Like many women, it took getting pregnant for Caroline Morahan to want a baby. It wasn’t exactly that she didn’t want to have children. More that she saw having them as something that would happen some time in the future, never in the now.
“Maybe naively, I always had in my head ‘well my mom was born when her mother was 44, so I’m not going to have any issue’. I just presumed,” she says. The 42-year- old actress and presenter and her husband Daithi, a tech executive, are home from LA, staying between their families’ homes. The couple have brought their four-month-old son, Rowan, back to Ireland for the first time. As we sit by the fire in her parents’ living room, her beautiful boy sits calmly in his mother’s arms, smiling and chortling at times.
She and Daithi were on holidays in the Dominican Republic when Caroline realised she was pregnant for the first time. They had just bought their own house, which had been “unbelievably stressful”, and it was only when she stopped for the break that she realised something felt different.
“Once I was pregnant it was just a total biological shift, where we were really excited and really knew that’s what we wanted,” she says. “Whereas I’d been terrified most of my adult life about the idea. I’d always thought that we would have children, but I couldn’t see when we were going to have them.”
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In part, she reflects that the fear stemmed from having lost her younger brother James when she was a child. “Possibly a lot of the fear would be around if a child wasn’t well. Being such an emotional person I was like, ‘well how will I be able to handle the worry and all of that?'” she says.
Getting pregnant changed everything. Now, she really wanted a baby. “That’s when it all really switched on for me. We had every emotion under the sun but it settled on joy. And then I started getting signs that it wasn’t going to work out, and I was really ok with that, because my mom had miscarried and spoken about it, and I saw miscarriages as very natural.”
Following Chinese medical practices, she waited three months, immediately becoming pregnant again as soon as they tried.
“The second miscarriage was devastating; I really went under. We were thrilled, and we just presumed everything would be fine.” They went for a scan at nine weeks. “We were like ‘oh my God’. And I noticed the doctor wasn’t saying anything.”
The couple were told to go home, and return the following week for a D&C (a removal procedure) if she had not miscarried. Instead, Caroline went to an acupuncturist, and recalls now that physically her second miscarriage was much more straightforward. Mentally, though, she was spent.
“I had a really bad depression. I was waking at 10 in the morning and going back to bed at 12.” She understands depression now, she says. “The physicality of it. That it is not just ‘oh I’m in a bad mood’.” Once a week, she attended a writers’ group.
“I was so exhausted I would nip into the bathroom, lean my head against the wall and sleep. That’s the only thing I put clothes on for.”
Slowly, though, she started going back into the world. She was not getting pregnant naturally, so she and Daithi started looking into IVF.
Research led to a clinic in Eastern European. Their results were promising, but it meant Caroline had to operate on Eastern European times.
“That was extremely stressful,” she recalls, describing ringing the clinic at two in the morning to try to get through to her doctors, being put on hold for an hour. Dok (as her husband is known) and she were on the same page throughout. “From ‘shall we have children now?’, and then being so sure. The united front has been amazing.”
The first round of IVF was, she says now, one of the worst experiences of her life. She had a low follicle count so was told she didn’t need to be put under during the extraction, and was given no pain relief – a brutal experience.
“They did the extraction and then this doctor came in and with absolutely no attempt to soften the blow he said ‘well that was a waste of time’. I got such a fright. He saw the colour I went and he was like ‘month to month can be different’. I thought ‘could you not have opened with that?’.”
They told her there were no eggs to be extracted. In fact, further research clarified that there were eggs, but not of the required quality.
“In that moment all my hopes were completely shattered, and that night was one of the longest in my life,” she says. “I just was so ripped apart by what he said and how he said it.”
Her doctor, she says, left her with the impression that the whole thing was “pointless. Point-less.”
On RTE’s Off The Rails, Caroline was known for turning up earlier than required, for wanting to know everything about the details of that day’s editorial shoot. A person who does her homework. Who is empowered by having all the facts. So now, she began her own research. Proper scientific papers, she hastens to add, not random Google searches.
“I started getting the answers myself. The big thing about this whole process is the letting go and surrendering to allow, and all of that. I was like ‘no, I’m going to find out everything I can, and do everything I can, and then I’ll let go’. That’s what I did.”
The lack of anything to implant after the first round was devastating. “I came back completely crushed. I was a shell after that.”
She worked with a Chinese medical practitioner who was much more positive than her clinic doctors. She went to a kinesiologist, who advised her on diet and energy levels.
“There were loads of things wrong with me, and it was totally due to stress. I’d never known upset like I had through that process.”
On the second round, they got two embryos of the highest grade. “Perfect. The joy of that was amazing. Just to know there are some eggs in there. Hooray! Someone else might get 22 or 12 or whatever. We got two and were absolutely delighted. They recommended implanting both. Neither took. That was really upsetting.”
She describes the struggle of trying not to entirely dismiss the worth of the present, for all the wishing for something in the future that characterises IVF.
“You’re trying to be grateful for everything that is in your life and not be always looking at what you’re wishing for, and it’s really hard to keep tuning back to that. But that’s what you have to do. We all start to imagine a certain thing for our lives. But there are lots of different variations on that which are wonderful too.”
Whatever happened, she and Dok were determined that they were not going to be defined by this.
