The struggle is real. And new mum Anna Geary is not sugar-coating it. “This is the hardest thing I have ever done”, laughs the 36-year-old broadcaster and former All Ireland Winning Camogie Captain. “I feel simultaneously besotted and overwhelmed. But”, she continues, “I have promised myself that if I’m going to do a photoshoot, if I’m going to share on social media, then I’m going to be honest.”
More Anna’s for the world, please. Here, in this exclusive interview and photoshoot, at her home in Sallins, Co. Kildare, which she shares with her husband Kevin Sexton and their new 7-week-old housemate, baby Ronan Sexton, Anna wears her new-mum exhaustion with pride.
Of course, last night – the day before VIP were due to land in on top of her – Ronan decided to wake on the hour. Anna’s plans to do one of those last-minute cleaning-bursts before you have guests, the type when you fling things into cupboards at speed and take the stairs two steps at a time, had been thwarted. Now this morning, she’s wrecked, but luckily we have a glam team on hand to make this exhausted new mum feel like herself again. Nothing better also than a bit of adult company to make you feel human once more.
After we capture that new-baby-love on film, we go out and walk and talk about how tough parenting is. She also tells us how her competitiveness has shaped not just her sporting life but her life in general, and, we hear about her new RTÉ dating series, Love In The Country, that follows six rural singletons looking for love…
Firstly, Anna, congratulations to yourself and Kevin on the safe arrival of baby, Ronan Sexton. Of course, you are both over the moon but, let’s just say this at the outset: what a life changing experience motherhood is.
Life changing?! Life turned upside down; life turned back to front; life turned inside out! And the sleep deprivation – woah! I am currently operating at a capacity that feels like I’m back in my early 20s after going out on a series of nights out over Christmas! But it was grand back then because you knew you could catch up on the sleep after Christmas whereas now, no such luck!
The first few weeks are a blurry mess, it does – usually – get a bit better.
Like everything, I am learning to adapt. I can only imagine what it might be like if you have twins or multiple kids. Genuinely, I have a different appreciation now of parenthood. I have even apologised to some of my friends for not being there for them in the way I should have been: for not picking up a hoover when I’m over with them; for not watching their baby when they get a shower; for not just calling over for company. Because I am home a lot on my own now that Kevin is back at work as a secondary school teacher. I am manning the ship a lot on my own and, to be perfectly honest, I am winging it! I am the eldest in my family and I don’t have nieces and nephews. I never really babysat when I was younger because I was always out playing sport so disclaimer: first time I was changing nappies properly was actually with Ronan! And Ronan is relying on me.
The responsibility for the survival of this tiny little helpless human is massive. It can feel overwhelming.
And I think that’s really important to acknowledge. As a new parent you are allowed to feel besotted and overwhelmed simultaneously. It doesn’t mean you are failing at parenthood if you make mistakes or doubt yourself; it means you are normal. Is he too hot? Is he too cold? Is he hungry? Why is he crying? You feel extremely vulnerable and you have all this responsibility of a tiny human who cannot take care off themselves. And, all the time you are trying to recover emotionally, physically and mentally from birth. I think if you dwelled on it too much it would be a bit stifling so you just keep going. Sometimes it’s painted as the Disney fairytale but, I think we need to acknowledge that it is bloody hard. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done. Yes, it’s amazing, and yes I am so lucky and grateful…but it’s hard.
And there goes the need to qualify your love. Why do mums do this? Why do they feel that if they admit it’s tough, it diminishes their love?
Of course, I love him more than anything; I have never felt this protective instinct before. But, I think, on social media in particular, you have to be so careful of what you say because you don’t want to offend anyone and I’m very aware that there are so many people right now trying to be parents. That is not lost on me.
But, everybody’s struggle is relative. Also, while it’s good to talk, sometimes there can be too much noise…
I remember one of my friends’ mum saying that years ago if you didn’t like someone on tv for example you might say it to those in the room, you might even switch the channel. But, now so much happens on social media, then others comment, and it exasperated everything to the point that we’re all nearly afraid to tell the truth in case, god forbid, you might get cancelled. So, I have promised to myself that if I’m going to talk, if I’m going to do a photoshoot, if I’m going to share on social media, then I’m bloody well going to be honest.
