Stefanie Preissner opens her door before I have even finished gently tapping on the glass. We greet one another with whispers and hand gestures, like two members of a mysterious, ancient cult. In a sense that’s what we are: mothers standing in a hallway, communicating in the international language of don’t-wake-the-baby.
Noel Byrne, Stefanie’s husband and a political adviser, is working from home and ready to intervene if their four-month-old daughter, Aurora, stirs too early from her midday nap. I wonder aloud if it’s easier to be the mother of a newborn now than when I first was one, more than 16 years ago. On the one hand, working from home means new parents do not have to face the indescribable terror of being left alone with a small, howling, helpless, weeks-old stranger. On the other hand, it feels like there’s so much more scrutiny and judgment now.
“I still haven’t been on my own with her for a full day. I can’t,” Preissner says. “I wake up in the morning, and I think, ‘Okay, today’s going be like yesterday.’ First mistake. It’s never going to be like that, but that’s just how my brain works. And then, say, if she wakes up from this nap after 45 minutes, I can’t adjust the day on my own without consulting [someone else].” She still has help during the day from her sister-in-law, her mother or Byrne. She’s slowly becoming more confident – Byrne can get a day’s work done without interruption – but “I don’t know when it’s going to get to a place where I can be on my own with her”.
The author, broadcaster and podcaster first emerged into the public eye for her astute, darkly funny observations about life as a twenty-something in Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, produced by RTÉ in 2016 and picked up by Netflix in 2018. Since then, she has written two books and a weekly newspaper column, and has a popular podcast series, which she has just restarted. During the 2020 general election campaign, she offered daily explainers to her 50,000 Instagram followers, covering everything from what “coalition” means, to what the differences are between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and subsequently did the same for Covid.
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Now she is approaching first-time motherhood with the same mix of curiosity, pragmatism, sharp self-deprecation and appalled wonder. At times during our conversation it occurs to me that I haven’t encountered such honesty about the humdrum trauma and fleeting glimpses of joy involved in being a new parent since I read Anne Enright’s Making Babies. Like Enright, Preissner is forthright about the fact that the whole thing – from getting pregnant to hopefully, eventually bringing home a baby – is a weird and sometimes brutalising experience, made no less strange by the fact that billions of people have done it before you.
...When it happens to you, it’s like, what is this? This cannot be normal. What I’m experiencing cannot be what every woman goes through— Stefanie Preissner
“For something that is natural and has been happening since the dawn of humanity, it baffles me that it is so hard, and so lonely. And so mysterious. I feel like because it happens so often that it should be easier. Or we should know more about it, you know? And yet, when it happens to you, it’s like, what is this? This cannot be normal. What I’m experiencing cannot be what every woman goes through.”
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Why aren’t more people talking about this, she asks, a question that in a sense is a unifying theme behind all of her creative work. I tell her I recall phoning my older brother – by then a father of three – the morning after I brought my eldest child home from the maternity hospital, full of furious indignation, demanding to know why he hadn’t warned me. But the details are gone, beyond how the days seemed to blend into one another in a fug of anxiety, exhaustion and brief moments of wonder.
“On a fundamental level, the sleep deprivation is really, really difficult,” she says. “I had a C-section, so I’m recovering from abdominal surgery while also trying to look after a baby. And then you have this baby that is completely helpless. In the wild, when animals are born at gestation, they’re usually quite ready for the world. But babies are so premature, so vulnerable. You’re handed the child, and because you’re its mother, you’re supposed to know how to look after it. Then there’s all these rules that keep changing – like lie the baby on their back, but then someone who had a child 40 years ago was telling you to lay the baby on their stomach, because that’s what they were told. Breastfeeding? Again, something that should be totally natural but is incredibly difficult.”
The information overload is much worse now, we agree. “You have all this input that you need to study and learn to know how to do this. It’s like fix the plane while flying the plane. And it’s really high stakes, because if you get it wrong, they could die. Then there’s this concept of ‘it takes a village’, and we now live in a world where most of us are quite far from our villages. And that’s really difficult. Some of your friends, they do not want to call over because they think that you want the time with the baby. They’re like, ‘Oh, keep kissing the top of your baby’s head.’ Oh my God” – she finally pauses for breath – “my baby’s head is a receptacle for my tears.”
She has developed a theory that it would be a smart evolutionary move for babies to be born smiling, because it’s so hard “when she’s just screaming or demanding and I’m trying to work out what each thing means while also, you know, trying to see through the fog, tiredness, and make sure that my wound isn’t weeping.”
And then you log on to Instagram to be greeted by the sight of everybody else doing it so much more easily than you. “It’s like, if I believe your post, your child has had a two-hour nap in a crib while you washed your hair. And it’s all like, ‘You’re my angel’, and ‘you’re my rainbow baby and I love you so much’. Because we had such a difficulty getting pregnant, I felt guilty for being like, ‘Oh God, this is all I wanted. We worked so hard for this. And I feel like I’ve ruined my life.’”
