“I was conducting a social experiment given that I was an only child myself,” Matt Copper jokes when I ask him what inspired his decision to have a large family. As experiments go, this is one that the journalist, broadcaster and father of five has found “very enjoyable”.
“Though I shouldn’t probably tell them that,” he laughs.
I’ve loved all our holidays. We’ve gone on some brilliant holidays. I feel very lucky that we’ve had the opportunity to
do all that
Being an only child had no bearing on his family’s size, Matt explains. “I’d have never been particularly conscious of being an only child. It wasn’t something that upset me or worried me in any way. It wasn’t then any desire to have a big family, it just sort of happened.”
Matt and his wife, Aileen Hickie, were married for 3½ years when their first child, Andie, was born. Shortly before his daughter’s birth, however, Matt’s own father died.
“My father died just two weeks before Andie was born – his first grandchild. That was particularly tough because he was sort of hanging on almost for her. I feel a little bit guilty about this, that maybe I should have just lied and told him before he died that his grandchild had been born.
“But I didn’t want to lie about something like that in case anything went wrong, and so I didn’t and I often wonder afterwards that maybe I was wrong, maybe I should have just told him. I should have just said to him oh you’ve had a grandson or a granddaughter born and we’re calling him this name or her that name. But I didn’t want to tempt fate in any way, and I didn’t, but I think I probably regretted that afterwards.”
Coping with his grief and new fatherhood, Cooper immersed himself in his baby’s care. “I threw myself into it. I spent an awful lot of time doing the feeds for Andie and looking after her and all the rest of it.
“My mother then had gone through a series of serious strokes so we would go down and we’d bring the children down one after the other. She unfortunately had passed away before Harry was born. To be honest, the children don’t have that many memories of her because they were all so small when she died as well.
“They have their grandmother on Aileen’s side,” Cooper says. “Their grandfather on Aileen’s side, Aileen’s father, died back in 2015. They had a relationship with him and they knew him before he passed and they have a very good relationship with Aileen’s mother, but they did miss out on my side. I feel my parents missed out.”
Caring for his mother before her death involved a lot of juggling for Matt. “Actually, finding the time to get down to Cork was always a problem. The number of people who said to me that I did very well, in retrospect I would always say that I probably could have done more. I wish I’d done more. But who’s to know.
“It was hard. When you are trying to care for an invalided elderly parent while you’re trying to bring up your own small children, it wasn’t the easiest thing and it was also at a time when I was editor of the Sunday Tribune so there was a very heavy workload at the time.”
While Cooper says he would always claim to have done his “absolute best to be available to do things” when it came to raising their children, he admits “Aileen had to take on more sacrifices”.
“It didn’t interfere with my career, but it did at times with hers and certainly when we got to the stage that Harry, our fifth, was born she decided that trying to crack it down the Bar was just too much hard work when trying also to bring up the children.
“When I left the newspaper industry to move to radio it became tougher because I was on a very set schedule of daily shows and that meant I couldn’t go, like when I was at the Tribune, and collect from creche or do a school run. It made it more difficult for Aileen. That’s why I’m so delighted for her now that she’s back in the workplace as chief executive of Parentline.”
Being present is important to Cooper and he says while he could never claim to have done things perfectly, he’d “be genuinely disappointed if the children didn’t think that I was there for them for the various things that they needed as they grew up”.
“The joke used to be that the only time the kids’ nappies got changed was when I was in the house; that Aileen would hold out and wait in case there was a dirty nappy to be changed,” Cooper laughs.
“So yeah, I did my full share of the night feeds and I would have done the nappies and there would have been times when children were in hospital and I would have slept on the floor beside the bed, every bit as much as Aileen would have done it. I hope the kids are used to my being around, despite my long work hours, that they do know that I’m very, very present.
“They would have grown up knowing that I was always there to read their bedtime story and all that sort of stuff and going to their sports events at the weekend, as I mightn’t be able to go to it during the week.”
Cooper says he tries not to worry too much about his children. “If you’re always worried about what could go wrong for them, you’d never have a minute’s peace,” he says. “When you drop them off to school, you just trust that they’re going to be okay.
As the kids grow older you have to mature as well and you’re constantly learning how to deal with different situations
“There’s one story I remember. When our eldest girl Andie wasn’t yet a year old. I was going to speak at a conference in Killarney and Aileen came with me and when we were on the train on the way down, the childminder rang to say there’d been an accident, that she had dropped Andie’s buggy down the front step and Andie had lost her front two teeth. Aileen had to get the next train back in a state and I couldn’t come back because I was speaking the following morning.
“Maybe I should have and I didn’t,” he pauses and questions. “Those kind of things, you sort of ask, should I have dealt with that differently? Should I have dealt with it better? How would I deal with a situation like that again?”
Acknowledging the constant need to evolve as a parent, Cooper says, “As the kids grow older you have to mature as well and you’re constantly learning how to deal with different situations and learning how to deal with their developing minds and how they see things. You have to go through the situations where there are temperamental issues with teenagers and all the rest of it. And you have to learn how to be able to handle that better and how to maintain an even keel, maintain a good temper, yet be firm when it’s necessary to be firm.”
Cooper admits he found sleep deprivation the biggest challenge of fatherhood. “I used to feel a bit guilty that you go out on a Friday or Saturday night, whatever, and have a rake of pints and not then be able to have fun with them at the weekends because I’d be sort of hungover and then suffering from lack of sleep.
“There would have been days that I did feel guilty that I might have been not fully there, or it was hard to get out of bed, dozing off on the sofa when I should have been playing with them on a Saturday or Sunday and the realisation I don’t really need to be doing that. I need to be concentrating my time on them.”
On the flipside he says, “I’ve loved all our holidays. We’ve gone on some brilliant holidays. We’ve gone to lots of places around the world. I feel very lucky that we’ve had the opportunity to do all that. That I’ve been in a position where I’ve been able to earn the money to pay for those holidays. They would be what I regard as some special times to have and to talk and to find out about each other.
“I get enormous enjoyment from being with them.”