Fathers’ say: Here’s what I know about being a Dad...

Malachy Clerkin with his daughter Cara in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
EIGHT different kinds of dad, some new, some wise with experience, on how fatherhood has changed them

In Ireland, mothers are sentimentalised to the point of idolatry. But the Irish dad is every bit as steady a presence. And just as there are many different models of family in modern-day society, the fatherhood experience is a varied one. In a fast-changing society, the job spec is ever changing, even if the essence of fatherhood stays much the same.

We asked a number of fathers – some new, others wise with experience – about what it means to them to be a dad in Ireland today, and what they have learned about being a parent.

Raymond Nolan at the pier outside Mountcharles, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Raymond Nolan at the pier outside Mountcharles, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

The foster dad

Raymond Nolan has been fostering children since 2014 with his wife Theresa. To date, they have fostered more than a dozen children. They live in Mountcharles, Co Donegal.

“Originally, my wife mooted the idea and I went along with it. We spoke with friends who had fostered, and the more we found out, the more I got into it. We’re in our seventh year now and we love it. We were delighted we went down this road. There are plenty of days where you might be sorry and there are tough parts of the job, but that only lasts half a day.

I got a card from a guy for Father’s Day, and what he wrote was ‘to the best father figure you could have’. That’s something you never ever forget

“Our first foster child was a 14-year-old boy. We took a dive in; you don’t know what kind of child will walk through the door, so it was a big relief when he arrived. It was strange sharing your house with a stranger at the start and we were worried he’d run away. But we got used to it. Every day became a learning day, and it got easier, without a doubt. You learn about all the behaviours that the children come with, and you get so much better and wiser as time goes on.

“When they leave, it rips your heart out. It’s like a death in the family. The first time it happened we were really emotional for days. You learn so much about yourself – your strengths and weaknesses. You really need to step up to the plate and be strong for these kids.

“One boy said, ‘you’re not my dad,’ and I had to remind him, ‘I’m not trying to be your dad.’ I don’t see myself as their dad – you’re a substitute mum and dad. If you try to be their parent, it wouldn’t work. These children love their parents so much, no matter what, so it’s a line you don’t cross.

“Recently, I got a card from a guy for Father’s Day, and what he wrote was ‘to the best father figure you could have’. That’s something you never ever forget. To anyone considering it, I say go for it. There’s so much to gain and learn from it all.” – TS

For more information on fostering, contact the Irish Foster Care Association on ifca.ie or 01-459 9474.

Paul Hogan with his seven children
Paul Hogan with his seven children, ranging in age from four to 19: (back row, from left) Chloe, Jamie, Adam, Paul and Luke and (front row from left) Zach, Tobey and Noah

The father of seven

Paul Hogan has seven children, ranging in age from four to 19 – six boys and one girl. He lives with his wife, Jen, and their children in Dublin.

“It’s very enjoyable, most of the time. But it does require a bit more thought, a bit more keeping an eye on everybody. We went to the zoo last year and hadn’t been there in years and you were having to make sure at all times that you had everyone covered. That’s where having a gang of them helps. The bigger lads can assist in the man-marking.

The challenge is sometimes doing something with everybody. That takes a fair bit of planning

“We went on our first foreign holiday a few years ago. It took an awful lot more forward planning than your typical-sized family’s holiday. We got a couple of funny looks in the airport. People were oohing and aahing at how cute your youngest few were until they realised they were all going on the same plane as them.

“The challenge is sometimes doing something with everybody. That takes a fair bit of planning. You don’t want anyone to feel left out. I would sometimes take the easy option of dividing and conquering, taking half of them off to the local shop for ice-cream or whatever. My wife is probably a lot more inclusive, trying to make sure everybody is seen to.

“One of the things we really try to flag to them is your siblings are there for you, and hopefully they always will be. I would hope that the importance of family will resonate with them and that no matter what age they are, they will look to call on each other in future.

