I was five months pregnant, and on tour, when I miscarried. Then I had a complete health crash – The Irish Times

Motherhood wasn’t always a major ambition, says Deirdre O’Kane. “I was more of a career girl — I was very into my career — but I did want to be a mum. And I was lucky, because I left it til the 11th hour. I was 36, almost 37, having my first, and 40 having my second. I was an actress, really, and I had become a comic, and I think I just wanted to get to a certain point where I was established a little bit before I had to step away. Because you do have to step away,” she says. “As it turned out, I stepped away from stand-up for 10 years when my kids were little.”

O’Kane didn’t have any difficulties getting pregnant, but she did have miscarriages. She lost her first baby when she was five months pregnant. She was on tour when it happened. “I was in the middle of a stand-up tour, and I went back out on the road very quickly — too quickly, I would say in hindsight; really about a week later. And I think a couple of months after that I hit a wall. I had a complete sort of crash, a health crash, which was possibly tied up in lots of things. My sister-in-law had passed away at age 41 before I’d had the miscarriage, and I was powering through in the sense of, ‘Well, I’m sure I can get pregnant again.’

We’re not noisy. We’re not loud enough about it. We don’t complain enough. Why are we not helping women? Most of them work now

“My instinct was to power on through, but I didn’t get away with it. I thought I was coping — and I was coping: I didn’t have any psychological breakdown. It all manifested itself in a physical way. I’m very resilient. At least we all think we are until, I suppose, the shit hits the fan.

“It’s a big thing. It’s absolutely a big thing. You know you’ve to go through it all and deliver. It’s hard, especially when it’s your first. It was tough, but, like I say, I had a perspective whereby I had lost somebody who was close to me who was 41, so in a way I wasn’t indulging myself. I didn’t take the time, but listen, even if you did take the time, what’s your process? Who knows? I don’t know if there’s a right way of doing anything. Maybe with hindsight it would have been good to talk about it a bit more, but what did I know?”

O’Kane was monitored carefully, with lots of extra scans, during her next pregnancy. “A very late miscarriage is worrying to the medics as well as to you. Once I got past five months they sort of relaxed.”

When Holly was born, O’Kane says, she felt very lucky to be able to take time to be with her. “I had Steve around,” she says, referring to her husband. “He’s a writer, and my memory is that there was two of us in it. And I consider that to be one of the great perks of working for yourself.

“The experience itself was a C-section that it took ages to recover from, and it wasn’t easy, and I didn’t find breastfeeding easy. I found all that difficult — very difficult in fact. It can be very lonely, and I think this business of throwing us all out of the hospital so fast is nuts. Absolutely nuts. Something’s got to give.”

O’Kane found things much easier next time around, when she had her son Daniel. Although she didn’t return to stand-up comedy for 10 years, she did return to working as an actor. “I had maybe one full year, maybe 18 months, of being at home completely. At the end of that it was very clear that that wasn’t an option. I think the reason I ended up having 12 months full time was that Steve was very busy. He must have been juggling a couple of jobs at the time. My instinct was going, ‘Actually, I’d like to do this for a little while.’ So I did. But by the end of it I was begging for mercy. I was going, ‘Stand-up, that’s not hard … Full-time parenting, that’s hard.’”

I’m a much better parent of older children, I think, than I was of toddlers. I wasn’t good at getting down and playing with toys. And, oh my God, the swings. I remember thinking, If I never set foot in a park or a playground again it won’t be a day too soon

Motherhood is what prompted O’Kane to return to stand-up. “I was so mind-blown by the job of it, what it took out of me and how it stretched my patience and how I did feel lonely, I did feel inadequate. Nothing I did seemed to be enough. I was horrified if I lost my patience. I found that the old inner critic is louder than it had ever been. I really thought, ‘Wow, this is a minefield,’ and I wanted to write about it, because … that is my process. And I did see the funny side of it … You know, my whole life now was, literally, ‘What will we have for the dinner?’ I mean, this is what my life seemed to become. It wouldn’t matter what you did with the dinner: there wouldn’t be enough gratitude for it. You know, you’re just cleaning up.

“I had such empathy and pity for the women who had no choice — and it wasn’t long ago — who had to give up their jobs when they got married … Their choice to work was taken from them. Imagine, just imagine. Once I came to the conclusion, ‘Okay, this isn’t good for anybody, the kids or me,’ I had the option to go back to work.

