Colm O’Gorman: Our daughter had to deal with people saying negative things about her family

Parenting in My Shoes: One in Four founder on the challenges, and privilege, of fatherhood

In spite of always wanting to be a dad, fatherhood wasn't something that Colm O'Gorman, the One in Four founder and executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, thought would happen.

“Like most people, I imagined a future where I’d grow up, get married and have kids, have a family and that would be that. But, first of all, realising that I was gay was a bit of a challenge in that. Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s meant that really wasn’t something that seemed in any way possible. By the time I got to my mid-20s I had kind of let go of that idea and accepted that wasn’t going to be part of my life.”

A friend’s pregnancy some years later changed everything. “When I was 30 a very close friend of mine told me that she was pregnant. It was unexpected. She said that she was alone. She had an uncertain future because she had an illness that was likely terminal, and she asked me that, if something happened to her, would I be her child’s guardian.

“That was a massive moment. So I thought about that and absolutely wanted to, but in talking it through with her there were a couple of things that concerned me. First of all, we were not really talking about if, we were talking about when – we both knew that. I was thinking about a future where that child would face the loss of its sole parent, its mum, and then have to try to get used to the idea that I would step in and be [a] parent.


To have to tell a child that their mum has died, that's a fairly awful moment

“No matter how involved I’d been in his life up until then... the trauma of that for that little one really bothered me... It felt like something incredibly important and right, so I said that I would absolutely want to do it but that I would want to be his dad from the beginning, on the condition that he understood how that came about.

“She was very supportive of that. So then I found myself not just preparing to be a parent but going through pregnancy and being very involved in the pregnancy. It was just the most extraordinary privilege and the most incredible time.

“His sister came along a few years later. And again it was clear that this was something that might happen in the future: that she would also need parenting and care. Their mum did die, in 2006, and both of them had been with us for a little while then. Our son came to live with us first when he was almost six, and his sister came a year and a half later. Their mum, sadly, died a couple of years later.

“To have to tell a child that their mum has died, that’s a fairly awful moment,” O’Gorman says, describing the difficulty of not being able to protect his children from grief. “It was awful, but all you can do is love them and hold them through it.”

When O'Gorman returned to Ireland at the age of 36, having left for London at 19, he was unsure how he and his family might find the move. "I was coming back at a time when, obviously, I had been very involved in campaigning on work on child sexual abuse in the context of the Catholic Church. I'd set up One in Four. We found ourselves moving back to Wexford, which is my home county, just because of property prices and the quality of life we wanted them to have. So that was bizarre, not least because I was in the middle of suing the diocese of Ferns and the pope.

“And all of the schools here locally were generally Catholic Church schools, and how would that work? We had loads of anxieties, and the kids were both mixed race, and back then Ireland was very, very white. But those were concerns as opposed to well-founded fears that were based on experience, because I just didn’t know what Ireland would be like.”

In fact, O'Gorman's children never had "anybody say anything negative about their family in all of their time at school", he says.

But things changed in the run-up to the referendum on marriage equality, in 2015.

"I always remember my daughter saying that the first time she ever heard anything negative about her family was during the marriage-equality campaign, when the posters went up," he says. "I can remember the first time I ever spoke or wrote anything about marriage equality: I used to do a regular column on Drivetime on RTÉ, and I wrote an opinion piece on it, and some of the stuff that we got was fairly extreme.

“I can remember letters coming into me at work saying, ‘Pity the child raised by two queers,’ this kind of stuff. But attitudes were very, very different, and this narrative somehow that same-sex couples were a risk to children was very much part of the narrative, and it wasn’t questioned or challenged.

“I remember coming home one evening and just trying to clear my head, and I was going to go out for a run. Our daughter was sitting at the kitchen table, writing something, and she said, ‘Look, will you read this?’ She was doing her Junior Cert that year as well, and I thought she wanted me to read an essay. I said, ‘Can you give me half an hour, just to clear my head, and I’ll come back and I’ll look at it with you. What is it?’

