Dr Colman Noctor: If your children are safe and loved, anything after that’s a bonus

As child psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor starts a new column in Irish Examiner Feelgood next week, we catch up with him to find out what his childhood was like — and about his own experience of parenting and of being parented
Dr Colman Noctor: If your children are safe and loved, anything after that’s a bonus

Dr Coleman Noctor pictured with his children from left Odhran, Harry and Layla at their home in Carlow. Picture: Dylan Vaughan

Growing up near the Sally Gap in 1980s Ireland, Colman’s BMX bike was his lifeline. “It wasn’t unusual, aged 11, to cycle 2km to see my friends,” says the 43-year-old, who recalls his childhood as “a nice mix of going to school in Dublin and still having that rural experience”.

Living in an area served only by the number 65 bus that went the 20km to Dublin City, Colman says the bus became an important part of life. “Coming home, you’d get off, go into the phone box, let the phone ring three times before hanging up and Mum knew you were there.”

Mum was Brenda, a nurse — “kind of like a local community nurse” — very devoted to her Catholic faith and heavily engaged in community work. “We did the shopping for elderly neighbours. There was a real sense of community back then. Because Mum was so busy, everything was very much on the hoof. You’d get your food in different courses —meat, vegetables, potatoes all arriving separately. I joke it was Italian in its scheduling!” 

Colman — youngest of three siblings and the only boy — has always had a close relationship with his mother. “Mum always had your back. Many people [of a certain age] say if the teacher gave out to them, the assumption at home would be ‘you must have done something wrong’. I never felt that with my mother — you were innocent until proven guilty. She had this unwavering belief in us —
 but without pressure.” 

Dad Brendan, a warehouse manager for Renault, “was gone from early morning to late evening”. He was, says Colman, a quiet, stoic, strong and protective man. “People said he was tough in the GAA field. When he golfed he always brought back a Waterford Crystal trophy. In my eyes he was a hero.”

But it wasn’t until his early 20s that Colman felt really close to his dad. By then he was working as a psychiatric nurse in London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital and his dad would ring him without fail at 11am every Friday morning. 

Dr Coleman Noctor pictured with his children from left Odhran, Harry and Layla at their home in Carlow.
Dr Coleman Noctor pictured with his children from left Odhran, Harry and Layla at their home in Carlow.

“It was a reflection of his love for me, though he mightn’t have been able to express it in words. He was never ‘I love you — you’re a great lad’ type of dad.”

And then his grandchildren came along — and Brendan became almost unrecognisable. “He transformed! He became relentlessly available to his grandchildren. If they’re around all his attention is for them. He lies on the ground with my six-year-old trying to find hedgehogs in a ditch. He never did that with me. He’s 83 and he loves the grandkids. He’s so warm, he hugs them, tells them all the time he loves them — he’s a really big caregiver for them.

“The grandkids call him Gaga. We all call him that now. Gaga and Brendan are two different people. As father and son, we’re far closer now. We don’t talk about overly deep things, but there’s definitely warmth, closeness and understanding we wouldn’t have had before.”

Colman doesn’t recall childhood family discussions about wider political and cultural issues. “As a family, we didn’t discuss the 1980's recession or emigration crisis or Thatcherism or homosexuality or what it’d be like to be from a ‘broken’ home. So I didn’t have any interpretative knowledge of the world. And when I went to secondary school I felt very green.” 

His nickname at school was Bogger — he thinks because of his naivety, as much as where he lived. “Urban kids knew so much,” he says, recalling how they taught him to fill out his bus pass application in pencil, get it stamped in the bus office and then change the age he’d written, all to see over-15 films at the Square Cinema in Tallaght.

The importance of relationships

A graduate in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, he underwent psychoanalysis himself as part of his training. “You unpick everything about those early relationships. In my late 20s, early 30s, the microscopic lens of that was probably turbulent.”

Reflecting on it all now, he sees how incredibly important those relationships were and how they were “far more supportive than they were anything else”.

Recalling his rural childhood where his neighbours were farmers and he spent lots of time playing on bales, Colman is upfront and self-deprecating when it comes to his practical attributes. When there were stones to be picked on those farms, he admits to having always been willing — but never able.

 “I was never quite handy, never a man of labour. In first year at secondary school, I was told to leave tech drawing and go to Latin — which I loved.”

You can be blinded by a guru

Describing himself as a lazy student with no interest in school and no wish back then to go to third level, he says what he wanted on the cusp of his 18th birthday was a job. “I was too small for the guards, too afraid to be a fireman. The only thing left was nursing.” 