When Preissner announced her daughter’s birth on her Instagram, she prefaced it with a sensitively worded trigger-warning for “pregnancy, pregnancy loss, pregnancy after loss, baby-related content”. Up to that point, she had not said publicly that she was pregnant.
“This journey has been pretty brutal,” she wrote. “I have mixed feelings about sharing the struggle only when it has worked out in a happy ending.”
In fact, this was her sixth pregnancy. “Four months the first time, then seven weeks, then five weeks, then five weeks, then full term with Aurora,” she says now, adding that she also experienced a “chemical pregnancy” where she received a positive test, but the pregnancy was lost within days. “It adds up to a lot of months of nausea, and hyperemesis, and worrying, and miscarriages, and the fear that this is also going to end in miscarriage.”
Chromosomal testing after one of those miscarriages revealed that “my body doesn’t filter out eggs that shouldn’t be fertilised before they are. It’s kind of a hyper-fertile thing”.
She asked her obstetrician at the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) when she should try again. “She was like, ‘You need to try again when you’re ready for another miscarriage. When you’re emotionally ready for that.’”
They did try again. Another miscarriage followed. At the end of 2021, battered and unable to face another loss, the couple decided to attempt IVF at a private clinic not connected to the hospital, calculating that pre-genetic testing would improve their odds. The first cycle did not produce any embryos and the second cycle just one. “Then the week before Christmas, they rang us to say that we have one embryo that made it, but they were testing it, it got stuck in the pipette and was destroyed. That was more upsetting than any of the miscarriages.”
‘It feels like’ – she pauses for a second, reaching for the right word – ‘dread. Once you have one miscarriage, the idea that a positive pregnancy test leads to a baby is gone’— Stefanie Preissner
In January 2022 she was piecing herself back together and in London for work when she felt the now-familiar combination of nausea and a headache. There was no joy, no sense of giddy expectation. “It was just like, here we go again. It’s like getting a summons in the door. You think, maybe I’ll get off with a fine this time. Or maybe I’ll go to court and I’ll go to prison. It feels like” – she pauses for a second, reaching for the right word – “dread. Once you have one miscarriage, the idea that a positive pregnancy test leads to a baby is gone.”
Throughout the pregnancy, “I was so anxious. I saw the mental health team twice a week because I couldn’t tolerate the uncertainty.”
Preissner made no plans and couldn’t bear to buy a pram. She still hadn’t packed a bag when her waters broke while she was watching the queen’s funeral. A day later, after five hours of labour, and two epidurals which didn’t take, she ended up having an emergency Caesarean section. In September 2022, after nearly two years of grief, trauma and nearly constant nausea, Aurora arrived.
Preissner is full of praise for the experience she had at the NMH – she has since been appointed the National Maternity Hospital Foundation (NMHF) 2023 Ambassador. Part of her role presumably involves saying nice things about the hospital, but it is obviously heartfelt. The only time she was able to relax during her whole pregnancy was when she was there, among midwives, doctors, clinicians and mental-health professionals who knew what they were doing, understood what she needed and helped her navigate her grief and uncertainty. She’d have moved in for the whole pregnancy if she could. “After that many losses, you could easily understand if I was like: I don’t want to go back to that hospital because I have so much bad memories. I don’t have a single bad memory in there.”
The anxiety she experienced throughout her pregnancy was exacerbated by another factor, something she had always sensed, but was only able to name at the age of 34. After her first miscarriage, “I really wanted to know why it happened, what was happening, whether it would happen again. I was seeing a psychologist and I guess the way that I was overtly dealing with the grief didn’t look neurotypical. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t crying. I was just really obsessed with the detail.”
‘Most certainly autistic’
The psychologist suggested an autism assessment. Preissner was stunned, but it echoed something her GP had said a couple of years earlier, following the publication of her first book. Her initial reaction had been, “Absolutely not. Like, I’m sitting here making eye contact with you. I’m terrible at maths. So I’m not autistic. My understanding of autism was Rain Man, basically.”
Then, the second time it came up, “I thought, why is everyone gaslighting me with this?” But she started researching it. “I was like, ‘Oh. I am most certainly autistic’.” She says with laugh. “I did write a book called, Why Can’t Everything Just Stay the Same?”
She has been dismayed by how little is known or understood about the challenges of navigating pregnancy as someone who is neurodivergent. She googled it and found that “everything is about how to avoid having an autistic child. Which, one, is obscenely offensive. And, two, there’s just one book in the English language. We understand from research that the things autistic people tend to like include routine, predictability, repetition. And then you’re pregnant. The sensory experience of it is really overwhelming. There’s the unpredictability, all of the things that can go wrong.” She couldn’t tolerate foods that previously felt safe, or wear clothes that were comfortable.
