GETTING to grips with the life-changing chaos and sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn is no walk in the park at the best of times.
But doing it all in the middle of a pandemic, while unable to introduce your baby to family and friends or rely on their support – which is often so crucial – is a whole new level of challenging.
“It’s supposed to be one of the most special and memorable times of your life, and all of this feels so surreal,” says Ryan Thomas, whose baby boy Roman was born three months ago.
“It’s felt quite intense not being able to have anyone else to hold the baby even for 10 minutes while you have a cup of tea.”
Nevertheless, the former Coronation Street star, 36, and his fiancée Lucy Mecklenburgh, 28, have managed to find the positives to being locked down.
“We’ve really taken to looking after Roman like a military operation with no distractions, so it’s been great in that sense.
“We’ve been able to get into a real routine, which I don’t think would’ve been possible with people coming round all the time.
“We’re lucky to have FaceTime and we can connect in that way and we try to make the best of a tough situation. You’ve got to appreciate the bigger picture and try to stay safe.
“And I think about the single parents doing this on their own and I feel so lucky that me and Lucy have each other.”
The three of them are together at our strictly socially distanced photo shoot today, where gorgeous Roman is as good as gold and clearly a chip off the old block, managing to look straight down the lens for all his shots.
This is second-time fatherhood for Ryan – he also has 11-year-old daughter Scarlett from his relationship with Corrie actress Tina O’Brien – and he says this is an entirely different experience compared to that in his 20s. And not just because of lockdown.
“I was young and naive when I had Scarlett and I didn’t really appreciate it the way I do now. I have a different outlook now.
“But, you know, there’s no right or wrong time for parenthood. It happens and you learn to be a father and do the right thing.
"I’m just at a very different place in my life compared to back then – it was 11 years ago, and so in a lot of ways this feels like the first time all over again.
“I’m not working at the moment, so I’m living and breathing what happens in our house and it’s just incredible what a woman can do.
"To go through the pregnancy, the birth, learning to feed, it’s really inspiring to see.”
The hardest part of the Covid lockdown was Scarlett – who is based up in Manchester with her mum – not being able to see Roman until he was nearly a month old when the government guidance changed to allow children from separated families to move between the two households.
“Nothing can prepare you for your kids not being able to be together and meet each other, and we had that suspense of waiting for so long.
"I’d not seen Scarlett myself for a while and so driving back [to Essex after picking her up] and getting there… God, I’d been waiting for that moment more than anything in the world.
“It made my family complete and as a father, to see your two kids together like that, there is no buzz like it.
“We had a good two and a half or three weeks together after that and it was the best time. We camped in the garden, did some home-schooling and just enjoyed being together without any distractions.
“She was such a help with Roman, holding him and comforting him. It was amazing to see.
I feel like the luckiest guy in the world
"I love watching Scarlett with Roman and seeing the way he looks at her.”
Scarlett turns 12 in October, meaning the teen years are fast approaching, something Ryan is acutely aware of and makes him break out
in a cold sweat.
“Ah, don’t!” he jokes. “I know, I know. I’m definitely not looking forward to that.
“She’s already very grown-up and independent.
"Scarlett knows what she wants and she knows she has me wrapped around her little finger. She gets away with murder.
“But she’s still my little girl, which she doesn’t like because she wants to be a teenager.
"I tell her she’ll always be my baby and I hope she still comes to me for cuddles when she’s in her 30s!”
Does it feel different having a son?
“Oh, yeah. I think I’ll probably be tougher on Roman. I’ve always wanted a boy – I actually thought Scarlett was a boy until she was born.
"I feel like the luckiest guy in the world having one of each.”
Asked if he’s the sort of dad whose children can tell him anything, and Ryan squirms a little.
He’s a bit too alpha male and traditional to go that far, but says he’s working on it.
“I’m quite old-fashioned,” he laughs. “But yeah, I’m getting there, I’m definitely softening.”
Ryan is both heartfelt and level-headed as he talks about Scarlett and Roman, and his approach to parenting has undoubtedly been guided by his own childhood experience.
His father Dougie James left when Ryan was 11 and his brothers Adam (formerly of Emmerdale and Waterloo Road) and twin Scott (Love Island) were just seven, and there was a period of six years when none of them had any contact with him at all.
Last month, viewers of their part-travelogue, part-family history documentary series Absolutely India: Mancs In Mumbai, which saw the brothers and Dougie go in search of their roots, watched Adam and Scott, now 31, confront their dad over the abandonment.
There were years that my dad wasn’t there, but the positive I take from that is knowing I will never do that with my own children
Ryan, as the eldest, had to grow up fast and become a father figure to them.
It was an uncomfortable, emotional scene in an otherwise vibrant, fun-loving series and it clearly brought up some raw memories for Ryan, who managed to tell Dougie, through tears, that he’d missed him every day and was waiting for him to return.
“I didn’t want to tackle it,” he says today. “I didn’t want to have that conversation. It was my dad who wanted to tell the story, but we didn’t know it was going to happen.
“It came from nowhere in the end and my brothers had never spoken to my dad like that.
“I knew they loved me, but when they said that if it hadn’t been for me, they didn’t know where they’d be…That’s what got me.
"It made me feel a mixed bag of emotions, reliving something from the past.”
Has that trauma shaped him as a father himself? Ryan pauses.
“It’s hard to look back at that time because [despite that] I do have very fond memories of growing up.
"There were years that my dad wasn’t there, but the positive I take from that is knowing I will never do that with my own children.
"So I don’t see [him leaving] as a negative – I am the way I am because of it.
“Maybe the reason all three of us are the way we are is because of the scenario we were put in. I think, overall, we’ve come out really well.
"I’m proud of how we turned out. My brothers have grown into mature men and I learn from them now.”
