Living the first year in the parent trap

Maria Boyle

Maria Boyle’s ‘Newborn Identity’ is incredibly funny but does not shy away from the serious issues many mums will relate to, writes Helen O’Callaghan

Just watching her three-year-old identical twins grow, Maria Boyle gets to be David Attenborough. “Nobody’s going to let you stare at their baby as much as you stare at your own.”

For the 37-year-old TwistedDoodles illustrator from Donegal, it’s one of the best bits of motherhood. “Watching my kids grow, I realise that I came from this too, that we all had to learn things.”

Boyle, whose funny and relatable cartoons have travelled the world, been translated into many languages and even shared by ‘The Rock’ Dwayne Johnson, has just published The Newborn Identity, Revelations from the first year of parenting.

It’s an honest, witty, and at times poignant account of what she was going through that first year, but Doyle didn’t write it for publication. “I write to explain things to myself. It’s like talking to someone who doesn’t interrupt or who doesn’t look shocked.” Boyle loves motherhood but she’s candid: it’s hard too.

“If you talk about it being hard or say you’re not enjoying it so much, that’s a no-no. There’s this unspoken idea that if you say you’re finding parenting hard, someone will take your kids away, like there are secret parenting police and anybody around could report you.”

Yet, she says, you can feel two things: motherhood’s wonderful but it’s hard. And meeting your baby — in her case babies, Bronagh and Róisín — is like meeting someone for a first date. “You know so much about each other but it takes a while to get to know each other properly.”

When her girls were born, she didn’t know what bond she felt —until the nurse did the heel prick test on one of them. “When the baby started crying it pained me physically. I felt I want to protect this child. Love doesn’t have to be mainstream and fluffy — love’s a complicated thing.”

Babies love you, their parent, so much – plus they think you know exactly what you’re doing, and Boyle finds this lovely. “Before I became a mum, I thought there’d be this magical transformation where I’d be a perfect mother and know what I was doing. I didn’t realise I’d be the one to manage everything [for the baby]. Like nobody tells you how to manage your child’s hair — I was giving them terrible fringes.”

And the parenting responsibility is immediate (“I thought that someone might demonstrate how babies worked and when I’d shown some competency in the role of mother I’d be given full responsibility for them”). It’s also constant. “When you have a job, you leave it, you can stop thinking about it, but even when I’m at work I’m still a parent.”

And having twins, she says, is like buying a video game you’ve never played before and starting it on ‘expert’.

Written in intimate diary format and interspersed with original illustrations (‘Would you like to hold him?’ a proud new mum offers. ‘Huh? Sorry…I just dropped my phone’, replies her reluctant and childless friend), The Newborn Identity is an upfront, entertaining look at what modern pregnancy and parenting looks like in Ireland. Boyle’s diary entry early in her third trimester reads: “My bump feels hard. I’m asking people to feel it. I do this because this may be the only time in my life someone will touch my belly and say [it feels really hard].”

Giving birth is a like doing your Leaving Cert, she says:

There’s huge build-up and people like to tell you exactly how they did, but after a few years it doesn’t matter.

On sharing her hospital room with two other women and their babies: “I felt very alone, as if I were someone drafted in to boost morale — ‘it could be worse, I could be yer wan with the twins’.” Breastfeeding is fun (“you literally become a titty bar” and you can say “this baby is getting on my tits”), but pumping is tough. “Whoever said ‘don’t cry over spilt milk’ has never accidentally knocked over a bottle of expressed breast-milk.”

Boyle’s take on pregnancy and parenting is sharply observed, warm and funny. It covers the full light and shade of what it means to be a mother. Being from Donegal, where there’s “a very dark sense of humour”, she says if something bad happens, joking about it makes her feel in control. “I joke about things a lot. Humour lets you connect with people about very serious issues. If you can see the lightness in something, people can relate better to it.”

She has faced plenty of tough stuff in her life and needed that humour — at 15, she was diagnosed with stage 3 malignant melanoma. Her oncologist told her not to have any children until she’d been in remission 10 years. At her last appointment she asked if that was because the treatment she’d had would put the baby at risk. “It was because he didn’t want a child to be left without its mother. He didn’t mean to be cruel and at the time it didn’t feel that way either. It was just a fact.”

Once married though, Boyle realised if she didn’t push herself “forward into uncertainty”, the cancer mightn’t have taken her life but it would have taken her capacity to live it — and so she and husband Colm had “ a conversation about having children”. The Newborn Identity is incredibly funny, yet covers serious themes that many mums will relate to, from postnatal depression (Boyle experienced it when the twins were four months old: “I could not connect properly to the emotions I should have felt”) to returning to the workplace (“I needed to justify the time I wasn’t spending with my kids — when I was at work I was actually more productive than ever”). It’s a timely book, arriving on the shelves just ahead of Mother’s Day. For Boyle, the book feels like an achievement. Above all, it’s a record of that first year. But she’s not taking it all too seriously. “We’re going to use the money to re-wire our house. Any bit of money, you’re saying: ‘let’s try and sort out our lives a bit’.”

- The Newborn Identity by TwistedDoodles aka Maria Boyle, €12.74.

‘By due date, you won’t care if they take babies out through your ears’

Huffington Post UK named Maria Boyle one of 50 funny women to follow on Twitter. Here’s what she says in The Newborn Identity:

  • ‘I messaged my mother-in-law. She said “by the due date, you won’t care if they take babies out through your ear”.’
  • ‘She [baby] looks so peaceful sleeping…She doesn’t look like she’s breathing, she probably is…I’ll just poke her gently just to be sure. She’s AWAKE! Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no!’
  • ‘The downside about the park is that other mothers look like yummy mummies while I look like an au pair that hasn’t passed a background check.’
  • ‘I could kiss whoever invented soothers, or, as we call them “peacekeepers”.’
  • ‘The cost of childcare, five days a week for the two babies, will work out [at] €1,715 a month. A figure that is absolutely insane. I go home to Colm and cry. “I’ve read it’s normal for parents to cry the first time they leave the crèche,” he says. I think that probably means the first time that parents leave their babies there, but I don’t say it.’
  • ‘Some animals pretend to be dead to avoid being eaten by predators; some people pretend to be asleep to avoid parenting.’
  • ‘Noises that don’t wake the babies up at night: the TV, traffic, emergency services going past with sirens blaring, students being drunk and shouting outside. Noises that wake the babies: Colm and I making a cup of tea.’

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