“The big upside of the past few months is that we are together on weekends rather than half of us away at the soccer match and the other half looking for a Gaelic pitch from early morning. It will be great when that happens again, obviously. But it’s been nice to have Saturdays together and have everyone not rushing as much. It’s nice to sit and have a coffee in the garden.” – MC

Chris Herdman with his daughter Aideen, 13, in Navan, Co Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Chris Herdman with his daughter Aideen, 13, in Navan, Co Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The father of a child with additional needs

Chris Herdman is dad to Daniel (18), Ciaran (16), Aideen (13) and Dylan (4). He, his children and wife, Sheona, live in Navan, Co Meath.

“When Aideen was born, I went home all delighted that night as we’d had a little girl. The next morning, things had changed. Doctors took her away for tests, and she was sent to Temple Street. I remember thinking that they’d find whatever the problem was and it would be all right. After a couple of months, we realised that it wasn’t going to be.

“She was never diagnosed with a condition, but after a number of genetic studies, doctors told us that she has a condition called DNM1. She has trouble with scoliosis, and has seizures and epilepsy. Aideen sleeps a lot of the time, but I do think she understands what is going on around her. When you chat to her she makes noise, as though she’s trying to communicate with us. When you get a smile out of her, it means everything.

We don’t take things for granted, and we enjoy the time we have with our children

“We sometimes get respite from the LauraLynn [children’s hospice], which means we can get a good night’s sleep. It’s become routine – we don’t even think about it now.

“When I hear other parents giving out about their kids misbehaving I often think, ‘I’d love to be giving out to her.’ You wonder if she’d be running around in school, or going out with her friends. But I’ve learned to be thankful for what you have. When I found out about her condition I cried, but you learn to get on with it. With Aideen, it’s all worth it to get a smile from her.

“We don’t take things for granted, and we enjoy the time we have with our children. We never thought Aideen would make it to 13, but we know that anything could happen, so we take it one day at a time.” – TS

For more information on LauraLynn’s Children’s Hospice, see lauralynn.ie or call 01-2893151

John Lambert with his son Finn
John Lambert with his son Finn

The new dad

John Lambert (44), a musician, is dad to five-week-old Finn. John, his partner Katie and Finn live in Stoneybatter, Dublin.

“Is fatherhood how I thought it would be? It is and it isn’t. The amount of prep you do beforehand, talking it through and reading books and watching videos, is all grand but the most amazing thing about it is how automatically instincts kick in and Mother Nature takes over. You’re fully engaged and focused and have a sense of purpose in what you do, so that’s been the most fascinating part. I’m really enjoying it – it’s starting to get a bit tiring now that the tag-team operation has started to fray a bit. Finn’s patterns are all over the place now – he’s entering the fussy phase – so that’s definitely a challenge.

“So much of me has shifted enormously, but so much of me is still there. I think I’m enjoying looking into the future and how things will be. I always wanted to be a dad; I felt instinctively that I would enjoy it and it was something I wanted in my life. It was a long wait for it to manifest. Katie and I talked about what kind of parents we want to be and we’re on the same page – we’re aware of how important it is to be a guide and support and to give the space to become their own person.

It was a bit like letting your guard down, and there was a huge eruption of all these emotions. It feels like someone making their presence felt from the other side

“My own father [journalist and former editor of the Irish Press Hugh Lambert], died in 2005. It was funny because in the months before Finn was born, we were working as a family on a book of my dad’s fictional writings. We’d been discussing dad’s writings and thoughts and personality for a year, so it really felt like he was everywhere.

