Terry Prone on motherhood: ‘I did my best all of the time. I just fecking got it wrong!’

Parenting in My Shoes: The communications expert on life with her late husband, Tom Savage, and their son, Anton Savage

Terry Prone first met Fr Tom Savage when she was “hauled in to do guest lecturing in the old Catholic Communications Centre”.

“I was going to be lecturing priests,” says Prone, who is now chairwoman of the Communications Clinic, “and I said to the boss, Bunny Carr, ‘I have no experience in this,’ and he said, ‘It’s okay: I’ll put in one of my senior lecturers to watch you’ — and that was Fr Tom Savage. And three years later I became Mrs Tom Savage.”

For the couple, being together was less about having a family in the future and more about their love for one another. “It was absolutely selfish. It was just the two of us, and when it came to even considering children our attitude was, ‘Well, we love each other so much, I figure there’s enough love to go around, so how about we try out this children thing?’ — the arrogance of it, looking back, but that was our attitude. We had no idea that it would change everything.

“The first year of our married life, I was on the pill. When we decided we should try for a baby I came off the pill — a month later I was pregnant.”


Though Prone had no difficulties getting pregnant, there was no option to take it easy during the pregnancy. “We were dirt poor at the time. We were freelance journalists who had taken every job we could. We were doing night-time in RTÉ Radio, and so it was just work, work, work — to such an extent that when the baby sent signals that it was about to disembark I said, ‘I have to get two columns done...’ and something else done, and so I was typing away, and then” — she mimics feeling a contraction pain. “And Tom was getting more and more anxious.”

Prone’s labour was straightforward, but even brand-new motherhood didn’t stop the demands of work. “I’m there with this beautiful new baby... but I’m also thinking, Oh bugger, I was supposed to do an interview with Fab Vinny — Vincent Hanley — the following day.” A nurse at the hospital took care of the baby, and Prone went back to work the very next day.

Being freelancers also meant there was no possibility of taking time off in the following weeks either, she says. “First of all, when Tom left the priesthood ... he was suddenly learning to be a freelance journalist.” He could no longer work for the Catholic Communications Centre.

“I got fired from RTÉ for being a woman — the last year that that could happen ... I can remember sitting in the lobby ... and thinking, What will we do? What will we do? We were at just the edge of paying the bills.”

Parenthood “transformed time”, Prone says. “It was as if Tom had been waiting all of his life to be a father. He was born for it. And when Anton, at about six months, had five o’clock colic, Tom would come in round that time, pick up Anton and walk with him for an hour, but his attitude was always, more or less, ‘Doesn’t this kid scream better than any other kid?’”

Prone describes being a mum as “the best fun ever. I was very clear early on that I wasn’t going to obey any of the rules. We couldn’t afford any of the equipment, so Anton spent the first six months in a drawer — it was very handy: you could shove it in when he was out of it.”

But while Prone was very relaxed in her approach to new motherhood, she was plagued by nightmares. “I used to dream that I had mislaid Anton — I hadn’t lost him, I’d mislaid him — usually on the bus. I’d forgotten to take him off the bus, and in the dream I had to go to CIÉ lost property, and the guy there was just so uncivil and rude ... and he would say, ‘The lost babies are all over there.’

“The awful part was, I would go over and there’d be all these babies screaming, and I couldn’t recognise Anton. So, clearly, I was always anxious that I would do something desperate, that I’d make some awful mistake.”

Prone describes herself as having notions as a new mother. “The whole brown-rice, pain-in-the-arse tree-hugger — I was it, right down to everything that he ate in the first couple of years. No sugar, no this, no that. One of the rules was that he had to read for an hour every day and he could only watch television for an hour.”

Enjoying parenthood thoroughly, the couple considered having another child. “We got to the point, you know, where parents say to their single child, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have a little brother or sister?’ and the answer was ‘No!’ from Anton. Anton loved being an only child. So we thought, Okay, let’s leave it for a little while and see what happens. But then I had a truly God-awful car crash where everything, other than my right arm, was broken — face, ribs, arm, legs, everything. I was in a wheelchair for a year, and just when I was beginning to walk again, and so forth, Tom got cancer. And so having another baby just became a nonpriority. I would love to have had more kids. [It] didn’t happen, and I was very, very lucky with the one that I had.”

Anton remembers his mother’s accident, she says. “The night of my car crash, they were down in the west of Ireland. We had a business there. And Tom worked out what hospital I was in, and was driving back, and Anton could hear him muttering to himself, ‘Poor Tess, poor Tess.’ So I think Anton was surrounded by love, but the other thing that was outside our control was, you know, this thing of adverse childhood events — pretty goddam adverse to have your mother killed and crippled, effectively, and your father then have cancer.

