Special delivery: Operation Transformation’s Jean Tierney on celebrating Mother's Day

Special delivery: Operation Transformation’s Jean Tierney on celebrating Mother's Day

Jean Tierney has every reason to celebrate this year's Mother's Day. Against the odds, her son Brayden was born six months ago. The former Operation Transformation leader talks to Helen O'Callaghan about the heartbreak of her previous pregnancies and the joy of finally becoming a mum

Special delivery: Operation Transformation’s Jean Tierney on celebrating Mother's Day

Tears turned to joy on Operation Transformation when Jean Tierney, who’d told us of her pain at losing three babies, announced she was pregnant again. Now proudly holding her six-month-old, she explains to Helen O’Callaghan that no, this is not her first Mother’s Day — but her fourth

WHEN I ask Jean Tierney if she’s looking forward to her first Mother’s Day, she gently corrects me. “This is my first Mother’s Day with a baby — but it’s actually my fourth Mother’s Day.”

Open-hearted, warm, honest and bubbly, the Limerick mum and 2019 Operation Transformation leader explains: “I have lost children. Many people forget that a lot of women out there are mothers — because they don’t have a child with them. But the moment you become pregnant, you become a mother or father. Even if you lose the child, you’ve still conceived and carried it — you’re still a parent.”

The nation’s hearts surged with hope and warm good wishes for Jean when she announced her pregnancy three weeks into RTÉ weight-loss programme Operation Transformation (OT) last year. We’d already cried to hear of the losses she and now husband Paddy Lyons had endured on their journey to parenthood: ectopic pregnancy, neonatal death, and miscarriage. And RTÉ presenter Kathryn Thomas — who’d herself suffered miscarriages before having daughter Ellie — broke down in tears on OT when Jean opened up about her heartbreak.

Today, the couple’s adored baby son, Brayden, is six months old. “He’s rolling around, nearly crawling, and he has five teeth. He’s a fine little buster. If he could, he’d walk — he wants to do things himself,” says his proud mum.

Paddy picked the name Brayden — he’d heard it while travelling in the car, listening to the radio. It means ‘strong-willed’, explains Jean. “There’s an idea that when we put names on our children, they develop to that, and he is very strong-willed. He has his own mind and we know it if he doesn’t want to do something.”

By the time Jean, now aged 34, decided to go on OT, the couple had been through heartbreak after heartbreak. Two weeks into Jean’s first pregnancy in July 2015, she started bleeding and ectopic pregnancy was diagnosed. “Mentally, it was very tough. Anyone who’s had a child knows from the moment you get pregnant you move forward nine months in your head. And then others don’t see a baby, they don’t feel the loss — it’s a struggle for people to understand that loss. Support of family and friends, and talking, is how we got through it.”

Two years later, Jean got pregnant again and baby Sloane was born early — at 33 weeks and five days — in January 2018. “She came into the world roaring crying but she became very sick as the hours went on. She was a little fighter.”

Sent to Sweden for medical help, they found she had a heart defect. Sloane passed away when she was four days old. “We always try to find something positive,” says Jean, adding that they take comfort from Sloane’s birth cert, passport and death cert.

“They say that little dash on a gravestone is the story of a lifetime. Sloane’s birth cert acknowledges her birth. Her death cert means she lived. And her passport — well, numerous people haven’t had that privilege.”

‘I DIDN’T WANT TO SEE THE WORLD’

Jean and Paddy weren’t trying for a baby when she became pregnant again in summer 2018 — only for it to end in miscarriage in September. “You think: have I done something against the world? Your mental health gets affected,” says Jean, recalling one particularly bad day. “I just didn’t want to see the world. I hid in my car at the back of the house. But I had to open the window to let out a wasp, and Mum was just coming in so I couldn’t hide. She texted Dad and he came over too.”

And it was this, she says, that pulled her through — the “amazing support” of Paddy, himself grieving, her dad Tom, mum Breda, brother John and John’s “beautiful daughters”, Robyn and Fearne, now aged nine and four respectively.

Paddy, she says, provided great stability. “He always said we have each other and we’ll get there. He showed me an article about a couple who’d lost numerous children and eventually got pregnant. He said: ‘look, we’ll get there’.” But still, she says, she was “in such a deep hole” — something she also recalled to Ryan Tubridy during the couple’s Late Late Show appearance last autumn, one month after Brayden was born. “The positivity dropped a little. I felt I’d lost a bit of myself, a bit of my soul.”

