We caught up with singer-songwriter and mum-of-5, Sophie Ellis-Bextor to chat about the chaos of a big family, balancing motherhood with her career and the best advice her mum has given her.
Did you always want to be a big family?
'I don't think I really thought further away than just the baby I had. I don't think I was like "I'm going to have number two of five now". No, I think I probably had one and then be like, "Oh, I think I could handle one more. Let's go for it."'
How were your births?
'Very different to what I anticipated. So with my first one, I was very keen to have what they call an active birth, so wondering around and kind of going where the mood takes me during labour. But as it turned out, I got unwell with my first. And so I ended up having him early and by an emergency c-section. I don't think there was even a chapter in my pregnancy book about having a baby at seven months when you've got pre-eclampsia.
And then when I got pregnant with my second, I felt a lot better when I was pregnant. But again, I had the same outcome in the end. So with the remaining three, I had planned c-sections, because of the fact they didn't think it was safe for me to risk labour.
I think it was quite a good introduction to parenthood in general. You don't really have a lot of say over what happens, you just have to react to what life throws at you. And I think, for me anyway, that's been my experience of having my kids as well. You can have all these lovely ideas of what you're going to do with your baby and a small person, but the truth is, they turn up and they've kind of got their own ideas about what they need from you. And it might not tally up with what you pictured. So I think in a weird way, it kind of was a good introduction to the lack of control I would have over who it was I was giving birth to.'
How's motherhood been what you thought it would be?
'By and large, I would say yes. But it's probably a bit more diverse than I expected and with unexpected challenges. I think, broadly speaking, my kids all have the same mother but actually, the relationship I have with each one is much more nuanced than I expected, because my kids respond differently to different things.
I don't think I'm exactly the same mother to each of them. The broad sweeping things are the same, the values and all that sort of stuff. But I think our interactions and what it is that they respond to is different. So it's a lot more bespoke than I was anticipating in that way.'
How do your sons differ from one another?
'They're definitely five very different people. Right from the beginning of having my first, the sorts of expectations of what people think about the sort of baby you have based basically on the moment you know if it's a boy or a girl, it's such a tip of the iceberg thing. I mean the fact that they've all got willys is probably the main thing they have in common. And then beyond that, they all kind of do their own thing and have different passions, different ways of displaying their emotions, different ways of being able to show when they're happy about things, sad about things, what they get excited about.
'It's extraordinary, particularly the first two, and they couldn't be more different in their approach to life. But I think that's really cool. And probably why I ended up having more, because you're like, "ooh, who else is out there?". My youngest, he's only really just starting to show us his hand now, he's nearly two and a half. So I'm definitely sort of learning about who Micky is now.'
Do they all get on?
'The sibling thing is a complicated, little relationship, that one isn't it? And home is a safe place to test out lots of different emotions, and lots of ways of interacting with people. So what we have in our house is like a little microcosm of society. So of course, they can be so mean to each other! I don't know why nature has deemed that that's the way the siblings usually interact. But there it is. But also, there's a deep, deep love for each other there. I've watched if one of them says that someone was mean to them at school and they will all leap to each other's defence. I think it's just a really interesting little dynamic that grows out of all growing up under the same roof and sharing a childhood together. It's pretty fascinating, actually.
What's your favourite part of motherhood?
'Luckily for me, I like problem-solving. That's quite good because that comes up quite often! There's a quote from the film Lost in Translation when Bill Murray says that "Your kids turn out to be some of the nicest people you've ever met". And I actually really resonate with that quote, because I think that you do create these little people, and then the wonder and the joy of when they say something funny, or make an observation or look at something in a totally different way than you have. It's just, it's brilliant, I find it really addictive. So I think all those little unknown twists and turns in the road really, all the casual stuff. I like all that a lot.
And sometimes it is really full-on and there's drama happening and noise and three different conversations happening at once. And if someone's come over to visit, or they drop something off, they can look at bit like "Oh, my God, is this how it is all the time?" but I think anyone that's from a big family, they always really get it as it's just a certain sort of chaos, I think that applies to most big families.
What do you find challenging?
'I think some of the monotony of tasks can be a bit wearing, so making sure they've got the right uniform and being out the door by a certain time, and all those kind of things. I deal with the school run stuff in the morning, and it's just the fact that you get to five past nine, and all five kids are where they're supposed to be and then you just do it all again, the next day, and no, one's like, "High five, here's is your award!" It's just like, "Yeah, you did it, that's Tuesday done." And then the rest of the week happens. So that kind of thing is quite laborious.
I think also the fact that, understandably, while all that's happening, in the mornings, I just end up the personification of school. So the kids can be a bit annoyed with you. And you're thinking, "Hey, I don't want to be up at seven o'clock either, thanks very much!" But every once in a while, if I'm in a more generous mood, then the times where they'll say "Oh, can you do it my shoelaces?" and I do think I probably will miss a bit of it when it's over. Because that kind of momentum and busyness is is quite a good thing too.'
In your podcast Spinning Plates, you speak to busy working women who are also mums about how they make it work. What made you want to do that?
'I really enjoyed doing the podcast. And I think my motivation was simultaneously quite selfish, but also a little bit mysterious. Because I started doing it and as the conversations are happening, I realised why it was important to me. Over the years I have really struggled to find a space that works for me with work. And I think a lot of times I'll keep work kind of away from the family because I feel like Well, that's my choice and the children didn't decide that that's what I do. So I could be quite apologetic or small about the things that were important that I get on with. And I think it was important to me, as I got older that I sort of grew out of that bit really, having those conversations and hearing how it affected other women, it's been really helpful.'
