The Today show’s Emer O’Neill: ‘I would never have told anybody that I suffered with depression’

Emer O’Neill and Sean O’Neill with their children Sunny Rae and Ky. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“I’ve always wanted kids,” says activist, mother of two and presenter of RTÉ’s Today show Emer O’Neill, when I ask if having children was always part of her life plan. “When I played basketball in the States, we had player cards, kind of like the football cards that kids collect and, on the back of mine, the ‘get to know Emer’, my life goals, one of them was to get married and have kids. That was me at 19,” she laughs.

Emer was living in the US when she became pregnant with her first child, Ky. “It didn’t work out with his dad – we call him his biological father,” she explains. “I found myself doing the entire pregnancy on my own in Miami. It was tough. Miami is very hectic and I just couldn’t see myself raising a child there.”

She returned to Ireland when she was seven months pregnant. It was a move she describes as “daunting, because I was going to be a single parent and that wasn’t part of the plan”.

“I struggled with my mental health towards the end of the pregnancy. And when I had my son, I suffered from postnatal depression.

It was hard to admit that I needed help.  I would never have told anybody that I suffered with depression because I felt people would look at me differently

“It had been brewing for a while after I lost my dad,” she says (Emer’s father died in 2009). “It was quite traumatic being left pregnant in a country that you’re not from. I didn’t really have roots set. I didn’t have a lot of support around me. The ordeal of realising that I was going to raise a child on my own and I was going to have to sacrifice everything I had built in the States – I was on the verge of getting my green card from the company that I worked for, and I had a house over there – that kind of stuff was quite traumatic and then coming home and starting all over again.

“I think a lot too had to do with a lot of the racism that I had suffered throughout my life, just never talking about it ever to anyone. And I think because your hormones are all over the place, I was just no longer able to suppress the feelings.

“It was hard to admit that I needed help. I was always very, very embarrassed about it. I would never have told anybody that I suffered with depression because I felt people would look at me differently.”

In spite of the postnatal depression, at just two months postpartum, Emer applied for a Simply Be modelling contest after spotting an advertisement on the television – and she won. “It was amazing,” she says. “I was still breastfeeding. So I had my pump during shoots. I had pads in because I was getting leaky boobs.

“That was huge for me in terms of my confidence in myself and self-love. That was the period when I started to wear my hair natural. I was 28 when it happened and I, up until that age, had never worn my hair natural. I was not comfortable with it, because I have a big, massive Afro and I was made fun of for it for a long time during my childhood, and even into adulthood.”

Keen to celebrate

Her hair is also something she was particularly keen to celebrate for her son’s sake too. “He is half Jamaican, he’s a quarter Irish and a quarter Nigerian so he was going to have Afro hair. You start to think, I need to be a role model for him. He’s going to go through things where he’s going to wonder why his hair is different to everyone else’s, why his skin is different and all those things, and if his own mum is trying to hide her hair, what kind of a message is that sending to him?”

Following the birth of her second child, Sunny Rae, Emer once again suffered with postnatal depression, but this time she was prepared for it and had sought out the supports that she would need. “Sunny was 10 weeks old when I started doing my activist work and I was still in my postnatal depression stage. My husband, when I posted my first video about George Floyd, said, ‘I need you to mind yourself. Are you sure you want to do this, because there will probably be backlash of some sort that can mean negative comments.’ I slept on it because I said, ‘he’s right,’ and I don’t need any extra pressure on me when I’m just trying to survive each day. But I then said, ‘actually no, it’s too important to not talk about it.’

“I had a lot of people, I felt, that were pointing fingers at the United States and calling it such a racist country and I just felt I needed to open my mouth, because when these things are happening on your actual doorstep and you’re pointing fingers at other nations, it’s just so hypocritical.”

After she posted the video, it went viral, and Emer was invited to speak at a rally in Bray. “That’s when I started getting harassed,” she says. “There was graffiti around my hometown where I grew up: ‘Emer O’Neill, shut the f**k up – All lives matter.’”

One Saturday, after watching her son at football training, Emer received a call from the Garda to say that more graffiti had appeared, this time on a building beside where her son had been training. “I don’t even think irony is the right word for it,” she says. “I was sitting feet away from it, at my son’s training, part of my community, and behind my back was this horrible thing written about me on the wall in a very public place. And that was tough.”

