Presenter, DJ and mother of 11-month-old Alfie, Ashley James is the honest voice of motherhood who shares her candid journey on Instagram to over 300,000 followers, as well as being an advocate for empowering women. We caught up with her to talk all things maternal mental health, body image and her new winter edit with Tu.
The past year has been an extremely difficult time for mums with the pandemic – how are you and Alfie doing?
It’s definitely been a journey becoming a new mum during a pandemic. I don’t think anyone can actually prepare you for the change that you go through when you become a mum – and I think I really underestimated that.
I’ve learnt that everyone’s experience is so unique – so when you talk about your experiences you shouldn’t talk about them as hardcore facts. For example, my sister gave birth three months after me, which has been amazing – but we’ve almost had total opposite experiences every step of the way. She really struggled with pregnancy whereas I loved mine.
In terms of mental health too, you always hear about postnatal depression – and I almost expected it to come in the fourth trimester. I remember when I gave birth to Alf I kept thinking “I can’t wait to experience that love that I’ve never experienced before,” like the one people talk about.
I think because my birth was quite traumatic, I saw him and I was just so grateful that he was here and that he was healthy but I didn’t really feel this love. I said to Tommy, “do you feel like we’re just taking a tiny stranger home?” and he was like “no!” And I just remember I couldn’t wait to go home and see my dog!
But then, the first four months I was just on cloud nine and I remember thinking, ‘god, why are mums so negative?’ That is something that really grates on me now, this idea that mums are negative, because actually it’s really hard and it’s not negative – it’s being honest about the challenges and there are lots of them!
And how are you feeling in yourself at the moment?
From four months to about 10 months I really struggled mentally and I did find it really hard. The exhaustion and sleep deprivation all kind of catches up with you and that love and oxytocin that you’re riding on wears off. I feel like the babies become frustrated because they want to move and see and do things but they can’t because they are too little.
Whereas now, the last couple of weeks, I just feel like I’m in a really good place again and I feel like I’m starting to figure out this whole kind of new identity and the bits of myself that I want to keep and the new bits that I’m embracing – so I feel really positive now and I’m excited to have Christmas with the baby!
What were the highs and lows for you in terms of mental health during pregnancy – and then becoming a new mum?
I think what was quite difficult for me was the big life change and realisation when you first find out that you’re pregnant. We didn’t keep our pregnancy a secret to close friends and family at the beginning, because I thought, ‘I can’t go through all of this on my own,’ and the stress and trauma of wondering if the baby will be OK.
I remember reaching my second trimester and I felt invincible – like I was blessed by Mother Nature! My hair and skin was amazing, and you start to see the bump, and I had so much energy. I think what I really struggled with was pelvic girdle pain – I had no idea how debilitating that could be, just suddenly getting this physical pain where I couldn’t walk.
I think that was kind of the beginning of me losing my sense of identity a little bit. I stopped exercising, and I love moving my body – it’s also really good for my mental health. Especially at the time when we were in the depths of lockdown, I really needed that outlet, and I could no longer do it.
Even from a fashion and style perspective, I found not being able to wear heels anymore – even though it sounds silly – really debilitating, because I found it really overwhelming how much my body was changing – especially how much my boobs were growing. I’ve always had quite big boobs, and I’ve always found it quite hard to dress, because of all the judgements in society around boobs.
I remember going to a bra fitting, and them saying, “your boobs will probably grow another five sizes before your milk comes in.” I remember I just broke down outside and I found it really overwhelming, what I could wear.
In terms of mental health, what do you think there needs to be more awareness of and conversations around for pregnant and new mums?
I think in terms of postpartum what I wish people would talk about more is what it’s like after giving birth – whether that’s through c section or vaginally, it’s a huge thing that your body goes through and I feel like the recovery is almost shrouded in secrecy, mystery and taboo.
Nobody wants to talk about prolapses, incontinence and faecal incontinence and I think you can feel quite alone because in your pregnancy there is so much care, from speaking to the midwives to NCT. Then the baby comes, gets weighed – and it’s all about the baby.
You have to really fight to have your voice heard during recovery, and it’s embarrassing, because no one really wants to have to talk about incontinence and mastitis and the things that you go through, so I wish that was a bit more normalised.
If you had a knee operation, you’d talk about your stitches, and what you needed to do in terms of your recovery – and I think we need to get over this idea of announcing the birth and saying “mum’s doing well.” I remember thinking, “doing well, I’m not doing well!”
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You share so many helpful and insightful things on your social media platforms – do you feel pressure to constantly be posting?
