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Rachel Riley: We’ll have to learn to be parents in the real world once the pandemic’s over

Mathematician and Countdown presenter Rachel Riley has loved her first year of being a mum – despite the pandemic restrictions.

Riley, 35, had baby Maven Aria in December 2019, a few months before the pandemic started, and after a brief maternity leave has successfully combined motherhood with presenting Countdown and 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown.

In one way, the pandemic has made her busy life a little easier, as it’s meant her husband, the dancer Pasha Kovalev who she met on Strictly Come Dancing in 2013, has been around more.

“It’s been lovely in a lot of ways,” she says. “All of Pasha’s work has been cancelled – he was supposed to be on tour, and on stage, but he’s not been able to do any of those things. So, when I’ve gone up to Countdown, he’s been able to come with us and he takes Maven out, and brings her in for a feed, so it’s been lovely family-wise.

“But on the other hand, she’s not seen my parents for three months and she’s just not socialised with other children at all, because there’s not been the baby groups that we most likely would have gone to. It’s been different – we’ll have to learn to be parents in the real world when things open up again, because we’ve only done it in the toned-down, Covid restrictions time.”

It can be a worry for parents when toddlers have had such little interaction with other people.

“She’s really unsocialised,” laments Riley. “We had one little friend around in the summer, and it was the first time we’d had anyone here. Whereas when we’re out in the street, she loves seeing the other little children. When my friend’s daughter was here, she was so jealous – she took all her toys away and even shoved her away when my friend was hugging her own daughter.

“But there’s nothing we can do about it,” she says stoically. “
We just hope that when things open up again, kids will learn quickly. They’re malleable, so fingers crossed she’s not a little terror when she has to actually share things.

”She’s definitely missed out, but she didn’t know any different, and she’s had a lot of parental time, which is really important when they’re little.”

While Maven understandably hasn’t yet learned how to play with other children, she’s clearly a joy when she’s alone with her parents.

“She’s in this little phase where she won’t let us sit down for dinner,” says Riley, fondly. “We put music on during dinner, and if a song comes on that she likes, she shoves us off the chairs and forces us to dance, so every night it’s like ‘OK, we’re not sitting down…’ She definitely keeps us busy!”

But is Maven a better dancer than her parents yet?

“She’s better than me,” laughs Riley, who was eliminated from Strictly in week six of the show in 2013. “She’s got my moves so far, rather than Pasha’s. Barry Manilow came on the playlist the other day and she started twirling and twirling. Some songs she doesn’t respond to, and then some – it can be Nineties garage, and she’s like ‘Yeeeah!’”

Riley is a big Manchester United fan – her dad’s from Salford – and lMaven’s got her own miniature kit. During one match, Riley was thrilled her daughter appeared to be supporting the Reds – but her delight didn’t last long.

“Ages ago, we watched the Tottenham game. We scored first and she was sitting there in her little kit, and she started clapping – I was so proud,” remembers Riley, “And then when Tottenham scored, she clapped again – she loves a good clap!”

Football is just one of the sports Riley enjoys, and her love of sport is one of the reasons she’s involved with the new Always Fuel Her Future campaign, to highlight the long-term benefits of girls participating in sport.

“A third of girls are dropping out of sport around puberty, and that’s for a bunch of reasons – 28% said it’s because they don’t think they’re good enough, and 25% said they’re not encouraged enough,” she says.

“This campaign is about highlighting all the benefits of doing sport that you might not think about, like building resilience and confidence, and being vocal. I think you need a lot more resilience than you possibly did when I was younger,” she admits.

Riley played football, netball and hockey at school, and was in all the teams.

She says: “I really enjoyed sport at school – thinking back to my teenage years, some of the girls in my class would be off smoking and drinking, and me and my mates, none of us smoked, we were training, and at lunchtimes or after school, we’d go to the court or to the pitch. We had to look after ourselves, because we wanted to do well in the next tournament or sports meet.”

But playing sport wasn’t an option at Riley’s girls’ school sixth form, and were it not for collegiate sports at Oxford University, where she played football and was college netball captain, she says she thinks playing sport would have “fallen by the wayside” for her, like it does for so many teenage girls.

“Sport kept me out of trouble and I made lots of friends,” she says. “I found it really valuable – learning the value of practice and making improvements.”

Riley says playing sport has even helped her with her role as the maths whizz on 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, and explains: “When I started playing football, they really drilled into us that you have to be vocal, so if you wanted the ball, you had to shout ‘Riley’s ball!’

“Looking now at the work I do, where you go into a room with possibly intimidating people – in 8 Out Of 10 Cats, you’ve got a bunch of professional comedians and if you want to get a word in edgeways, you have to be able to take your chance and speak out, so I credit football for that.”

The Always Fuel Her Future campaign highlights the long-term benefits of girls participating in sport.

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