Be honest about this then: have you found the isolation of being at home with a newborn, lonely? Because you are an extrovert…
I like to talk, we know that! My nan used to say you have two ears and one mouth for the reason that you should be listening twice as much as talking! But, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’ve been lonely but it’s definitely been a readjustment. I am self-employed so there have been many days over the years when I’m on my own, working on, or pitching different projects. I quite enjoy my own company even though I am an extrovert. It must be so hard if you’re a single mum, or if you’re partner works away, because you rely on other people to prop you up. It definitely can be isolating and you do have to push yourself to get out the door, even if it’s just for a walk.
How are you doing with the mother’s guilt? Has that kicked in yet?
The basics we enjoy in life as adults are nearly deemed “luxuries” when you become a parent, and it’s hard not to get sucked into that mentality. One of the things I’m trying to do for my own wellbeing is carve out time for myself in the week, and not feel guilty about it. Whether that’s to get a blow-dry for no reason, or my lashes done, or even something as simple as doing a full body moisturise after a shower. These things make me feel better and if I feel better in myself, I’ll be a better parent to Ronan. And that applies to fathers too, because they have to support the mums. Or try to anyway! Often Kev has to take the brunt of my sleep deprivation and I’d be like [in witchy voice], ‘Why isn’t the dishwasher unloaded?’! And then when he does unload the dishwasher he bangs two forks together by accident – true story – and the baby wakes! So he can’t win! Often, I’ll go back to him and say, ‘Whatever I say in the next two hours, please just disregard because I’ve had a bit of a mare this morning and you are the first adult I’ve seen and I can’t take it out on the baby so I’m sorry in advance!’ Your relationship has a readjustment too once a baby comes along.
Yep, kids are time-thiefs and, they can, be identity-thiefs, too!
Yeah, I am a former sports person but training is part and parcel of my identity. But it hasn’t just formed my identity, it makes up a massive part of how I unwind and stress-bust. Some people journal, some people meditate, for me it’s training. Getting a sweat on, getting that endorphin buzz, no matter how bad my day is, training makes it better. But, for the last seven weeks I have not had that and I’m still not ready to go back to high impact training and tt’s killing me. I have never not trained for this long in my adult life.
Despite the challenges of new motherhood, you look fab. But, because you are in the mood today for truth telling, we must flag that Ronan woke on the hour last night and so when we arrived earlier, you didn’t look like how you look now!
It took a village to look like this! I had very talented people polish me up! I came down this morning with unbrushed hair, big circles under my eyes and I’m pretty sure there was baby sick on my shirt! And I was like, ‘Make me look good’! It was a lovely few hours of feeling glam. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about the photoshoot seven-weeks postpartum. My body has changed, my shape has changed, my boobs are massive, none of my clothes fit me. And I don’t know when I will ‘get back’ into my clothes. But as a parent there’s no ‘going back’, you just have to move forward. That bouncing back bullshit is bullshit!
Who do you think puts these ‘bounce back’ expectations on women?
I think it comes from ourselves. We do compare ourselves and if we’re in a poor headspace it’s easy to let our brains default to negative. Then it spirals. And can I just say that the worst piece of advice I’ve ever heard is: ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’. So, the baby falls asleep in the car on the way to an appointment, do I pull into the side of the road and sleep?!’ I can’t sleep when the baby sleeps because all the jobs I need to get done need to get done when the baby is sleeping! It’s unhelpful advice. Don’t say that to a new mother!
A seismic shift happens when you become a parent. It also makes you think about your own parents and then about what type of parent you’d like to be. We remember a story you told about your dad, who is now sadly passed, and how he, a GAA mad man, would have yourself and your brother out aiming at the drainpipe on the back of the house with a hurling ball! We love the fun of that…
We cracked a few drainpipes alright! Right beside the drainpipe was the downstairs bathroom window so when we’d walk into the local hardware store it would be, ‘is it a pane of glass or a drainpipe we’re ordering?’ My dad was a real child at heart and he was fierce competitive. I get my competitiveness from him because whether we were running a race on the beach or playing crazy golf or cards, my dad would never let me win! My mum would be, ‘ah, let her win, she’s small’ and he’d be like, ‘no, she needs to feel that buzz when she wins’. He’d be like ‘I’m not going to lure her into a false sense of security, I’m going to make her work for it!’ We used to have great fun.
Well, it stuck because to this day you are fierce competitive.
