Why can’t this coun­try han­dle house-hus­bands?

Jo Spain puts her suc­cess down to team­work... she writes and her hus­band runs the house (though he won’t do the iron­ing)

Irish Daily Mail - - Weekend - Women and men seem to strug­gle with the mod­ern con­cept so they go straight to the mammy BY PA­TRICE HAR­RING­TON

Writer Jo Spain has had rave re­views for new RTÉ drama Taken Down... but she says she owes it all to her stay-at-home part­ner

WHEN I hand Jo Spain the menu, the No.1 best­selling au­thor and cre­ator of new RTÉ drama se­ries Taken Down ad­mits that she can’t eat lunch af­ter all. She was up the pre­vi­ous night with an upset stom­ach and still feels queasy. Her hus­band Mar­tin, a stay-at-home dad for their four chil­dren, even ad­vised the 39year-old to can­cel.

Yet here she is, hair and make-up im­mac­u­late, smil­ing brightly, ready to talk about ev­ery­thing from grow­ing up in poverty to work­ing in Le­in­ster House to the tragic death of her fa­ther to be­ing her young fam­ily’s bread­win­ner.

Then again, Jo has the kind of de­ter­mi­na­tion and work ethic that saw her write this year’s hit The Con­fes­sion – the novel that ‘changed the ball­game com­pletely’ – in just four weeks. In fact, she has writ­ten eight nov­els in four years.

Her pro­lific out­put while moth­er­ing four chil­dren – two boys and two girls rang­ing in ages from 4 to 13 – amazes peo­ple.

‘An­other au­thor said to me re­cently, “How on earth are you do­ing all of this?” Then she just hap­pened to men­tion her hus­band is a sur­geon and I was like, “Okay, well lis­ten, love, my hus­band is at home full­time with the kids.”’

Jo met Mar­tin when she was 23 and a free­lance jour­nal­ist and he was 36 and edit­ing the now-de­funct Sinn Féin news­pa­per An Phoblacht. He has also worked for Amer­i­can edit­ing com­pany HW Wil­son who ‘did stuff from all over the world. He’s a bril­liant ed­i­tor,’ says Jo. ‘He lost his job when I was ex­pect­ing our sec­ond or third child and it was at the tip­ping point of child­care. No mat­ter what job he was go­ing to get we were not go­ing to be able to af­ford to put the kids into re­ally ex­pen­sive child­care.’

She adds: ‘He works the odd time in a bar be­side Croke Park on match days but mainly he stays at home. We just had a chat and also, he’s a bit older than me – I’m 39, he’s 51 – and he’s at that point where he couldn’t get a job. He was like, “The labour mar­ket won’t look at me now. I’d have to reskill.” So he stayed at home and we just man­aged.’

It also helps that Mar­tin ‘ed­its and proof­reads’ all of Jo’s work along with keep­ing the home fires burn­ing.

HE’S ab­so­lutely bril­liant but I wouldn’t say I have a house hus­band the way some men have housewives. He does all the school runs, ev­ery­thing to do with the school – all the lunches, all the shop­ping and a good bit of house­work.

‘Then I do our din­ners and most of the baths and I do most of the clear­ing out of the kids’ clothes that you go through on the week­ends. You know, that kind of stuff. All the iron­ing. He has never learned to use an iron; I think that’s in­ten­tional. But be­tween the two of us we pull through the week and then sit down on Satur­day night with a glass of wine.’

Jo has no­ticed old stereo­types die hard when it comes to other peo­ple ac­knowl­edg­ing who does what in her mod­ern fam­ily.

‘I find one of the strange things about it is if any­one is look­ing to find out about what the kids are do­ing, they text me. Even though he’s at home all the time with them. Even to the point where I’d be away at a gig, some kind of pub­lish­ing thing, and I’d get a text at 8.30am ask­ing if so-and-so is go­ing to such a club af­ter school. I’m look­ing at it, go­ing, “Why aren’t you tex­ting Mar­tin? He’s there!”

‘Women and men seem to strug­gle with the mod­ern con­cept [of stayat-home dads] so they go straight to the mammy. I think, “You would never do that with a work­ing dad”. You wouldn’t dream of tex­ting the hus­band and say­ing, “Are you pick­ing up the kids from swim­ming?” So in one way we’re very ad­vanced as a coun­try and our fam­ily in par­tic­u­lar. In other ways we’re still stuck in the dark.’

But con­sid­er­ing Jo’s writ­ing pays the bills – and she of­ten sits at that lap­top for 12 hours straight – doesn’t she be­grudge hav­ing to do house­work too?