Do you think it's important for mums to be able to work or have their own passions in life?
'Definitely. I think it's vital actually. It never crossed my mind to not work. So I knew I knew that that was the values anyway, and I knew it's what I needed to tick. But I think the bit that I found hard was just there was nowhere in the house where that existed. And if I was going away for work, and the kids would be like, "Don't go!" and I'd be like, "I know I don't want to go either." And then now, I'm better at just being like, "No, no, it's okay. It's okay that I do this and I actually like it. And I enjoy what I do." And I think it's helped me flip the switch really.'
What is your advice for mums who are struggling to balance motherhood and their work or passions?
'A lot of it's so personal. And motherhood does throw into sharp relief, a lot of things about yourself. You can feel quite lost, in the beginning. I know I did. I didn't really know how to invite old me to the party where new me was. And it wasn't really much of a party. So I try to work that out a lot.
'But be gentle with yourself. And maybe it is a good opportunity to really look at where you found yourself and what makes you happy. And ultimately, you know, a happier mum is, is probably more like the sort of mum you'd like to be. And so being a bit selfish, and having things for yourself is actually really good.
'Even with the best intentions, if you grew up with a parent that seemed to just give themselves 100 per cent over to parenthood without anything for themselves, you do kind of notice it and feel a bit sad about it. So I just don't think it's the right choice if it's not making you happy. So do the thing that works for you, and it'll pay back dividends anyway.'
Have you experienced guilt as a parent?
'Oh, yeah in spades. And it started probably at the time I was pregnant. You think, "Oh, God, the week when I didn't realise I was pregnant, I had wine!" or like when Sunny was born early, and it's was like "Oh, is it my fault? Did I do something wrong? Maybe I wasn't looking after myself when I was pregnant."
The guilt thing is extraordinary. And as soon as I had him I was like, well, no one warned me how much guilt is just part of your everyday life. But I think I've got better about that. I think I've been trying to calibrate that ever since really because it's just such a silly thing. I mean you can be caring, responsible and keep yourself in check, and you do not need to feel guilty about it.'
What's the best advice you've ever received?
'I suspect every single bit of advice that I've been given that I listen to is from my mum, and she's just very, very good like that. She's always been incredibly non-judgmental, but just always helps me clarify situations. And I suspect there's not really any big decision I've made that hasn't gone for her as well. So it's sort of like her and Richard that I always speak to about everything. I think the first bit of advice I got from her was when I was first pregnant with Sonny. And it was quite unexpected because Richard and I hadn't been going out very long, we'd been going out for six weeks and it definitely wasn't an expected pregnancy. And she said, "it might not be the right time. And it might not be the right man. But it's the right baby." And I think that reassured both Richard and me that we could have Sonny on the way and also have time for ourselves that was almost separate, really, and just try and date like any new couple whilst there was actually also going to be a baby.
And then since then, she just helps me with trusting instincts. I suppose it's that grandparent thing of just being able to step back and actually listen to the kids rather than be clouded by what you think you should be doing that's right. She taught me to really listen.
But then I think the kids that taught me that too. You can't really fight the nature of who they are. And the number of hours you put into it and the stress every single time that I've found myself trying to push a boulder up the hill, I just try and think right, is there another way to do this? And some kids don't suit the rigours of what is expected for them at a different time. And actually, once you just ease off, they're less stressed, you're less stressed, and then they can really apply themselves to things that do matter to them. Most kids want to get it right, they're not sitting around thinking "I want to doss off" and "I don't care about anything". They're actually just trying to find their feet. Not every kid responds really well to academic pressure or expectation. So just ease off 'em. The kids are all right.'
You're now an ambassador for Childs Farm, why were you so keen to work with the brand?
'Mainly because it was already part of our lives. It was that lovely serendipity of being approached by a company to work with them where I already really, really liked what they were up to. And I was already familiar with all the products and they already on the side of the bath. My littlest one, in particular, had quite bad skin. It's got a lot better now. But he had quite sensitive skin and was prone to breakouts, I did notice that it seemed to be correlated to whatever was in his bathwater. So we started looking around for something and a friend of mine called Nikki she already used Childs Farm and said, "Oh, it's really good" and that it had worked with her daughter.
So I started using that and because it's really thoughtful products, and it smells nice and looks good on the side. It didn't look medicated. So actually, all the kids use it, even my teenager will put it in his bath water or use the body washes. I think it just yet is a happy addition. And the smell of it is now synonymous with bathtime in our house.'
Do you have a favourite product from the range?
'Recently, we started using the Coco Nourish shampoo and conditioner, which has been really useful especially for my second one down, Kit. A bit like their personalities, all of them has got really different hair as well. I've got lots of redheads, but all different shades and hair types. And my second boy has got very curly hair. And there's a lot of it. And for years I was really quite scared of it because we'd sit down to brush through it and it would hurt him and he'd cry.
But actually, we've now found a way through with this really lovely new Childs Farm Coco Nourish product because it just gets through and detangles it and it's quite dry hair otherwise so it kind of calmed it down. I love all the smells of the bubble bath, the strawberry and mint one and there's a mandarin one that's really yummy and the grapefruit one that we used for years. So all the smells are nice and the bubble bath is an everyday thing really the thing we put in every night time.'