The first time I went on holiday with my husband, we played a game of tennis and sure within five minutes we weren’t talking! I was like [roaring] ‘That was on the line, it wasn’t out!’ So, on Fittest Family my competitiveness is not put on! It was definitely honed by my dad, he would encourage you to be the very best you could be and to never apologise for trying to be driven enough to be better. At times you can put pressure on yourself which I do, but I think a certain amount of pressure is good because it takes us out of our comfort zone. Because honestly if you had said to me ten years ago, you’ll be working for yourself, you’d have a health and wellbeing show on RTÉ Radio One, be in Dancing With the Stars, work on Fittest Family, I’d be like that’s not me, I couldn’t do that. But here I am! I can hear my dad in my ear all the time, ‘Sure why not, give it a go’. Even on the camogie pitch, ‘Sure why not go for the score?’
Tell us the story about going to The Ploughing each year…
Ah, The Ploughing! As you know The Ploughing has been held in lots of different counties, and as a farmer dad went to them all. Dad had this obsession with beating the traffic so he’d bundle us into the back of his van at the crack of dawn – with a mattress! – and we’d sleep on the road so he’d beat the traffic and get there early for a good carpark space! And he didn’t have us nagging him all the way with, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’! We were cosy out, sleeping in the back!
We love that. So, from life in the country to your new RTÉ tv series, Love in the Country, tell us about it.
I’m a culchie, I grew up in rural Ireland, I am a farmer’s daughter. I know how time consuming the life of a farmer is. I also know how your nearest social scene can be quite a distance away and how it can therefore be really hard to meet someone. There’s the local pub where everyone knows you and you are not going to go on a date with someone in your local pub because they’d nearly be able to hear your conversation! It is difficult to find love in the country and, these days it’s even harder as there’s even less of a social scene. And not everyone wants to go on Tinder. Love In The Country is an international format, it’s been tried and tested all over the world and already there have been hundreds of successful couples. I am delighted the show has come to Ireland and I feel it’s a privilege that I get to front it because I’m also a real romantic at heart.
How did you find love in the country?
I didn’t! I found it in a pub in Dublin!
Right! Tell us this: as a competitive person are you going to find it very hard to watch Fittest Family this year with your replacement coach, Sonia O’Sullivan?!
Sonia is one of my heroes. I took it as a compliment that she stepped in. She’s also so competitive so I cannot wait to see what she’s like on screen.
Is she more competitive than you?!
[laughing] Sure, I’m not even that competitive, what are you talking about?!
Will you be able to watch it?
I will because normally I hate watching myself on the telly because we’re all hyper critical. I’d be like, ‘Do I really sound like that?’ Or, ‘Look at the way my face is, when I say that’. You’re nearly watching from behind the couch. It will be nice to watch and see it unfold and not have any skin in the game. Did I miss doing it this year? Of course, I did. I did the show for nine years and you develop a really good relationship with the entire crew. But, don’t worry, I’m still keeping an ear to the ground and I’m licking my lips thinking, ‘Right, I have to up my game next year when back’!
Your RTÉ Radio One show is aptly named, Supercharged, which you are!
Overcharged my husband would say! Supercharged is something that is really close to my heart and we’re lucky that it’s coming back for a fourth series. It was an idea that was actually borne out of lockdown doing one of the many walks we were all doing. I just thought that there really was a need for a health and wellness radio show, with real experts giving advice. So far we’ve done shows on panic attacks, on loneliness, on testicular cancer, on sex, on the side effects of anabolic steroids, on bipolar disorder. When I lost my dad we did a show on bereavement and grief. Two things I really want to discuss this season: the fourth trimester of pregnancy. I’m going to talk to the various different experts that can help new parents if they’re feeling a bit discombobulated or alone or lost. Also, breast feeding and the lack of supports that there are for mums.
Your mum, Ellen, was with us today minding her grandson while we glammed you up. It’s only a year and a bit since your dad passed. How are you both doing?
My mum is a warrior. She’s good. Having a son was the first major milestone I’ve had where my dad hasn’t been around. But you know, I want to live my life in his honour and take life by the scruff of it’s neck. I can nearly hear his voice in my head going, ‘Go on, get on with it’. Because we’re all going to fail at parenting, at relationships, at our job – so what? Keep going, that was always his attitude.
Thank you for having us in your lovely house today, Anna. But, let us ask you this final question: will you let Ronan out into the garden with a sliotar and a hurl to hit the drainpipe at the back?!
[laughing] No! Let’s not get carried away with ourselves! We have a fine big green at the front of the house!