. My husband and myself have separated. We’re still together, but not together. The kids know that that’s the situation, we’ve been up-front about that with them as well.”

Vicky has lived the reality of needing to be up-front and open with her children. Following her very public court case in the wake of the cervical check scandal, Darragh, who was aware of his mother’s cancer, became worried by a comment from a child at school.

“I hadn’t told him that there was a chance I was going to die from it. But one of the boys in the schoolyard got to him first. Now it wasn’t nasty, obviously parents talking at home, and he said: ‘Is your mammy going to die?’ I explained to him about the new drug and how it worked and we sat down and talked about it. He was much better then.

“They’re not worried. I don’t look like I’m sick. I don’t look like I’m dying. It’s only at times I get sick, or last year I was in hospital for a week, I was quite sick then and we were all really worried.

I do try and have the conversations to try and prepare them for what’s going to come

“There are days when I get tired but the kids know that and if I go off and lie down they don’t bat an eyelid. As long as I’m well and I look well and I’m doing normal mammy things they don’t really worry. I do try and have the conversations to try and prepare them for what’s going to come. It’s very hard.”

If Vicky had to change anything about her parenting, she says she’d like to cut back on the “constant nagging – ‘Put on your coat. You’re not going out in that.’ It’s coming from a good place but it comes across as nagging.

“I’d like to have been more the fun parent. But I’m probably not,” she concedes.

For Vicky, one of the highs of motherhood has been “the unconditional love”. “I could have been after having a row with Amelia and 10 minutes later she’s then sitting beside me curled up on the sofa. It’s totally different the love that you have for your children that you’d have for anybody else and the way they love you. I love watching my kids sleeping. I just look at them and I think, my God, they’re mine, I made them.

“I do think one of the things having a terminal diagnosis has taught me is that you just have to enjoy life in the moment, and I have done that. I think I’ve made up for a lot of it over the last couple of years because I’ve never been as well mentally. I’m off all medication, I’ve been really good, consistently. I haven’t been depressed in 2½ years and it’s brilliant and it’s been great for the kids because their mother is back.

“It’s been nearly six years since I got cancer. I’m doing very well to be still here. All along I was thinking if I could get to Darragh’s communion, and that was last April. Darragh’s nine now so I’m getting brave now and I’m thinking, ‘well, I want to see double digits now’.”

Parenting in My Shoes