‘He’s got­ten much bet­ter over the years. When we started I gen­uinely think – and we’ve joked about this – “I don’t think you see what I see!” He might have hoovered the rug in the sit­ting room and I’ll be like, “Did you pull out the couch?” Or he’ll clean the sur­faces in the kitchen area but there’ll be all the bot­tles of olive oil there and I’ll be like, “It’s very sticky!” But he’s not the hired help, he’s the hus­band and he’s a man,’ she ar­gues.

‘He can get dis­tracted by Cham­pi­ons League, Sky Sports foot­ball. But one of the things I’ve learned as I’ve got older is that we’re re­ally happy, the two of us, and the kids. I do think this comes from [when] my dad died when I was younger and my step­dad died as well,’ she says. Her fa­ther, an al­co­holic, died in a house fire when she was 16; her step­dad of lung can­cer on the morn­ing her third child was born.

Jo grew up in Bel­camp, Coolock, on Dublin’s north­side.

‘I wouldn’t change any­thing but it’s a tough place to grow up, par­tic­u­larly be­cause I was a lit­tle bit sen­si­tive,’ she says. ‘I was very book­ish. It’s an area of real de­pri­va­tion.

‘There was a lot of drugs in those ar­eas in the 1980s and 1990s but I was very much in my own head. I re­mem­ber wak­ing up one night and there was a horse in our gar­den,’ she laughs.

‘I think I am who I am be­cause of where I grew up. I’m full of sto­ries and there’s a real wit­ti­ness of peo­ple on the north­side of Dublin. But it’s not an easy child­hood liv­ing some­where like that. You can’t pre­tend oth­er­wise. You can have the best fam­i­lies but still you’re deal­ing with so­cial de­pri­va­tion and ev­ery­thing that comes with it.’

She says this ground­ing has made her see that she’s very lucky to have what she does now.

‘It has given me an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what I have even though we bicker like any nor­mal cou­ple,’ she says. ‘But we have four healthy and happy chil­dren and I’m start­ing to earn now as well.

‘For years we were pan­ick­ing about that – and I come from poverty so I know what that’s like and I work re­ally hard. But now we’re good. We’re happy. I love him and he loves me and we love the kids. We work it out. We’re not per­fect and we’re knack­ered at the end of the week, but we ap­pre­ci­ate what we have.’

Jo also says the deaths of her dad and step­dad are what drive her to write so quickly – ‘be­cause I know life is short’. ‘I hon­estly think my dad dy­ing trig­gered some­thing in me be­cause he was 44 – I’m only five years off the age of him now,’ she says. ‘I think when you lose your pil­lars it’s very un­set­tling.

‘I was only 16. My dad al­ways knew he was go­ing to have a short life. He had an al­co­hol prob­lem. I think it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple do talk about it. When he was given up for adop­tion he thought he had been aban­doned and ne­glected but that wasn’t the case at all.’

In re­cent years Jo dis­cov­ered that her pa­ter­nal grand­mother, who was from Leitrim and who gave birth to

her fa­ther in St Pa­trick’s Mother and Baby home in Dublin, had in­sisted on keep­ing her baby. Even­tu­ally when he was four years old – and his mother was prob­a­bly des­ti­tute – she re­turned to the home and asked the nuns to have him adopted. Jo’s fa­ther never re­ally re­cov­ered from this sad start in life.

Jo’s par­ents split when she was five and she had her step­dad from that age, but of course it was still a ter­ri­ble blow when her fa­ther died. He had fallen asleep while smok­ing which started the house fire that killed him.

‘You can go one of two ways,’ she says, of how she has coped. ‘You could be de­pressed and sad and it could limit you. But in­stead I re­alised life is short. It’s re­ally short.

‘My step­dad died of lung can­cer the day I had my third baby – he was di­ag­nosed and died within 11 weeks. He was buried when I was in hos­pi­tal.’

Jo’s fa­ther’s adop­tion gave her the in­spi­ra­tion for her first novel, With Our Bless­ing. It was short­listed in the Richard and Judy new best­seller search in 2014 and se­cured a two-book deal with Quer­cas, worth £15,000.

‘That was bril­liant but not good enough to be leav­ing work. My youngest was ten days old at the time,’ she says.

Jo wrote that first book while rear­ing her young fam­ily and work­ing full-time in Le­in­ster House as pol­icy and par­lia­men­tary ad­viser to Sinn Féin fi­nance spokesman Pearse Do­herty. A grad­u­ate of pol­i­tics from Trin­ity Col­lege she had seen the job ad­ver­tised while work­ing in An Phoblacht.

