Simon Harris: ‘My perspective has changed since I had children’

Parenting in my shoes: Minister on caring for a young family during pandemic

"I think I always presumed I'd be a dad," says Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and father of two, when I ask him about parenthood.

“I come from quite a close-knit family,” he explains, something he hoped to replicate in his own future.

Simon's sister Gemma was born on his third birthday, a "non-returnable" present, he jokes, while his brother Adam is eight years younger than him. "That family definitely shaped me. I'm here in this office because of my family experiences, I didn't become a politician because of my family lineage – it was my brother being born with a form of autism that led me to start advocating and campaigning, and to set up a support group that led Enda Kenny to then say, 'Well, you can keep giving out about politicians or you can get involved yourself'."

In the same way his family shaped his journey into politics, Simon believes becoming a father has influenced how he views things now. “My wife had our first child when I was minister for health. I would have been very aware of the challenges and difficulties that people could face and the huge journeys people go through in relation to IVF, surrogacy, miscarriage. Thankfully we were blessed and we didn’t experience any of those things.”

During the Repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign, Simon’s wife, Caoimhe, was pregnant with their first child. “Repeal was about the women of this country,” he says, but adds: “At the back of my mind, privately obviously, I was conscious that we were about to start a family. At a time when maybe there was very inflammatory language being used around the position I was taking, I obviously knew we were going to welcome a new baby into the world. I equally knew, while it was a happy time for my family and a happy time for many people, I was very conscious for some it’s a time of absolute crisis.”

Simon’s second child, Cillian, was born last year during which time maternity restrictions meant that partners were excluded from attending the majority of pregnant women’s appointments. “My wife would obviously have attended many appointments on her own. I would have been allowed in for the 20-week scan.” Simon was present for his son’s birth. “Again, it [maternity restrictions] is something I was very conscious of.

“This is the thing about politics and life, people often try to dehumanise politicians. Forget their persuasions, politicians are humans. While you’re hearing about very difficult restrictions – and they were difficult, they were hard to fathom at times, being truthful – at the same time, there’s people in the Dáil, people like myself going through them as well.”

Fearful

Simon admits he was fearful when Caoimhe was going in for earlier scans and appointments without him, and says while he understands that maternity hospitals were “trying to do everything to keep Covid out, to keep women well”, he says “it wasn’t cost-free”.

As restrictions began to ease and you'd bring her to the playground, she'd hang out with the adults but not be sure what to do with the kids. And that breaks your heart

His daughter Saoirse was just one year old when the pandemic began and he says he’s concerned about the impact it’s had on her. “One of those things I’m really, really worried about is the impact of Covid on kids. Not so much my three-month-old, because he’s three, nearly four months and God willing he’s going to grow up in a world where we’re in a position to ease restrictions. But for Saoirse, she’s spent so much time just around adults.

“There was a moment in time as restrictions began to ease and you’d bring her to the playground, that she’d hang out with the adults but not be sure what to do with the kids. And that breaks your heart.

“She’s bounced back and she’s starting ballet classes. My wife is making a big effort to re-engage her with children. And she’s lucky she has a little cousin, Eve, who is almost the same age as her so she had her for company at various points in time. My daughter is minded by both her grannies, so the grandparents and parents would have been her circle during the lockdown.”

When it comes to juggling the demands of fatherhood with a career in politics and therefore the public eye, Simon says that while he has experienced abuse and some “horrific incidences”, he has also received huge support. “I think the people of this country are very fair and I take a lot of solace and comfort from that. For my own mental health and wellbeing, I always like getting out and meeting people. You can get trapped in a Leinster House bubble or media bubble.

“The demands of my job are significant, but so are the demands of lots of people’s jobs. I’m in the lucky position as a TD from Wicklow that I live near the Dáil, so I can go home every night, it might be very late at night, but I can go home at night. I’m there every day.

“Bedtime at the moment is around seven for Saoirse. I’m not sure when it is for Cillian or if it happens,” he laughs, “but quite a few nights of the week I manage to get home for that. I try in the mornings to get her up. My wife is on maternity leave at the moment, so it’s a little bit different, but in normal times when Caoimhe’s not on maternity leave, I’d be the person to get my daughter up and out in the morning. I try to take time on Sundays, as much as I can, just to have family time too.”