“And she said, ‘I saw those posters today, and I just felt angry about it, and I wanted to write something.’ So I looked at it. She’d actually written a piece about her reaction to the posters and her reaction to that negativity, and I was really struck by that, and was angry about the fact that she was doing that, so I tweeted off something about for the first time in her life our daughter is now having to deal with people saying negative things about her family.”

O’Gorman says he has made a point of being honest with his children not only about their own story but also about his. “I wrote a memoir that was published back in 2009 that was very frank. Preparing them for that was important, so if they wanted to read it they could, and then I could talk to them about it. Our son chose to read it, and we had conversations about it, and our daughter chose not to. Her response was, ‘I know about the things that happened to you, but I don’t want to know all about the things that happened to you,’ and that was okay, because she was being supported to establish and then set her own boundary and way of dealing with that.

“Our approach to parenting on pretty much everything was: provide the kids with information in an appropriate way, at an appropriate time, and make sure it’s available to them. When it came down to conversations around sex and sexuality and reproduction and all of those sort of issues, that doesn’t start at a particular point. There was never a moment where we sat the kids down in the kitchen to have ‘the talk’. There were lots of conversations over many years.”

And though a friend’s mother offered to take his daughter shopping for her first bra, O’Gorman says this was something he and his husband were well capable of doing themselves. “I was fairly comfortable with that anyway, because I grew up with three sisters. My eldest sister in particular used to send me into the local shop in Wexford to buy her tampons and her Mills & Boon novels,” he says, laughing.

“We were able to have those conversations and, similarly, in preparing her for her first period, making sure that she understood and she was prepared and she’d have what she needed. I mean, all of those conversations happened, and she had her sanitary towels in her school bag in case she ever needed them. None of that was going to be a surprise for her, and there wasn’t anything that she wasn’t prepared for.”

Aware of what his children might be exposed to through the use of technology, O’Gorman felt it was important to have these conversations too. “It’s no longer feasible that you can think that you can protect your child from seeing pornography. I think we have to prepare our children for the fact that’s going to happen, and try and create the kind of relationship where they will talk to us about it, to help them understand what it is that they’re seeing, and also help them to understand that what they’re seeing isn’t real.

“Particularly for boys,” he continues, “the messages that boys get about who women are, and, more to the point, what women are, pornography so objectifies women in the main. If we avoid having those conversations now, where else are they going to get some guidance or some support or some context or the space to work out what all of this means?”

It's without a doubt the most rewarding, important, fulfilling thing I've ever done

Now that O’Gorman children are adults, he’s finding he still has some lessons to learn about parenting. “It’s learning that you have to let go and you have to let go of your expectations. So it’s not that it was ever for us to decide what they should be in the world, or to set expectations for them, but I think at some point as a parent, of course you try and guide and support them in making decisions about who they want to be in the world. And try to support them to be ambitious in what they want from life. I don’t mean support them to be ambitious in terms of any particular outcome, but to help them to think about what’s going to help them to live a fulfilling life.

“The reality is our kids don’t exist to fulfil our hopes for them, either, and they may have a different view, and they may have a different pathway to wherever their journey is going to take them. I think as parents the hardest part as they move into adulthood is letting go [of] any sense that you have a role in directing that, or even guiding them, frankly.”

The high of fatherhood for O’Gorman has been “the joy and privilege of knowing them and having them in our lives”, he says. “They’re incredible people. It’s without a doubt the most rewarding, important, fulfilling thing I’ve ever done – and the most challenging.”

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
Part 12: Alison Curtis
Part 13: Dáithí Ó Sé
Part 14: Brendan O'Connor
Part 15: Anne Dalton
Part 16: Gary O'Hanlon
Part 17: Paula MacSweeney
Part 18: Stephen McPhail
Part 19: Michelle O'Neill
Part 20: Jacqui Hurley
Part 21: Colm O'Gorman