I actually love social media because I think you can create the feed that you want to see –long gone are the days that I follow accounts that make me feel bad. Actually, especially during a pandemic and being a new mum, I feel like that’s where my community has been.
We also moved house a few months ago, so I’m in a new area and I don’t really know anyone round here – so I’ve really leaned into the online community. Of course it sometimes is quite vulnerable to share the things that you’re going through, especially the harder parts of motherhood, because you’ve got the judgement.
I feel like sometimes there is pressure to be really positive, because I know I’m so grateful to have Alf, and it’s almost like you SHOULD be happy. There have been times when I’ve thought, “what’s wrong with me?” and “I hate motherhood” – thinking, am I a freak?!
Being able to share those things online is scary because obviously it’s very vulnerable and open and you can feel very alone – but it’s also why there’s beauty in being vulnerable. You realise you’re not alone and there’s lots of people feeling that way, and the more you share, the more of a community you build of like-minded people.
Do you feel judgement from others on social media? What do you think are the pros and cons of sharing your journey and does it affect your mental health?
I guess the scary thing is when you can be in a bit of fragile state with maternal mental health – and the more you share, the more you’re opening yourself up to criticism. That can sometimes hit you like a tonne of bricks.
We all say that we don’t want to be people pleasers, but ultimately, we don’t want people to hate us or abuse us! So when you’re in your happier state, you think, “poor them, I’m not going to take that to heart,” but then if you’re having a low day and you see someone judging your parenting skills, it’s harder.
All in all, though, it’s been such a positive space for me and I feel really privileged to have a voice in motherhood and a community that I can lean on as well.
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Something which always comes up on social media is the breastfeeding ‘debate’. You posted recently about a man who asked you to go and feed in the loo when you fed Alf in public. Why do you think breastfeeding is still such a point of debate?
I think there’s a few things. At the moment, if I get trolled or slut shamed or sexualised, there’s still this notion that because you’re breastfeeding with your boobs, it’s intimate, or private, or you’re seeking attention, and if you put pictures up your child is going to have psychological problems when he’s a teenager because his friends will find the pictures and bully him!
I think it all comes down to the over-sexualisation and objectification of a woman’s body, because actually these comments aren’t new to me, it’s just new in the context of breastfeeding. I’ve had comments like this since I was a 13 year old girl, like “don’t distract the teachers” and “cover up” – it’s like it’s a woman’s place to be sexualised but only in appropriate circumstances.
I think that’s where a lot of the breastfeeding criticism comes from, because people don’t appreciate how time consuming and nerve-wracking it is. That was one of the things I was so worried about in my pregnancy – I was thinking “oh my god, I already have big boobs, and I’ve spent my life trying to cover them up.” Suddenly I had to dress where I still look respectable but can also whip them out at the drop of a hat!
I think the lack of education around that is huge – if only people knew how much of your day it took up. For me it’s so normal now and something I’ve done for 11 months – I don’t even think twice about it. Equally, I think it’s such a sensitive subject because the support is so bad for breastfeeding. A lot of women, my sister included, weren’t able to do it.
How do you hope those kind of conversations will change in the future?
I think every person should have an empowered choice because breastfeeding isn’t for everyone and there’s so many different reasons why people might choose not to. That could be going back to work, history of sexual harassment – we should support personal choices.
Because a lot of people had their breastfeeding journey cut shorter than they might have liked, it can be quite a jarring thing to see other people breastfeeding because it feels like they’re showing off, and that’s why I would champion for better support and understanding.
Firstly, it would stop people like men telling you to start breastfeeding your baby in a public loo, and secondly, if people were able to make more empowered choices that they were in control of there wouldn’t be this kind of annoyance about people who are able to breastfeed.
It’s such a sticky subject. The way you feed your child and the way your child sleeps are two of the most fractious topics of conversation! Ultimately, parents need support and need encouragement – they don’t always want to have to argue their point. There is no right or wrong way to raise a child as long as mum and baby are happy.
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What’s your journey been like in terms of body image and body positivity?
I think a lot of the challenges I’ve had with confidence have come from not knowing what to wear and feeling overwhelmed about my wardrobe. It took me a long time in my journey – even before pregnancy – to get comfortable with my body.
I went through this stage where I felt like I had to dress a certain way to be respected. And then when I got to my 30s, I thought, “this is ridiculous, I want to feel good and sexy and I want to dress in clothes that I like and that make me feel good!”
We shouldn’t have to choose between our sensuality and our sexuality and proving that we’ve got brains. Why can’t women have it all? If people want to judge, that’s on them, not me; I shouldn’t have to constantly prove myself through my wardrobe.
