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

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

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.

Photo © Les Wilson Il­lus­tra­tions © Katie Kirby

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