“I think one of the most liberating days is when your second child goes to primary school and you get those hours back,” O’Kane says. “In England it is 3.15pm, from the beginning … from babies,” she says, making the comparison with junior and senior-infant school hours in Ireland. That’s “another thing that I could start screaming about here. Again, this wouldn’t happen if it was men” affected. “This all needs to change. We’re not noisy. We’re not loud enough about it. We don’t complain enough. Why are we not helping women? Most of them work now.”

With the children at school, O’Kane had time to write the show that saw her return to stand-up. “I always remember that show very affectionately. You need to get to a point where you have to say something, and I wrote that show pretty easily,” she says.

When O’Kane’s children were 10 and seven, Steve was diagnosed with cancer. “I had written that show literally in the nick of time, because it was quite clear that Steve was not going to be working for a year. There’s an element to cancer and illness that people don’t discuss, which is the financial side of things. Nobody seems to address it, but if you’re self-employed you don’t just click into sick leave. It doesn’t happen in our world. Straight away your head goes to, ‘Okay, we’ve just returned to a massive rent in Dublin…‘ It was the stand-up saved me, saved us.”

O’Kane had to go on the road, she says. “I had to compartmentalise. I had to go out and make people laugh. One night in particular, where he was postsurgery and extremely ill, I drove myself from St Vincent’s hospital into Vicar St [the Dublin venue] and got up and made a thousand people laugh.”

The couple decided not to discuss Steve’s cancer with their children. “We just said, ‘Dad needs to have an operation.’ I took advice about where to go, and the received wisdom on that was, ‘You don’t really need to go there until you need to go there,’ and that depends on their ages and how much they can process. I think we decided we would just put the head down and get through it. Even though you don’t know that you’re going to get through it. There was a couple of dark hours, but mostly we were optimistic.”

The love that you have for them is just inexplicable. You’ve signed up for a world of worry — and somehow it’s still worth it

O’Kane says she finds raising her son very different from raising her daughter — both are now teenagers. But, she explains, “they were already very different human beings anyway, so I don’t know whether it’s that they’re just very different personalities. I guess I think I probably find raising my son more challenging, because I’m not a boy, and I only have one brother and I have three sisters, so I think I know a lot more about girls. I’d say Steve is probably more involved with Daniel. Is that just nature’s way?

“Even when it comes down to the watching of the football, even those things, there’s a bond, isn’t there, over the sport, that is just not the same. I don’t play football. I never played it. I don’t know anything about the game. I’m very happy to stand at the sidelines and cheer, but, you know, he’ll just look at me with derision if I attempt to make any comment about the game.

“I think the biggest challenge is holding your breath. Because really when you don’t answer them, the power of that is amazing. But for a person like me, that takes great work!

“I’m a much better parent of older children, I think, than I was of toddlers. I wasn’t good at getting down and playing with toys. And, oh my God, the swings. I remember thinking, If I never set foot in a park or a playground again it won’t be a day too soon. I like this more. I like their minds and I like helping them through all the teenage mess, the bullying and the politics of school — and I think I’m quite useful at that.”

When it comes to material, though, “it’s very hard to tell your teenagers they’re fair game”, laughs O’Kane, who’s touring with her show, Demented. “Sorry about the jokes, love, but they’re going to put you through college.”

The lows of parenthood are the days when you’re not proud of yourself, she says. “You’re not proud of your parenting … and you go, ‘I handled that badly. I lost the rag. I wish I was better at this.’ Or anything happening to your kid — somebody’s bullying them or something at school — my God, I take that personally. I remember an incident, and I remember thinking, This has taken more out of me than Steve’s illness. Your kid having a bad experience at school — wow, the depths of this. I didn’t realise I could feel this kind of anger.”

The highs of parenthood centre around the “off-the-scale love that you get to experience”, O’Kane says. “I have many friends, younger ones, who are in two minds about whether to have children or not, and I often say, ‘I would hate you to miss out. Do it once and then you’ll know.’

“Because until you do it you can’t know, and you can’t tell somebody. The love that you have for them is just inexplicable. You’ve signed up for a world of worry — and somehow it’s still worth it.”

Support is available from the Miscarriage Association of Ireland through its online help page or by calling 087-9239217 (10am-noon) or 086-2672519 (8pm-10pm); you can find out about other organisations that can also help via Pregnancy & Infant Loss Ireland

Parenting in My Shoes