After that I went on this empowered journey where I was wearing clothes that I love – so when pregnancy came along I found it very overwhelming that my boobs were growing even more and that my body was changing.
I’d also gone past the point of that cycle of going on unrealistic diets, breaking it on the weekend and then punishing myself in the gym on the Monday. I felt in a really good place – and actually, apart from being overwhelmed about my wardrobe and feeling like I lost my sense of identity a bit, I loved watching my body grow.
How do you view your body now and how are you feeling in yourself compared to when you were pregnant and when you just gave birth?
I love my stretch marks. I’ve paid to get tattoos, and I feel like my stretch marks are kind of Mother Nature’s way of marking the fact that my body grew Alf – so I feel like I’m in a good place there.
It was more I felt like my body wasn’t mine – so even though I wasn’t particularly pro or against it, it almost felt like those films where someone gets thrown into someone else’s body. I was looking in the mirror and I thought it doesn’t feel like me.
Also, because I was breastfeeding, I didn’t feel like I was still sexy or empowered, because psychologically the way I viewed my body completely changed – experiencing things like incontinence and not being able to have faith that your body actually works. I think that was really hard.
I find the term ‘baby weight’ and ‘snapping back’ so vulgar, because your body has just done this amazing thing that took over nine months to do, and then the moment the baby is here it’s considered excess weight as opposed to your body just needing time to get back into place.
I know lots of mums who have struggled to lose their baby weight – or have lost it straight away through depression, stress or insomnia, and they feel ashamed because of the judgment on their bodies. I think we just need to stop judging women’s bodies and how they look – and instead check that they are actually functioning and feeling OK.
What’s the story behind your Tu range?
I still think we have these negative stereotypes – or at least I did – of mums and motherhood, of being almost frumpy. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to wear frumpy clothing just because I was pregnant – that’s why I was also so excited to be part of creating this edit with Tu because I know how overwhelming it was.
I kept thinking, “what on Earth am I going to wear that makes me feel good now, but is also going to still feel good when I’m nine months pregnant, as well as those postpartum months?!”
What did you think was lacking out there? What needs to be considered when buying pregnancy or postnatal clothes?
I think for me a lot of the journey into feeling more confident came from finding my sense of style again. That’s why it’s so nice to find a brand that cares about the postnatal journey as well as about mums and babies.
It’s so overwhelming to know what you need and what to buy and with Tu you can tell that they care about the ‘after’ steps – but it’s also nice affordable clothing, which is why I wanted to put the edit together to take some of the overwhelm out of the clothes buying process.
It’s the second edit that I’ve put together around the theme of ‘nine months in, months out’ – so we basically wanted to include clothing items for all stages of pregnancy. But this second edit is catered towards the winter months, so there’s lots of cosy pieces.
What are your favourite pieces for yourself and Alfie?
I obviously wanted to include things that would be good for bumps – there’s a really nice red check shirt dress that I love. I still wear it now and I’m 11 months in. I don’t have a bump any more, but it’s so versatile.
There’s one pair of black chain lace up boots that I love – I feel like they look really expensive and they’re comfortable but still really cool and fashionable. Another favourite is the oatmeal ribbed maxi dress – it’s so comfortable and you can either wear it in the house really casually or dress it up – as well as the velvet tracksuit which is so nice for around the house – I feel like velvet is back in!
I wanted to include baby bits too because having to think about what you need for the baby can be a struggle – so it’s a bit of a one stop shop! I love the tartan bodysuit – such a great festive option. There’s also an amazing sleeping bag, which is 2.5 tog, so perfect for the winter season – and it’s got little dinosaurs on it!
What future projects do you have coming up and what’s on the horizon for you and Alf?
I’m hoping to keep working with Tu, and raising awareness and instilling confidence and empowerment in mums, which is something I feel really passionately about. I also want to get back to some of the things I did before, like DJing.
I did a couple of festivals over the summer and it was so cool to have Alf there. I’m doing more TV again – a lot of social commentating – which is again what I did before. I think it’s really exciting to be in a position where I can do all of those things again.
Obviously the pandemic played a part, but I think as a new mum – and especially as an ambitious, career-driven person – taking that time out to be with the baby feels like you don’t want to take your finger off the pulse almost. But, actually, they do really need you and depend on you – I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot!
I went on the Jeremy Vine show and that was amazing because they said Alf could come and I ended up breastfeeding on TV. Obviously I’d love for society to get more like that, where it is just more normal and work is more flexible.
I’m just excited to keep being the best mum but also to be able to focus more on work and hopefully keep being honest. I’m sure there’s going to be a bit of a bumpy road ahead too with the toddler stage!
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