Describing herself as an emotional eater, she says OT kept popping up on her feed and — raised in a family that believes even when bad things happen, you do something to help others — she began to feel applying to be on the show was the right thing to do. “I thought if I went on the show it might help others talk about what they’d been through.” She also felt it would help her “get myself back”.

She waited two or three weeks to tell Paddy, and then her family, that she’d applied. “And then all of a sudden it was happening. It would be Sloane’s first anniversary in the middle of it all, so it was a distraction too.”

When, a couple of weeks in, Jean discovered she was pregnant, she was “so happy, so thrilled” but she knew she couldn’t continue the OT exercise regimen. She and the programme team sat down and discussed how she’d leave the show — Jean could have said it was for “personal reasons” but she didn’t feel right about that. “I’d been so open right from the start. It wouldn’t have been right to just disappear. People would have wondered. I felt I had to tell the truth. We were carrying a new life so why not rejoice and celebrate?”

On her way home after theOT team meeting, Kathryn Thomas rang her. “We spent an hour talking and crying on the phone. You see stars like Kathryn on the TV and you forget they’re human. She’s so real. She and the producers and the experts were so overwhelmed for me and so supportive and they all kept in contact with me that week [before revealing her baby news live on air] to make sure I was OK.”

Once Jean sat down with Paddy and with her family, to make sure they were “all OK with me telling the nation”, she was ready to do it. “I’m very lucky with Paddy and my family and friends. They said ‘whatever feels right for you, we’re behind you’. Societally and culturally, people say you shouldn’t tell anyone you’re pregnant ’til you’re at 12 weeks. But from the moment you become pregnant you’re a parent. I felt whether it lasted the nine months or whether we weren’t going to be lucky, I had the support behind me and I’d have the understanding if it ended up where I was sad and falling off the planet.”

‘WE WANTED A CELEBRATION’

Special delivery: Operation Transformation’s Jean Tierney on celebrating Mother's Day

Today, Jean describes 2019 as a “crazy year”, one of the most significant of her life, containing not just OT and the momentous life event of her baby’s birth, but also her marriage to Paddy, 37, on New Year’s Eve. Describing herself as “very liberal and modern”, Jean says she couldn’t believe how she struggled at the time of Sloane’s birth with not having the same surname as Paddy.

“In the hospital, she was Baby Tierney. When she died, I was quite adamant she’d have Paddy’s surname and it’s on her death cert. Her original birth cert was Tierney but we got it changed to Lyons. When I got pregnant with Brayden, I said we just have to get married — I want us all to be the same [surname].”

They had the wedding at Blackwater Castle in Castletownroche, Co Cork. “We got married in a barn at 4.30pm — we had a spiritual ceremony and Brayden was in his daddy’s arms the whole of the ceremony. We had yoga in the morning and we had a sing-song and people ate and danced when they wanted. We had no flowers or cards and people could wear what they wanted.” And nobody guessed, until the moment, that the couple had also planned Brayden’s naming ceremony for the same day. “It was all beautiful. We wanted a celebration and that’s what it was.”

Paddy works as a plumber, while Jean’s a sales and marketing manager with House, bar, restaurant and nightclub in Limerick. Like so many thousands of workers affected by Covid-19, Jean has been temporarily laid off. She speaks highly of her employers: “They’ve been so accommodating to me. It’s a great place to work — they really understand the needs of a family.”

Also, like other families, Brayden’s grandparents are Face-timing now. “Of course they’d love to be seeing him and spending time with him, but we must all do what we can in the short-term for the long-term good. And we used to FaceTime a lot anyway. So we need a small bit of perspective — it’s important to just mind each other,” says Jean.

What would she say to other women, struggling to bring home that much longed-for baby? “I continuously hear other women’s stories,” she says, adding that she and Paddy lost each of their babies in very different circumstances. “When Sloane died, I recall one woman who didn’t tell me she’d had a miscarriage, but when I later had a miscarriage, she told me then. She could relate more to that.

“I’d say to women who are having it difficult: don’t give up. Paddy and my family and friends always said to stay calm and if it’s meant to be you’ll get there, and if it didn’t happen naturally there were other options.