Social media

Simon often shares glimpses of his personal life on social media. “I never know what the right thing to do, actually, about sharing a picture of a child is on social media. I’m not sure there is [a right thing], but I mean sometimes, just like anybody in life, you want to share moments.”

I notice now when I hear about a child being sick I think, 'What if that was my daughter or my son?'

While Simon feels very much just a regular member of the community where he lives, he says he is conscious that he has a direct role in policy and law-making. “My perspective has changed since I had children. Things I talk about in work now are not abstract to me any more. I do notice that myself. I notice now when I hear about a child being sick I think, ‘What if that was my daughter or my son?’ A lot of things I’ve been talking about and have been passionate about for many, many years have become real.”

As the father of both a daughter and son, the recent killing of Ashling Murphy made Simon think a lot about the world his children are living in. "You instinctively think of your daughter, even though my daughter is only three. You instinctively think of the world she's growing up in and how safe will she be. And then I thought, hang on a second, of course I've to think about the safety of my daughter, but actually I've to think about the world my son is growing up in and how do we culturally change the world that young boys live in.

“The challenge I’m grappling with now, is looking at two children who I adore and love, and one is a boy and one is a girl and thinking, in the last week we’ve been having a debate about gender equality, ending violence against women, changing culture in our country, and looking at both of them thinking, as a parent, what do I do next? How do I play my role in that?

“I want my son to grow up in a world where the definition of masculinity is broader,” he continues. “I don’t profess to know all the answers, but I think every parent is kind of grappling with this. I have a son and I’ve a daughter. In addressing the issue I have to look at it from both of their perspectives.

“In making the world a safer place for my daughter, and a more equal place, it’s directly about how my son and his peers will grow up. I think it has to involve the education system. There’s multi-layers to all of this, it’s a cultural change. But it has to involve the education system. It has to involve gender equality being embedded from the youngest age in the education system.

Every parent has to do what they believe is right for their child. To me it would be an anathema to send my children to a single-sex school

“I want my son and my daughter to go to preschools and schools and secondary schools and learn in that sort of an environment. Gender equality is not a woman’s issue, of course it’s not. It involves men getting involved and stepping up, and of course my generation of men, but also those of us who are dads, thinking what does it mean for our little baby boys, and how they grow up and how we educate them.”

When it comes to the idea of single sex-schools, Simon believes “every parent has to do what they believe is right for their child. To me it would be an anathema to send my children to a single-sex school, but I live in a town where I don’t think there is one.”

Limited options

He recognises that options for parents are sometimes limited, but believes it’s essential to make sure “every parent in their community has the opportunity to send their children to co-ed schools”.

“I think being a parent is really tough. We have to recognise there are challenges being a parent today that are new and that everybody is working their way through: social media, trying to once and for all bring about the cultural changes we need in relation to gender equality and every parent wants to do the right thing by their child.”

Working in a pressurised job and being the parent of two small children isn’t an easy ask of anyone, but Simon’s situation is further complicated by the fact he has Crohn’s Disease (a type of inflammatory bowel disease). “You’re not meant to have a stressful job,” he laughs, but thankfully he describes the disease as having “very little impact on my day to day life”.

“If I have a flare up it can leave me in a bit of pain for a couple of days, but that’s something that’s rare.”

The low of parenthood for Simon happened when people gathered angrily outside his home, while his family were inside. “You feel your duty as a parent and as a dad is to protect your kids. To see that brought to your home, that’s a low. I believe passionately in protest. I’ve been protested at and I’ve been on protest. Protest is a really healthy thing in democracy. Turning up at someone’s house is not a protest.

“It’s an effort to intimidate. And when there’s kids in people’s homes. The only thing I take some relative comfort from is the fact that Saoirse was three weeks old.”

It’s a vulnerable stage, he explains. “We’d just given birth to our first child.”

For Simon, the highs of parenthood have been the everyday experiences. “The highs aren’t big, massive, landmark moments. The highs are reading the book on the couch in the evening, or watching Ben and Holly or one of these programmes that I can tell you the words of inside out. Or just getting the time, going for walks, the simple things.

“I’m fascinated watching my daughter learn to talk – the words she comes out with. And it’s watching your son smile for the first time, or laugh, as he now is doing. The simple things.”

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
Part 22: Mario Rosenstock
Part 23: Micheál Martin
Part 24: Frances Black
Part 25: Emer O'Neill

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