“After my car crash I refused to go to an orthopaedic hospital for rehab, but I did know that if I didn’t force that arm out straight, I was going to end up with a bent arm. I said to Anton, ‘Listen, can you help me?’” Anton agreed. “He started, and of course the pain was so bad the tears started, and he immediately stopped. And I said, ‘Are you going to help me or are you not?’ Every single day he would pitch up for that gig, [age] seven or eight, and the end result is that I have a straight arm. Now, as soon as he had finished it each day, he would do wheelies in the wheelchair ... so there was a pay-off,” she says, laughing.

Raising a child at a time when women typically stayed at home meant Prone had to be creative with childcare. “One of the things I was doing was the shopping-basket item for The Gay Byrne Hour [on RTÉ Radio 1], which meant I had to visit six different supermarket chains to get prices. I strapped Anton on to my chest and off I went, so he was with me most of the time.”

Terry’s parents helped too. “My father was transfigured by being a grandfather, because my sister’s children were over on the southside [of Dublin], so he didn’t see them as much. He just adored being with Anton, and it was completely mutual.”

When Anton went to school, Prone says, she was worried that he would be bullied. “I went to endless trouble to prepare. And, of course, then I discovered later that the kids used to sing Son of a Preacher Man at him, and he thought it was the coolest.” But the Irish-mammy-and-her-son stereotype was not one Anton would facilitate, she says. “I hadn’t a chance from the time he was seven,” she says. He was “absolutely resistant to that.”

As a public person, protecting her son’s privacy as he grew up is something Prone feels she didn’t manage very well. “Anton is very private, and it’s only now, looking back, that I think he should not have been in pictures with me. He shouldn’t have been in features with me. At the time he was delighted, but he was not of an age to make that decision, and I shouldn’t have made that decision.”

Prone didn’t do motherhood guilt. “I absolutely despise this whole guilt trip. And I think it is a way for people who have done something that they shouldn’t have done to excuse themselves by saying, ‘And now I’m suffering this punishment, I feel so guilty.’ No, no, no. I did my best all of the time. My best wasn’t always good enough ... Anywhere that I failed, I didn’t fail through disrespect or lack of commitment. I just fecking got it wrong!

“And in terms of working, you must remember I was part of that first wave of feminism where women were saying, ‘Hang on a second, there’s a whole world out there. Who says that women can’t do the two things?’ Until the late 19th century there was no such thing as childhood. And this 1950s notion that Mummy is at home with the frilly apron on — my arse to that! And also I had no talent for it. When Tom sought my hand, my father and he had an interesting discussion, but it ended with my father saying, ‘You want to live in a pigsty? Okay with me,’” she says, laughing.

As a feminist mother, Prone says, she wanted her son “to have dolls”. “I had despised dolls, but I decided he’s going to have dolls as well as trucks and stuff, and he was very polite about it ... But, basically, if it didn’t have wheels he wasn’t interested. Anton is probably more feminist than I am, so the dolls failed, but somewhere along the line something worked.”

When considering her parenting lows, Prone reflects on the teenage years as the closest she came to lows. “During his adolescence we would have had our moments. Who doesn’t? Adolescence is like a tsunami of shite! I remember at some stage listening to Máire Geoghegan-Quinn” — the former Fianna Fáil politician — “and she was referring to the changeling myth in Ireland … She said when your kid, especially if it’s a boy of 14, somebody takes him away and replaces him with an absolute pain in the arse that you cannot stick. The good news is, when he’s about 20 they give you back the nice guy.”

Prone says she wanted Anton, at school, “to obey the system, be part of the system”, even though she describes herself as “the most rebellious, disliked, secondary-school student ever”.

“At a certain stage Tom said to me, ‘Do you know something? You know the lovely relationship you have with your nephews? You’re a really great aunt. Maybe you’d concentrate on being an aunt to him.’ It sounds very insulting, because the implication is, ‘You’re a lousy mother,’ but it wasn’t. It was, ‘Distance yourself. Don’t be taking responsibility for everything. Stop trying to control everything. Stop turning your son into an enemy, because he won’t obey systems that you didn’t obey.’”

For Prone the high of motherhood was the “sudden sense of absolute love, of falling in love” when she looked at her baby son. “It was so inexplicable. You could never convey it to anybody”.

Parenting in My Shoes

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family