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Ivan Yates: ‘I could count on two hands the number of nappies I’ve changed’

Parenting in My Shoes: ‘In terms of life, whether it’s politics, media, business, I firmly believe you have no legacy...Your family is your only legacy’

Ivan Yates’ father died when he was just 18 years old. Still, he links his certainty that he would have children to his father’s influence.

“For those 18 years that he was alive, he would have indoctrinated me with various things,” explains the former minister for agriculture, current podcaster at The Path to Power, and father of four. “That whole thing was drilled into me that my duty was to continue this legacy of the family and so on. I don’t know whether that’s a Protestant thing, a farming thing or whatever.

“I firmly believe, as regards parenting, that you pass on all your f**ked-up faults that you inherited from your parents and you throw in a few extra ones as well.

“There were aspects of parenting that my father did that I fundamentally disagreed with, that I was determined if I was a father, not to do. He sent me to another boarding school, before St Columba’s, at the age of eight, which was a huge mistake. I was completely out of my depth. I was the youngest person in the school. I didn’t get home very often. I felt totally isolated. I wet the bed.


“One of the things about my dad, he would never have said, even on his deathbed... he would never have said he loved me. That doesn’t mean he didn’t, but I was determined to always tell my kids on every conversation, on every card, on everything, how much I love them.”

Yates is very upfront about the role he played in his children’s early lives. “In this department of parenting, Deirdre is the A-Z of this, and I had a cameo role. I could count on two hands the number of nappies I changed, the number of times I brought them to school or collected them from school.”

He describes how, in 1988, when his first child was born, Alan Dukes had just appointed him to the front bench the previous year. “I opened my first betting shop on St Stephen’s Day in 1987. So, from that moment on, I was absolutely in the most hectic phase of never being at home. Even when I was at home, [I was] thinking of work. I outsourced the entire infant, baby, parenting to Deirdre and there’s no which way about it. She did everything.

“In terms of night feeds and children crying at night, I would either pretend to be asleep, or I would have a sharp elbow and say, ‘Deirdre, can you not stop that baby from crying?’ I don’t consider it’s one of my people skills or other skills to be a good parent of an infant.”

Yates does think he comes into his own, however, “when they’re north of 14”.

The family are very close, Yates says. “The most flattering thing I can say is they still want to go on holidays with us. They still want to spend Christmas with us and we are very united. I would have always inculcated a deep sense of loyalty... loyalty and support for each other, right from the get go.

“My number one priority was to make them independent. Boarding school was part of that,” he says, in spite of his own unhappiness there in his younger years. “It’s not that I didn’t like boarding school – I didn’t like boarding school at eight, when I was completely incapable of coping with it.

“We had our first child when Deirdre was 23 and I was 26. I would say today you could add 10 years to that, and I have absolutely no regrets. Parenting is a young person’s game. The fulfilment I’ve now enjoyed at 64 is because the children are separate.”

Yates describes Deirdre’s birth experience, when delivering their first child, Andrew, as “rough”. It was a “forceps delivery”, he explains. “I was there for all the births... that was grim. She didn’t want the epidural, so she went for the laughing gas. And then she needed the epidural, and the point was she was actually incoherent from the laughing gas. It was a complete horror show.”

Yates was appointed minister for agriculture the month after his fourth child, John, was born. “I just never saw the child,” he admits. “I believe a couple of things about parenting – your kids are not your best friends. I noticed that modern parenting is all about reasoning with the kids. I actually think that’s fine, but I think at the end of the day there has to be a pyramid structure of authority in a family.

“I said to them all, a couple of ground rules. You’ll get one bog standard degree, third level – I never sat the Leaving – you get one of those we will pay for. If you want to do anything else after that, change your mind, you will pay for it. Secondly, I also introduced a thing, because you move to the latter stage where they set up home on their own, a wedding or a help to buy – bank of mum and dad – I will give you X amount. I will give you either, you won’t get both and it’ll be the same amount for each of you. The ground rules are very, very clear, in terms of where we stand. In other words, I do have a businesslike relationship with them.”

Yates, who has a phobia of flying, is very grateful to have his children living relatively close to him, even those in the UK. “The saddest things I see, other than a bereavement, is emigration to Australia where it’s so far away.”

Life as a father, combining the many other roles in his life, has not been without difficulty, Yates explains. “I went through an unbelievable period whereby, up to the time I was 35, my solution to every problem was to get up early in the morning, work later at night, work at weekends and work, work, work. And when you’re not working, think about work and deal with problems. And it was very successful.

None of the family had any appetite for publicity. None of them had any appetite for politics, and they actually hated the public life, of my life

“But I reached a point, on a particular day, when I was minister for agriculture that I literally could not write my name. I was actually frozen.”

His children were between two and seven at the time. “I was sent to a GP who diagnosed that I was suffering from mental exhaustion, who put me on medication and got me right, antidepressants.

“When things improved a bit, I went through a course of several months of therapy and I learned so much about myself and my childhood and things. I became a lot more self-aware. When, later in my life, I had to deal with bankruptcy and living in Swansea on my own, while the kids were at college and different problems like that, I realised it’s not what happens to you, it’s your reaction to it.”

Yates says his experience of mental health difficulties has meant he is acutely aware of “the whole spectrum of mental health. I would have always tried to mind or mentor my kids if I felt they were getting out of control for work and being driven. My kids are today in good health, but, put it like this, who knows around the corner.

“I was the best part of 18 months on my own in Swansea,” Yates explains, referring to his time spent there during bankruptcy. “It was a real difficult time. One of the things I did to keep myself sane was I wrote a book. The reaction of the kids to the book was simply desperate. They felt it was self-indulgent. They felt it was private information that shouldn’t have been put in the public arena and the hostility and upset it caused... I never anticipated it.

“Commercially, it was like the brand relaunched. But personally, for my family it was just the lowest point as a father. None of them had any appetite for publicity. None of them had any appetite for politics, and they actually hated the public life, of my life.

“It has been an absolute negative feature in my life insofar as they just don’t get why you would talk about things that they would consider to be personal and private. And so I think the place we’re now at is, ‘that’s just Dad. That’s just his thing. It’s abnormal. It’s an eccentricity that we don’t like, but we’ve got to learn to live with it.’”

When it comes to religion Yates says he is “not devout. I’m not religious. I try to be as Christian as I can. I go to church once a month but, put it like this, I don’t wear it on my sleeve.” The real significance of being Church of Ireland in a predominantly Catholic country, “was about post primary education and boarding school”, he says. Beyond that, Yates says it had no real bearing on how he raised his children.

“I actually would love to believe. I see people who get older and they get great consolation from their religion, and I admire and respect that and I just wish I had that. I really envy the people who get so much out of their life because of it. So, if you die, I actually hope for the best, but I just don’t know.”

For Yates, the highs of fatherhood include the “birth of Andrew. I just was on a complete high for about a fortnight. I used to drive around in the car listening to Je t’aime at full volume. It was a special, special moment – just because it was the first. Actually, being a parent and feeling that when I die I could face my father and say ‘at least I produced a f**kin’ son for you’.

“In terms of life, whether it’s politics, whether it’s media, whether it’s business, I firmly believe that you have no legacy. No matter how intense, or how successful or whatever, there is no legacy. Your family is your only legacy.”

Parenting in My Shoes

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

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