Nadia Forde: ‘It was very hard to reconnect with my mum’
Actress and model Nadia Forde talks to Liadan Hynes about becoming a mother, the complicated grief of losing an estranged parent and why she empathised with Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson over being body-shamed
It has been a big year for Nadia Forde. This summer the actress and model married partner Dominic Day, a rugby player with Saracens.
Last month, the couple's first child, daughter Wyatt, turned one. "I had always wanted a baby," Nadia says now. She has been living in England with Day for several years now; the pair were originally set up by mutual friends, Peter Stringer and his wife Debbie. After having Wyatt, Nadia recalls how she essentially went to ground in the couple's London home.
"This had happened and I was staying home. She was born in October and I didn't wear normal clothes until the New Year. I was like, 'I am living and breathing my baby for the next few months'. I'm so lucky that I was able to take that time to just be with her."
As a lifelong freelancer, stepping back in this manner didn't necessarily come naturally, but, as so many women will identify with, having a child sort of gave her the permission she needed. "I've learnt that 'no' is the only power that you have. And it's something that I'm getting used to saying now," she explains, adding, "I wasn't ready to go back."
None of us know exactly what kind of mother we will be until we have a child, but given her own unsettled childhood, Nadia has always seemed like the kind of person for whom mothering would be a reflective and soulful journey.
A Dubliner, Nadia is an instantly warm, easy-going person to be around. She's good company, relaxed; the kind of woman you will quickly get into proper conversation with; not a small-talker.
Growing up, her experience of motherhood wasn't straightforward. From the age of eight, after her parents separated, Nadia and her younger brother Stephen were, as she describes it, "shipped around to various aunties," when it became clear her mother Berenice Paolozzi was unable to look after the two children.
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"It all happened very fast, and my Nana's house at the time wasn't prepared for taking in two kids," she explains. "So there was a couple of years of figuring out how do we do this. My Nana was always responsible, but all the family helped."
Nadia then grew up in her grandmother Bernadette's house. For years, she was estranged from her mother, who died from cancer in 2015. Her relationship with her father has, she says, improved somewhat since Wyatt's birth.
Having a child can be a huge trigger for grief if you have lost your own mother, even more so if your relationship with her was a complicated one.
"I think I thought about it a lot before I had the baby, while I was pregnant," Nadia says now of her mother's behaviour towards her children, and of her death.
"It's an odd one for me, because I relate in some ways, and then in other ways I'm like, 'how did that happen?' Now I am a mum, I couldn't do that. Or I do things differently. So it's definitely been a mixed bag. I don't know if that ever goes," she says of the grief she still feels. "Because I also got married, and that was a life moment, and you think about stuff then, too. Sometimes it's out of the blue, though. It could be something as small as I smell something that was similar. Or I eat something that reminds me of that time."
When her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Nadia came home to Ireland to spend time with her, and attempt a reconciliation. "It was very hard to reconnect. Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as a movie moment. And I really tried. I know how it went and I know I did my best. And I kept going. I know in my heart I did everything I could. But it wasn't a laid-out road to doing it. There was a lot of back and forth for a lot of years," she explains.
"This is really morbid, but I remember in the hospice, they used wooden bowls - the ones that they use in Ikea, and I can't even look at them now. It's made me really stop and appreciate the situation that I'm in, stop and absorb this little circle of family that I have right now, and it's amazing. Some days you need to just talk about it, and some days you don't want to at all," she says of grief. "It never ends. It's something that you continue life with, it's just not a finite thing, ever."
A couple of weeks after her mother died, she went back to work. She recalls being on a photo shoot in Ibiza.
"I remember just feeling like, 'I can't do it. I can't leave the room. What are we doing?' You see people celebrate afterwards and you're like, 'what are we doing, why are we doing this? People die, don't you realise what life is all about?' I went through all this weird stuff And I think it just made me realise that it wasn't a conventional grieving process."
Grieving a mother who had been absent for large parts of your life was never going to be anything but complicated. "I had had a long estrangement, so was trying to deal with that. It was a very unconventional way to approach the subject (of grief)."
Around this time, Dom, with whom she was in the second year of their relationship, told her he had been offered an opportunity to play rugby in Japan.
"He said to me, 'I really want to go, but I'm not signing the contract without you saying you're going to come with me'. I was like, 'yeah, okay I'll go'. I remember working on stuff at the time, and being like, 'I can't do this, this is not what I want to do. This is just not me, what am I doing?'"
Grief and new motherhood have unexpected similarities. Both can push a person to the limit of their tolerance and capability for coping. Which can then lead to a previously unplumbed ability to say, 'no, I cannot do this'.
Just as in the aftermath of Wyatt's birth, when Dom asked her to go to Japan with him, Nadia found herself able to get off the freelancer never-say-no roundabout, take a step back, let everything drop.
"I just needed time, and to be completely removed from my normal life circle. Japan was probably the perfect destination choice. I just loved it. Everything is different, so it makes you look at life in a completely different way. In a good way." She describes her time there as life-changing.
"Do I want to do this, do I not want to do this, what makes me happy?" she recalls now of the direction her thoughts started to take. "I think mortality brings around how short life is. And why waste a moment of it not doing what you want to do?"
