On the treble
Operation Transformation’s Aoife Hearne on balancing family and career
WHEN Aoife Hearne opens the front door of her home in Waterford, my eye is immediately drawn to her t-shirt, emblazoned with the words ‘coffee and concealer’, two things I’d imagine she has needed more than usual lately. The dietitian and expert on RTÉ’s Operation Transformation gave birth to her third child, Zoë, in May. Along with caring for Dylan, 4, and Alva, 2, running her nutrition consultancy business, publishing a book, and her television obligations, life has been hectic, to say the least.
Hearne is refreshingly honest about the sacrifices required to keep all those balls in the air.
“I got married [to Alan Kirwan, an engineer and part-time farmer] in December 2012, started on Operation Transformation in January 2014, and got pregnant with Dylan that January as well. OT was kind of thrown in my lap and I had to try it — but we were starting a family and you can’t postpone it. I was 34 as it was, I’m an only child and we wanted a few kids, so there wasn’t a whole lot of time.”
Hearne says there is no such thing as having it all and that appearances can often be deceptive.
“Externally, you’d think ‘God she’s great, she’s on TV and doing all those things’, but it’s hard marrying the two. I want to be a mother, as good as I can be, and I also have to give a lot to my career. There are consequences and compromises, people lose out. My husband has to take up the slack when I’m not here and it’s hard when he’s working full-time, and he’s a parttime farmer, there’s a lot going on for him and then I’m missing breakfast and bedtimes — crunch times. I definitely don’t have it all.”
There was a significant bump in the road after the birth of her middle child, Alva, when Hearne was diagnosed with Grave’s disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid.
“She didn’t sleep very well and the stress of that totally triggered it. I have to mind myself so that doesn’t happen again because I’m no good to anybody at that stage. I was having palpitations, sweating, my mood was all over the place. I was in with my GP, crying, thinking I had post-natal depression. I was so scared to even say those words. I do feel very fearful when I think back to that time because I was very close to the edge.”
Hearne finds herself on steadier ground this time around. “It’s easier with three. Going from one child to two was challenging… and, with my thyroid going bananas, looking back I was really all over the place. Also, having to be this ‘together’ person on TV, which took all of my energy. Then I’d come home and nearly crumble and I was no good to anybody.”
Hearne’s firm but empathetic approach on OT has won her many fans, and she is conscious of how her personal experience underpins her professional advice.
“I think I always try to walk the walk. If I wasn’t organised from a nutritional perspective, we would not be eating properly. I try to put a lot of time into prep work at the weekends or whatever day I’m not working. I’m like everyone else, we couldn’t have a healthy meal if the prep work wasn’t done and there are weeks where that doesn’t happen, where we’re eating beans and omelettes a lot.”
Right on cue, just as I ask about how her two siblings have reacted to her arrival, the gurgles of baby Zoë, who is having a nap, begin to emanate from the baby monitor and Hearne goes upstairs to get her. She is adorable and alert, and Hearne says her arrival hasn’t prompted any tears or tantrums from her brother and sister.
“They are actually very good. Now, they could jump on top of her or put the blanket over her head so you have to be careful, but there doesn’t seem to be any jealousy yet.”
As Zoë snuggles in for a feed, Hearne chats about the benefits of breastfeeding. However, she knows from experience that it isn’t always easy and understands why many women give up on breastfeeding in the face of discomfort, pain, and sleep deprivation.
“My middle child, Alva, had a posterior tongue-tie when the frenulum is too tight. I wasn’t sore so it wasn’t picked up until she was seven months old. She was filling with wind and if I put her down, she’d sleep for five minutes. I was on the brink of losing it.”
With Zoë, the tongue-tie was picked up when she was born.
When it comes to introducing solid food, Hearne is a proponent of baby-led feeding, where the baby is given food they can eat themselves. What about people who would like to try it but are fearful? “The choking risk is what people worry about… but the most important thing is that you’re giving them safe shapes. And remember, the gag reflex is very close to the front of their mouth. We see gagging and think they’re choking, but they’re not. The whole idea of baby-led feeding is not necessarily only about solid foods, it is about you not spooning it into the baby. You can still give them mashed potatoes, yoghurts, all of that, give them loaded spoons and just let them grab it. It’s messy, but it does pay dividends in the long run… from the very start it keeps them connected to their hunger and fullness.”
Hearne says parents need to trust that children know their own appetites and ultimately will not go hungry.
“We have this idea of how much we feel they should be eating but maybe they know better than us. Even something as small as a mandarin an hour before dinner for a toddler could stop them eating that dinner. It is also about trying not to get into a power struggle… If they say they’re full, accept it, even if they haven’t touched their dinner. Then say, ‘that’s grand but nothing else tonight, don’t forget’. It’s not easy.”
A top-level sprinter, Hearne was national senior champion in the 100m in 1997. She went to the US on a sports scholarship when she was 17, providing opportunities she says she never would have had in Ireland. She went on to study nutrition at the University of Tennessee and completed an internship at the renowned Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“Realistically, I was never going to make a career out of running, if I was honest. Back then, as a teenager, I was very hopeful I would. The points to do dietetics in Ireland are crazy, I never would have made those points. I was really lucky in some respects, the way things worked out. I would have been quite shy in school, I wouldn’t have liked speaking in public. America knocks that out of you.”
She may not be sprinting any more but sport is still very much part of Hearne’s life. She has a master’s in sports and exercise nutrition, and has worked with the Chicago Bulls basketball team and the Chicago Bears baseball team. In what is literally a completely different ball game, she has also worked with the Tipperary hurlers for nine years.
“That’s something people in Waterford aren’t happy about,” she says, laughing. “I am the only woman in the backroom team — I love it because I get that competitive buzz in my life that I don’t have anywhere else.
“It is amazing how dedicated they are and how much they do look after themselves. Nothing beats being in Croke Park on AllIreland final day. And winning.”
While, much to her dismay, she has yet to experience that feeling as a Waterford supporter, she has with Tipp, in 2010 and 2016.
“Those experiences were amazing, but in 2009, when Tipp were beaten by Kilkenny, going back into that dressing room, seeing grown men cry, it was unbelievably difficult. That’s sport, you lose more than you win. You have to really enjoy the winning.”
For Hearne, the key to winning when it comes to nutrition and good health, for her clients and the leaders she mentors on Operation Transformation, is banishing the diet mentality and getting into good habits.
“It is looking at what their life is and how we can facilitate that to make healthy eating a little bit easier. That’s why for me, the prep is important, knowing what time in the week you have and thinking about what is going to make it quicker and easier. Perhaps using prechopped or frozen veg; a slow cooker is great, especially with the winter coming in. Then understanding that you don’t need to be perfect.”
In a society where so many people feel under constant pressure to show their best face, Hearne’s recognition that perfection is a thankless pursuit is something to be admired. That, and the fact that she has answered all my questions without hesitation while feeding and winding a wriggling Zoë, and performing a complete change of clothes.
The juggle goes on and Hearne looks right at home.
“Having to be this ‘together’ person on TV took all of my energy