Kate Middleton: a thoroughly modern mum

From the moment she first became a mother, the Duchess of Cambridge has fought hard to protect her children from the glare of intense public interest. Here, Rachel Dinning looks at how Kate’s ordinary upbringing has helped her balance the demands of public duty and private motherhood

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend a children's party with their eldest son, George, and daughter, Charlotte. (Photo by Chris Jackson - Pool/Getty Images)

On 23 July 2013, the Duchess of Cambridge stepped out of one of the most prestigious maternity hospitals in England – the Lindo Wing at St Mary’s Hospital, London – to a rush of noise. Although she gave birth only the day before, she was a vision of perfection: her face carefully made-up, her hair long and perfectly styled. The baby, draped in a soft white blanket, slept peacefully in his mother’s arms.

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Journalists and paparazzi jostled to take a closer look. Lights flashed. People shouted. The new mother looked up and smiled. “It’s very emotional. Such a special time. I think any parent probably knows what this feeling feels like,” she told reporters. In her arms she held the newest arrival to the royal family: the as-yet unnamed Prince George. The new baby – weighing a healthy 8lb 6oz – had no idea that he had been born into one of the most famous families in the world. He was already third in line to the British throne, and will one day, all being well, be king.

Britain's Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter and their second child Princess Charlotte, to the media outside St Mary's Hospital in central London, in May 2015. (Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Prince William, the proud father, fielded questions from the crowd. “He’s got her looks, thankfully,” he joked, nodding at his wife. “No, no, no!” Kate was quick to respond. “I’m not sure about that.” The pair stood dutifully for photographs, before walking over to a nearby car. William lowered George into his car seat and proceeded to drive the family away.

Were it any other hospital – or any other family – it would have been a thoroughly ordinary sight. But this was no ordinary family. And for the Duchess of Cambridge, the media furore surrounding the birth of her first son was a complete departure from the world she once knew.

A royal welcome: On 23 July 2013, the Duchess of Cambridge gives the world a glimpse of her then unnamed baby boy, Prince George, the eldest of her three children. (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)
A royal welcome: On 23 July 2013, the Duchess of Cambridge gives the world a glimpse of her then unnamed baby boy, Prince George, the eldest of her three children. (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)

An ordinary upbringing

No one could have predicted that Catherine Middleton, later known as Kate, would grow up to become a royal mother and wife. She was born in Reading, Berkshire on January 9, 1982 to Carole, a former flight attendant, and Michael, a flight dispatcher at British Airways. Thanks to a business launched in 1987 her parents became well off – they even had some ties to the aristocracy through Michael’s side of the family – but they were also middle-class. Kate’s background was certainly different to most royal consorts, who were either members of the aristocracy or royalty themselves – a fact the press made much of when her engagement to Prince William was announced in 2010. “She may be beautiful, graceful and fabulously rich,” wrote one Washington Post reporter, “but Middleton is still a ‘commoner’”.

Britain's Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, make the journey by carriage procession to Buckingham Palace following their wedding ceremony on April 29, 2011 in London. (Image by Matt Cardy/AFP/Getty Images)

Although the label technically fits, it is true only in the loosest sense of the word. Kate’s upbringing was unquestionably privileged, marked by a £30,000-a-year private school education and luxury holidays. But she also lived a relatively normal life – at least in comparison to her future husband, Prince William, who spent his formative years under the gaze of an intrusive press.

The pair, who met at university, married in April 2011 at Westminster Abbey following a long courtship. Unlike the Queen, who promised to “obey” Prince Philip when they married in 1947, Kate pledged only to “love, comfort, honour and keep” her husband. It was a touch of modernity in an otherwise rather traditional royal wedding ceremony, and perhaps an early indication of how Kate would approach her future role within the royal family.

Left: Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day, 29 July 1981. Right: Prince William and Catherine Middleton on their wedding day, 29 April 2011. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

A troubled pregnancy

In December 2012, St James’s Palace announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were expecting their first child. The world’s media instantly fell into a frenzy of speculation. Was the baby a boy? A girl? And if the latter, what might that mean for the line of succession?

It was by no means an easy nine months. Kate was less than 12 weeks pregnant at the time of the announcement, having been forced to reveal her condition earlier than usual due to her suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum – a debilitating condition characterised by severe nausea, vomiting and weight loss. Like many expectant mums, she attempted to tackle the problem with ginger, a popular home remedy known for easing upset stomachs. Unfortunately, as her husband explained at the time, “there’s not much ginger can do to stop that”. Ultimately, Kate became so ill she ended up hospitalised for treatment. The severe morning sickness returned for her two subsequent pregnancies, forcing Kate to cancel numerous events she had been scheduled to attend (including, in 2017, Prince George’s first day of school).

