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Alison Canavan: The secrets of being a model mother

As her new book is published, Alison Canavan talks to Barry Egan about becoming a single mum after an unplanned pregnancy, dealing with the trauma of her dad's death, beating depression and why she's happier than ever.

Alison Canavan started modelling when she was 15. By the time she was 17 she was working in Paris, Milan and London. By her 23rd birthday, she was with Ford Models in New York, living in a penthouse on Central Park West, and was in a stormy seven-year relationship with an American businessman. "We broke up just after Christmas, six years ago," she says.

Alison came home to her family "to heal my heart". It was only meant to be a short stay in Dublin. All these years later, Alison is still here. What kept her here was perhaps the intricate nature of the situation: in short, when Alison arrived home from New York in Christmas, 2010, she was unaware that she was carrying her ex's child on the plane.

Alison has dedicated her new book, Minding Mum: It's Time to Take Care of You, "to an angel that was sent to me".

"His name is James Joseph Canavan. He was born on September 16, 2010, in The Coombe Hospital in Dublin and he saved my life."

To an outsider, Alison didn't at times seem very good at minding herself ....

She says she doesn't want to talk about her ex. She will say, however, that they sadly split up in January, 2010, for "the reasons everyone breaks up, it just wasn't working and I was pretty heartbroken".

"I didn't know I was pregnant," she adds.

When Alison discovered she was pregnant, she was "absolutely terrified".

Because it was unplanned?

"I was on the Pill. And we were being careful and doing all the things. You know what?" she says in a slightly American twang. "This is a journey for me when all my preconceived ideas and notions and judgements, I suppose, about someone getting pregnant, went out a Manhattan penthouse window."

For Alison, finding out she was pregnant was the start of a hard process of learning, understanding and self-acceptance.

"My family were very supportive," Alison, who was born on March 7, 1978, says referring to her four sisters, Jennifer, Laura, Grace, and Kate, and their mother Margaret. "So I decided I was staying at home. Going back to New York city was not an option."

Was there ever an option to get back with her ex following the birth of the child?

"No. Absolutely not. For loads of reasons. We broke up for the right reasons. It wasn't working. And babies don't fix those things. In fact, babies can make those things worse. So I had to look after myself for the first time in my life."

Alison says she spent her pregnancy focussing on being healthy and being positive.

"I didn't want my negative energy or anything I was going through to be passed on to the baby. That, of course, comes at a price."

What was the price?

"I suffered very bad post-natal depression and my world fell apart. You push things down."

"When you have children, we are solely focussed on the children and I think that has come at a cost. I think we need to focus on mums. It makes sense to me that if we focus on mum being healthy and happy, then the baby will automatically be healthy and happy. So my main feelings were of being absolutely terrified," Alison says, going back to the time of being pregnant and single.

"I was completely uncertain about my future."

One of Ireland's most feted models used this time - however frightening - productively: she reflected on her life and her dreams. At that stage in her life, she felt "I was supposed to be married with 2.4 children, living this really happy life".

Alison had always expected to be married and to be in a stable relationship to bring up children. She blamed herself for being in a turbulent relationship with her ex. She believes now that "in the last year and a half, probably, I have really started to heal and I am in a completely different place now".

So, she went through five years of pain prior to this?

"Five years of painful discovery. But different stages of painful discovery. I think that journey, though, has been happening throughout my life."

"I was in an industry where I thought happiness was in the big job in the next big city. And every time I did get a big gig in New York, it was kind of like you got a glimpse into this world of happiness. Or so I thought.

"Then if I wasn't happy in New York, I went down to Miami for a month or over to LA. I just kind of kept hopping from one place to another. I kept trying to find this elusive happiness."

Alison believes her job gave her "the ability to run away from my problems".

"I didn't have to deal with problems. I think I started suffering from depression and had anxiety issues.

So, because she was one of Ireland's top models, she somehow expected to have the perfect life?

"I don't think there is such a thing as the perfect life," she says. "I think we all expect, though, that what we have been taught equals happiness: the money, the house, the partner.

"In the Western world, we're taught that what's outside of ourselves is what brings us happiness: as soon as you achieve your college degree, you meet the person you love and you do all these things that are eventually going to make you happy ... Instead of teaching our children about self-love and accepting yourself and being content with yourself."