“In the lead-up to Finn’s birth, I was keeping the three grandparents in the loop, and every time you sent three texts, you’re reminded that the fourth person isn’t there. When Finn was born at 11.50pm on a Sunday night, I headed off at 2am when Katie and Finn were brought into the ward. I had a little drink, put on an old album, Irish Boy by Mark Knopfler, and suddenly, I was flooded with thoughts of Dad. It was a bit like letting your guard down, and there was a huge eruption of all these emotions. It feels like someone making their presence felt from the other side.” – TS

Benji Bennett (centre) with two of his three children Robbie (13) and Molly (12), with family pet Bailey at Potter's Point, Brittas Bay, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Benji Bennett (centre) with two of his three children Robbie (13) and Molly (12), with family pet Bailey at Potter's Point, Brittas Bay, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The bereaved father

Benji Bennett (49), an author and publisher, is Dad to Harry (19), Robbie (13) and Molly (12). He is also dad to Adam, who died in 2007 from an undiagnosed brain tumour aged 4. He, his children and wife, Jackie, live in Dublin.

“Adam was a unique little boy, a real head-turner, complemented with giddiness and lovely charm. Three days before August 13th, he complained of a headache, and after a couple of nights we brought him to the hospital. After a seizure, he went unconscious. It was a really weird experience – it wasn’t a trauma like a car crash or a fall. It was very calm. When Adam went unconscious I was still thinking, ‘he’ll be fine.’

“The doctors brought him in for a scan and I never let go of his hand. The one memory I have of that moment was seeing the doctors watching the monitor, and the looks on their faces. They said that the tumour was the size of a tennis ball and that there wasn’t much hope for him. You can’t accept news like that, it’s like thinking about how big the universe is. You can’t comprehend it. I went down to the chapel in Beaumont, got on my knees and prayed, ‘don’t take him.’

“We lay down beside him, rubbed his head, sang to him. He had no top on, and my first instinct was to rip open my shirt and hold him. I knew it was the last time I’d feel his skin so warm, and I had to have that. I remember thinking, ‘not enough people know my boy.’ I thought I’d have the rest of my life to show him off, and to see him play rugby and think, ‘that’s my boy.’ That’s why I wrote the [Adam’s Cloud series of] books, because the world needs to know about Adam.

When you lose a child, some men will go, ‘I don’t want to talk about this, the pain is too much, I need to banish it’

“Not everyone knows the importance of spending time with your children and I’m glad we knew that. We told Adam we loved him every day, and any time he asked to kick a ball about, we did it. We are closer as a family: when there’s a row we do our best to make sure it doesn’t go on too long. That’s the essence of everything that has gone on since.

“When you lose a child, some men will go, ‘I don’t want to talk about this, the pain is too much, I need to banish it.’ Some turn to the drink, others want to climb Mount Everest. Their reaction is not a measure of how much they loved their child – it’s just where their mental strength brings them. My experience is like a switch. Some moments you feel that we will be positive and celebrate Adam, and live and laugh for him. Other times, you may feel you’ll never be able to survive. If you can get help early on, you can turn your switch to the positive.”

– TS

The Adam’s Cloud series of books are at adamscloud.com

Malachy Clerkin with his daughter Cara in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Malachy Clerkin with his daughter Cara in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The dad to a girl

Malachy Clerkin (41) is a sports journalist and dad to Cara (5). He lives with his wife, Olivia, and Cara, in Dublin

“My daughter is five. She is very five. She is at the point where she’s learning just enough day by day to know that knowing things is cool. New words, new facts. She pointed at my belly one of the days and said it was humongous. I’d have gone for cosy myself but I guess we’ll get to euphemisms in due course.

“I know she is the most important consideration when it comes to pretty much everything we do, but that’s because she’s our one and only, not because she’s a girl. I don’t think we’re any more protective of her than we would be if she was a boy. But we probably give her the Girls Can Do Anything speech more than we would its equivalent. It can feel like it needs reiterating, whereas it might be taken more for granted with a boy.

I try hard not to be the soft touch, not to let things slide for the sake of a quiet life. I fail quite a bit, more than is fair. I’m working on it, though

“The more I know, the more I know I don’t know. For instance, where do little girls learn to point their toes in photographs? Why does it take six times of asking to get her to put on shoes before we leave the house? How much Little Mix can the average car journey endure? I feel the Home School Hub crowd have been skirting over the big issues.

