“I don’t think I really thought about it until my husband and I got married in ’07,” replies Alison Curtis, when I ask her if having children was always part of her life plan. “I think I just never saw myself as someone who would have them and I don’t really know where that came from.”
With her own parents coming to parenthood later in life due to fertility issues, Curtis presumed she might have difficulties herself conceiving. “It turns out I did not, and you can get pregnant after the first try,” laughs the presenter of Today FM’s Weekend Breakfast with Alison Curtis. “I said when I was younger I didn’t want [children], to the point that a lot of my friends and colleagues were kind of surprised when I announced I was pregnant.”
Curtis had a “very easy pregnancy”; however, her daughter Joan’s arrival into the world was anything but.
“What happened to me was a really, really traumatic and scary experience – life-threatening really. I developed pre-eclampsia, but my blood pressure went so high I had a thing called an abruption happen. I was in for a routine appointment and if I wasn’t, it really doesn’t bear thinking about because they had to get her out. Within eight minutes she was out because there was no oxygen going to her anymore.
“I was very seriously ill afterwards. I was in high dependency for a couple of days. They couldn’t get my blood pressure down. With pre-eclampsia, often the baby’s delivery solves the issue, but I was in that very small percentage of ladies that developed post-eclampsia. So I was in the hospital for about 11 days and when they discharged me I was on about 14 tablets a day and I had to be monitored really, really closely. It was my first time as a healthy woman having a baby, having an operation, having a catheter!”
I wish I hadn’t tortured myself about it for so long. I wish I had accepted it earlier on that this is something I can’t force myself to go through again
Traumatised by the birth, Curtis agonised over whether or not to have more children. “I did a year and a half of CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy]. I just could not overcome the trauma of it all.
“I’d feel bad about myself if someone announced their second pregnancy. I was like, ‘just do it. Just take the chance.’ And the worst thing was when I would hear about people who had pre-eclampsia first time around but somehow found the courage to go again, and then I felt like a failure because I just couldn’t do it again.
“I had to go for a follow-up appointment maybe about six months later and they were, ‘you’re young, you’re a good weight, you’re perfectly healthy to go again.’ And I always said I wish at that moment a medical person had instructed me never to do it again, it’s too dangerous, because then it would have taken the responsibility off of me.”
Finally, on Joan’s sixth birthday, Curtis made peace with the fact that she would have one child. “I wish I hadn’t tortured myself about it for so long. I wish I had accepted it earlier on that this is something I can’t force myself to go through again.
“I think in Ireland, you’re just used to having bigger families,” Curtis says. “Not seven anymore, but four or three could be quite common, and so I think I did feel a little bit of pressure there, and Joan herself wanted siblings for a long time and she would ask about that and I would have to delicately talk about that and explain it to her. I did feel guilty about it for a long time but I don’t know where that necessarily came from because nobody ever said to me ‘that’s horrible, you’re denying her a sibling’.
“I made a real effort pre-Covid,” she continues. “I really foster a lot of friendships and really create situations where a friend was always invited to something that we did. I really do all that for her and I don’t want her to feel lonely.”
In spite of her traumatic birth experience, Curtis had no difficulties adapting to motherhood. “I jumped full head into that and we loved it. She breastfed brilliantly. Her sleep pattern was all kind of wonky, but I actually loved the nighttime feeds and the quietness and our own moments.
I breastfed for so long. That’s the one thing in motherhood I did lie about. I told people I stopped long before I did because I was ashamed
“Her first year-and-a-half she was always in my arms, on my chest. I literally went out twice, I think. She was very, very attached. I guess without my husband and I really knowing what attachment parenting was, that’s what we were doing.
“She did co-sleep with us, which I know is controversial, and throughout the time most people were like, ‘get her into her own room,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t like sleeping on my own, why would a baby like sleeping on her own?’”
But although Curtis felt largely comfortable with her approach to parenting, there was one thing she felt a need to hide. “I breastfed for so long. That’s the one thing in motherhood I did lie about. I told people I stopped long before I did because I was ashamed.”
Alison’s initial approach to the idea of breastfeeding was that she was going to give it a try and if it worked, great, but if not she wasn’t “going to let anyone else make me feel bad about it”. It worked so well that she breastfed Joan for over three years.
When Joan was 18 months, Curtis considered stopping because of “societal pressures”. She tried a 48-hour break. Her husband took Joan to his parents’ house. “But that 48 hours I did not feel like myself at all,” Curtis says. “I was really down which is not my nature at all. As soon as he got home from his parents I said, give her to me and latched her on again. I just felt the calmness return. I wasn’t ready.
“I think probably I lied from about two years on, so for about a year and a bit I lied and said ‘oh yeah, we’re done’ and I tried to get her not to crawl up my top publicly,” she laughs. “When I did stop I was ready.
“I honestly feel people have to do what suits them. My only thing is, I worry when people won’t even consider it. Not because I’m judging them, but because they’re potentially missing out on something that they would get a lot from.”
Having lost both of her parents while still in her teens, Curtis has had many “I wish she could see this, and he as well” moments as her daughter reached different milestones. “We lost our dad when we were 14 and our mum when we were 19. We had just both started university – it was absolute hell,” she explains, referring to her twin sister. I think it’s taught us to take nothing for granted. People don’t necessarily learn that lesson until they’re into their 30s, sometimes 40s, 50s.”
Their absence is a real low in her parenthood experience. “I know that they would have been such a positive influence on her and they were both really such remarkable people. I really wish that they had been part of Joan’s life.”
Alison’s father “was very, very involved”, in her upbringing, something she sees echoed in her own husband and his relationship with their daughter. “My dad told me about my period. He bought me my maxi pads. It’s funny when I speak to people about him, they’re like ‘he doesn’t sound real’.”
The high is knowing that we’ve got this little special person in our life and I could not honestly be prouder of her
Her mother, as a stay-at-home mother, did everything for Curtis and her sister. “She was of that generation where that was just her job – like, why would her children learn to cook? She was really progressive other ways, but that’s her job, she’s at home. Why wouldn’t she do our laundry and cook for us? But then when she passed away we were left with literally no skills.” It drove Alison’s keenness to “empower Joan to have really good life skills”.
With the exception of the guilt Curtis felt about not having a sibling for her daughter, she has largely managed to avoid feeling “mum-guilt”. “I feel like Joan is very well looked after. She is extremely well loved. I don’t think I suffer from it too terribly.”
That has largely been aided by her work flexibility, she admits. “I feel so lucky in that we’ve never had a childminder for her. And I’m there, every day after school. I feel really, really fortunate.”
Curtis has few worries about raising a daughter. “With Joan I can see how strong she is. I just worry about her feeling good about herself, being confident and not ever feeling heavy or ugly or if she is heavy that it’s a bad thing.”
She is very conscious of social media and the risk of girls comparing themselves. “I worry about the pressure that has on girls. That’s probably the only thing I’m worried about right now.
“The high is knowing that we’ve got this little special person in our life and I could not honestly be prouder of her. She is kind and she’s very caring and the high for me is just to see her grow and evolve as an individual every year and to just keep that core of goodness going. She’s not, thankfully, wavering on that.”
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