“When people keep telling you that it is not hopeful, it’s hard. You have to reframe; ‘well what if they’re right? And if they’re right, what will we do?’ The wonderful thing was we both felt neither of us was looking to have a child to fill a void. So that was great, to know that. And to be sure of that.”
They started having conversations about pursuing the egg donor route. “Again, it’s not what you had imagined for yourself, but you just turn the dial a little to the left or right, and expand your perception of the situation and allow something different in.”
Caroline began preparing for another round of IVF, her third, in 2018. Before going to Eastern Europe, she stopped off in Dublin, where she would have her scans. “The results weren’t looking great. There was one egg; you want several to have grown large at the same time so that they’re all extractable. I was like ‘oh my God I’ve flown all this way, there’s just one egg’. I was really upset.”
When Eastern Europe received the information, they suggested cancelling the round. The clinic’s poor bedside manner and the difficulty involved in contacting them had become major stressors by this point.
“I couldn’t get anyone on the phone. I was going absolutely out of my mind. My mom was like, ‘I can’t watch you go through this again. Forget Eastern Europe’.” Caroline went for a scan in the Rotunda private, to a consultant she had previously attended who had been supportive and comforting. He told her, contrary to what the Eastern European clinic had implied, that there was nothing wrong with the egg, but that continuing was a lot of expense for one egg. That they might consider trying naturally on this occasion.
They decided to leave the Eastern European clinic, and try a Dublin one instead. At their first consultation, they were told their chances of conceiving were less than 15pc. “I was like ‘how can you say that, when we’ve had two embryos that are really good?’ Our doctor just said ‘I don’t want to give you a false sense of hope. You’ve got challenges here’. She gave me prescriptions and I went on my merry way to get prepared. Had a lovely Christmas. Quite mellow.”
Several days after Christmas, Caroline and Dok returned for a scan to see how many follicles there were. “I could see on the scan that there was only one egg. I thought ‘oh God, here we go again’.” Their doctor went quiet, Caroline braced herself for what was to come. “And she just went ‘ummm, you’re pregnant’. I was just like, ‘why is she saying that?’. I didn’t understand what she meant. I was looking around the room going ‘is she practising for when we have good news?’.”
“That’s not a follicle, that’s an embryo,” their doctor said. So she had got pregnant naturally.
On the floor on his play mat, baby Rowan, now four months, suddenly gurgles, as if he knows we’re talking about him. “Yes, that was you,” his mother beams delightedly.
“Dok just stared straight ahead for about 15 minutes. He was absolutely shocked. Neither of us were able to process it. We were trying to be calm. It was joy, but keep it calm. Lock it in, because we don’t know.”
So there was joy, but also serious anxiety in the first few months of her pregnancy. “For me, the other side of the pendulum was that at any moment this might not be happening. Horrendous anxiety.”
Those first few months were spent just trying to switch the brain off, being gentle with herself. Wrapping herself up in a duvet emotionally, she says. Meditation helped, as did attending a hypnotherapist, Niamh Flynn at the Galway Clinic.
“The great thing about doing things like that is you feel like you have some degree of control, you’re not just sitting there and being held hostage by all these thoughts.”
She stayed at her parents’ home, where she was mothered to within an inch of her life, she smiles. “Mom was taking care of everything. I did nourish myself from every angle, but the one thing that’s really key is the head, and trying to shut that down.”
She waited until she felt very secure in her pregnancy before returning to LA, where Rowan was born four months ago. Everything there, she says, is fear-based, and guaranteed to wind you up to the nth degree. Throughout the entire experience, the lack of control was one of the hardest things. to deal with, she says now. To cope, she had to learn to let go of expectations as much as possible.
“My key word for that year was surrender. That was my mantra. Because you do feel like your life is on hold, but you can’t let that happen. Because life is now and it’s happening. When I got that awful news at the first round and I thought there was no hope, I thought ‘well I’m alive’. You deal with what you have.”
To anyone currently going through IVF, she says that minding yourself is paramount. “I would definitely say be around people who uplift you. Very much take care of yourself. Do things that make you feel good. Because that’s the most important thing, for you to feel good.”
Ever since her TV days in Dublin, Caroline has always been good at striking out her own path, and at mental resilience, both abilities which stood to her throughout. “Things might come in a different package, so not being glued to your series of expectations is helpful. After that terrible shock with the first one I would go into each appointment saying ‘well we’ll see’. Not like ‘it has to work’. It’s really hard to do that when your head wants to fixate.” Even now, sitting by the fire in her parents’ house, her baby boy on a playmat beside her gurgling hapily, you can see a shadow of stress and unhappiness pass over her face as we talk about this. “I remember it all,” she says.
But then she looks down and Rowan and smiles.
“Whether it’s taking beautiful walks, doing some yoga, going to the National Concert Hall, whatever it is that gives you a sense of calm and relief, keep factoring that in.”
Two days before her doctor told her that she was, finally, pregnant, Caroline went with her family to a carol service on Christmas Day. The music made her cry, she recalls now, it always does. Afterwards, as she left the church, her mother turned to her and said “you look amazing, you’re glowing.”
Back at home, utterly exhausted, she fell asleep on the couch when she was meant to be preparing her part of the day’s dinner. A little later, at bedtime, she felt sick. She put it down to the IVF medication she was taking. In fact, she says now with her huge smile that lights up a room, she was pregnant.
The best Christmas present of all.
The photograph of Caroline and Rowan was taken in Staunton’s on the Green
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