‘Nobody tells you that you will be driving up and down at 4am trying to get your baby to sleep’
What happens when parenting experts have their own children? We asked some professionals for insights
Child psychotherapist Colman Noctor with his children Harry (2), Ódhran (7), and Layla (4) at home in Wickow. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Colman Noctor is the author of Cop On: What It Is and Why Your Child Needs It to Thrive and Survive in Today’s World. He has more than 20 years’ experience in child and adolescent mental health, first as a nurse and then from 2005 as a psychotherapist. His own children, Ódhran, Layla and Harry, are aged seven, five and two.
Has becoming a parent changed his perspective?
“Massively,” he says. “I suppose my own experience of having children was an eye-opener for me. You can never tell someone how tricky and difficult being a parent can be. Before I had children, I thought I knew it all. I can remember when I would be completing a clinical assessment, I would ask parents routine questions about their experience of their child’s infancy in a passing way. Did they reach their developmental milestones? Did they have colic or reflux? However, until you have a colicky child yourself and know what that means first hand, you cannot get any sense of the meaningful nature of an experience like that. Our first-born had bad colic. Nobody tells you in the parenting brochures that you will be driving up and down the Naas Road at 4am trying to get your baby to sleep, feeling like you’ve got it all wrong.
“I would think that having first-hand experience of being a parent has made me far more compassionate to parents and the struggles they experience. As a parent I now listen to the struggles of families ‘with a different ear’.”
His professional experience, meanwhile, seeps into his parenting. “My wife, Karen, and I both work in child psychiatry, so sometimes it can be hard to step back from seeing things through that lens. Sometimes we’ll be saying things to each other, such as ‘Are those social skills good enough?’. I’m constantly having to learn to manage that.”
Having worked with adolescents for 20 years, Noctor is now aware that as he ages his patients begin to see him more as a parent than as a peer.
“I have to be careful not to be just another authoritarian adult in their lives, I have to avoid letting myself become a paternal figure just because I am a father. Though you often reflect ‘What would I do in that situation, if that was my daughter?’ but that’s just a normal part of it.”
Because of what I do I became quite protective of my own children
Residential social care manager Helen Buggle has worked with children in care for 26 years. She has a daughter Micha (20) and son Jack (15). Having her own children, she says, gave her “huge respect for the children she cares for, and what they are going through”.
I would see a kid sitting on a window sill waiting for his mum to come and she wouldn’t turn up, or was too sick to turn up.
“When I had my first child I was quite struck how sad I became about the children I worked with and their lives, about how their parental bond had been broken,” she recalls. “Having my own children brought it home just what the children at work had missed out on – the complete unconditional place in the mother’s mind and heart that a baby holds, and is so important for the building of secure attachments. I was working with three key children at the time and I was devastated for them when I realised what they had lost. We were trying to form new attachments for them, and what really struck me was how important my role was with them, and how I couldn’t mess with their lives.
“I would see a kid sitting on a window sill waiting for his mum to come and she wouldn’t turn up, or was too sick to turn up. There was this horrendous sense of loss every time she didn’t turn up and I was constantly comparing what that would mean for my own children. I had to deal with my own anger that these parents would let their children down time and time again, and remember that it was my job to be non- judgmental. A lot of the dysfunction we see is generational. These adults have difficulties themselves. However, I had to remember how important they still were in the children’s lives.”
Her job has also had an impact on how she parents. “Because of what I do I suppose I became quite protective of my own children. I knew the darker side of child protection, of how children can be exploited, and I was aware of what could happen to my own child as well . It was definitely a struggle to give my own children freedom, while trying to protect them.”
Her own children fought against being overprotected, she says, but she is always conscious that when she says “No” to them, or argues with them, that they still know they are loved. Many children in care don’t have that foundation of love and saying “no” can be seen as a total rejection, she says. “It’s often about trust,”she says. They don’t believe that I also get my kids to hand up their phones at night, that I try to protect my own kids the same way I do here.”
Years of managing a residential unit have taught Helen “to be the first person to put up my hand and say, ‘I made a mistake. I’m really sorry’, though at home I might be more reluctant to apologise, and my own kids make me work harder when asking for forgiveness. They have high expectations of me not to mess up. The kids that come into care know too well that adults make mistakes, and when you go back to them and apologise they forgive you very quickly.”
