Ciara Kelly: I was pregnant, unmarried, a junior doctor and I got old-school comments

Newstalk’s Ciara Kelly: prompting women to talk openly about their fears and experiences. “I feel we’re pulling back a veil,” she says. Photograph: RTÉ

“Pregnancy never suited me,” admits broadcaster and mother-of-four Ciara Kelly, recalling the aches, pains and symphysis pubis pain she struggled with during her pregnancies. “I found it very difficult to walk and that would have come on very early in the pregnancy – I’d say I was three months in.

“I have hyper-flexible joints, so I think there’s probably a lot of movement in my pelvis and stuff so I was kind of half crippled in terms of I wasn’t able to walk, I found it very difficult to sleep.”

Yet, in spite of finding pregnancy difficult, Ciara was determined not to let it put her off having the family size she wanted, and went into her pregnancies knowing it would be challenging but with her “eye on the prize”.

But it wasn’t just aches and pains Ciara had to deal when she had her first child 20 years ago.

Ciara Kelly and two of her sons
Ciara Kelly and two of her sons

“Obviously, we all know that attitudes were terrible in the 50s and they weren’t great in the 70s or the 80s – but they weren’t brilliant around the millennium either,” she explains “So I was pregnant and unmarried and I was working as a junior doctor and certainly I got some old school comments – not many I have to say, but in particular from one old school consultant who didn’t approve to be fair.

“I think he thought I’d brought some disreputableness into being a doctor being pregnant and unmarried and that was sort of intimated to me, more than once. It kind of seems ridiculous now, but this is what we’ve lived through.”

I think I understood I was pregnant, but I didn’t understand that really meant I was going to be a mother, and I know that sounds ridiculous

Ciara found the adjustment to motherhood challenging. “I struggled to get my head around motherhood on baby number one,” Ciara says. “It wasn’t a planned pregnancy. I didn’t have many friends at that stage who had babies, and I think I understood I was pregnant, but I didn’t understand that really meant I was going to be a mother, and I know that sounds ridiculous. I think I knew I was going to have a baby, but I thought that was the end point. I didn’t realise that it was going to go on and on and on.

Ciara Kelly’s children
Ciara Kelly’s children

“I remember when I weaned him, when he went on to solids. Within a day or two I’d got him up to three little baby porridges or baby rices, whatever we fed him at the time, three times a day. I remember thinking ‘that’s great I have that done now’ and then it struck me, I’m going to be feeding him for the rest of his life. I kept thinking each achievement, little thing was the end.

“It took me a while to go from young and free to motherhood mentally. I think I was afraid a lot of the time about getting it right or getting it wrong. I do remember the first time I was ever alone with him, it was about two weeks in. I remember looking at him lying on the bed thinking ‘I’ve got to keep you alive all day by myself’.

“The whole thing just seemed quite daunting to me in a way. I was the youngest in my family so I wasn’t used to small babies or anything. I hadn’t had younger siblings to raise or help raise. It was a bit of a challenge.”

Being a mother who is also a doctor is a type of “parent super-power”, Ciara says. “There’s a lot of comfort in being a doctor when you have kids, because you do understand which rash is which and how bad a fever is and you can examine their throats and their ears.”

Ciara Kelly and her daughter
Ciara Kelly and her daughter

But, she adds “they’re still your kids. You’re not objective. You’re not actually a doctor with your kids, you’re just a mammy with extra knowledge.”

Being a doctor, however, didn’t stop Ciara from experiencing her fair share of terrifying moments as a parent. “The health thing that was the biggest challenge for us was that we had quite a bad asthmatic, properly bad, we would call it brittle asthmatic and I lived in a bit of terror for a couple of years. We would have had a nebuliser at home and a rake of drugs on hand and that was a bit scary. He outgrew it, totally outgrew it [but] as a baby was quite seriously ill and was hospitalised several times with it.

“That scared the absolute bejaysus out of me. That was a horrible fear because there were a few times I wasn’t sure he wasn’t going to stop breathing between my house and Crumlin hospital and that was despite the fact that we could get to Crumlin hospital if we broke every light in about 25 minutes.”

Children v teenagers

Parenting older children is Ciara’s preferred stage and she has no nostalgia about the fact that two of her children have reached adulthood. “I actually find it easier to parent kids as they get older because I have loved seeing them get older for a start. I have loved seeing them emerge into the people that they are. I don’t see my kids as an extension of me or anything like that. I see them as their own little people.

I have actually loved parenting teens

“I love seeing them emerge from the generic-ness of childhood into the individual-ness of adulthood. People often say that parenting teens is very hard and very crap and that has not been my experience.

“I have actually loved parenting teens. I have enjoyed the freedom and the liberation of having older kids, because you aren’t necessary in the same way. You are massively necessary but you are necessary in a way that I am more comfortable with.”

Ciara Kelly’s children
Ciara Kelly’s children

The notorious “mammy-guilt” made its presence felt over the course of Ciara’s parenting journey. “I actually had two-way guilt”, she says. “I had work guilt and I had mammy guilt. I actually felt I was doing neither very well at one stage. I didn’t feel I was on top of my job the way I wanted to be and I didn’t feel I was on top of my parenting the way I wanted to be.

“The way I kind of coped with that juggling it all was by compartmentalising as largely as I could, and what I mean by that, I literally coped by kind of going ‘when I’m at work I have to focus at work because my job is kind of a proper serious job with patients who are properly ill, they deserved a lot of my attention, pretty much all of it while I was there and then my kids deserve it’. I was quite compartmentalised and when I went home I didn’t want to know about work, I didn’t want to think about it. But when I was at work, I really didn’t want to hear about home, unless it was a crisis I didn’t want to know.”

Trolled

As a parent in the public eye, Ciara has also had to deal with her children managing some of the fallout of social media backlashes that Ciara has experienced.

“The first time I ever got trolled was when I was on operation transformation and I criticised one of the leader’s drinking and that was the first time I ever had a social media backlash ever and that would have been around 2015”, she explains. And my eldest, it was awful, actually saw some of it, and he commented. He tried to defend me in the media.

“People didn’t know he was my son, and they gave this poor kid – I’d say he was only about 14 at the time – they gave him a hard time. That nearly killed me, but I sat him down and I said to him, people who are trolling me don’t actually know me. It’s just a random topic to them to do with the telly. It’s nothing. They’re strangers and they don’t know me and they’re strangers to us.

I said ‘this will pass. They will forget about it. I will forget about it. You will forget about it’

“You have to at some part in your life recognise that the opinions of strangers are not something that you can spend too much time worrying about because if you do, you spent a lot of time heartsick, and it’s a bit like being an adolescent then because you’re worried about what these people you don’t even know think about you.

“And I said ‘this will pass. They will forget about it. I will forget about it. You will forget about it but you have to remember and you have to grow strong enough to know that these opinions don’t matter.’”

Ciara Kelly and her one of her sons
Ciara Kelly and her one of her sons

For Ciara, the lows of parenthood have centred around early parenthood and health challenges. “Like the times they were properly sick,” she explains. “The fear as a parent, when you can’t protect them, that’s the low. And the drudgery of toddlerhood and babyhood because I found that hard and also pregnancy too.”

The highs, she says are “just seeing them grow up”.

“Both my older two have part-time jobs which I was very keen that they would. And I remember the first time going into a restaurant where one of my kids worked and they were serving a table next to me and I was so proud, they might as well have become a rocket scientist. And I was so proud thinking ‘look at them out in the world’, so all the little achievements. I’m kind of in awe of my kids.” 

Parenting in my Shoes
Part 1:
Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6:
Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper

Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe