Professor Siobhan O'Neill is reflecting on her decision to become a single parent by choice. Divorced, in her early 40s and with a fierce yearning for a child, she chose to have a baby via IVF with the help of a clinic in Spain.
"It was really tough because it didn't happen first time," she says. "There were loads of trips to Spain and loads of failed cycles. It was very difficult, very expensive and a huge risk. It took me well over a year before I ended up pregnant."
Happily, the gorgeous little girl in the princess dress playing beside her is now three years old and full of mischief. O'Neill's professional demeanour slips briefly as she talks about her "amazing wee darling". She named her daughter Annabel "after the doctor in Spain, the first doctor I was speaking to, who told me 'we can help you with this'. She was a great role model and has helped so many women".
O'Neill grew up in "a rural Northern Ireland family who were very conservative and religious", but describes her mum and late dad's response as "brilliant".
"My family were really supportive," she says. "I don't think single parents are stigmatised so much these days but to actively choose to do this was different. I'd like to think there would be generations of young women who would think this is as possible as any other way of forming a family but, no, it wasn't really the done thing, though there are a few of us around in Northern Ireland that have met a few times. You need that support network."
Smiling, she continues: "Anyway, my parents were probably too scared to question me. I'm very strong-willed and if I decide to do something, I'll do it. I wasn't asking permission, but they were just so happy."
That determination to get things done is typical of O'Neill. As the new Interim Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, she is facing considerable challenges - and a gruelling schedule.
"I have literally no time during the working day," she messages me as we try to arrange this interview.
Which is why on a sunny autumn Saturday morning O'Neill (46) is chatting to me in her home on the family farm in Craigbane, in the hills just outside Claudy, Co Londonderry, breaking off occasionally to find another cartoon on the tablet for Annabel. "Just go to YouTube," O'Neill urges her before seamlessly picking up the thread of what she was saying.
She's been up from 7am, a lie-in on the usual 6.30am weekday starts, and spent the early morning working on a grant application for her Ulster University work, where she is Professor of Mental Health Sciences. The new role sees her spend four days at Stormont and one at UU.
She's evidently a grafter, which she ascribes to her upbringing on the farm where she and her three sisters had to help with chores. "We lived with our parents and our grandparents. There was a work ethic on the farm and a work ethic around education and we weren't exposed to the worst of the Troubles the way kids in the city would have been. We weren't wealthy - hill farmers weren't. Even on holiday, you weren't on holiday, there was always stuff to be done, like bringing the workmen their lunch".
Her mother still runs a newsagents in Claudy so her "really lovely childhood" included easy access to newspapers and books, which she devoured.
Surprisingly for someone who loves academia, the young O'Neill had few ambitions other than to find a job and have a family, an outlook she ascribes to "growing up in the Eighties, one of Thatcher's children; there was the miner's strike on TV, the hunger strikes… I'd fantasise about being an air hostess but, really, I thought if I could get into the local factory that would be great".
Passing her 11-plus and starting at Thornhill College in Londonderry proved a catalyst. The daily journey meant three bus trips in each direction, but "it was the making of me because I was on track to go to university".
At school she was earmarked for law, but work experience in a solicitor's office convinced her "there could be nothing worse than spending all your life with paperwork".
Instead, she enrolled for a degree in psychology at Queen's University Belfast - and instantly loved it. A Master's degree at the National University of Ireland, Galway, followed ("Dad went with me to the Northern Bank to get a £2,000 loan," she recalls poignantly) before she took a post as a researcher in the public health department there.
When a job came up at UU in 2000 O'Neill relocated closer to home. She married, built a house on the farm and threw herself into her career, rising through the ranks and raising her public profile with frequent media appearances.
But her personal life presented her with what she says was her own greatest mental health challenge: the break-up of her marriage. Clearly a deeply painful experience, admirably O'Neill says she doesn't want to talk about what went wrong out of respect for her ex-husband's privacy.
She is, however, open about the emotional turmoil that engulfed her. "Divorce hit me very hard. I was married for eight years until 2008. Afterwards, I had depression. We didn't have children and I wanted to have a child. For me, it called into question, what is life all about, what is the purpose of it? I think if a marriage break-up happens earlier in your life, it can be more difficult. I was a perfectionist. Everything had to be right. It wasn't anything I had expected would be part of my life. I was 34 and people would say 'sure, you're young and you're great', but you don't see it like that."
Divorce was even worse than losing her father, who died last June from cancer. "Don't get me wrong, Dad's death was devastating, but we were able to say goodbye to Dad and he was at the end of his life…"
A major trauma nonetheless, her father's diagnosis precipitated a physical health crisis of her own. Along with her sisters - Linda works for a manufacturing company in Manchester; Jennifer is a podiatrist in Laoise, and Sinead is a pharmacist in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry - O'Neill found herself part of the 'sandwich generation', struggling to balance caring for an elderly parent with the demands of work and bringing up children. In the end, she was hospitalised with pneumonia.
"I wasn't coping well with stress," she admits. "Your immune system gets affected by that 'flight or fight' response because it's not meant to be activated every day in the long-term. It was a long recovery and I needed a lot of antibiotics."
Now, she's careful to manage competing pressures. She took up running which "helps me see things more clearly. You can't problem solve when you are stressed and your body is reacting to danger. You need to work out your priorities, delegate and say no to things".
O'Neill loves exploring the local countryside - the family farm is now rented out - and the fact a sister lives nearby means Annabel has cousins to play with. She's not religious, but says "that doesn't mean I'm not spiritual". She's a fan of podcasts, recommending Dr Laurie Santos' The Happiness Lab. "It's science-based and there are wonderful stories and personal strategies." She's enjoying Matt Haig's novel The Midnight Library ("a bit cliched but some great insights"), recommends Derry author Claire Allan's crime fiction and enthuses about parenting expert Joanna Fortune's work ("I have learned everything I know about child-raring from her," she says, her enthusiasm eliciting a rare lapse into the local vernacular.) She did, however, "absolutely despise" the TV drama Normal People.
"It was tedious, I didn't care about the characters… that part of your life where you are obsessed with the intensity of your own emotions is best not televised," she says, cringing. Her role as Mental Health Champion brings her five staff members and three main components - working with government departments, liaising with service users and being part of the public conversation around the issue.
There are meetings with the Veterans' Commissioner, Victims' Commissioner plus many campaign and voluntary groups.
Clearly, Northern Ireland, which has the highest suicide rate in the UK, has a mental health crisis.
A recent UU study found that almost 30% of the population suffer from problems and nearly half of those are related to the Troubles.
If it's good that we are now talking openly about mental health, inevitably there are those who feel the conversation is too prevalent - and they may be surprised to learn this down-to-earth, pragmatic woman has some empathy with them.
O'Neill laughs as she reveals that "sometimes friends tell me they want to switch me off" and then warms to this theme: "Look, there are different attitudes to mental health; some people think give it its place and talk about it, but there are also so many people who have never had mental health problems and don't know what the fuss is about… or there are people who just can't go there about themselves. But there are many people who, when bad things happen, just get on with it."
Asking how she takes time out to relax elicits a ticking off: "Thinking you should relax is one of the biggest mistakes; people are told they should switch off and then when they can't do that, they get stressed. That's kind of my philosophy on mental health: you just need to move from one task to another. You need to take time out to be mindful, yes, but setting time for relaxation doesn't work. When you free some people from the need to relax, they say that's great. A problem I see with people who have mental health or anxiety problems is that they don't know what to be worrying about, they have no structure."
We pause to remember our mutual friend Lyra McKee, who was shot dead by dissident republicans last April. The stuffed owl she gave to Annabel is a favourite toy and O'Neill recalls how when she was admitted to hospital with pneumonia, Lyra with typical kindness was the first person who contacted her, offering to take care of the baby.
If she can find more free time, would she want another relationship? "I'm completely happy single," replies O'Neill. "I've never been busier but it's manageable. I can't imagine how I would navigate a relationship in the middle of that. I'm not saying I wouldn't want something like that in the future - all research shows a relationship is so good for your mental health - but for now I have a child to raise and I have a job to do."