“I’d say to women: reach out and just talk about it — a weight lifts off when you do that. And look after yourself. Mind each other. Take one day at a time. When things are tough, looking forward’s hard. If all you do is get up and put on one sock, that’s ok. Try and find something good in each day if you can.”

If Jean regrets anything it’s that she and Paddy didn’t let Robyn see baby Sloane. “When people have young children, they think these things should be kept from them. But they shouldn’t. Children’s minds work overboard — they’re more sensible than adults. Robyn writes letters to Sloane. She wishes she’d seen her.” In the graveyard where Sloane is buried, a few other children are buried nearby.

“Robyn said the other day: ‘Jean and Paddy, you have no flowers on Sloane’s grave and all her little friends have flowers and you have to put some on’. It was such an amazing view through a child’s eyes.”

A child who sees perfectly that this is indeed Jean’s fourth Mother’s Day — and that it is Mother’s Day for all those women, who conceived and who carried, but who didn’t get to bring their baby home.

Support networks

Miscarriage

One in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. The Miscarriage Association of Ireland is run by volunteers who themselves have lost a baby/babies through miscarriage.

Set up over 30 years ago, group support meetings take place in Dublin, Cork, and Galway (www.miscarriage.ie/ for details). Support is also available via email and telephone. An information book is also available free of charge from www.healthbrochures.ie.

The Association holds an annual service of remembrance (with music and candlelight, followed by tea, coffee, and cake) on the second Sunday in November in St Teresa’s church, Donore Avenue, Dublin 8.

Chairperson of the Miscarriage Association of Ireland Deirdre Pierce-McDonnell says what’s very hard about miscarriage is you may have nothing to remember your baby by. “This can really add to the empty arm feelings,” she says. To help, the association has many softer supports — a Book of Remembrance where people can make an entry in memory of their baby, bookmarks, logo pins, and memorial stones. Currently, there are 16 memorial stones in place in various locations nationwide. “They’re somewhere physical to go to remember your little one, when you mightn’t otherwise have a place to go,” says Pierce-McDonnell.

Stillbirth/neonatal death

National charity Féileacáin supports anyone affected by the death of a baby around the time of birth. Set up in 2009 by seven bereaved parents, it’s parent-led and receives no government funding.

Stillbirth/neonatal death is one of the most traumatic losses for a family —yet it is also of the most misunderstood. Parents need to learn to live with the lifelong loss of their child. “There’s always the first day of school, First Communions, and so on,” says Marie Cregan of Féileacáin.

“We all know children born around the time our own child died and we often mark what our own children should be doing through them. “Mother’s Day can be desperately sad for bereaved parents, especially those who don’t have other children. “For some in their social circle, they’re not seen as ‘real parents’ because they’re not parenting their child. “But this doesn’t mean they’re not missing their child and caring for their memory and honouring their child. Bereaved parents appreciate being remembered on Mother’s and Father’s Day.”

Féileacáin offers peer support by trained volunteers who are themselves bereaved parents. Professional services (psychotherapy/play therapy/social work) are delivered by professionals who again are bereaved. Féileacáin also has ‘Remembering’ initiatives, as well as online support and private online groups. They are spearheading research into why so many babies die around time of birth, they’re campaigning to have the stillbirth registers opened, and they want to ensure that any mother who has a confirmed pregnancy can avail of a ‘certificate of life’ if she wishes.

See: https://feileacain.ie

Infertility

Helen Browne of National Infertility and Support Group (NISIG) says some women can feel very isolated around Mother’s Day.

“We’re surrounded by reminders of Mother’s Day via media and shop windows,” she says. It’s a sad reminder that we are not mums or that we are not mums yet. We encourage women who are not mums/not-mums-yet to be mindful of themselves.

“We’d also like to encourage women, if they have a godchild, to ask their mums to encourage the child to make a card for their godmother. “I have done this and my godchild Laura sends a godmother card to me every year. “Now she’s a young lady, she also treats me to a meal out, just the two of us, and it’s a great time for us to have a catch-up.

“I treasure it.”

NISIG hosts bi-monthly meetings and they have also held meetings close to dates of celebrations that have the potential to be painful.

If you find this time of year difficult phone 087-7975058 and/or see http://nisig.com

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