In 1926, a time of social and political strife, the country unified in celebrating the birth of Princess Elizabeth. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

When Prince George was born on July 22, 2013, his parents immediately set strict boundaries with the press: the birth was concealed for a few hours before it was officially announced to the world, both via the traditional method of an easel outside Buckingham Palace, and on Twitter and Instagram. The following day, journalists were allowed just a brief five minutes to ask the couple questions.

Privacy is, evidently, something the couple hold dear. For William, his approach to the press is perhaps easily understood: his mother died in a car accident while being chased by paparazzi. For Kate, it could be her own upbringing out of the limelight that drives her wish for more privacy for George and her two other children, Charlotte and Louis.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their eldest son, Prince George, at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, during a royal tour of Australia. (Photo by Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage)
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their eldest son, Prince George, at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, during a royal tour of Australia. (Photo by Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage)

Balancing royal duties with the desire for a private life is no mean feat – but it is one that Kate has so far successfully navigated as a mother. She takes most of the official photography of her children herself, for example, rather than use photographers. Her images of George, Charlotte and Louis are released sporadically to the public – usually around key holidays, such as Christmas, or landmark events such as a first day of school. It is a strategy that stimulates the public’s appetite for royal updates, and seems to be part of a mutual understanding with the press to keep paparazzi attention at a minimum.

Becoming a mother has been such a rewarding and wonderful experience
The Duchess of Cambridge

As might be expected, the Duchess has, for the most part, kept her personal experiences of pregnancy and motherhood private. But in 2017, she did give a speech at an event at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists about parenting and mental health. “Becoming a mother has been such a rewarding and wonderful experience,” she said. “However, at times it’s also been a huge challenge—even for me, who has support at home that most mothers do not.”

Kate gives a lecture on mental health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2017. (Photo by Heathcliff O'Malley - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Kate gives a lecture on mental health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2017. (Photo by Heathcliff O’Malley – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

It’s a fascinating glimpse into life behind the walls of Kensington Palace, the family’s official residence. The Duchess’s admission that motherhood can be difficult is an honest one, that will surely resonate with mothers around the world. She is perhaps even more honest for acknowledging the privilege she possesses. This isn’t just her financial privilege – the ability to afford nannies, top private school fees and more – but a recognition of the stable network of friends and family around her.

Crucially, it perhaps references the role her husband Prince William plays in the family life. He is, by many accounts, a thoroughly ‘hands on dad’ by royal standards, who takes an active role in the day-to-day care of his children.

The Queen reminds Prince William that he should not be kneeling down and talking to George during the Trooping the Colour parade. (Image by JUSTIN TALLIS /AFP/ Getty Images)

“I think probably any parent knows what this feeling feels like,” Kate said as she left the Lindo Wing on 23 July 2013 with her firstborn son. Not many parents can know what it feels like to juggle the responsibilities of being in the public eye (and the added pressure of appearing to be the ‘perfect’ parent) with the desire to maintain a healthy private life. But most will understand that parenting is always a careful balancing act. And what can be more ordinary than that?


Equal rights for royal girls: how the line of succession got a modern makeover

“Will it be a boy or a girl?” was the question on everyone’s minds following the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were expecting their first child in 2013. It’s a common enough curiosity following a pregnancy announcement – although the answer doesn’t usually affect the line of succession to the British throne. 

For centuries, laws of primogeniture have dictated that male babies would bump any older, female siblings down the succession line. So Edward VI trumped his older sisters Mary and Elizabeth, and Queen Victoria’s son Edward succeeded to the throne despite her firstborn, Princess Victoria, being a year older than him. This male-centric rule has also applied to the aristocracy, meaning that firstborn sons have, over the years, been favored to inherit their father’s wealth and land. 

In spring 2013 – when the Duchess of Cambridge was midway through her first pregnancy – everything changed. Female members of the royal family who were born into the line of succession after October 2011 were given equal rights to their male counterparts through the Succession to the Crown Act. This meant that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child was a girl, she could become queen even if any younger children were boys. 

As it was, Prince George turned out to be a boy. But his sister, Charlotte, will remain ahead of their younger brother Louis in the line of succession. And if Prince George chooses to have children of his own in the future, his daughter may well be the first royal baby in history to succeed the throne ahead of her brother.

Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at History Extra.

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This article was first published in The Riches of Britain Special Collector’s Edition ‘Bringing Up the New Royals’