“I try very hard not impose sport on her, but she has her own notions in that regard. We were flicking through the sports channels one morning during the lockdown when she shouted “stop” on Eurosport. The world indoor wall-climbing finals were on and as soon as she saw girls with ponytails grappling with the ropes and rivets, she was rooted to the spot.

“I try equally hard not to be the soft touch, not to let things slide for the sake of a quiet life. I fail quite a bit, more than is fair. I’m working on it, though. Dads Can Do Anything, too.” – MC

 

Steve Hartland with his son Lewis (23) and daughter Shauna (18) at their home in Clonsilla. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Steve Hartland with his son Lewis (23) and daughter Shauna (18) at their home in Clonsilla. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The dad of grown-up children

Steve Hartland, 55, an actor, is dad to fellow actors Lewis (23) and Shauna (18). He lives with his children and wife, Antoinette, in Clonsilla, Dublin.

“Being a dad was something I definitely wanted to happen – they were both very much wanted and looked forward to. I suppose becoming a dad made me responsible – I’ve always had a very young outlook so it made me throw away my childish ways, though my wife would probably disagree on that.

“Each of them have their own personalities – Shauna is hugely involved in social justice. Lewis juggles his auditions with work as a retail store manager.

Shauna has really taken Black Lives Matter to heart, as we all have. She’s definitely a budding politician

“I suppose there are times when you think as a dad, and with Lewis being 23, your job as a parent is done, but you quickly realise that they will still need you. They might have a down period or something has gone wrong. They revert back to us; we’re very close in that way.

“The one thing I’ve learned as a parent is that if you concentrate on it, you get to what you need to achieve with them and for them. It takes a little while, so it helps to be patient.

“All black people have The Conversation, where you explain to your child that there will be some point where they will be treated differently, or you’ll learn how black people have been treated through the ages. We would have talked about it before they left junior school. It was sad to have to do it – you’d think those things would be a thing of the past, but, as you can see right now, it’s far from in the past. Shauna has really taken Black Lives Matter to heart, as we all have. She’s definitely a budding politician. As for Lewis, I’d love for him to be a movie star.” –TS

The dad of a transgender child

David Filer from Bangor, Co Down, whose son is transgender
David Filer from Bangor, Co Down, whose son is transgender

David Filer (47), who works in property management, is dad to Amy (22), Luke (15), Jesse (9), Romy (4), and Bodhi (3). He lives in Bangor, Co Down.

“[Luke and I] were away camping down the Mournes when he told me. My first thought was that ‘she’ – as I presumed he was at the time – was gay, as he had been getting particularly close to a girl. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation started, but he came out as transgender. He knows that this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me; I’m not blasé about it, but he did feel safe enough to talk about it. I remember giving him a cuddle and telling him, ‘we’d better get you a good name”. I told him Bob was a good, solid name, but he had already been using the name Luke online for a year.

“Luke has been through a lot, and has self-harmed and attempted suicide, which is pretty standard fare for trans teenagers. I can’t imagine being trapped in a different body; imagine expecting a teenager to get their head around it? I remember seeing the word ‘boy’ carved on his arms. It’s hard as a dad to deal with that.

“I never felt as though I was losing a daughter and gaining a son – he was always the same person. I never cried over that, but I did cry over the torment that he was going through.

“I’m not sure [Luke’s transition] has specifically changed me, and I don’t think I’ve changed my parenting techniques in any way, shape or form. Maybe I was a bit softer on him. But when your child is attempting suicide, it can be hard to shout at them about tidying their room.

“What advice would I have for dads in a similar position? I’d tell them to look up the science behind it. I’d tell them to understand the child hasn’t changed in any shape or form. They are exactly the same person you love and gave birth to. Just listen to them, and give them a great big hug.” – TS