‘There’s nothing like holding your baby in your arms for the first time’

Transformative role of fatherhood (part 1): Fathers talk about the joys and challenges of being a parent and how confidence grows with experience

Fatherhood comes with many challenges, many of which cannot be prepared for and, of course, many that can, like the mindless exhaustion and constant worry about being good enough. When it comes to hearing about the balance of expectation versus reality, we hear primarily from mothers.

But what about dad?

What are the highs and lows of fatherhood, and how do men feel when they become a dad?

“I had no idea what to expect when it came to fatherhood,” says father of 11 children Stephen Murphy. “I always wanted kids, and when I met my now wife, Rosemary, she already had a daughter I eventually legally adopted. When our first boy was born, it was extremely emotional and such a happy experience. I suppose to some extent, I expected becoming a parent to be daunting and terrifying to be responsible for this tiny life, but in fact, it was amazing and so fulfilling. There is nothing like holding your baby in your arms for the first time, and no matter how many times you experience this, it never gets old.”


At this stage, it’s safe to say that Stephen has had quite a lot of experience with fatherhood in its many stages and phases but says that confidence in fatherhood is something that grows.

“When we were newer parents, we worried about smaller things more,” he says. “A minor bump to the head with your first is an immediate trip to A&E. But, with time and experience, our confidence grows, we become more relaxed and can recognise when we need to act or not, as the case may be.”

Families come with varying demands, needs, and schedules. Stephen has stood at the sidelines at football matches and balanced the family’s needs together with Rosemary from the very beginning. As a dedicated father, he says that family will always be his priority when it comes to balancing home life with work life.

“For us, it’s important that we equally share the responsibility and workload,” he says. “Every family is different and will find through experience and trial and error what works best for them. Parenting isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ job.”


While fathers are more hands-on now than in previous generations, Stephen has found that fathers can be still left out or made to feel second when it comes to parenting. “I recently brought our son for his vaccines. Unfortunately, the consent form only requested details for the mother, which is not very inclusive and completely misses the point that many dads bring their baby for appointments or, indeed, that there are many same-sex couples.”

Stephen and Rosemary have sadly experienced pregnancy loss, which has been one of the most challenging times on his parenting journey. “Nothing can prepare you for that,” he says. “I think men often feel helpless and throw themselves into carrying out particular tasks and looking after their partner.”

With children ranging from toddlerhood to the teenage years, Stephen is reminded daily that the childhood years are short. “My advice to any new parent would be to enjoy your kids and don’t put pressure on yourself to always get everything right,” he says. “The perfect parent doesn’t exist, and if you do get it wrong then apologise and start again. Children have tantrums, siblings fight, teens bang doors, and sometimes family life is just loud. That’s reality. If there are people willing to judge you without having a clue about your life, and more often than not, there will be, then that’s their problem and not yours.”

Father of one and author of the Not Just a Princess children’s book series, Gavin Leonard always wanted to be a dad. “I will never forget going into Holles Street at 7am for my wife’s planned C-section. I didn’t sleep. I worried about the procedure, the baby and what was going to change.”

Two hours later, at ten past nine, Gavin was handed a baby wrapped up with a little cap on her head and sent out to a room on his own to bond with their newborn. “I couldn’t stop looking at her as she slept and peeked out under her puffy eyes. I was left there for about an hour while the doctors tended to my wife. It was so quiet and peaceful, and I knew that life was going to be different.”

That child, Jade, is now six, and every stage of parenthood has been a joy for Gavin, but that first initial foray into fatherhood was a mix of expectation and the stark realisation that we cannot fully prepare for this role. “I thought dads had all the answers and were financially stable,” says Gavin. Growing up in Tallaght in the 1980s amid a recession, Gavin’s parents shielded him and his brother from any harsh reality of family life in straitened times in much the same way as we do as parents today.

“I wasn’t expecting what having a girl would mean for me,” he says, when he considers the world we protect our children from. “I grew up with a brother, and it was mostly boys on our street. So I wasn’t ready for the feelings and triggers that being a dad to a daughter would unleash. I worry about her future, and I’m horrified by violence to women and where society is heading.”

Lockdown separation

Last year, as Ireland came out of another lockdown, Gavin’s wife, Shannon, who is from China, had not seen her parents in two years, she’d lost her grandmother, and her father was unwell. “We spoke about flights, visas, timelines and were guessing what would and wouldn’t happen,” says Gavin. “Eventually, we booked tickets for my wife and Jade to go back to China. But, unfortunately, I had to stay in Ireland for work. We initially planned that they would be away for four months, and I hated the idea of them not being with me, but I knew my wife needed to see her family and I wanted Jade to learn about China and improve her Chinese.”

The few weeks without Shannon and Jade felt like a break with time to catch up on paperwork and work on bringing the Not Just a Princess series to the small screen with an animated series. Soon, the months grew longer and longer for Gavin. “My father-in-law’s health worsened, and Jade asked Santa to bring her daddy over to China,” says Gavin.

“There were so many things that could have gone wrong! I had to get a visa when they weren’t issuing them and a flight that allowed 21 days of quarantine pre-Christmas. And I had to make sure I didn’t get Covid. It was an ordeal from start to finish, but I got out of quarantine on the day before Christmas eve and surprised Jade. When you become a dad and get asked for a miracle, you try to move the sun and stars.”

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family