You only get one dad, don’t you?
He adds: “And we have a stepdad [Mike Waring, 71], who brought us up for the most important years of our lives and we’re all very close to him. We’ve got a lot to thank him for.”
Ryan might not have been keen on discussing the situation with Dougie on camera, but with hindsight, he’s glad that it happened and feels like it cleared the air.
“We got a lot of good from having that chat. It helped us get rid of it and it was my dad’s way of saying sorry and I think we all appreciated it. You only get one dad, don’t you?”
Since meeting former Towie star turned health and fitness entrepreneur Lucy on Celebrity Island With Bear Grylls three years ago, life has moved very quickly.
Ryan went on to star in Neighbours later that year, won Celebrity Big Brother in 2018 (after famously being falsely accused by Roxanne Pallett of punching her) and proposed to Lucy while on holiday in Italy last summer.
It was shortly after returning from the trip that newly engaged Lucy discovered she was pregnant with baby Roman.
“I was in Manchester and she rang me,” recalls Ryan.
“She was doing the test and she said: ‘Er, I’m pregnant, I’m going to have to go!’ And she put the phone down on me!
“She was in shock. Obviously she then rang me back and she quickly got her head round it a bit. When you’re not expecting it, it’s a huge shock.
"But we were cool and it was a nice ending to our trip to Italy for our engagement.
“And from that moment onwards we were so content and prepared. We’re doing things a little bit differently to how we’d originally planned, but I wouldn’t change any of it.
“Me and Lucy were just super in love from the start and still are – and long may that continue. And now Roman’s come along and made us even happier.”
Honesty is so important, because it gives people the reassurance that they’re not alone
He admits to attending antenatal classes under duress (“I was told I was going, so I went – do as your missus tells you and you’ll have an easy life!”), although says that his preconceptions were wrong and it wasn’t the cringe fest he’d expected.
“I thought it would be like Meet The Fockers, and so I was relieved that it wasn’t at all.
"I actually found it quite useful – not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. We had a cup of tea and a biscuit and sat round a table and it was fine.”
The birth, he says, was “pretty straightforward” (and then very wisely checks himself, adding that Lucy may have a different perspective), although it was followed by a three-day stay in hospital when Roman needed antibiotics for an infection.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Lucy had on-tap support to help get breastfeeding established, and the three of them had some time to adjust to being a family before real life began at home.
“It meant Lucy was in the best place to get the help she needed. If we’d gone home the same day it would have been pretty intense.”
Lucy is exclusively breastfeeding Roman, including pumping, so that Ryan can sometimes help out by feeding with expressed milk.
She recently posted a picture of herself exhausted at 4am and wrote honestly and powerfully about how Roman made her heart burst with love, but that the realities of motherhood and the “long and lonely” nights were a struggle.
It resonated with many mums and the response – nearly 200,000 likes – was huge.
“Honesty is so important, because it gives people the reassurance that they’re not alone,” says Ryan.
“And the feedback has been reassuring for Lucy, too. There’s no rule book.
"You have to make it up as you go along. I try to tell her that it’s going to be OK, because I know you look back and can’t remember these times. That’s why women do it all over again!
As dads, we are there to give love and support, stack the dishwasher and just do as much as you can to keep that house happy
“You have to work as a team. My role in the house is doing all the things that Lucy can’t.
"It’s tidying the house, getting her breakfast, lunch and dinner – she’s feeding him so I have to feed her.
“As dads, we are there to give love and support, stack the dishwasher and just do as much as you can to keep that house happy.”
How has Roman’s arrival changed their relationship?
- Box set you watched? Money Heist on Netflix. The first series is great.
- Movie you watched? The Notebook. I’ve seen it 1,000 times, but Scarlett hadn’t, so we watched it together.
- Book you read? The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma.
- Podcast you listened to? I don’t really listen to them, but I like The Joe Rogan Experience.
- Time you cried? On Mancs In Mumbai.
- Time you were drunk? Three weeks ago. In the house – where else?
“It’s brought us closer together, 100%. What was once just me and Lucy, now there’s someone else to take care of and it’s changed the dynamic massively.
“I’ve seen her in a new light and I’m so impressed with the way she’s taken to it.
"I love her even more now because she’s the mother of my child, so it feels unconditional between us now.”
There are still plans for a wedding, although they’re on hold until Roman is able to walk down the aisle with them.
For the time being and with no plans to return to acting, Ryan is concentrating on pursuing a new business venture with his brothers and their best friend to expand street food brand Oh My Glaze.
“We just want to try and build it as much as possible and it’s been great for us to tap into something new and something we’re passionate about.
"The whole world is changing, and everyone has got to find something new to do.
"We’re going to come out of this different people and it’s so important to capitalise on the time that we have right now to create new opportunities for ourselves.
Acting just is not where I am in my life
“I’d never say never about going back to acting, but I’m on a different journey at the moment and I’m enjoying it.
"Acting just is not where I am in my life.”
There is also potentially a second series of Mancs In Mumbai in the pipeline after the format, coupled with the likeable boys’ infectious energy, proved such a hit.
“To be in a position to go away with my brothers on the journey of a lifetime and have the whole nation get to follow us and support us in something so personal felt really good.
“We wanted to make sure that we were producing a piece of work that people could relate to and learn something from, whether that was about culture or family or relationships or how we built bridges with our dad.
“You’re putting yourself up for judgement doing a show like that, but we were blown away by the love and support.
“And to be able to take our dad – probably one of the last times we’ll be able to do something like that – will be memories we hold and share forever.”
Given that much of the country is still locked down, options for how to spend this Father’s Day are limited.
“Depending on the weather,” says Ryan, “we’ll be in the garden or the house!”
Not that he minds.
“I’ll be with both my kids and that’s the main thing. That’s all I want.”
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