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Tanya Sweeney: ‘Having a baby makes the wound of grief open afresh’

Like Prince Harry, Tanya Sweeney is coping with the rollercoaster ride of new parenthood without the person she’d most like by her side – her late mum


Mammy’s little prince: Harry with his adoring mother Princess Diana in 1988
Mammy’s little prince: Harry with his adoring mother Princess Diana in 1988
Greatly missed: Tanya and her mother Gaye

Honestly, have you ever seen a new dad as seemingly happy as Prince Harry? Whatever about the lack of a public photocall, there’s no denying that Harry charmed the world with his very enthusiastic praise of his wife and childbearing women in general.

Yet most touching of all was the nod to his late mum. Princess Diana’s three siblings were among the very first people to hear about Baby Sussex’s arrival. Lady Jane Fellowes, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, and Earl Spencer were also mentioned as ‘delighted’ family members in the official royal announcement of the birth; a lovely way to keep the Spencers, and Diana, in his new life as a father. Prince William, of course, paid his own touching tribute to his mum when he named his daughter Charlotte Elizabeth Diana back in 2015.

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Not that the princess, who died in 1997, has ever been that far from either Harry or William’s thoughts. Harry in particular had an inimitable bond with his mother; with William marked from birth for special attention as a future king by senior royals, Diana is thought to have lavished a special sort of love and attention on ‘the spare’.

Harry and Diana also reportedly shared the same sense of mischief, the same cheeky sense of humour, and the same effortlessly easy way with people.

Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland has been a near-constant presence at the couple’s Frogmore Cottage residence throughout Meghan’s pregnancy, and was also reportedly present at the baby’s birth.

And it’s safe to say that the Queen’s eighth great-grandchild won’t be left wanting for attention or familial affection.

Yet Harry has spent longer mourning the loss of his mother than he spent enjoying that special bond, and it’s likely to make the next few weeks of this new adventure a bittersweet time for him.

What would Diana have been like as a grandmother? There’s no doubt that she would have been joyously proud of her two sons.

Would she have embraced the joyous milestone in life? Would she have been hands-on with nappies and feeds? Would she have turned her new role as grandparent into a novel fashion statement, wheeling a Silver Cross buggy through Kensington?

Or would she have insisted, like so many young at heart grannies, that words like ‘grandma’ or ‘nana’ be banned?

Whether monarch or not, these are all questions that run through your head when you give birth to your first child, and your own mother is no longer around to witness it.

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The worst thing? They are questions for which the answers hang forever out of reach, destined always to be unknowable.

I had over 20 years more with my own mother than Harry ever had with Diana – she died in 2011 when I was 33.

Yet even at that, I was a little blindsided by the experience of becoming a mother, when my own wasn’t around to see any of it.

The one thing that you don’t expect, amid the euphoria of giving birth and seeing your daughter for the first time, is the wound of parental grief to burst open afresh.

A friend, also motherless, did warn me in advance of the birth that my emotions would be torn asunder, particularly if I had a daughter.

And sure enough, I’ve thought about my mother more in the last few months than ever before.

And, I’m sure as is the case for Harry, the loss feels more acute now than it has done for a long time.

I gave birth in the Rotunda in Dublin; the same hospital where I spent my first few days of life struggling to survive the NICU.

Though my daughter was a very healthy 9 pounds 4 ounces, I couldn’t help thinking about how overwhelmed and scared my own mum would have felt after having me, her very ill, 2 pound, two ounce weakling.

Did my mum wander these very hospital corridors at night, bedraggled and bleeding? Did she look out at Parnell Street from her post-natal ward bed and wish she were in the pub across the road, as I did? (Probably, knowing her).

Much like Princess Diana, my mother is suspended in time, forever at the age of 61. Similarly, it’s hard to envision her as a grandmother, even a trendy one.

There wasn’t even a remote possibility of me or my siblings becoming parents before she died. My brothers and I were footloose, fancy-free, fond of travelling, festivalling, partying and sucking the proverbial marrow out of life.

When my mother died, we were all in our early 30s – settling down and into family life is what other people did.

Besides, Mum had spent so long bellowing out that time-honoured refrain at us when we were in our teens and 20s – ‘Don’t make me a granny!’ – that I suppose we took it at face value.

The closest I got to sensing how my mum would have reacted was when I told her sister – my aunt – that I was pregnant.

“By god, that’ll put manners on you,” she chuckled with something approaching relish. She probably knew as well as I did that I was about as maternal as a bag of sugar. What was coming next would be entertaining to bystanders at the very least. And like Harry, I delighted in having my mother’s family involved. It felt like a way of keeping her close, and somehow having her involved.

As they held and cooed over the baby, I’d search their faces for similarities to hers and wonder for a fleeting second what she might have looked like with a grandbabe in arms.

When I brought my daughter home three months ago, we weren’t shy of company. In fact, we spent weeks fielding daily visitors in a tight, busy rota.

And there were plenty of people around to offer help. My partner’s family are extremely hands on, willing to step up with childminding and with practical advice. His mum tells me about which of her babies was the screamer, and how she would settle them to sleep, and how she and others of the time survived without the Perfect Prep bottle-making machine (though God only knows how).

It’s heartening to see how my boyfriend’s relationship with his mother seems to have taken on a whole new texture, and been infused with a new type of love and meaning. But it doesn’t make me any less sad for myself that I’m missing out on that.

Forget the free babysitting – not having a go-to person, for guilt-free, 5am calls about rashes or weird poo or ceaseless crying, is the real kicker.

But there’s nothing that makes a woman feel like a fearless, entirely capable mother than having that safety net kicked out from under her.

It’s only now I can understand the incredibly strong bond between and mother and child, and it blows my mind that I had someone in my life that was as protective and fiercely adoring of me as I am of my own daughter.

It’s humbling to know that someone went through that same interminable, thankless slog of feeds, changes, walks and cuddles, for me.

And to know that she, as a new mum, also must have felt this pure, unbridled happiness at some point (possibly before we all learned to walk and talk and throw food).

The one consolation that Harry can take from here on out is that nothing brings the surviving members of a family together like a new baby.

I’d personally spent years being tormented to tears by my two younger brothers, but when they came into the Rotunda to meet their niece, their faces were filled with a mixture of love, pride and nervousness.

I’d never known they were capable of being so affectionate or tender or downright capitulated by a tiny person.

So if those rumours of a supposed rift between Harry and William, or their respective wives, are in any way true, the good news is that now that Baby Sussex is finally here, better times are ahead for all of them. As is often the way with parenting, it will almost certainly all come good in the end.

Irish Independent