‘I thought, that’s a job that I would en­joy. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing but a tough job as well. It’s one of those jobs you do with your heart and your mind and your soul all the time. You lis­ten to ev­ery news bul­letin, you read ev­ery pa­per, you’re “on” all the time.

‘Af­ter a few years of that you ei­ther have the ap­petite to keep do­ing it or you’re ex­hausted. And com­ing home to kids as well – when the Dáil is sit­ting late, you’re in late. Pearse had four small kids as well so he was aware of that. I was think­ing of leav­ing any­way and then I wrote the book.’

WHEN she quit the job in 2016, it was still a huge risk ‘be­cause I was the bread­win­ner, I had four chil­dren now and we bought our house at the cusp of the boom so it was in neg­a­tive eq­uity for a long time. I was walk­ing away from a salary job to try and be­come a best-sell­ing nov­el­ist. The pres­sure!’

Then she wrote The Con­fes­sion which be­came her pub­lisher’s lead psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller of 2018 and a No.1 best­seller.

She co-wrote Taken Down with Love/Hate cre­ator Stu­art Carolan, who she ‘rang blind’ some years ago to launch one of her books. He then passed her nov­els onto Jane Go­gan, head of drama at RTÉ, who brought Jo to lunch last Jan­uary and asked her if she had any ideas for an orig­i­nal TV se­ries.

Taken Down stars French ac­tress Aissa Maiga as Nige­rian im­mi­grant Abeni and Brian Glee­son as the man­ager of a di­rect pro­vi­sion cen­tre. Love/Hate ac­tress Lynn Raf­ferty is the de­tec­tive in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mur­der of a young asy­lum seeker out­side the cen­tre.

Last Sun­day night’s first episode won praise for its slick pro­duc­tion, ex­cel­lent new act­ing ta­lent – and for open­ing a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about di­rect pro­vi­sion. With di­rec­tor David Caf­frey on board again too, it’s im­pos­si­ble to avoid com­par­isons with Love/Hate.

‘There’s sim­i­lar­i­ties in that it looks at a part of Dublin we’re not look­ing at – it’s beau­ti­ful to look at but it’s not pretty to look at,’ says Jo. ‘Though the only sim­i­lar­ity I’m hop­ing for is the suc­cess!’

Jo did a lot of re­search on di­rect pro­vi­sion for Taken Down. As some­one who was formerly in­volved in pol­i­tics, what poli­cies does she think might help?

‘There is an el­e­ment of torture in putting some­body some place for seven, eight, nine years and say­ing, “You can’t work, you can’t pro­vide for your­self or your chil­dren, you can’t cook for your­self, you could be on a cur­few, you could be in a ho­tel room”. But also we can’t say, “Let’s shut it down in the morn­ing” be­cause we have a mas­sive home­less cri­sis and where does ev­ery­one liv­ing in a di­rect pro­vi­sion cen­tre go? It’s com­plex,’ she says.

‘All I do know is there has to be more com­pas­sion shown to­wards peo­ple liv­ing in that sit­u­a­tion and to re­alise that we’re do­ing it in the same way as Trump is do­ing at the Mex­i­can bor­der, putting peo­ple into a lit­tle box un­til they de­cide – and that could be years.’

Th­ese days she and her fam­ily live in Blan­chard­stown and Jo kicks off the day with a 5km run, dur­ing which she comes up with her dark plots.

‘I’m work­ing on a show at the mo­ment in Den­mark which is in de­vel­op­ment now. My De­tec­tive Tom Reynolds books have been adapted for screen and the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of that asked me to do the adap­ta­tion. That will be my first solo TV writ­ing gig.’

‘I write all day when the kids are in school. I write at the kitchen ta­ble. If I’m re­ally in the mid­dle of some­thing I’ll go up­stairs, I have a desk in the bed­room. We’re in a three-bed ter­raced house and it’s small. One of my ma­jor goals in life is to move from a three-bed to a four-bed. Some peo­ple want man­sions, I want an­other box room!’

That’s not all she wants, re­ally, though. Jo de­scribes her am­bi­tions as ‘lim­it­less. I want a No. 1 New York Times best­seller. And then win an Emmy – why not?’

Taken Down is on RTÉ One to­mor­row at 9.35pm

We’re do­ing what Trump is do­ing at the Mex­i­can bor­der. We must show com­pas­sion

Eye of the storm: Abeni (Aissa Maiga)

Fo­cus: Jo Spain’s hard work is pay­ing off

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