Emer O’Neill, Ray Cuiddihy, Clíona Ní Chiosáin and John Sharpson on the set of Home School Hub which was filmed and produced at Scoil Lorcain, Seapoint Blackrock. Photograph: Alan Betson
Emer O’Neill, Ray Cuiddihy, Clíona Ní Chiosáin and John Sharpson on the set of Home School Hub which was filmed and produced at Scoil Lorcain, Seapoint Blackrock. Photograph: Alan Betson

Diversity

Emer says it’s important that “the diversity of our country” is reflected in different positions across society. “I don’t want my son and daughter growing up like I did where I never saw anybody like me on the TV, or I never had a teacher who was a person of colour. I never saw myself reflected in my reading material in school.

“That was one of the things that was huge for me, with Home School Hub, being on that kids’ show, a lot of parents who have biracial children reached out to me to thank me because they could almost see the amazement and joy on their kids’ faces because it was their first time seeing someone who looks like them on their TV screen, that wasn’t in an American movie.”

When it comes to concerns about the things her children may face as they grow up, Emer has different worries for both of them. “There’s a terminology, it’s called passing. It’s where you have black ancestry, but you don’t look like you do. It’s disgusting, vulgar language that makes me want to vomit.

“My daughter, excuse my use of this term, she could pass, and she probably won’t be affected by this first-hand because she does look white, but it has come into my mind that when I’m going to support her at a football match or I’m at her play, or whatever it may be, and people see me, they will realise that she’s actually not white Irish and I hope that that doesn’t affect her in a negative way.

Now is the time to stand up and speak, because otherwise my son is going to go through the same things that I did and be half the person that he should be

“My son, he’s darker than I am, so he will always be black, whereas she, unless people know and have met a parent, people won’t know that. And so I know that I am going to see that she will be treated differently. She will not have the same experience I had growing up, nor will she have the same experience that Ky is going to have.

“Ky has come into me before – this kind of speech started when he was five – where he said to me that he wanted to look like his dad and have white skin like his dad and that he wished he could have normal hair like everyone else.

“That’s why to me it was like, now is the time that I need to stand up and speak, because otherwise my son is going to go through the same things that I did and grow up and be half the person that he should be. So it was really important for me to do this for him and my daughter.”

Emer O'Neill on the set of Home School Hub earlier this year. Photograph: Alan Betson
Emer O'Neill on the set of Home School Hub earlier this year. Photograph: Alan Betson

Armed with knowledge

Emer says her son has been called the N-word, although he didn’t hear. “But I’ve talked to him about it, because it’s going to happen. So I need to arm him with the knowledge that somebody who calls him that word is ignorant and uneducated and it’s not on you, it’s on them, and I have to teach that to him now, at seven.

“We were out for a walk a couple of months ago,” she recalls. “We were literally on a family walk, I was pushing Sunny, Ky was walking beside me, Seán on my other side and this guy just screams at us, ‘f**king non-nationals.’ Ky looked at me and said, ‘What did he say?’ and I just said, ‘I dunno. I think he’s drunk.’ Because we’re not ready to have that conversation yet.”

Along with creating an anti-racism module with the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, Emer, herself a teacher, has written an anti-racism policy with a friend of hers as she says she couldn’t find any schools with an anti-racism policy. She’s hoping it will be considered by the Minister for Education.

Emer is breastfeeding her 15-month-old daughter and says she’d love to normalise breastfeeding. She shared a picture of herself feeding Sunny Rae on social media. Under the picture, somebody wrote “ugly blackie”, she says. On another occasion some years back, while feeding her son on the Dart, a passenger on the train recorded her breastfeeding. However, she refuses to let these experiences put her off and says she’s a very “liberal breastfeeder” who will feed anywhere.

Emer and Sean O'Neill, with children Sunny Rae and Kyan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Emer and Sean O'Neill, with children Sunny Rae and Kyan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The highs of parenthood for Emer are “just watching them grow. Seeing them go from being so vulnerable, not being able to do anything for themselves to saying, ‘oh, does this T-shirt match these trousers?’ and you’re going like ‘wait, what? Where did those last seven years go?’”

She laughs.

“And seeing their little personalities come into fruition, I just sometimes look at them and think, ‘How did I get so lucky?’ Life was nothing before them. They have changed my entire world. I don’t think I was ever truly happy until I met my two kids.” 

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