In Minding Mum, Alison writes that she imagined that her "wedding would be big, but not ridiculous".

"We would have an old country-style house as well as our apartment in NYC, as that's where I lived. We would have the best of both worlds. But sometimes life has a different plan, and now I am writing this book in a park in Dublin instead of Central Park in New York."

Mystifyingly, Alison can get the big book deal, but cannot find a man. Nor does she have great expectations in the future boyfriend/husband department - "Just someone who is kind to me and whom I can have fun with. Someone who accepts me for who I am."

And who is that?

"I'd like someone to give me the chance to get to know me and not sit down in front of me with a preconceived idea of 'she's a model and she's this and that'. That's kind of what's happened with some men.

"I thought I had a lovely date with a guy I knew from New York late last summer. It went really well and we had a great laugh. Then I got a text message the next day saying something along the lines of, 'oh, I'd say you expect me to take you here, there and everywhere?'"

You don't mention marriage on dates, do you?

"No I don't! Nor do I say 'oh, and I want another kid in a couple of weeks, can you help me out!'" she laughs.

Does she wear six-inch heels on dates?

"Yes I do. But don't be frightened of me! I don't bite!" the leggy, six foot Amazonian Dub laughs.

Is she that much of a head-wrecker that she can't get a man? I joke.

"I know! I've gone on a couple of dates with guys. The conversation has turned to - now, remember, they don't know me but they know of me - 'oh, I imagine you're really high maintenance.'"

I ask her is she high-maintenance.

"Not. At. All."

Minding Mum, Alison says, is "basically about self-care and understanding that you still need to mind yourself after you have a baby".

"I aim to help mums join their dots with their own health and well-being, understanding that looking after ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally is really important. There is great practical advice on nutrition, exercise, body-image, meditation, beauty, post-natal depression and much more."

Far from bling Manhattan penthouses overlooking Central Park, Alison now lives in a cosy cottage with James. Up until five and a half years ago, she was still living in the family home with her mother.

"That was another thing as well!" she hoots. "Imagine leaving home pretty much when you were 15 and working internationally as a model - and then being pregnant back in your bedroom."

She can remember being "in the single bed - and the room was still pink! I was going: 'What happened? How did this happen?'"

Whatever the reasons for how it all happened, Alison has brought up James herself.

"What I have learned as a parent is that we have got to teach our children to understand what the word 'family' means. I think the word 'family 'has changed in so many ways. I think people who might perceive themselves to have the perfect family with 2.4 kids, they have no idea about tomorrow. They could separate.

"They could lose their partner," says Alison who lost her father when she was 21. Tom died of cancer on May 18, 1999.

"My dad was the person who could fix anything," she says. "When I lost him I lost that security and I don't think it gets easier. There's a level of acceptance and growth as time goes by and you start to understand loss and grief, but it can be painfully slow."

Does Alison think her father's death when she was still relatively young played a factor subconsciously in her future pain?

"Everything in our life shapes us."

Did she properly grieve her father's death?

"No, I ran away. I did what I was really good at - I just got on a plane and I left. I probably drank through it, because I could. I don't drink any more."

I ask her did she have a drink problem. "I wouldn't say I had a drink problem," is her answer.

"I would say I used alcohol as a form of escapism, absolutely. I used it to escape. Partying was great fun and I was very good at it, I was the life and soul of the party. I used it to help me numb my problems."

What required numbing, she believes, was her depression and her anxiety. She never dealt with either issue because "nobody ever told me I had depression or anxiety".

In hindsight, the signs that she was suffering from depression and anxiety were "unexplainable lows, feeling low all the time".

Looking back, she believes that the reason she was drawn to such a tempestuous relationship with the father of her child arguably was "because I was trying to fill a void within myself".

"When we are hurt, we tend to hurt ourselves. I was with him, on and off, for seven years. We broke up a few times because of the reason that we broke up finally in the end," she smiles.

But there was good in the relationship too?

"Of course, there were great times. We travelled together and there were really, really happy times."

"I don't believe in regrets. I am very grateful for all the things, bad and good, I've been through in the past few years. And, as such, I've never been happier."

  • Minding Mum: It's Time to Take Care of You is out now from Gill Books, price £14.99.

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