A modern image of motherhood
Feeling isolated as a new mother, Katie Kirby began a witty cartoon blog about how babies can drive you to gin. Now her creations are a publishing sensation. So does she really swear at her kids ... and how much does she drink? Vicky Allan finds out
KATIE Kirby doesn’t have much positive to say about parenting guides. When she had her first son, she found they were little help. That was seven years ago and in those anxiety-ridden early months, they only made her feel worse. Whether Gina Ford’s The Contented Little Baby Book or Tracy Hogg’s The Baby Whisperer, those books left her feeling she was doing something wrong.
“These type of manuals were the root cause of my issues with anxiety,” she recalls. “I tried them all, but nothing worked as, due to reflux, my son needed to feed very regularly and only slept for 20-minute catnaps. It led to me feeling really down as I thought I was messing it all up and doing a bad job.”
This isn’t uncommon. Recent research by Swansea University found a clear link between the number of baby manuals and parenting self-help books a mother had read, and her mental health. Those who had read the most reported the most depressive symptoms.
Today, Kirby is one of the most popular of the new wave of mummy bloggers – the “slummy mummy” brigade – who tell it like it is or even play up, to comic effect, the often maddening nature of raising a child. When we speak, she has just dropped off her youngest son at his new school in their Brighton hometown, and is preparing for a promotional tour for her second book, The Daily Struggles Of Archie Adams.
Kirby is a mummy blog sensation. Her first book, Hurrah For Gin, based on her popular blog, is one of those guilty secrets passed around between parents as if it were an illegal drug offering momentary relief. Her Facebook page has 400,000 followers. Mostly, she has charted the kind of battles that almost all parents experience, her most popular blog being The Seven States Of Sleep Deprivation.
“Even if you’ve got a good sleeper,” Kirby observes, “there are always going to be points where they’re sick. So having an awful night’s sleep is something that parents can relate to across the board.”
Her own experience went beyond simple sleep deprivation, and into insomnia. “Not only was I sleep deprived, I just couldn’t sleep at all,” she tells me. “Sometimes I’d just stay awake all night because I was worried about everything. It wasn’t the baby waking me – I was already awake.” Her Seven Stages blog ends with a description of insomnia, and the thoughts that come with it: “Must remember to pay the water bill! How real is Made In Chelsea? Why doesn’t your Sainbury’s Local stock Heniz ravioli any more? Do you need another wee? Does everyone hate you? Tomorrow is bin day.”
Kirby began the blog as “something to do” while she was looking for work after the birth of her youngest child. (She’d previously worked in the high-octane world of advertising in London, a field she says “doesn’t lend itself to reduced hours very much”).
“I didn’t expect the blog to take off,” she says. “You want some people to read it, obviously, because that’s the point. But I didn’t expect it to grow this big and become my career.”
Her two sons are now four and seven, and to protect their privacy, she doesn’t mention their names. Throughout the blog and Hurrah For Gin, they are simply referred to as Big Bro and Little Bro.
What the blog expressed, acutely and with great humour, was the struggle of becoming a mother and looking after small children: the anxiety, the selfrecrimination, the overwhelming challenges that can lead to selfmedication, perhaps with a skoosh of mother’s ruin at the end of the day.
Illustrated with stick figure cartoons, it did all this with wit, sarcasm, and plenty of of four-letter-words – usually the social media expletive “FML” (f*** my life).
That Kirby had found parenting hard blares out from her books. After her first child she had “really bad anxiety” and went through a “dark period”. “I think it comes on because you don’t know what you’re doing. I just felt really lost, and there wasn’t much to read about the realities of having children.”
Feeling isolated, she thought everyone else was taking to parenting more easily. Now she realises plenty of others were finding it just as tough. “I’ve had friends come and say, ‘I can’t believe it. We were going through the same thing and I never knew. We never spoke about it.’ People don’t really want to admit that they’re finding it hard.”
Almost everyone in the new wave of “slummy mummy” bloggers speaks of trying to convey the realities of parenting. Their message is that it’s hard, your kids will torment you, sleep deprivation can push you over the edge, and you may sometimes want to wash down the anxiety with alcoholic beverage. In this movement, “wine o’clock” is a key feature. For Kirby, the joke is that the self-medication is gin, with all its associations as “mother’s ruin”. For others it’s wine. Scottish sensation Gill Sims’s mummy blog book, Why Mummy Drinks, is published later this month.
Critics of slummy mummy blogs often attack this hard-drinking aspect, but it is partly a joke, an exaggeration. So how much does the author of Hurrah For Gin actually consume? “I am a gin drinker,” she says. “I do drink it, but it’s not like I drink it every day. I probably drink more wine, because I tend to just pour myself a glass with my dinner. But people assume that I’m glugging gin 24/7.