His years of experience working with children, teenagers, and parents, didn’t prepare him for the wave of love he experienced with his first-born
I’ve got more of a sense now that parenting is a job for life
Trevor Higgins’s training in psychology, and his years of experience working with children, teenagers, and parents, didn’t prepare him for the wave of love he experienced with his first-born, or the feeling of being unprepared when the newborn started to cry. The unperturbed reaction of the experienced midwife to the same cries were, he recalls, very reassuring.
His children, Jonah and Jasmine, are now aged 10 and six, and Higgins works as a parent coach (see cloudsaway.ie ). He finds he empathises on a greater level. “I had the experience of working with parents and children and young people and not being a parent. I had what I had learned theoretically and what I had learned on the job, but I wasn’t in as good a position to relate emotionally until I had children. I had the facts but maybe I hadn’t thought, How is this going to relate to parents?”
Higgins expects his perspective to evolve as his own children grow older. “I feel that over time your experience is enriched and your insight is expanded. And I would definitely feel when I work with parents of children older than mine that I do get a sneak peek. I sometimes think, That’s all ahead of me.
parents are the experts of their own children, and that there’s more than one way to parent a child
“I’ve also got more of a sense now that parenting is a job for life, a relationship that keeps growing. The worries can still be there, though there is a reduced dependency as they get older. My son, who just yesterday was a baby, is now able to get himself an apple from the fridge or say, ‘Daddy, I’m calling for someone’, but although these experiences are new for a child, they’re also new for me. Both parents and children are facing new experiences all the time.”
Trevor says fatherhood has brought “a strong feeling that parents are the experts of their own children, and that there’s more than one way to parent a child. I’m not saying that they don’t sometimes need support or guidance, but they know their child best. Now when I work with a parent I come in with a little bit of a sense of humility. The first thing I want to hear is, what do they think. There’s not this exact recipe for parenting: some of it can be very personal, very instinctive.”
Colman Noctor agrees.”I believe that there is no ‘one way to parent correctly’ and I believe what works for one child will often not work for another.
“The skill of parenting is therefore being able to parent different children’s needs differently and my own experience as a father has taught me that too. Sometimes you need to give a child what they need as opposed to what they deserve.”
I had always minded babies, so I think I was different from your average first-time mother. The only thing was cracking the breastfeeding. That wasn’t so easy.”
Nicola O’Byrne was a neonatal nurse when she had her first baby, in 1997. Her five children – Cian, David, Isabella, Calum and Eliza – range in age from 20 to seven.
“It was only after I had kids myself that I realised just how difficult it was for the parents, especially the parents who had other children: both the logistics of managing and the emotional impact of it all, especially when babies died.”
O’Byrne’s job meant she was “totally confident” about coming home with a new baby. “I had always minded babies, so I think I was different from your average first-time mother. The only thing was cracking the breastfeeding. That wasn’t so easy.”
The support she received from her local Cuidiú breastfeeding group sent O’Byrne back to work eager to share what she had learned to help other mothers on the unit establish breastfeeding. “I brought that experience back in, the little tips, things I had learned myself from feeding and at my support group.”
Following the birth of her third child, O’Byrne trained to work with Cuidiú, and then qualified as a internationally accredited lactation counsellor. She was a mother of three when she set up
“By the time I had my fourth I thought I had the whole thing cracked, but then I got a baby that was difficult to feed and that threw me completely. I thought I could do it all, look after the other children and work, but I had to learn that your head has to be with the baby.
I had planned to take a couple of months off work but I ended up taking a lot longer. For my fifth I took a whole year off. I had learned that the most important thing was me and the baby.”
O’Byrne’s personal breastfeeding and parenting experiences continue to help her work with other women. “Mothers say to me, ‘You really know this, don’t you? You’ve done this yourself.’
“It helps when you understand the practical stuff about having to collect from school and do all that has to be done, but can help them to contain it.”
As her family has expanded, so have her outlook on parenting, and the advice she gives.
“As my husband Sean and I had each one we become less authoritarian. We didn’t stress so much about sleeping and structure. You just become more relaxed about things. By the time we had our fifth she was in the bed for two years. For my first we would never have dreamed of doing that.”
In conversation with Louise Ní Chríodáin