In the mid-‘90s, he interviewed for mental health nursing in St John of God’s, Stillorgan — he was one of 12 selected from 1,000 applicants. “I started nursing and loved it from day one. I was home! I loved the idea of the human subject. The mind fascinated me — why we do what we do — that it has so much influence.” 

He qualified as a psychiatric nurse, got a job in an adult mental health ward in St Vincent’s, Fairview, but knew he wanted to work with teens. A post-grad in child psychiatry in DCU followed. Then it was off to Great Ormond Street Hospital, London,  where he spent 18 months — prior to a further 18 months as a nurse manager in children’s mental health at Edinburgh Royal Hospital. His decision to do a four-year degree in psychoanalytic psychotherapy brought him back to Dublin in the noughties. He has worked at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, at the Lucena Clinic and spent 11 years working with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services.

Now an assistant professor of Mental Health Nursing at UCD, he has a doctorate in psychotherapy (his area of study was the impact of technology on mental health).

Asked whose work he follows, he says he doesn’t believe in gospels or following a guru. “I don’t pick a lane. I’ve been criticised for it. I think if you have a gospel, you’re tunnelled. You can be blinded by a guru.” 

You grow up when you become a parent

Dr Coleman Noctor pictured with his children from left Odhran, Harry and Layla at their home in Carlow.
Dr Coleman Noctor pictured with his children from left Odhran, Harry and Layla at their home in Carlow.

Based in Carlow, he’s dad to Ódhran, 10, Layla, 8, and Harry, 6. Becoming a parent has taught him not to believe the brochure — and about sacrifice. “That’s the big bit — how much of my life I had to give up when I became a father. It was a bigger change than becoming a husband.” 

He recalls the 12 weeks driving up and down the Naas road at 4am when his firstborn had colic. “I felt I was failing as a parent because I couldn’t take away the pain. I grew up rapidly when I became a parent. I aged a decade — in terms of maturity and realising my responsibilities.” 

The joyful moments are great — but they’re moments, he says. “A lot of parenting is more about struggle. That’s not said in the brochure. The joy is unique, the unbelievable closeness, but there’s work in it, labour.” 

His children have taught him the value of experience over things. “You ask your children ‘what’s your favourite holiday?’ and they say ‘that time we went to Trim — because of the swimming pool’.” 

Remote-working since September, he finds the pandemic-generated loneliness really tough. “I find the isolation incredibly difficult. I’m very much a people person. I love shooting the breeze, small talk.” 

He misses enormously playing tag rugby for two hours on Monday nights. “That was sacrosanct, a hugely important part of life. I’m lost without it, the camaraderie, the coming together. For two hours, the world was about that game — I wasn’t thinking of work, family. I’m doing the 100 days of walking at the moment and it doesn’t come close.” 

The pandemic effect on parenting is also a concern, and homeschooling’s a challenging dynamic. “The rows and stress far outweigh any academic benefit. I worry about it impacting my children’s relationship with me and with education as a whole. I’ve promised myself, while they’re doing this home-schooling, I will hug them every hour no matter what.” 

It’s also difficult to see his children lose interest in particular activities. “Twelve months ago, my son wouldn’t have been seen without a ball on his foot. Now he has no interest in going out playing because he’s not playing with friends or with a team. Watching enthusiasm fade is hard.” 

And if a parent could do one positive thing, what would it be? “Be authentic. One young person said to me: ‘You don’t have to get me. You just have to show that you’re trying to get me’.”

 And the one thing a parent should never do? “If you need your child to do well — if your self-worth is bound up in your child’s performance — you’ve got a problem. It’s fine if you want them to do well [for them].”

He believes in parenting courses — if looking for help with specific issues. “If you need support, look for it. But immersing yourself in parenting theory and aspiration isn’t necessarily helpful.”

We are all struggling

As we parent through a pandemic, he urges parents to give themselves a break. “Maybe we’re not failing everything. Maybe we’re surviving everything. Be compassionate to yourself. If your children are safe and loved, anything after that’s a bonus.” 

Colman has a monthly slot on the Ray D’Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1) and is author/presenter of [url=https://www.exa.mn/PodcastParent]Asking for a Parent[/url], a conversational podcast he’s been running since late October. Within three months, it had 25,000 downloads. It describes the most common and complex child-rearing challenges and provides better ways to understand a child’s behaviour.

 “For me, the podcast has been the really positive part of the pandemic,” says Colman. “I’ve got feedback like ‘my relationship with my 11-year-old has never been better’ and ‘it’s so good to hear other people are struggling too’. 

Dr Colman Noctor begins his column in Feelgood next Friday, February 26

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