“Actually I’ve got loads of gin in the cupboards. I kept getting sent it and it takes quite a lot of time to get through a bottle of gin.”
Occasionally, she tries to have nights off the wine. “But it’s like having a coffee in the morning, a psychological crutch. You get through the day and then it’s nice to have a glass of wine with your dinner.”
The child characters in her drawings often swear at her, calling her “bitch” or “loser”. As a result those infant figures resemble the demons parents might have inside our own heads: our own private voices of self-recrimination – and it’s very funny. “It’s just silly really,” says Kirby. “It’s funny how many people think everything I say or draw is true to real life. A lot of it is creative licence. I don’t actually swear at my kids, and they don’t swear at me.”
When she started Hurrah For Gin, Kirby didn’t know she would be part of a trend. “Since then, obviously there’s been much more of this kind of writing,” she notes. “There was a time when it didn’t really exist.” Today, it’s indicative of a sea-change in how we portray parenting, particularly mothering, a trend that reaches beyond the mummy bloggers themselves to regular Facebook posters.
“Sharenting” is the buzzword of modern digital parenting. Facebook timelines may still be dominated by yummy mummy or perfect daddy versions of the world, but there’s a growing tendency for parents to post up their trials and difficult moments. It’s also there in television. Sharon Horgan’s pilot comedy, Motherland, featured a frazzled working mother on the brink of nervous breakdown, as she desperately tries to palm her children off on some other parents when she forgets it’s half-term break.
Kirby’s latest book, The Daily Struggles Of Archie Adams, is a fiction in which toddler Archie goes through the trauma of having a younger sibling arrive in his life. Partly she created Archie because she had already mined her children’s pre- and early school years, and felt it was no longer appropriate to feature them now that they were getting older.
“When they’re toddlers you can take the p*** and laugh at what they do, because everyone’s the same, all toddlers. We’re laughing about the life stage. But as they get older it’s not cool. I just feel quite protective of them and their identities. My eldest is seven, and I don’t want to put his life out there for people to laugh at.
“Archie is obviously based on the realities of toddlerhood, but a very silly, exaggerated version of it. A little bit Adrian Mole but from the point of view of a 2¼-year-old, with a bit of Stewie from Family Guy thrown in. He’s very articulate and very dark-humoured. He speaks like an adult, basically.”
Hurrah For Gin includes a chapter in which Kirby interviews her parents about what raising her, and her two sisters, was like for them. “They thought that in a lot of ways it was harder back then because you had nappies to wash,” she says. “But I think my mum thought there’s a lot more pressure on parents these days. You’re on the internet 24/7, seeing what other people are doing, and it can make you feel quite a lot of pressure.”
She tries not to alienate fathers. Jim, Kirby’s husband, who works in search engine marketing, is mostly portrayed in a very favourable light, and even writes a chapter in her first book. He’ll be looking after the children when she goes on her book tour. “I don’t know how people cope when they have families where you can’t leave your kids with your husband and you have to have loads of instructions and this kind of stuff. I’ve always been like, ‘No, you’re their dad, you need to be able to do it all’.”
Though Kirby has got to know many other mummy bloggers and often meets for drinks with Sarah Turner, author of The Unmumsy Mum, not everyone is enthusiastic about the trend. “Some people don’t get it, some people don’t have any sense of humour.” Earlier this year, parenting author Anna May Mangan criticised the “slummy mummy” trend as “anti-mothering” and “a race to the bottom”. To me it seems more like a supportive sisterhood, reaching out to “imperfect parents everywhere”, as Kirby puts it.
Kirby, 37, isn’t planning on having any more children. That isn’t because for her it was such a terrible experience. Interspersed with the copious helpings of sarcasm, there’s plenty of evidence that she is besotted with her children. “I could possibly squeeze another one in,” she says. “But you get to that point where it’s quite life-changing and it becomes a lot easier, doing stuff, and going out as a family. It’s not fire-fighting. I’m not saying it’s easy – they can still be a right pain in the a***, but it’s definitely changed.”
The Daily Struggles Of Archie Adams by Katie Kirby is published by Coronet (£12.99). Kirby will be talking about the book at Akva Bar in Edinburgh at 7:30pm on October 24. Tickets £7.50 (includes free G&T). To book contact The Edinburgh Bookshop on 0131 447 1917
Katie Kirby’s simple yet hilariously accurate critique of bringing up baby has struck a chord with parents.