When Gay Byrne spoke to Ray D’Arcy this week about the TV show, ‘Once More With Feeling: The Meaning of Life’, which aired last night, we all perked up a little bit, and listened.
Perhaps because of his reticence in expressing his opinions over the years, Gaybo has been conferred, as he ages, with an almost mystical wisdom.
After numerous financial ups and downs and more recently, gruelling cancer treatment, Byrne gave what has probably been his most revealing interview ever.
He’s been a noted workaholic all his life, and is nothing short, really, of an icon. He presided over some of the most notable moments in Irish history, bringing topics like contraception, divorce and rape and incest into the national conversation. His work made a very real difference to many people.
And now, finally almost-retired, he’s reflecting on his life and work (although he’s keeping the door open for a possible return to his Sunday show on Lyric FM).
When Ray D’Arcy asked him if he had any regrets, the answer spoke, I think, to so many listeners who dedicate long hours to work in the name of money or ambition, or just, well, because that’s what they do.
It certainly spoke to me, as I listened in the office while preparing our own radio show, and thinking of my freelance work, and trying to figure out collection times and childcare and holiday plans for that precious four weeks off that we get per year.
He regrets not being around more as his little girls grew up. He regrets spending so much time in RTE. He regrets not pursuing other projects outside RTE.
Working in the media, it is hard not to get sucked in by our stories, as well as the validation we get from strangers. While most of us have some noble motives – many journalists have causes and stories that have become personal to them and will drive them to work harder, dig deeper and probe further – attention and praise are basic human desires, and people who desire those are naturally drawn to the media.
But there is no attention like the intense and gleeful gaze of a toddler shouting, over and over, ‘MamaDadaMamaDada’ the moment he wakes up in the morning. There is immense joy in the knowledge that nobody else can make them smile like you can, and a kind of poignancy in the certainty that nobody will ever be as happy to see you again.
And there is, I now realise, no difference to be made more important than the one you make in the life of your own children. If you decide to become a parent, that has to be the paramount concern. Campaigns and crusades for causes make many of us who we are, but our own children must be our first cause.
Before I became a parent, I believed it wouldn’t change me. I couldn’t understand how I would turn from one person into another. I’m career-driven, goal-oriented, attention-seeking. And I still am all those things. But now I’m regularly driven in a totally different direction, by a visceral need to see that smile every day, to feel those chubby little arms around my neck, and to stroke the hair on a peacefully sleeping head.
The two things can co-exist, but it’s hard. Women are regularly told we can’t have it all, and we can’t; compromise is everything, even when you’re lucky enough to have a job, a spouse and somewhere nice to live.
But it’s good for men to realise this applies to them too, because today, men expect and are expected to be full participants in the lives of their children. The men I know all value the things I have listed above as much as their work or their pay packet.
Gay Byrne never had the kind of rollercoaster personal life – a drug problem, a drink problem, a marriage breakup – experienced by other success stories of his generation. But his personal life fell victim to the mundane reality that men never had it all either, and that groundbreaking success in one field means sacrifice in another.
The majority of advice about work/life balance is aimed at women, at least where it includes things like housework and childcare (advice for men about work/life balance tends to include things like five-a-side soccer, never the children or indeed the laundry).
But balance is for everyone. Listening to Gaybo, I thought of the value of aiming for a life that is, well, a bit average. Of working towards your goals, of course, but knowing they take sacrifice, and assessing at the outset what exactly you are willing to sacrifice. Balancing what you must do for yourself and what you must do to be your best self. And whether, looking back at a long life, you will decide if the sacrifices were worth it.