Gary O’Hanlon: ‘Guys are supposed to be fine about miscarriages. But I wasn’t’

Parenting in My Shoes: The television chef on fatherhood, loss, and birth in a pandemic

"Hold the mask, don't draw any attention to yourself whatsoever. Do what you're told. Wear neutral colours. Try to blend in and be a chameleon. Because I tell you what, they are some dark, dark women walking around labour wards. They're the angriest bunch of women you'll ever come across," Gary O'Hanlon – celebrity cook, executive chef of Château du Coudreceau in France – jokes as he offers advice to any expectant fathers.

Gary is the proud father of three children – Cora (7), Ollie (4) and new baby Páidí – but he was convinced at one stage that he might never be a dad.

“Everyone had said for years you probably won’t be able to have children. There was this stigma out there that chefs couldn’t have kids. Where I stood, for 10 solid years, was in this cocoon of direct or indirect heat.”

However, he needn’t have worried.

“We got married, built our house and had a baby in the same calendar year.” Daughter Cora was in a hurry to meet her parents and arrived, several weeks early, on New Year’s Eve. “Cora was the size of my hand. She was just over 5lb when she was born. I had her in my hand and it struck midnight and I’ll never forget just saying, ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever been’.”

But fatherhood has not been without its own sadness. “We had a miscarriage between Cora and Ollie.” Gary and his wife, Annette, had gone out to see a movie and for a meal when it happened. “She’d the saddest eyes I’d ever seen and she knew something wasn’t right. We rang the doctor, rang the hospital and they gave her the option to come in and see them just there and then.

“We went in the next morning and there was just nothing there, there was no baby. I don’t know what it is about ultrasound rooms, but they’re not very nice. It was incredibly sad.

“I don’t know what to compare it to. We had one and thank God there was never any more because I probably hid my sadness a bit from Annette. She dealt with it and I dealt with it. The guys are just supposed to be fine about miscarriages. But I wasn’t, you know, but I kept my tears to myself, I suppose, and we just went on with it.

The one thing that people do say whenever you've had a miscarriage is that 'We've had two', 'We've had three' – like it's a competition, and I wanted to punch everyone that said that to me in the mouth

“The one thing that people do say whenever you’ve had a miscarriage is that ‘We’ve had two’, ‘We’ve had three’ – like it’s a competition, and I wanted to punch everyone that said that to me in the mouth. Everyone that mentioned to me ‘Oh yes, we’ve had a few, we’ve had three , we’ve had four’, I’m going ‘F*** off’.

“I was devastated, like everyone would be. It was the one and only one that we had but I really, really didn’t want to say it to too many people, because most of the time that was their reaction and I did genuinely want to bust them.

“We were very fortunate and very lucky that we had kids very easily,” O’Hanlon says. “Miscarriages are devastating whether you’re having [children] easily or not. But for people to trivialise a miscarriage with just a number, it would hurt me. I would never show my disdain, obviously, but deep down. I know the baby is not in your arms, but as far as I’m concerned if it’s there and it’s in Annette, I love it. And it died and it broke my heart.

“I called that wee baby Poppy. We lost wee Poppy, I suppose, that’s the way I look at it, but we got wee Ollie and I tell you it’s hard to imagine a life without Ollie,” he says of his “rainbow baby”. “Ollie is the brightest rainbow that there ever was.”

Their youngest child, Páidí, is just four months old. As a result of pandemic restrictions Gary wasn’t able to attend any of Annette’s antenatal appointments with her, except for the very first one, which took place before the first lockdown.

“We drove into Cavan and I brought her up to the room,” Gary says of the night Annette went into labour. “They let me just carry her stuff in and I had to leave her. I went down to the car park and started the car and put on a podcast. Just as I was falling asleep – it was around 2.20am – I got a phone call and I ran in, and at 2.30am Páidí was born and I stayed there for maybe an hour or so and then I left.

“I was in the car park and all I could see was all these wee lights here and there. There was about five or six different cars running with the lights on, and boys reading newspapers or listening to music maybe. But they obviously all had somebody in the labour wards, waiting for babies to come.

“It didn’t bother us. Annette was fine. Annette was comfortable and we’d been in the hospital before, and they were all very good. She was in good hands. And I’d two babies to go home to anyway.

“It was definitely a weird experience. I see people getting up in arms about that and really annoyed about that, but you can’t blame doctors. You can’t blame the hospital, that’s just the way it is. Them doing that meant that my Netty was safe in there, and as far as I was concerned, I’ve taken Covid very seriously so I was delighted that there wasn’t going to be traffic in and out of a labour ward. She was going to be safe, and I didn’t care and she didn’t care that I was sitting in a car park. I was more than happy to be there.”

Gary does most of the cooking at home, but going to work doesn’t just mean he’s out of the house – he’s out of the country. Rather than placing an extra pressure on the family, however, it has allowed Gary to spend more time with his family than ever before.

“Annette’s delighted and I’m delighted,” he says. “I get most of the winter now at home and then I get periods off – days on end or a week or two on end here and there – to be at home and I see more of my kids than I ever did.

“There’s one of the girls in the Montessori that works as our babysitter as well from time to time, so if I’m gone too long, she would come over and give Annette a break or help out or whatever, if it was needed. Annette’s family live right beside us. They’re incredibly helpful. They’re amazing to us.”

He worries more about his daughter than his sons. “I’d be lying if I told you I wouldn’t be more worried about Cora, because I am. But I’m delighted that there’s two brothers coming up behind her.”

I really believe that we're going to have a society that's a lot more friendly

Still, he is hopeful for the future.

“I really believe that we’re going to have a society that’s a lot more friendly, that’s a lot more protective and that’s a lot more inclusive for women as Cora grows older.”

Gary is grateful not to have too many parenting lows, apart from the usual pressures that families feel. “The highs for sure would be that they’re all healthy,” he says.

“I’m thankful every single day that our babies are healthy. Nothing could get me down once they’re healthy.”

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

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family