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)
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