Her psychologist at the NMH “read so much about it, and really helped me. She connected me with the midwifery team so I was able to say, if you’re talking to me and there’s noise in the background, my brain cannot tell which of those is more important. So I can’t filter that out to listen to you. If you’re going to touch me, tell me that you’re going to touch me.” Some of these adjustments, she points out, would make pregnancy and labour a more pleasant experience for all women.
She doesn’t meet the criteria for postnatal depression but has been taking medication for anxiety, “and I’m much better now. I just wish there was more known” about the interaction between autism, pregnancy and early motherhood. Her anxiety comes from “not being able to regulate myself as an autistic person, and the sensory overload, and the mental load of being a mother”. Then there are all the other worries newborn parents face – about breastfeeding, weaning, routine and illness. A public health nurse recently asked if Aurora had laughed yet, and mentioned she was quite tall for her age, which gave her parents a whole new set of things to worry about.
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Pregnancy also meant having to adjust to her changing body, something she has found easier than she might have expected. “Obviously, the body changes are really difficult; those things are difficult for every woman.” But she focused on the knowledge that she was “growing another life, my body is not just my own right now”.
More people die by anorexia than any other mental-health issue. I was anorexic and bulimic and underweight. My body was shutting down, my hair was falling out— Stefanie Preissner
What she now recognises was a disordered relationship with food and eating started in her teens. “I was very overweight in my teenage years, and my early 20s. I think I would [now] see that my relationship with food was disordered. Because we live in a society now where, correctly, we’re starting to be more body-positive – and understanding that weight is not a metric of health and that you can be healthy at every size – to see that you have an eating disorder when you’re overweight is, I think, more difficult. [But] I would say that, yes, I had disordered eating all my life.”
In her 20s she began losing weight, initially in a healthy way. She was getting smaller around the same time that Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope was taking off, and began to associate the “feedback and attention” with her new size, crediting it with “the reason I got all these magazine covers, all of this attention, all this newspaper coverage and TV appearances”.
‘Really, really sick’
She decided that if she wanted to keep attracting that attention, “I have to start under-eating, being bulimic, restricting food. And that’s where, you know, I was dropping to really dangerously low weights. By far the most dangerous mental-health issue that exists is anorexia. More people die by anorexia than any other mental-health issue. I was anorexic and bulimic and underweight. My body was shutting down, my hair was falling out.” She developed osteopenia, “which is the start of osteoporosis. I was really, really sick. And the endocrinologist just kept saying to me, ‘Are you willing to gain weight to get your period back?’ And I would say ‘No, I’m not.’”
She still had no idea how sick she was. “I didn’t even really realise it was an issue. You know, I just thought, ‘Oh, I feel uncomfortably full. I’ll make myself sick.’ It became something that I was doing every day. And then I got kind of scared one day, because I nearly choked.”
She was doing some voiceover work and had to run out into the street to get some air. “I remember standing between two cars on the side of the road and ringing a psychologist that I had seen before and being like, ‘I’m going to die with this.’ She was the first person that I told. So I started seeing her, and then slowly got better.”
There is, she now understands, a well-established link between autism and anorexia. “If a girl was about trains the way she was about food, it would be far easier to diagnose. But in a society that values that sort of crazy behaviour”, an obsession with the maths of food and calories is more likely to go unnoticed.
She has reached a good place of “not body positivity but body neutrality. This is my body. It does everything it needs to do. It’s fine. This is the one I got, and I get on with it. Most days now that’s the case.”
We’ve been talking for 90 minutes and, to my disappointment Aurora still hasn’t stirred. I haven’t forgotten how precious those short, baby-free interludes are, so I reluctantly decide to leave her to enjoy what’s left of them.
I am sitting in my car, checking messages on my phone, when there’s a rap on my window. Preissner has come to tell me that the baby has woken, if I would like to come back inside meet her. So I get to meet and hold Aurora, and see Preissner with her beautiful, decidedly chuckling, daughter. “Is that a laugh?” she asks Byrne. We all agree it definitely is. “We can call the public health nurse and say she’s still tall, but she’s laughing now,” she says, laughing herself. As I drive away, I think about how relentless and bewildering first-time parenthood is. And I feel sure that Stefanie Preissner can cope and will cope.
Help and information:
Bodywhys: Call the Bodywhys Helpline service for support with an eating disorder on (01) 210 7906 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
AsIAm: For more information on issues impacting autistic people, call 0818 234 234 or email email@example.com
For mental help support, Samaritans offers a 24-hour listening service: Phone 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Miscarriage Association of Ireland offers support after a miscarriage.,