It was around this time that she began looking after herself physically in a way she previously hadn't. "I remember my friend Sarah Morrissey asking me, 'are you looking after yourself right now?'. And I was like, 'yeah, I am, I am,'" she chirrups, laughing now at the memory. "It hit me like a tonne of bricks. I wasn't. After my mum died I just was like, 'no, I need to look after myself'. I'm so lucky to have this healthy body, I'm never not putting that as a priority again."
In the aftermath of Wyatt's arrival, her ability to get back to her exercise routines was compromised by subsequent procedures due to complications with the c-section birth. "I actually had a couple of follow-up ops. It was a little bit messy. I had to go back into hospital eight weeks after. I started feeling like something was not right. I started to go downwards again. But I'd never been through it before, so I was like, 'maybe this is normal, I don't know'."
Despite this, you get the sense of someone really enjoying motherhood. Wyatt's sleep hasn't quite come together yet, she laughs, causing her to be more schedule focused than she had expected to be, and there have been meltdowns on her own part, but largely she gives off the impression of someone relishing this time. Nana comes over regularly. "She is like Mary Poppins on the Ryanair coming over. Dom says we're the same person in so many instances, it scares me," she laughs. "She's like a whirlwind. Comes in, fixes everything, and then says, 'I need a break, I need a week off. Don't call me'."
I've known Nadia for over a decade. Talking to her now, she seems like someone who might for a time have been a little bit lost, but no longer is, I suggest. "Yeah, I think that's really accurate," she says. "I definitely think I have found my strength. I guess I didn't realise that I was floating around for quite a while. And I think it's evident even in my work as an actress; you see that now. Because I only do stuff that I really want to do. I feel the execution is just that bit more… full stop. End of sentence. Because I feel like I am me now. Or a woman now. I think a huge part of that was meeting Dom. It all kind of slotted into place. Dom helped me see the value in myself."
She's 30 now, which she says with a laugh was definitely an, "oh, okay that happened moment," but adds all the money in the world would not be enough for her to go back to her early 20s.
"When I came out of the jungle and I had all of that stuff about my weight, it shook me to the core," she says of doing I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! in late 2014, before she met her now husband. "I was only watching the Jesy Nelson from Little Mix documentary recently, and I was sobbing watching it. 'You were called fat by Katie Hopkins too, so was I'. That to me was a time when I was deeply heartbroken. That was a hard two years, you couldn't pay me to go back there. Not to the jungle, I had a great time in the jungle, but my state of mind."
At the time, she didn't realise how much she was struggling. "I really didn't. I just kept going. 'If I don't feel it, it will be fine'. Don't think about it, don't feel it, that kind of thing." By the time Nadia went into the jungle, her mother was very ill.
"She was terminal," she says now. "Which was a lot of it when I look back. I think that's where I was mentally, for a lot of the days in there. I was in there with Craig Charles, and his brother passed away when we were in there, and that scared me. I remember thinking, 'okay, I'm going to get that call now'.
"I remember being on edge all the time. And thinking, 'I'll just keep going. Keep going, keep going, you're here now, keep going'."
Now she is doing reality TV of a different type for RTE Player's new show, My Best Sustainable Life, in which she has tested quite how sustainable a mother she can be. "I was quite into it anyway," she says of eco-friendly living. "I thought I was quite good. But there's a lot I didn't know, and this whole journey; I have just learnt so much more. I hope people are inspired to make one little change. Or to have a little bit more awareness of what they're doing. That's all it is."
What she doesn't want to do is lecture, or admonish anyone. New mothers are facing enough challenges without being berated for not being sustainable enough, she points out, so she was keen to approach this from a realistic point of view.
"In the show, there's definitely things I cannot do, because I am a working mother. I wanted to create something for people that inspires them to make even the smallest change, or the biggest, whatever they decide to do. So it's having that balance of, 'let's make a change', but also, 'guys, okay, let's make it realistic'."
And moving from modelling to acting has been beneficial to her self-esteem, explains Nadia, who has had a model agent from the age of seven; her first job was in an ad for Holy Communion dresses.
"I remember getting booked for panto and just loving it," she says. "Crying on the last night, heartbroken it was over."
It was a revelation; this was what she should be doing. When she kept getting close in auditions but failing to land the role, she decided to go for formal training, attending Bow Street acting school.
Of late, she has begun writing, working on a project of her own, and also with her friend Molly Lynch on her show Rodgers and Hammerstein (and Me Too). It was wonderful to have her opinion valued, she smiles, adding that it was nice to realise that she also enjoyed being behind the camera.
"I think there is a liberating moment with acting. It's not about how I look, it's about the character. That's really shed a lot of skin for me," she reflects. "In an 'it's okay to have lines, to not look a certain way' kind of way. And I think if you look, I'm more me now than I was then. No extensions. No tan, no anything. I think again part of that is meeting Dom. And also when you're younger, you're like, 'I need more make-up, I need this, I need that'. Whereas actually it's like, 'I'm different, and that's okay'."
Spoken like a woman truly comfortable in her own skin.
- My Best Sustainable Life is an RTÉ Player series featuring well-known faces taking on the challenge of living a more sustainable life. The full series is available now